REVOLUTIONARY SOURCES, PART III: CHILDREN’S BOOKS. “Artistic Baggage in Early Soviet Children’s Literature.”





By Isabelle Schenkel

Note:  this is the fourth of several articles posted to The New Contemporary that feature writing from this Fall’s Havighurst Colloquium, “Russia in War and Revolution.”  Each student in the class had to select an object from the Andre de St.-Rat Collection in Miami’s Special Collections and write about it.  These writings, as you will see, spotlight the incredible collections in our library.  They also highlight how the Russian Revolutions in 1917 involved a battle over meaning:  through these primary sources, one can read the words, see the images, and therefore gain more insight into the experiences of revolution.  Other papers have been posted to the History Department’s new online journal, Journeys Into the Past:  Special thanks to Masha Stepanova, Miami’s extraordinary Slavic Bibliographer.

The redefinition of culture was a large project taken on by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 October Revolution. The Bolsheviks worked to inter-tangle party ideals into the lives of Soviet citizens. One method that they utilized to communicate and instill  evolving and changing ideals to the next generation of Soviet citizens was through children’s books. The popular Soviet children’s book Baggage, written by Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak and illustrated by Vladimir Vasilievich Lebedev, was originally printed in 1927. Through its text and 1936 reprint with new illustrations, Baggage highlights the evolving nature of Soviet children’s literature .

Marshak’s Baggage is a comical story about a woman who takes the time to properly mark and register her luggage for a train trip.  In the end, she loses her dog and is given another that is much larger than the original. The woman protests that the dog is not hers to which the conductor replies, “Maybe he grew.” The text, paired with Lebedev’s illustrations, outline the development of Soviet ideology and state-supported artistry and how it was presented to the Soviet youth.

Following the end of the Russian Civil War and the Bolshevik victory over the Whites, many new Communist authors and illustrators appeared on the scene. In 1924, Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak took over the Leningrad office Children’s Section of the State Publishing House and hired Vladimir Vasilievich Lebedev as art director, who headed the department until 1933. The direction of Marshak and Lebedev’s work was directed by the Communist party with, “the quite conscious intention to ‘surmount old traditions in children’s literature, to create an entirely new type of literature for Soviet children” (Steiner, 53).

The significance of looking at Marshak and Lebedev’s work can be inferred by the importance of their positions in the Children’s Section of the State Publishing House that caused them to produce work that, “from early 1920s to early 1950s, reflects a complex inner evolution that as a rule, corresponded precisely to the fluctuating party line” (Steiner, 51).  Reading the text alone, the message of Baggage is quite simple, “outright mockery of the holdovers form the bad old days of private property and the ancient regime comes in the form of a constantly repeated list” (Steiner, 54). The text in pair with Lebedev’s illustrations, help push the ideology that negatively depicts materialism and the old Bourgeois class. The negative female character of the story, first illustrated in 1927, is large and round made by very geometric shapes and solid colors. There was an effort and trend in art to do away with the old style of art that focused on detailed characters and replaced it with modernism, which later translated into constructivism.

Constructivism was an artistic movement that worked to blend human and machine, which artistically represented the theory that the means of production took priority over all else and supported the notion of ‘production for production’s sake.’ Lebedev’s artistic works can be described as, “a poster-like laconicism, a primitivist cubist quality” (Steiner, 52). For the Bolsheviks, constructivism and specifically, “the abstractly promoted ideals of the bright future were so distant, so vague, that what became the concrete representation of this future was the individual object itself, the designated harbinger of the new life” (Steiner, 121). Lebedev was groundbreaking in the constructionist field through his use of discrete and localized color masses. Classic constructivist elements appear in Lebedev’s illustrations in Baggage and Ballerinas through repeated geometric one-dimensional shapes. Specifically, by having the woman in Baggage represented through the use of non-descript or lifeless shapes she becomes less human. The theme of making characters less human in illustrations in children’s books is observed in other books at the time, often represented in facial illustrations, “the consistently constructivist strategy pursued by artist Lebedev and Tsekhanovsky did not allow for such ‘all too human’ concessions, and did away with faces all together. In extreme cases they did away with more than faces” (Steiner, 94).

Though in his original printing of the book Lebedev worked to blend the human and the machine through the use of nondescript shapes and constructionist style, the 1936 illustrations suggest a different message. The previous style of children’s book, “served as visual propaganda for the coming materialist paradise in that they depicted all manner of mechanical-electronical components thereof” (Steiner, 121). The 1936 printing of Baggage suggests a shift from boxy and mechanical to the more human. This change can be most easily seen by the difference in illustration of the main character, the woman boarding the train. The woman in the later edition is skinny and shrewd-looking, which clearly still references the former bourgeois class in Russia prior to the 1917 revolution. By changing the image of the woman who loses her belonging on the train and making her look a particular way to clearly represent a group viewed as negative by the ruling Communists, the 1936 Baggage shifts the focus from the objects in the story and more towards the woman, suggesting that she is a negative character for participating in the greed that circulated by possession. This shift in Lebedev’s illustration reflects the Communist party shift from focusing on gaining the means of production to attacking those who don’t fall into the ideal Soviet citizen, specifically through their interactions with possessions.

The change in Marshak’s book resulted from a shift within the Party’s view of communist art.  In 1931, in an article published in the newspaper, Pravda, constructionism in children’s literature came under attack. The Pravda article was highly critical of Lebedev and other constructionist artists. The article charged that the images presented in Lebedev’s work were “ugly” and “joyless.” The author claimedthat Lebedev and other artists hated everything “natural, simple, joyful, smart, and useful.” Furthermore, the author of the article argued that Lebedev’s gloomy images distracted from the happy tone and rhyme of the language of the stories. The article in Pravda ultimately labeled constructivist artists as self-interested in their illustrations who created works that were unappealing to children.

In the years following this attack,  Marshak’s and Lebedev’s Baggage would be printed in many different languages including French, Dutch, and English. The popularity of Marshak’s and Lebedev’s work endured the passage of time. Following Lebedev’s death in 1967, a new edition of Baggage was released in 1988 suggesting that the classic Soviet children’s book was again illustrated to reflect the artistic schema supported by the Communist party.

Recommended Reading:

Soviet Stories for Little Comrades: Revolutionary Artists and the Making of Early Soviet Children’s Books by: Evgeny Steiner

Soviet Children’s Book Illustration Reform: Vladimir Lebedev by: Masha Stepanova

Children’s World: Growing Up In Russia, 1890-1991 by: Catriona Kelly
Russian Children’s Literature And Culture edited by Marina Balina and Larissa Rudova
Inside The Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times by Philip Pullman

Isabelle Schenkel is a senior REEES major.

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