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.