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Soviet children’s books… May 28, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Fascinating piece in the Guardian this week talking about early Soviet children’s books.

“The idea was to abolish fantasy literature and illustration because they were seen as bourgeois and unhelpful to the revolution,” says Olivia Ahmad, curator of A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia. Imagine if Harry Potter or Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Room on the Broom were deemed unacceptably counter revolutionary.

But that was far too abstract a goal, in relation to ‘abolishing illustration’:

Soviet children’s literature was fun in the 1920s and early 30s, even while it propagandised for socialism and helped Soviet children to do what many of their parents could not, namely read. Just as the Soviet Union needed to be electrified and industrialised at breakneck pace, so the children of the revolution needed to be educated fast if their homeland was to survive in a hostile world. Cheaply produced, captivatingly illustrated books were the answer. Early Soviet picture books, explains Ahmad, were printed lithographically on to cheap paper, then folded and stapled to create 10-15 page paperbacks.

What’s interesting is that – of course – rather than jettisoning illustration the style of illustration changed. Constructivist and other avant-garde illustration came in:

The illustrations for Red Neck, for instance, were done by Natan Altman, a theatre designer and cubo-futurist sculptor. Here Altman’s figurative line drawings were laid over angular abstract shapes, a design which we are familiar with, but in the 1920s must have been discombobulating to Russian eyes.


The great Russian artist El Lissitzky went further. In About Two Squares: a Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions, he riffed on recent Russian avant garde experiments by borrowing Kazimir Malevich’s black square. In the story, the black square joins a red square that represents communism and both head off on a dialectical space trip. The two flat shapes crash to Earth causing destruction in three dimensions – a kind of abstractionist depiction of the Bolshevik revolution – from which emerges a new Earth built in the red of communism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly many of these approaches were later adopted as that modernism in design and illustration which the Soviet was one part of (Germany and the Bauhaus was another and there were other places again too) was adopted and reinterpreted in the bourgeois United States before during and after World War Two.

The brakes went on in the USSR in 1934, quite late in the day really, when:

The era hymned by this exhibition came to an end, Ahmad argues, in 1934 when the All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers adopted socialist realism as the only tolerable aesthetic style. Non-objectivism? Constructivism? Suprematism? Surrealism? Primitivism? All these isms, which had been so important in the flourishing of children’s illustration in the previous decade and a half, were deemed inimical to the Soviet state.

I think that’s somewhat questionable re Constructivism. Its influence lasted the entirety of the existence of the USSR – albeit again in moderated or modified format, particularly in photography and poster design. But then fantasy was never extirpated either, how could it be, having such a central role in the Russian (as much as Soviet) consciousness. To me though, what is most fascinating is the faith put in what were essentially styles, remarkable styles true, but styles that – ironically – or perhaps not, are familiar to us today in our societies (and of course in relation to the Futurists and Vorticists had a fascist expression too, one that in Italy at least went a lot further than just illustration or design). And the Guardian piece notes one example of this:

Soviet books brought to Britain inspired the creation of the Puffin Picture books in 1940. And now there is this exhibition, the first of its kind in Britain, to remind us of that scarcely conceivable, utopian moment when children’s books were a place for avant garde experiment and revolutionary political struggle.


1. donesoverydone - May 28, 2016

Reblogged this on things I've read or intend to.


2. oconnorlysaght - May 28, 2016

Well, a socialist society in a single country was in itself a work of fantasy.


3. Starkadder - May 29, 2016

Anyone who’s studied the history of fantastic literature will be aware of the Soviet ban on “fantasy” (as opposed to science fiction) for both children and adults. This is partly why “The Master and Margarita” was unable to be published in Bulgakov’s lifetime


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