Curator's blog: Soviet children's books

Olivia Ahmad explores the unique landscape that produced the rich and diverse works in our exhibition A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia

Details

  • Olivia Ahmad
  • Exhibitions

The October Revolution of 1917 radically changed every aspect of Russian life and culture. Within one year the vast country had been transformed from a Tsarist autocracy into a communist state run by Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin) and his Bolshevik party. Lenin promised to liberate Russian workers from the ruling classes, and to establish equality in a modern society based on industrial efficiency.

As part of this grand experiment, humanity itself had to change; the 'new Soviet man' would be a tool in the service of a progressive, classless and atheistic civilisation - "a superman", Leon Trotsky avowed. In this emerging order, children acquired a new status as the first Soviet generation and as builders of an egalitarian future. As forces for education and mass communication, children’s books too had a new significance.

Politicians and educational theorists relegated pre-revolutionary books to the past with the belief that the kings and queens of fairy tales and remote imaginary worlds were irrelevant to the Soviet child. They called for a new form of children's book that would give practical instruction, instil socialist values and present a politically-endorsed vision of the future.

A state-published poster designed by sisters Galina and Olga Chichagova illustrates this break from the past with a split composition. Framed in black on the left are icons of Russian folklore and fiction, captioned, "Out with the mysticism and fantasy of children’s books!!" On the right, busy Soviet children are presided over by Lenin with the demand, "Give a new child's book!! Work, battle, technology, nature – the new reality of childhood".

In the fifteen years that followed the Revolution, Soviet children's books became a mass media phenomenon. Almost 10,000 titles were published in several editions of up to 200,000. However, their separation from pre-revolutionary ideas and commitment to political agendas was not as decisive as the Chichagovas' poster suggests.

From 1917 to the early 1930s, there was an open forum on what Soviet children's books should be: celebrated pre-revolutionary illustrators, leading avant-garde artists and politically motivated creators experimented with approaches to illustration, design and layout with the belief that the book was the most important cultural form in modern Russia. The result was a period of innovation unmatched in the history of picture books.

Even before the Revolution, illustrators and authors were reforming the Russian picture book. During the 19th century, most children's literature in Russia had been imported from Western Europe for the nurseries of wealthy families. By the early 20th century, however, increased literacy among the middle classes and improved printing equipment encouraged Russian publishers to create books for their own markets.

The most advanced pre-revolutionary books were designed and illustrated by artists of the Mir iskusstva (World of Art) movement, who sought to integrate art into every aspect of daily life. Alongside their work in dance, theatre and painting, many of their high-profile members worked on children’s books, including Alexandre Benois, Ivan Bilibin and Dmitry Mitrokhin.

Bilibin’s illustrations for Aleksandr Pushkin's The Tale of Tsar Saltan embody the achievements of the group. His images are deliberately positioned within the text and have dynamic changing viewpoints. Bilibin's use of decorative line and colour reflects the movement's wider interest in Russian folk traditions and in Western and Japanese decorative arts. The Mir iskusstva had high production values, and their volumes were often in hardback with full colour pages and sometimes printed with metallic inks. These books, while ground-breaking, remained the preserve of the few.

Mir iskusstva were not the only ones reacting against poor quality children's publishing in the early 20th century. Writer Kornei Chukovsky had long lamented the unimaginative and conservative children's literature available in Russia. He drafted Crocodile while travelling on a train with his young son, composing a verse that accompanied the rhythm of their swaying carriage. The poem about a cigar-smoking crocodile rampaging through Petrograd was published with boisterous illustrations by Nikolai Remizov in 1917; it became an instant success and the foundation of modern Russian children's poetry.

In the same year, the Soviet government was established, but was fiercely contested and civil war broke out in Russia. So although children’s books were seen as vital resources by the state, publishers were largely unable to operate and children’s book production slowed almost to a stop from 1917 to 1921. However, small groups of enterprising and pioneering artists defied these circumstances and their efforts set the course for Soviet picture books.

In 1918, artist Vera Ermolaeva founded Segodnia (Today) collective in Petrograd - the first Soviet children's book publisher. Taking their cue from the books of the Russian Futurists, they created works that bridged the gap between the pre-revolutionary experiments of avant-garde artists and Soviet children’s literature. Their publications paid homage to 17th-century formats that were popular with the peasantry, working and middle classes: the 'block book' (small densely illustrated books intended for semi-literate people) and 'lubki' (printed sheets featuring images and stories for display in the home).

Early invention also came through Yiddish literature after the Soviet government lifted a Tsarist ban on Yiddish publishing. Russian artists, including Marc Chagall and El Lissitzky, combined motifs of their Jewish culture with an interest in modernism to create highly original book illustration. A Story About a Rooster, The Little Kid, written by Der Nister, was Chagall's only children’s book; his 'faux naïf' images feature the typical wooden house of shtetl (Jewish village) life.

El Lissitzky’s The Only Kid illustrated the playful song sung at the end of the Passover Seder: a goat is eaten by a cat and chaos ensues. Lissitzky's lithographs feature distorted perspectives of the animals alongside fragmented geometric shapes, framed by arcs of text. The illustrations anticipate his later experiments with abstraction, as well as a broad adoption of abstracted forms in Soviet picture books.

In 1921, in response to crises across Russia, Lenin launched the New Economic Policy. This brought a temporary end to total nationalisation, and private businesses including publishers were permitted to operate. By 1922 there were more than 300 publishing houses in Moscow and Petrograd.

The Soviet government had an active interest in the publishing of children’s literature, as increasing literacy and inspiring the loyalty of children were key to their ambition for a modern collective workforce. Politicians and theorists hotly debated about what kind of reading matter would yield their desired result. However throughout most of the 1920s, these debates remained theoretical.

Picture books for young readers were heavily illustrated; concise text and sequenced images were cohesive and in many cases were almost inseparable, and some books featured no text at all. This graphics-led approach was applauded by Soviet supporters, who recognised the power of the image to disseminate knowledge and encourage literacy among children whose parents were likely to be unschooled.

The synthesis of text and image in early Soviet books was exemplified by the collaboration of writer Samuil Marshak and illustrator Vladimir Lebedev. Lebedev had worked on propaganda posters at ROSTA (the Russian Telegraph Agency) during the Civil War, where he had combined concise text with bold stencilled graphics to communicate with a broad population. The artist brought his understanding of direct visual communication from ROSTA to children’s books such as Circus which featured bright characters built from flat, stylised shapes alongside Marshak’s playful and crisp poetry.

The pair created many popular picture books. Their spirited tales were most often absurd and light-hearted, however their Ice Cream was a cautionary tale about a bourgeois capitalist who eats too much ice cream and suffers terrible consequences. Owing to their success as author and illustrator, both Marshak and Lebedev were employed in editorial and commissioning roles, and they became particularly known for their support of avant-garde and liberal artists and writers at private publishing house Raduga (Rainbow).

Soviet books of the 1920s and early 1930s can be seen as the key to the modern picture book and the form that we recognise today. Though the innovation of the early Soviet period would never be seen again in Russia, the books influenced children’s publishing around the world. In the Netherlands, exhibitions of Soviet books in the 1930s caused a sensation. In France, Russian émigrés Nathalie Parain and Feodor Rojankovsky created an unmistakable aesthetic for the Père Castor albums. Soviet books brought to England by artist Pearl Binder inspired Noel Carrington to create the illustrious Puffin Picture Book series.

Though the period of uninhibited experimentation in Soviet Russian picture books was brief, the vigour and ingenuity of those authors and illustrators who recognised the creative and social potential of the book created a constant and vital legacy.

 - Olivia Ahmad, Curator

The text of this blog is excerpted from the introduction to House of Illustration's catalogue for A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia. Read more about the exhibition here, or head over to our webstore to take a look inside the book and order your own copy.