Friday, July 21, 2006

Children's Books of the Early Soviet Era

Children's Books of the Early Soviet Era McGill University Library (Montreal, Canada) Rare Books and Special Collections Division has a collection of over 350 childrens books from 1920s and 1930s Soviet Era. The university has provided a virtual version of the books, to provide a taste of that time in the Soviet Union. The virtual version was developed by Tatiana Bedjanian and Vlad Nabok, under the supervision of David McKnight, Mcgill University Digital Collections Librarian.
Among the many radical changes in the Soviet Union after the 1917 Revolution, the transformation of children's books offers one of the most vivid reminders of the vast ambitions of the new social order. Building simultaneously upon the progressive legacy of the 19th century Russian literature and upon the dazzling tradition of Russian Futurism, a linguistic, literary and artistic movement that galvanized Russian intellectuals in the early decades of this century, post-Revolutionary publishing for children introduced a vast array of new measures that transmogrified this previously undistinguished genre. In addition to the powerful visual impact of the boldly designed books, there were marked increases in the number of titles published annually, a skyrocketing in the size of individual editions and the creation of an entire branch of the publishing industry dedicated solely to children's literature.

In the first decade after the Revolution, general book production climbed from 26,000 to 44,000 titles a year; the number of copies published rose from 133 million to 190 million. Children's books naturally followed the mass trend and a first printing of 100,000 and up was common. State publishing houses such I as Detgiz, Molodaia Gvardiia, Detskaia Literatura or, in the Ukraine, the Molodyi Bil'shevik were exclusively concerned with publishing for children. Other significant factors included, on the one hand, an often blatantly propagandistic service to the demands of Communist education but, on the other, the possibility of creative refuge for major authors and artists unwilling or unable to participate in the standard celebratory odes to Soviet leaders.

The present exhibition in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the McGill University Libraries draws on an important collection of more than 350 Soviet children's books published in the 1920s and 30s and which are remarkable for their original aesthetic quality, linguistic variety and thematic diversity. Dynamic constructivist typography utilized the expressive quality of the stocky, 'architectural' azbuka, the Russian alphabet. Diagonal layouts introduced a simultaneous representation of contents and often used photomontage as
a succinct expression of the narrative text. The emblematic use of red and black as dominant colours linked the children's material closely to the publishing output at large. Since more than 100 nationalities live within the fifteen former republics of the USSR, the variety of languages in which children's books were published is nothing short of astonishing. While Russian was the official language of the Union, children's books published in Ukrainian, Uzbek, Tartar, Kazakh, Azerbaidzhani, Armenian, Georgian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, lakutian, Nanaian and other languages are well represented in the McGill collection.
As a side note, It is interesting to observe the changed attitudes in Russia today towards the use of the Russian language and native tongues in the former Soviet Republics. The should be the topic for another posting.

Some might call these children's books masterful propaganda. Certainly, agit-prop - "
promot(ing) appropriate social class values among the masses" was part of the message for the youngest members to the new nation. The Soviet Union was attempting to establish a new world order. However, I would encourage readers to browse these images and topics for a small insight into what the Soviet Union thought of itself in these early days and its hopes for the future. How that nation succeeded and failed is all the more tragic when viewed through these early dreams for a worker's paradise.


Sean Guillory said...

Fascianting collection. Thanks for drawing attention to. I was hoping to they would have some children's books about the Civil War, but no luck. The covers are simply beautiful works of art.

You have a great knack in finding this stuff!

copydude said...

Quote: How that nation succeeded and failed is all the more tragic when viewed through these early dreams for a worker's paradise

It is interesting to look through some old English children's history books. There was a lot of international support - envy even - for the idealism of the Soviet Union in those days. I have a book from 1930's which talks about the Soviet Union's 'brave social experiment' with its emphasis on culture, education and sport. Written by foreigners, it was hardly propaganda. Back then, intellectuals shared a genuine desire for Russia to succeed. The war changed everything, of course.

W. Shedd said...

Not just the war ... the reality of the implementation of Socialism. I have a review of a book "An American Engineer of Stalin's Russia"

One aspect of the book is how this hopeful young socialist, Zara Witkin - was disillusioned by working in Soviet Union in the 1930s.

But you are right in the sense that many people outside of the Soviet Union had socilaist ideals during these years.

I have a secret about how I find these things, but I'm not sharing it! ;-)

copydude said...

Quote: I have a secret about how I find these things, but I'm not sharing it! ;-)

In these days of the Internet, there's not a lot you can keep secret. And in any case, most people on the net want to share knowledge. Sorry you are not part of the generous, informative and open society like the rest of us.

Alex(ei) said...

A very interesting though modest collection. The book covers are excellent: I'm no sucker for revolutionary constructivism but the aesthetic appeal of revolutionary pop art must have added to the general appeal of socialism to the masses and the literati alike. The Marshak-Lebedev series is a children's classic -- the poems are as popular today though seldom printed with the original illustrations. The titles in the Animals series are also classic.

BTW, it looks like half of the titles are in Ukrainian.

W. Shedd said...

Yes, I had noticed that quite a few were in Ukrainian. The website cites that many childrens books from this era were in other languages of the former Soviet Union as well.

I think that is particularly noteworthy, considering the very different attitude toward the other languages of the former Soviet Union within Russia today. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, these independent nations have been heavily criticized within Russia and by the Russian government for asserting their original national tongues within their borders. It seems the 1920s and 1930s were more hopeful and inclusive times in regards to these other heritages.

W. Shedd said...

copydude - Does a generous, informative and open society have room for a sense of humor?

Alex(ei) said...

During its first decade, the Communist regime promoted minority cultures as a counterforce against pre-revolutionary (and essentially counter-revolutionary) high Russian culture. This policy yielded some good results -- for instance, some languages got their own alphabets for the first time. Others were forced to abandon Arabic script in favor of Latin first, Cyrillic later. On the other hand, Ukraine was being Ukrainized at the expense of mostly Russophone cities.

W. Shedd said...

Yes, I understand how political borders on nations don't always (or perhaps even often) match the culture of the peoples. Ukraine would be just one example of that.

At least it is not Yugoslavia.

schiehallion said...

Truely interesting. From today's perspective one is tempted to mainly focus on the artistic impression, but of course at that time propagande played an imminent role. Is there anyone who takes this as a thesis and conducts a thorough analysis on the books of that time?
Best Marco

Dick Chaney said...

Ok, you are a funny man. Where do you get your information?

CopyCat said...

Yes, Wally, what is your secret?

W. Shedd said...

There are many places that I go for links and topics regarding Russia, but the one that usually gives the most interesting results is for example

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Megan Case said...

Hey, are you ever going to write again, or is married bliss forever going to get in your way? The blogosphere misses you.

-Megan, now blogging from Sweden!

Anonymous said...

Yeah Wally,
what's up? Mo mo mo

Anonymous said...

I think we lost Wally. Are u out there Wally - come back we miss you.

Sean Guillory said...

I concur. Where are ya' Wally?

katjusha said...

come back and write more interesting articles :)

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