The incredible badness of the Soviet children’s book

Children were impressionable, unspoilt and they believed almost instinctively in the high communist visions of the revolutionaries. That is why after the 1917 Revolution children’s literature took center stage in the Bolshevik reconstruction of the entire human race. The recently published Companion to Soviet Children's Literature emphasizes the ideological indoctrination, but is deaf to the fun and genius of so many Soviet children's poetry and stories, argues translator Robbert-Jan Henkes.

1yashka scanYashka from the taiga educating his old man, 1927

by Robbert-Jan Henkes

Once upon a time, there was an Empire and this Empire was cruelly ruled by the Tsar and his Ministers. Well, maybe not so much by them, but the rule itself was cruel. There was no freedom. Everything else was in abundant supply, goods and grains and even hunger and backwardness, but freedom there wasn’t any. That was because people were ruling over other people. And that was the cruel thing. There should not be anybody ruling over anybody else. That is just not right. Don’t you agree?

Then the Revolution came, and the people took the hammer and scythe into their own hands, to ensure that there never would be any rulers anymore, nobody above nor below anybody else. And that is exactly what they did, and when they had done so, they lived happily ever after. The End.

The whole idea of a Revolution to abolish the Rule of Rule originates in a fairytale view of the world. ‘If only we do this and this, as if by magic everything will be allright.’ Which only goes to show how deeply ingrained this benevolent eschatology is. From the cradle onwards, fairytales instill in children a secret, unconscious belief in a happy ending, so that it has become almost hardwired by the time they are supposed to have grown up.

And why shouldn’t there be a happy end? What is wrong with the lofty ideals of equality and justice, freedom, brotherhood, and workers’ control of the means of production?

Why shouldn’t people try to become better people?

A child of five can see that it is good to be good and bad to be bad.

One of the more interesting viewpoints in the recent, state-of-the-art Companion to Soviet Children’s Literature and Film (Brill, 2019) is that the Soviet Union, after the Revolution of 1917 considered itself to be a state in its infancy. Children were to be the vanguard of the new socialist society that was being built. Children were impressionable, unspoilt by feudalism, enthousiastic, and they believed almost instinctively in the high communist visions of the revolutionaries. They had the future in their hands. And the child is the father of the grownup, as wisdom has it.

It was a tremendous force, waiting to be awakened. In 1922, there were seven million orphans in the Soviet Union, seven million children who could be made to see the new Soviet State – and later Stalin – as their father.

That is why, from the very beginning, children’s literature took center stage in the Bolshevik reconstruction of the entire human race. It was promoted and given a relative free reign, at least for some years, years that are now known as the Golden Age of the Soviet Children’s Book, roughly stretching from 1920 to 1930, with some exquisite anomalies surviving until 1940. The names that rang then in children’s literature land, still ring. In poetry Chukovsky and Marshak, Mayakovsky, and later Kharms and Vvedensky. And the artists accompanying the writers are even better known today: Lebedev, Konashevich, Vasnetsov, Tsechanovsky, Jermolayeva, Mavrina, and a host of others. Books that withstood the test of time.

The iceberg underneath

Of course there was much more that was being published in these years. What is being republished today, is only the toppermost of the tippermost of the iceberg of Soviet children’s literature. And the new Companion under review here has set itself the commendable task to explore, partly, the iceberg underneath as well.

I say partly, because still the main focus is on the well-known names. Which is understandable. Not everybody has the heart to plough through tens or hundreds of depressingly ideological accounts of the Siege of Leningrad, as Voronina and Barskova in this volume do. Voronina also supplies an in-depth study of a couple of children’s books in which the young generation tries to re-educate the older ones, the problems they face – and overcome, of course. These books also belong to the thousands and thousands of utter mediocre garbage that came out of the everchurning propaganda machinery. The vast majority of Soviet children’s books – and films – was devoid of any artistic interest, partly because the authors were devoid of talent, but mainly because the authors chose to fill their empty artistic vessels with the pedagogical and ideological phraseology of the day.

In the Companion, two further explorations into the vast substandard, ideology-only iceberg of Soviet children’s literature are made by Balina on history as it was rewritten for children, and by Maslinskaya on child hero narratives.

Good and bad literature

Nowhere in these chapters, however, nor anywhere else in the volume – not even in the eight chapters that focus on the everlasting best of the best of Soviet children’s literature – the question is asked what makes e.g. Chukovsky’s Greatbig Cockroach (Тараканище) and Marshak’s Bagage (Багаж) good, and the hundreds of longforgotten pedagogical run-of-the-mill hackwork poems bad.

5bagazj lebedevIllustration by Vladimir Lebedev in Marshak's Bagage

I don’t mean ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the Mayakovskyan, moral sense (although a case can be made for that as well), but good and bad in the artistic sense.

Which would be another way of asking: why did some books survive their origins and are still very palatable for young and old, while most books aren’t?

Which would imply another question that is never posed in the entire Companion, and that is: ‘What is the actual influence of children’s books on children’s brains?’ How much do they pick up and appropriate and believe from the endless drivel that they were supposed to read? My idea is: not much. Children are very likely to see through educational tricks, and are generally – or maybe even without exception – inclined to believe not one word of false, insincere advice. They shrug it off and only enjoy the enjoyable things.

So, notwithstanding the sheer magnitude of the grey-red iceberg of Soviet children’s khaltura (rubbish), the question remains, how magnitudinal the influence actually was.

Scientific approach overlooks fun

The authors consider the books solely for their historical interest. Not any artistic interest that the books might have, which is outside the authors’ field of jurisdiction. Of course that is the scientific way to do it. But the slant it provides does become a bit blinkered by the onesidedness. To say Marshak’s Baggage ‘mocks the abundance of material possession belonging to an old lady’ (Pankenier Well, 61) is to overlook some vital aspects of the delicious poem. To say about the equally extraordinarily funny Vinni-Pukh (Winnie the Pooh) by Zakhoder and Cheburashka by Uspensky that they are ‘emblematic of the Soviet culture’s attempts to deal with the historical trauma of the 1920s-50s’ (Voronina, 36) is missing some part of the point, not to say fun. To say that in his inimitable translation of Wilhelm Busch Plisch und Plum, Kharms changed the original to make it ‘more compatible with the Soviet nationalist and internationalist politics’ (Khotimsky, 363), betrays a near-total deafness for the genius kharmsification of the Busch poem.

Crusade against Soviet notions

Voronina, in her belligerent introductory chapter, claims that the Soviet Zeitgeist breathes through all children’s books of the period, the good, the bad and the ugly. And, what’s worse, the children’s books of yesteryear still shape the post-Soviet citizen of today. The Soviet history is still not redeemed. Stalin is revered and people look back in nostalgia on a rosycolored, moonshiny past. Blame is laid squarely at the feet of children’s literature, for managing to instill, through ‘hundreds of talented writers and film directors’, in eight decades a deep collectivist, nationalist and pro-militarist psyche into the young readers. The Companion sets out as a postcolonial Vergangenheitsbewältigungs-crusade to eradicate all lingering, subconscious ideological Soviet-values:

'Without detecting the connection between history and Soviet cultural production for children, however, it is hard to know when the oeuvre should be celebrated and applauded – and when it should be mourned as a fragment of the national trauma, which, if left unhealed, will continue to contaminate the present.' 

For Voronina, Soviet children’s literature is from top to bottom propagandistic. With the same fervour that Soviet pedagogues did their best to extirpate the old morals, Voronina fights the ghosts of the Soviet ones. She wants to destroy the fairytale of the Soviet Union, just as the Soviet pedagogues wanted to destroy the fairytales of the old order.

4vvedensjiA page from Vvedensky’s Budyonny’s Cavalry, illustrated by V. Kurdov, 1931.

The entire corpus of Soviet children’s literature, she writes – and here lies the rub – was ‘aimed to indoctrinate, rather than soothe, amuse, or distract their readers, in spite of the existence of such deviant phenomena as Chukovsky’s early writings, a few purely fun works by the OBERIU poets, and Uspensky’s whimsical creations.’ 

There you go! Not a bad score, I would say. It’s probably already more than what will be left – or what is left – of the Western counterpart over the same period. And there are many more ‘in spite of’-examples to be hauled from the wellspring of exceptions.

The mediocre hates the good

In an artistic sense, exceptions should be the rule, and are the rule. And exceptional is always what is good, in contrast to what is bad or worse, mediocre.

The mediocre naturally hates the good. That is why Chukovsky was relentlessly attacked in the press in his days, as was Mayakovsky. (Marshak less so.) Kharms and Vvedensky were anonymously vilified in articles by their colleagues, which resulted in their first exile. In every chapter of the Companion you see the State and the agents of the State trying to force writers to write what the politics of the day demand. But in every chapter you also see the joyous exceptions instead of the dreary rule, we see genuine works of art being written, non-ideological masterpieces, pure fun and melodiousness. (Melodiousness and fun being two of the unfailing criteria for good children’s poetry. It can even reconcile you with a slight dose of ideology – because the fun and melodiousness make it tongue-in-cheek, as in Mayakovski’s children’s poetry.)

Chizh and Jozh

3yozhTanks and bombers as siskins and hedgehogs, back cover ad in Jozh 2, 1930.

The Companion has two wonderful chapters on the OBERIU poets and their creations in the children’s magazines Chizh and Jozh (the Siskin and the Hedgehog). An entire chapter is – rightly – devoted to one of the most exceptional children’s films ever made – or ever having been allowed to make – the film Cinderella (Zolushka) from 1947, with its razorsharp screenplay by Yevgeni Shvarts, and its incredible avantgarde and ‘politically undesirable’ cast. More unique film material is discussed in a chapter on Karlsson, Cheburashka and Vinni-Pukh – also everlasting evergreens in my opinion and not only mine.

In eight of the twelve chapters the authors decided not to study the icebergs of drivel, but the glorious topmost of creative creations, the gems rather than the layers of stone. Although the writers do now and then acknowledge the overall theme of the volume (the ubiquity of Soviet ideology), by inserting an insincere word or two about the Soviet values sticking out even in the best of the best.

So if this review gives the impression the Companion to Soviet Children’s Literature is mainly about the dreary Soviet pedagoguery in children’s literature, the impression is wrong. The Companion also celebrates the best that the writers and filmmakers could wrench from the tight grip of ideological restrictions. Sometimes the results are so outstanding that people claim it was because of the censorship instead of in spite of it. However that may be, the fact remains that the Soviet regime required a high degree of creativeness to get around its ideological imperatives. After every vision there is a revision, and after every revolution comes a devolution, but a fair amount of Soviet children’s literature and film will remain unchallenged.

A Companion to Soviet Children’s Literature and Film, edited by Olga Voronina, Brill’s Companions to the Slavic World 2, Brill, Leiden & Boston, 2019, isbn 978-90-04-40148-8, 508 pages, € 149,–

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