Arkady Gaidar’s ‘Tale of the Military Secret’ (1933), , illustrated by Vladimir Konashevich
'Tale of the Military Secret', illustrated by Vladimir Konashevich (1933)

“REDS ARE RUINING CHILDREN OF RUSSIA” raged a New York Times headline in June 1919. Lenin and the Bolsheviks had seized control of Russia’s provisional government two years previously, to the consternation of the US, and now stories were circulating about the changes wrought by the Soviet power, including a new education policy.

The newspaper revealed the instigator of this “system of calculated moral depravity” as Anatoly Lunacharsky, first head of the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment, a department known as Narkompros (after the second world war, it became the more prosaic Ministry of Education).

According to the article, in the new “Red” Russia, religious instruction “is strictly forbidden”, “lessons are supplanted by dancing and flirtations”, and, lest you should think that sounded fun, the journalist warned, “It is a deliberate part of the Bolshevist plan to corrupt and deprave the children …and to train them as future propagandists of Lenin’s materialistic and criminal doctrine.”

The reality is more complex, as illuminated in a book to be published next month by London’s Redstone Press. Inside the Rainbow is a fascinating collection of Soviet literature for children, featuring stories, picture book illustrations and rhymes published between 1920 and 1935 – an exhilarating and dangerous time. The early days of Bolshevik rule, before Lenin’s death in 1924, while often chaotic, hungry and cruel, were also marked by great optimism and idealism. A new society was to be built from scratch. How to mould and inspire human beings fit for this wonderful new world was a challenge for artists and educators alike. Avant-garde writers, artists, cinematographers and musicians, many of them commissar Lunacharsky’s friends, were eager to be part of the great experiment.

Many of the works produced during this time, and assembled in Inside the Rainbow, show how superbly they rose to the challenge, in what became known as a golden age of children’s literature in Russia. Driving the movement’s early efforts was Lunacharsky, a gentle, cultured man for whom the theatre, poetry and philosophy were much more interesting than politics. Born in Ukraine, educated in Switzerland and resident for a while in Paris, he was part of a cosmopolitan cultural elite attracted to the revolutionary ideas of the time. Narkompros had a wide remit, from promoting adult literacy – where its achievement was astonishing, through rural libraries and workers’ education programmes – to censorship, which Lunacharsky, at least, practised with a light touch.

It seems almost incredible that, at a time when Russia was plunged into a bloodthirsty civil war from 1917-22, fighting off an invasion from western powers led by France, Britain and the US, reeling from famine caused by mismanagement and drought, and trying to rebuild a shattered economy, the intellectuals of the day still found time to discuss the finer points of children’s literature.

But children had taken on an overriding importance. In a sense, they were what it was all for. As Arkady Ippolitov, a curator at the State Hermitage Museum in Russia, writes in his introductory essay to Inside the Rainbow: “In order that children would mesh with the radiant future being built for them, they themselves had to be rebuilt …thus the education of children was the most vital affair in the new Land of the Soviets. [And] books play a quite important role in children’s education.”

One significant way in which children were to be “rebuilt” was through a campaign of literacy on an unprecedented scale. At the time of the revolution, only about a quarter of the Russian population was literate, and an even smaller proportion of peasants and women. The Bolsheviks believed education was vital; contemporary posters proclaimed “Literacy is the path to communism”. Victor Serge, an anarchist journalist, painted a vivid picture of a rural classroom in Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930): “Hungry children in rags would gather in wintertime around a small stove planted in the middle of the classroom, whose furniture often went for fuel to give some tiny relief from the freezing cold; they had one pencil between four of them.”

As the ideological war raged alongside the civil war, the writer Lev Kormchy described children’s literature as the “forgotten weapon”, writing in Pravda in 1918: “In the great arsenal used by the bourgeoisie to fight against Socialism, children’s books occupied a prominent role. In choosing our cannons and weapons, we have overlooked those that spread poison. We must seize this ammunition from the enemy hands.”

But what was the right subject matter for this “forgotten weapon”? Definitely not princesses or fairy stories. In 1925, Soviet educationist EV Yanovskaya published an influential article, “Does a Proletarian Child Need a Fairytale?”, in which she argued that fairytales such as Cinderella prevented children from developing an understanding of historical materialism. “The bourgeoisie needs these fairytales to support their exploitation …so children who are hungry and cold can escape into the world of fantasy and feel imaginary happiness,” she wrote.

Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who later headed up the pedagogic section at Narkompros, weighed in to the argument, demanding that fairy stories promoting “the wrong kind of emotional and ideological influence” be removed from public libraries. Books should educate as well as entertain, she said.

Artists and writers were charged with producing a children’s literature based on the real world: workers, industry, technology, transport, food, everyday objects, animals and buildings. There was even the 1930 page-turner, a children’s version of Stalin’s Five Year Plan.

‘Journey Inside the Electric Lamp’ (1937) by Nikolai Bulatov and Pavel Lopatin, illustrated by M Makhalov
‘Journey Inside the Electric Lamp’, illustrated by M Makhalov (1937)

Despite the rather dry subject matter, the writers and artists who created this new oeuvre had a lot of fun. In picture books from the time, spare, bold geometric shapes and primary colours of constructivism dance alongside stories and rhymes in an exuberance of inventiveness. The wonderfully named Chichagova sisters, who one feels ought to have been a Motown duet, were, in fact, artists, Galina and Olga, whose crisp and cheerful red and black illustrations for a children’s book called Where Does Crockery Come From? (1924) recall not only the colours of the revolution but the traditional cross-stitch embroidery of old Russia. The Russian language lends itself to rhyme, so the apparently lifeless topic of the title, when transliterated, sounds like a magic spell: Atkooda Pasooda?

Resourceful writers sent their characters on adventurous trips, even while adhering to the party’s educational tenets. In Nikolai Bulatov and Pavel Lopatin’s The Journey Inside the Electric Lamp (1937), the discovery of electricity becomes a thrilling undertaking when two children, magically diminished in size, make the hazardous journey up an electricity cable into the heart of their reading lamp. The illustrations by M Makhalov – including a photomontage showing the two tiny figures balancing precariously on a looped and twisted cable, their shadows looming beside them – look every bit as exciting as a traditional adventure story.

Scores of small publishing houses flourished in the postrevolutionary period, and one called Raduga (Rainbow), which published exclusively children’s books, became the hub of a talented group of artists and writers. Among its founders were Kornei Chukovsky, a well-loved writer of children’s poetry who had lived in England and fallen in love with English nonsense verse, and Samuil Marshak, another Anglophile poet.

Under Lunacharsky’s benign regime, Chukovsky and Marshak attracted prominent avant-garde writers, artists and designers to Raduga, including pioneers of constructivism, suprematism and futurism. The group included the celebrated poet Osip Mandelstam, the constructivist playwright Sergei Tretyakov, the enfant terrible of the literary scene Vladimir Mayakovsky, and the outrageous absurdist Daniil Kharms.

In his diary, Chukovsky poked gentle fun at Lunacharsky’s lack of pretension: “On the door was a paper held by a single tack. It read: ‘The People’s Commissar of Enlightenment. AV Lunacharsky – available only on Saturdays from 2 to 6.’ You could immediately tell it wasn’t a rigorous paper. It hung diagonally, without the slightest pretension of official standing, and nobody paid attention to it: everyone entered that doorway as they pleased.”

Inside the Rainbow features many great names of Soviet-era art, now eagerly sought by collectors such as Sasha Lurye, from whose collection the book is sourced. Some are well known. Vladimir Lebedev, painter and designer, was dubbed the king of the children’s book for his illustrations of Marshak’s texts but was able to adapt to a more popular Russian traditionalist style when the avant-garde fell out of favour. There is El Lissitzky, a founder of suprematism, some of whose spare angular drawings can be seen at Tate Modern. Other important names include Vladimir Tambi, Boris Ender, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky and the constructivist architect Vladimir Tatlin, famous for his tower.

The literary and artistic debates during the early Soviet period were heated, a sign of the importance attached to culture. Chukovsky’s poems, most notably The Crocodile (1917), were disapproved of by Lenin’s widow, Krupskaya, who considered anthropomorphism unrealistic, while his popular 1923 book Moidodyr (Wash’em Clean), about a boy who didn’t want to wash, provoked criticism because of the line “shame on the dirty chimney sweeps”, which was seen as anti-proletarian.

Kornei Chukovsky, a founding member of The Rainbow publishing group, reading to children (1932)
Kornei Chukovsky, a founding member of The Rainbow publishing group, reading to children (1932)

Two years later, Marshak’s book Ice Cream (1925), illustrated by Lebedev, was criticised on the grounds that it entertained rather than educated readers, although the story is a humorous morality tale about a fat greedy man, obviously a bourgeois, who eats so much ice cream that he turns into a snowman. The secret delight for children and adults alike is in the story’s singsong rhymes, which need to be spoken out loud; the ice cream flavours “birthday orange, wonderful pineapple”, in Russian, sound thus: “Imeninoye apelsinoye, prekrasnoye ananasnoye.”

A new country and new children needed new heroes and heroines. But who would replace the discredited figures and fairytales of the past? Arkady Gaidar, who would become one of the most popular children’s authors of the time, was himself quite a dashing heroic figure, who volunteered for the Red Army at the age of 14, commanded a regiment at 16, and died in combat in the second world war, aged 37. Somehow, he also found time to write a number of children’s books, and to father a son, Timur, whose name he used in a story (it was later borrowed by the Timurite movement in the Young Pioneers).

There is nothing avant-garde about Gaidar’s stories, nor about the charming socialist-realist illustrations by Vladimir Konashevich that accompanied his words. Gaidar wrote traditional adventures but introduced a new hero figure, the young pioneer, and a new enemy: the “accursed Bourgeoisie”.

His hugely popular stories did not shy away from a rather heavy-handed didacticism. In The Tale of the Military Secret – In Which A Little Boy Keeps a Big Secret and Saves the Communist Motherland (1933), a boy named Kibalchish is abandoned when his mother dies and his father and older brother go off to war. In fact, he is like one of the thousands of orphans and street children who roamed the ruined cities and hungry countryside of the war-torn Soviet Union. But he still wants to serve his country. He reveals a traitor in his village, is arrested by the bourgeoisie and tortured but refuses to betray the Red Army and its military secret. No happy endings here: Kibalchish is killed. He does get to be buried under an extremely large red flag.

Gaidar’s grandson, by the way, was Yegor Gaidar, politician and economist, and ally of President Boris Yeltsin. Gaidar applied the harsh “shock therapy” to the Russian economy in the 1990s and handed over much of the country’s wealth to the oligarchs. No happy endings there, either.

Before 1924, during Lenin’s lifetime, censorship was political, and political opponents within the communist party, including the Workers’ Opposition, were ruthlessly purged. But the Great Purge of 1936 to 1939, which struck terror and distrust in every section of society with its show trials and gulags, was Stalin’s innovation. He was a man with traditional taste but a keen nose for power. In the arts, he favoured “socialist realism”: traditional stories with a clear moral, like those of Gaidar, who flourished in the 1930s. He wanted none of this futurist or experimental avant-garde nonsense that only confused people and encouraged them to ask questions.

Osip Mandelstam was among the first to be purged, in 1934. His famous epigram on Stalin, describing his fat grub-like fingers and laughing cockroach moustache, was not written down but recited to a small group of intimate friends, one of whom must have betrayed him.

In the end, the brilliance of the work contained the seeds of its own destruction. As Philip Pullman points out in his perceptive foreword to Inside the Rainbow, creativity became a threat to be crushed. As Stalin’s grip on power intensified, revolutionaries, intellectuals, writers – anyone who might challenge the new Stalinist absolutism – came to fear the knock on the door in the night.

In 1929, Lunacharsky was removed from Narkompros and packed off abroad to the League of Nations, then as ambassador to Spain. Of the artists and writers represented in the book, Marshak, Chukovsky and Lebedev were among the survivors but Mandelstam and Bulatov perished in the gulag, Nikolai Zabolotsky and Ilia Zdanevich survived the gulag but died later of ill health, Mayakovsky was found dead with a bullet in his chest, Tretyakov died in prison, and Kharms died in a psychiatric ward.

The subtitle of Inside the Rainbow is “Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times”. Alas, after 1935 even worse times were to come.


All images are from ‘Inside the Rainbow’, which is published on October 10 by Redstone Press. Marina Lewycka’s latest book, ‘Various Pets Alive and Dead’, is published by Figtree

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