The art of Soviet-era children’s literature shifted from experimental and avant-garde to a realistic, government-mandated style under Stalin.
In the 1932 edition of the Soviet-era children’s book Kem byt’? (Whom shall I become?), one professional option—an engineer—is depicted as an abstract, mustachioed man, holding a blueprint and a drawing of a building. On the opposite page is a fully constructed building that looks, as associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures Robert Bird puts it, almost Frank Gehry–like.
Fifteen years later—shortly after World War II and almost a decade after the Great Purge, Stalin-led campaigns of persecution against “enemies of the state”—a new edition of the book came out, with a less playful feel. Instead of colorful, dream-like illustrations, the pencil drawings show a child sketching a classicist building. The reader, Bird says, is “given a specific image of what a child looks like who wants to become an engineer, and a plan for a proper type of home.”
The shift in children’s book illustration parallels the Soviet Union’s move from a revolutionary state, in which the government was trying to figure out how its citizens should behave and feel, to a more clearly defined political entity that specified exactly how individuals should see their roles. The illustrative shift is the focus of an August 22–December 30 Special Collections Research Center exhibit, Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary: Children’s Books and Graphic Arts. Drawing from more than 400 Soviet children’s books, the majority dated between 1930 and 1935, the exhibit originated from a Slavic languages and literatures course Bird taught in fall 2006, the Soviet Imaginary. “Children’s books were an optimal source for the course,” he says, “because they were dealing with the ways people visualized the new civilization they were building after the revolution” of 1917. “And the pictures are so primary, but also so vivid.”
After the Soviet Union formed in 1922, children’s books were illustrated, Bird explains, with an “enthusiastic embrace of avant-garde techniques.” Many of the books that Special Collections owns were published during or just after the first Soviet Five-Year Plan (1928–32), goals that Stalin set to strengthen the country’s economy. At that time “the revolutionary government wasn’t too concerned with style,” says Bird. “If anything, they felt they could utilize the energy of experimental art for their own efforts of remaking consciousness—essentially, redesigning human consciousness.”
By the mid-1930s, the illustrations had changed to the Soviet realist style, which was mandated by Stalin and easily interpretable, meant to be comforting to a population recovering from “rapid modernization, forced collectivization, and mass purges,” writes art-history professor Matthew Jesse Jackson in an online essay accompanying the exhibit. Soviet realism was presented as more mature than the avant-garde style, says Bird, showing a more certain future.
Children’s books illustrated in both styles are featured in Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary, part of a city-wide Soviet Arts Experience project. (The project also includes two Smart Museum of Art exhibits, Process and Artistry in the Soviet Vanguard, which looks at iconic Soviet propaganda, and Vision and Communism, featuring the work of postwar artist and designer Viktor Koretsky.) Adventures is the first faculty-led exhibit in the renovated Special Collections space, completed this past April as the research center became the gateway to the new Mansueto Library. “It really exemplifies what we hope for with the exhibit project,” says Special Collections Research Center director Alice Schreyer, “a faculty member leading a team of grad students” who work directly with rare materials. It “just gets them into the collection.”
Physically, the exhibit showcases the new space’s versatility. The previous exhibit hall was linear, and curators couldn’t change the size, shape, or location of the cases. “They all had to be filled,” Schreyer says. “There was one way to tell a story, from start to finish.”
With the new 2,384-square-foot space, “we hope the gallery doesn’t look the same from one show to the next,” Schreyer says. Every case is on casters and can be configured to “best serve the needs of the types of materials in the cases.” Some images from Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary are reprinted on cards and hung from the ceiling, and the 36-foot-long case along the back wall holds posters from Special Collections’ Harry Bakwin and Ruth Morris Bakwin Soviet Posters Collection.
Bird and his students have organized the exhibit by themes: modeling and mapping, viewing and reading, and international communism, for example. To decide the themes, Bird worked with eight graduate students in history, Slavic languages and literatures, and art history. The group also included art-history professor Jackson and Claire Saperstein, AB’10, who won a 2010 Fulbright to study history in Russia. Each contributor wrote essays for the web exhibit and for the print catalog, distributed by the University of Chicago Press.
Leah Goldman, AM’07, researched two themes that she felt “paired well,” despite their apparent contradiction: the individual and the collective. “On the one hand, there’s this really socialist rhetoric—‘we are all one society,’‘’from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,’ as Marx said,” Goldman explains. “But on other hand, there’s praise for exemplary workers. Hero building.”
She cites Volodia Ermakov (1935) as an example of a hero-praising text. The book’s title character, Goldman writes in her essay, “boldly volunteers for a range of daunting physical activities, awing the other children while showing them that even the greatest of feats is achievable for true sons (his companions are all male) of Socialism.”
Books such as Volodia Ermakov and Kem byt’? are “inherently pedagogical,” Goldman says. They teach values to children, whether it’s how to be a hero or showing the child that he can choose his own future within certain societal constraints.
Even the text layout in some Soviet books contributed to the instructional experience. In the earlier edition of Kem byt’?, writer Vladimir Mayakovsky uses “word play and staggered, step-like verses to take language apart and allow children to put it back together in new ways,” Bird writes in an essay. The book “encourages children to create their own identities, even as it channels their desire into specific existing roles.”
But by the 1947 edition, with its Soviet realist drawing of the little boy at his desk patiently sketching a building, the lessons were more straightforward. Rather than allowing children to create an identity, the text and illustrations would tell them, “This is what it means to be a Soviet child,” Bird says. “We have an ideal. We’re no longer seeking our ideal.”
Reposted with permission of the University of Chicago Magazine