Illustrations from the Soviet Children’s Book Your Name? Robot, Created by Tarkovsky Art Director Mikhail Romadin (1979)

As we approach three full decades of a world with­out the Sovi­et Union, cer­tain details about life in the soci­eties that con­sti­tut­ed it inevitably begin to fade from liv­ing mem­o­ry. But nobody who grew up Sovi­et could ever for­get the chil­dren’s books they grew up read­ing, and recent efforts to dig­i­tal­ly archive them — such as Play­ing Sovi­et at the Cot­sen Col­lec­tion at Princeton’s Fire­stone Library, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture — have ensured that future gen­er­a­tions will be able to enjoy them too, no mat­ter the regime under which they come of age, or even what lan­guage they speak.

Most Sovi­et chil­dren’s books have such cap­ti­vat­ing illus­tra­tions that one need not read them to enjoy them. Take, for instance, Your Name? Robot, a 1979 Sovi­et pic­ture book fea­tured on book and design blog 50 Watts.

Who could resist the charm of these mechan­i­cal crea­tures dis­play­ing their many abil­i­ties: pick­ing up sig­nals, play­ing music, paint­ing pic­tures, spout­ing com­pli­cat­ed fig­ures, boil­ing water? With their hyp­not­i­cal­ly detailed pat­terns of cir­cuits and wires, the inner work­ings of these robots also look quite unlike any­thing else — and cer­tain­ly unlike the also-pop­u­lar robot char­ac­ters who have long fig­ured into sto­ries for Amer­i­can chil­dren.

In the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, Amer­i­ca and the Sovi­et Union were rac­ing each oth­er to the future: though vision­ar­ies in both lands may have dis­agreed about what exact form that future would take, many saw some kind of utopia made real through high tech­nol­o­gy dead ahead. And whether work­er’s par­adise or con­sumer’s par­adise, the rest of the mil­len­ni­um would sure­ly see the devel­op­ment of intel­li­gent robots to assist, edu­cate, and enter­tain us.

But by the late 1970s, some of these visions had turned dystopi­an: to bor­row the tagline from Zardoz, they’d seen the future, and it did­n’t work — itself a grim rever­sal of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Lin­coln Stef­fens’ opti­mistic ear­ly-20th-cen­tu­ry dec­la­ra­tion about Sovi­et Rus­sia.

From Sovi­et cin­e­ma, one less-than-opti­mistic treat­ment of the future endures above all: 1972’s Solaris, adapt­ed by Andrei Tarkovsky from the nov­el by Stanis­law Lem. The pro­duc­tion design­er who gave that film’s future its look and feel was none oth­er than Mikhail Romadin, the artist who would go on to illus­trate Your Name? Robot just a few years lat­er (in an illus­tra­tion career involv­ing hun­dreds of books, includ­ing vol­umes by Leo Tol­stoy and Ray Brad­bury).

“Romad­in’s char­ac­ter is hid­den, forced deep inside,” said Tarkovsky of his col­lab­o­ra­tor and friend since film school. “In his best works what often hap­pens is that the out­ward char­ac­ter­is­tics of bare­ly ordered dynamism and chaos that one per­ceives ini­tial­ly, melt imper­cep­ti­bly into the appre­ci­a­tion of calm and noble form, silent and sim­ple” — an appre­ci­a­tion Your Name? Robot must have done its part to instill in a gen­er­a­tion of young read­ers.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Two Beau­ti­ful­ly-Craft­ed Russ­ian Ani­ma­tions of Chekhov’s Clas­sic Children’s Sto­ry “Kash­tan­ka”

Watch Sovi­et Ani­ma­tions of Win­nie the Pooh, Cre­at­ed by the Inno­v­a­tive Ani­ma­tor Fyo­dor Khitruk

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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