A Digital Archive of Soviet Children’s Books Goes Online: Browse the Artistic, Ideological Collection (1917–1953)

At both a geo­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal dis­tance, the Sovi­et Union does­n’t look like much of a place for kids. If you grew up dur­ing the Cold War in, say, the Unit­ed States, you might well have the impres­sion (of which The Simp­sons’ “Work­er and Par­a­site” remains the defin­ing crys­tal­liza­tion) of a gray, harsh­ly util­i­tar­i­an land behind the Iron Cur­tain con­cerned with noth­ing more whim­si­cal than bread lines and pro­duc­tion quo­tas. But if you grew up in the Sovi­et Union, at least at one of the right times and in one of the right places, you might feel a now much-dis­cussed nos­tal­gia, not for the eco­nom­ic dif­fi­cul­ties of your Sovi­et child­hood, but for the sen­si­bil­i­ties of the van­ished soci­ety you grew up in. An online inter­ac­tive data­base called Play­ing Sovi­et: The Visu­al Lan­guages of Ear­ly Sovi­et Children’s Books, 1917–1953 pro­vides a kid’s-eye view into the ear­ly decades of that soci­ety.

A project of the Cot­sen Col­lec­tion at Princeton’s Fire­stone Library, the archive con­tains a vari­ety of ful­ly dig­i­tized chil­dren’s books that show one venue in which, amid these years of “Russia’s accel­er­at­ed vio­lent polit­i­cal, social and cul­tur­al evo­lu­tion,” in the words of the data­base’s front page, cer­tain kinds of graph­ic art could flour­ish. “The illus­tra­tion and look of Sovi­et children’s books was of tan­ta­mount impor­tance as a vehi­cle for prac­ti­cal and con­crete infor­ma­tion in the new Sovi­et regime.”

This ambi­tious effort, dri­ven by “direc­tives for a new kind of children’s lit­er­a­ture” to be “found­ed on the assump­tion that the ‘lan­guage of images’ was imme­di­ate­ly com­pre­hen­si­ble to the mass read­er, far more so than the typed word,” brought in a great many artists and design­ers such as Alexan­der Deine­ka, El Lis­sitzky, and Vladimir Lebe­dev, task­ing them all with cre­at­ing “imag­i­na­tive mod­els for Sovi­et youth in the new lan­guages of Sovi­et mod­ernism.”

Men­tal Floss’ Shau­na­cy Fer­ro notes how many of the books “were designed to indoc­tri­nate chil­dren into the world of the ‘right’ way to think about Sovi­et cul­ture and his­to­ry,” point­ing to a vol­ume called How the Rev­o­lu­tion Was Vic­to­ri­ous, which meant “to ensure the cor­rect inter­pre­ta­tion of the anti-gov­ern­men­tal coup among the young gen­er­a­tion of new Sovi­et read­er­ship.” Some of the oth­er read­ing mate­r­i­al that result­ed, like 1930’s indus­tri­al­ly focused What Are We Build­ing? or the slight­ly ear­li­er How Sen­ka Ezhik Made a Knife, wears its instruc­tion­al val­ue on its sleeve (or rather, its cov­er). Oth­ers, like 1925’s The Lit­tle Octo­brist Ras­cal or that same year’s Chi­na-set A Cup of Tea, offer high­er dos­es of play­ful­ness mixed in with the ide­ol­o­gy.

Play­ing Sovi­et also includes the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose Whom Should I Be?, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive book from the “gold­en age” of Sovi­et Chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, we fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture ear­li­er this year. Rus­sia Beyond the Head­lines’ Alexan­dra Gueza high­lights Mayakovsky’s  What is Good and What is Bad? (“in which he explains that walk­ing in the rain and thun­der­storms is bad, clean­ing your teeth is good, fight­ing with the boys is bad, while study­ing is good”) and Octo­ber 1917–1918: Heroes and Vic­tims of the Rev­o­lu­tion, whose “good guys” include “a work­er, a Red Army sol­dier, a sailor, a seam­stress” and whose “bad guys” include “a fac­to­ry own­er, a landown­er, a rich farmer, a priest, a mer­chant.” Good­night Moon it cer­tain­ly isn’t, but then, how many Amer­i­can chil­dren’s books had to attempt a fun­da­men­tal rein­ven­tion of soci­ety?

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Sovi­et-Era Illus­tra­tions Of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hob­bit (1976)

Enter an Archive of 6,000 His­tor­i­cal Children’s Books, All Dig­i­tized and Free to Read Online

Hayao Miyaza­ki Picks His 50 Favorite Children’s Books

The First Children’s Pic­ture Book, 1658’s Orbis Sen­su­al­i­um Pic­tus

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Nabarun Ghoshal says:

    Большое спасибо. For return­ing our child­hood days. No thanks is suf­fi­cient to express my grat­i­tude. Thank you once again.

  • Gregory says:

    Nos­tal­gia? For GULAGs? For geno­cide?

  • Jacky says:

    Some of us had a Very Nice child­hood dur­ing the so called Sov­jet Time.
    Good and tasty food, even at shool.
    We spent sum­mer with par­ents in Krim or Sochi twice a year and could stay at the pio­neer camp dur­ing 3 sum­mer moth­es.
    We could extend our tal­ents for free at dif­fer­ent sport clubs, sing and dance, swim and paint for free in dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sion­al clubs.
    We could join Spe­cial lan­guage or musi­cal schools with the best teach­ers who had real­ly good and qual­i­fied edu­ca­tion.
    These were not pri­vate schools.
    The under­stand­ing of word „ Gulag„ and all these wrong things came lat­er, when we were ready enough to anal­ize and under­stand what was real­ly going on.
    Every time and every coun­try has its own „pro­pa­gan­da.„
    But I am sure, that many of us, born after 1953 had a lot of fun dur­ing our child­hood and we were read­ing a lot of won­der­ful books, which were writ­ten by famous writ­ers, both in Rus­sia and all over abroad.
    That was a good time of the „ культ„ оf the Book.

  • tuktuk says:

    I see You have grown up read­ing Your pro­pa­gan­da chil­dren books too

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