Read Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Children’s Book Whom Should I Be?: A Classic from the “Golden Age” in Soviet Children’s Literature

In the first decade or so of the Sovi­et Union’s exis­tence, “avant-garde exper­i­menters emerged from obscu­ri­ty to ben­e­fit from actu­al state spon­sor­ship,” writes Har­vard pro­fes­sor of Russ­ian Lit­er­a­ture Ains­ley Morse. Their  “aes­thet­ic rad­i­cal­ism jibed nice­ly with polit­i­cal tur­moil.” Among these artists were Futur­ists and For­mal­ists, poets, painters, actors, direc­tors, and many who fit into all of these cat­e­gories. Most famous among them—the rak­ish roman­tic poet, writer, artist, actor, play­wright, and film­mak­er Vladimir Mayakovsky—had already achieved a great deal of noto­ri­ety by 1917. After the Rev­o­lu­tion, he threw him­self, “whole­heart­ed­ly” into cre­at­ing play­ful, opti­mistic agit­prop for the Par­ty and “became a foghorn for social­ism.”

At least at first. “In hind­sight,” Morse laments, it’s hard to see the careers of these ear­ly Sovi­et artists “with­out winc­ing: all of these artists and writ­ers get­ting cozy with the state machine that would short­ly bring about their men­tal and phys­i­cal destruc­tion: impris­on­ment, exile, star­va­tion, and sui­cide.” Sad­ly, the last of these was to be Mayakovsky’s fate; he killed him­self in 1930, as Stalin’s para­noid total­i­tar­i­an­ism began to gain strength. Yet through­out the 1920s, Mayakovsky was “dri­ven by ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment,” as well as “finan­cial exi­gency,” writes Robert Bird at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago’s “Adven­tures in the Sovi­et Imag­i­nary.” The wild­ly imag­i­na­tive and ide­al­is­tic poet “trans­formed the pop­u­lar media land­scape of Rus­sia” under Lenin.

Though he was harsh­ly crit­i­cized by oth­er artists for his work as a pro­pa­gan­dist, “under his pen Russ­ian poet­ry began to speak with a more flex­i­ble and expres­sive (even anar­chic) play of sound and rhythm.” Maykovsky applied his tal­ents not only to posters and poet­ry for adults, but to works for chil­dren as well. “The ear­ly years of the Sovi­et Union were a gold­en age for children’s lit­er­a­ture,” notes the New York Review of Books in their descrip­tion of The Fire Horse, an ear­ly exam­ple of Sovi­et ped­a­gogy from Mayakovsky and fel­low poets Osip Man­del­stam and Dani­il Kharms. The pages you see here come from the first edi­tion of anoth­er clas­sic Mayakovsky children’s work—a long poem called Whom Shall I Be?, first pub­lished, with illus­tra­tions by Nis­son Shifrin, in 1932, two years after the author’s death.

In these vers­es, Mayakovsky exhorts his read­ers to choose their own path, “cre­ate their own iden­ti­ties,” even as the book chan­nels their desires “into spe­cif­ic exist­ing roles” pre­de­ter­mined by a seem­ing­ly very lim­it­ed num­ber of pro­fes­sion­al choic­es (all for men). Nev­er­the­less, in final lines of Whom Shall I Be? Mayakovsky writes, “All jobs are fine for you: / Choose / for your own taste!” The book illus­trates what Ruxi Zhang calls the “inef­fec­tive­ness of Sovi­et ped­a­gogy” in its ear­li­est stages. Lenin and his even more iron-fist­ed suc­ces­sor desired a “gen­er­a­tion of faith­ful work­ers.” Instead, children’s books like Mayakovsky’s “over­played Sovi­et fan­ta­sy,” often advo­cat­ing for “free­dom that fun­da­men­tal­ly coun­tered Sovi­et expec­ta­tions for chil­dren to fol­low direc­tions from the regime with­out ques­tion­ing or inter­pret­ing them.”

In Mayakovsky’s ear­li­er children’s sto­ry, The Fire Horse, sev­er­al crafts­men get togeth­er to make a beau­ti­ful toy horse—which can­not be bought at the store—for a young boy who dreams of being a cav­al­ry­man. The book, writes Morse, is “trans­par­ent­ly didac­tic,” explain­ing “in detail how the horse is made, and at the cost of whose labor.” Nonethe­less, its sto­ry sounds less like an exem­plar from the state’s idea of a worker’s par­adise and more like a vignette from anar­chist, aris­to­crat, and nat­u­ral­ist Peter Kropotkin’s soci­ety of “mutu­al aid.” It’s only nat­ur­al that Mayakovsky and his com­rades’ children’s books would reflect their styl­is­tic dar­ing, indi­vid­u­al­ism, and wit. “It wasn’t much of a leap” for Futur­ist artists whose “main­stay” had been artist’s books with “inter­de­pen­dent text and illus­tra­tions.” Even­tu­al­ly, how­ev­er, avant-garde artists like Mayakovsky were purged or “tamed” by the new regime.

Bird demon­strates this with the pages below from a 1947 edi­tion of Whom Should I Be? These cor­re­spond to the pages above from 1932, show­ing an engi­neer. In addi­tion to the replac­ing of an enthu­si­as­tic adult work­er with an obe­di­ent, duti­ful child, “the abstract depic­tions of con­struc­tivist build­ings are replaced by real­is­tic ren­der­ings of neo-clas­si­cal edi­fices.” In 1932, Social­ist Real­ism had only just become the offi­cial style of the Sovi­et Union. By 1947, its absolute author­i­ty was most­ly unques­tion­able. Browse (and read, if you read Russ­ian) all of Mayakovsky’s Whom Should I Be? at the Inter­net Archive, or at the top of this post.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Russ­ian Futur­ist Vladimir Mayakovsky Read His Strange & Vis­cer­al Poet­ry

Down­load Russ­ian Futur­ist Book Art (1910–1915): The Aes­thet­ic Rev­o­lu­tion Before the Polit­i­cal Rev­o­lu­tion

Watch Russ­ian Futur­ist Vladimir Mayakovsky Star in His Only Sur­viv­ing Film, The Lady and the Hooli­gan (1918)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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