In the quest for socialism, communism and being anti-bourgeois, picture books were a great place to start improving and educating the new Soviet generation to build this egalitarian future, particularly as it would help them to do what many of their parents could not, namely read. Throwing out fantasy to be replaced with politically-endorsed works suitable for the new generation, picture books were always going to be significant if the Soviets were to achieve their ideology and revolution on any scale.
It was decided that imaginary worlds and fairy-tales involving kings, queens and fantastical creatures were now irrelevant to the Soviet child, apparently being bourgeois and unhelpful to the Revolution, especially as the idea of royalty obviously went against socialist ideals anyway (why communism seemed so intent on getting rid of fantasy and imagination to be all the same is beyond me though, not to mention incredibly boring). Such books were to give practical instruction, improve literacy, inspire loyalty and present a politically-endorsed vision of the future. Picture books for young readers were often heavily illustrated and wherever there was text was almost entirely inseparable from the pictures they accompanied. Some picture books contained no text at all as it was recognised that images alone were able to transmit knowledge and would encourage literacy amongst children with parents who were likely unschooled.
A state-designed poster from sisters Galina and Olga Chichagova symbolises the break from this fantasy, bourgeois past to the bright, new Soviet future as presided by Lenin. (From this, communism is evidently self-defeating because it requires a leader to get things done which surely goes against the whole egalitarian thing anyway as demonstrated multiple times in history but that’s another story.) Baba Yaga, the Firebird and other Russian folklore characters were not revolutionary but hard work, agriculture and technology was.
In the fifteen years following the 1917 Revolution, 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 poster suggests.
Even before the Revolution, there were reformations to the picture book. During the 19th century, most children’s literature had been imported from Western Europe for wealthy families but by the early 20th century, improving literacy amongst the middle-class and improved printing equipment encouraged Russian publishers to produce their own books for the market. Many reacted against the poor quality of children’s books such as 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, high-profile members such as Alexandre Benois, Ivan Bilibin and Dmitry Mitrokhin worked on illustrating children’s picture books reflecting the movement’s interest in Russian folk traditions and Western and Japanese decorative arts, producing outstanding quality pieces. at this time however, they remained the preserve of the few.
As civil war broke out, publishers had great difficulties operating and children’s book production slowed to an almost complete halt between 1917 and 1921. However, there were small groups of artists who defied the circumstances to produce wonderful works that bridged the gap between Soviet children’s literature and pre-Revolution avant-garde artists.
One of the most influential artists was Vera Ermolaeva, a Russian pioneer of non-objective art, suprematism, and constructivism. In 1918 she founded the first Soviet children’s book publisher Segondia (Today) and with her fellow artists, used basic materials, flat perspective and distorted proportions, creating a link between pre-Revolutionary avant garde art, old depictions of Russian folklore and the revolutionary demands of the day. Segondia’s works harked back 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).While Ermolaeva was arrested in 1934 for ‘anti-Soviet activities’ and consequently shot in 1937, she has been honoured by Russian women, including members of Pussy Riot, for her work. In 2013, the Vera Ermolaeva Foundation of Contemporary Feminist Art Initiatives was established in Moscow and is dedicated to supporting female artists.
In 1921, Lenin launched the New Economic Policy in response to the number of crises Russia was facing, bringing a temporary end to total nationalisation. Private businesses including publishers were permitted to operate and by 1922 there were more than 300 publishing houses in Moscow and Petrograd.
Many of these picture books were highly creative in their visual style, often using bright colours and abstract shapes. While the picture books were mainly political, they could still be (fairly) light-hearted too such as Ice-Cream, a cautionary tale about a bourgeois capitalist who east too much ice-cream and freezes to death. Some were even experimental in their format such as A Cinema Book About How the Pioneer Hans Saved the Strike Committee where the images were printed in mock film reel format which children could theoretically cut out and project themselves. Similarly, Aleksei Laptev’s book The Five Year Plan, which illustrates the state of farming, coal and iron production in 1927, had pages which could be folded out to reveal planned expansions in each sector by 1932. When fully opened, the book is two metres long. As far as book-making was concerned, this period represented a wonderfully innovative and experimental time with picture books that hasn’t really been replicated since.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. House of Illustration curator Olivia Ahmad argues that by 1934, the All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers adopted socialist realism as the only tolerable aesthetic style which led to other once-important isms, such as non-objectivism, surrealism, etc. being deemed as hostile to the Soviet state. Censorship and greater state control over publishing took hold once again leading to many books being destroyed, such as El Lissitzky’s Yiddish-language book The Only Kid, following renewed state censorship in the 1930s of the leading language of Russian Jews. Some artists stayed and tried to fit the Stalinist order but censorship prompted many to self-exile. Nathalie Parain and Feodor Rojanovsky, for instance, went to France where they created the Père Castor series of illustrated children’s books.
Still, while Soviet experimentation in children’s books were over, it had an important afterlife. Soviet books brought to Britain by artist Pearl Binder inspired the creation of the Puffin Picture books series in 1940. Representing artistic ingenuity, freedom and creativity despite the forced political ideology, Soviet picture books have a special place within the history of children’s literature and their uniqueness means they can still be appreciated and admired today.