SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 200 July/August 2016

Educating Olga (and Oleg)

A New Childhood: picture books from Soviet Russia

House of Illustration, London

To 11 September 2016

Reviewed by Manny Thain

One of the most urgent tasks following the Russian revolution in 1917 was raising the educational level of the population. Eradicating mass illiteracy was key because socialism requires the fullest democratic participation in economic, social and political decision-making and planning. This illuminating exhibition looks at one of the most basic building blocks of that project: children’s picture books. Indeed, the exhibition’s catalogue writes that Vladimir Lenin, one of the main leaders of the revolution, remarked that illiterate people were "outside of politics".

In quite a condensed, four-room space is an array of books under glass and on the walls. It is an exhibition with a difference. These pictures were not to be hung in grand palaces and mansions. They were designed to be grasped by children, held in the hands of parents and teachers. This is art as social history. It is a remarkable glimpse into how Soviet Russia tried to grapple with the colossal problems it faced.

It is impossible to understate the immensity of the task. When the Bolshevik party led the working class to power, the new (and only) workers’ state had to deal with a huge country devastated by the first world war, economic collapse and mass poverty. No sooner had the revolutionary movement succeeded than Russia was invaded by the armies of the capitalist states, backing reactionary Russian forces and plunging the country into civil war. The whole economy had to be focused on the struggle to defend the workers’ state. Very limited resources could be allocated to raising the cultural level. Enemy forces had occupied Russian paper-manufacturing regions, so book production ground almost to a stop.

Nonetheless, great efforts were made to overcome these obstacles. In 1918, the artist Vera Ermolaeva founded the Segodnia (Today) collective in Petrograd. It was the first Soviet children’s book publisher, specialising in small, eight-page books, densely illustrated with striking linocuts in limited runs of up to 150. The collective disbanded in 1919, but it had set the mould.

Yiddish literature was another prominent player, with leading roles by artists such as Marc Chagall and El Lissitzky. This was only possible because the Bolsheviks had lifted a ban on Yiddish printing imposed under the tsar’s rule. Agitprop trains (not mentioned in this exhibition) travelled the length and breadth of the Soviet Union, also playing an important part in literacy and numeracy programmes, as well as in spreading the message of the revolution. The two were inseparable.

An explosion of printing and publishing, however, would have to wait until the end of the civil war. In an attempt to free up the economy following the years of emergency measures and strict centralisation necessitated by the war, the New Economic Policy was introduced and private and state-run publishers burst onto the scene. By 1922 there were more than 300 publishing houses in Moscow and Petrograd, while the state publisher, Gosizdat, had over 50 local departments.

This was the first time working-class and peasant children really had access to books. They were printed on cheap paper, folded and stapled into small paperbacks. Editions of tens of thousands could be produced rapidly. By the late 1920s, nearly 10,000 children’s book titles had been published, with some of the editions up to 200,000 books.

A selection of these is on display, divided into sections: mass media, politicians/pioneers, transport/travel, letters/numbers, absurd fiction, making/building, comrades/adversaries, plays/outings. Understandably, though frustratingly, they cannot be picked up so it is not possible to examine the books in their entirety.

As with much artistic and propaganda work in the early Soviet Union there was a dynamic collaboration between artists, poets and writers in the production of children’s books, too. Ermolaeva, for example, had a close working relationship with Kazimir Malevich, himself a leading modern artist. The writer Samuil Marshak linked up with Vladimir Lebedev who had worked on propaganda posters during the civil war. Bold, bright stencilled images combined with tight text. They supported avant-garde artists and writers at the private publishing house Raduga (Rainbow).

Typical of the series explaining industrial processes is, Where Do Dishes Come From? by Nikolai Smirnov(1924). It is illustrated by Olga and Galina Chichagova with simplified diagrammatic illustrations. The Little Screw (1925), by Vladislav Tvarkovsky, takes us on a similar journey, while Alphabet of Metric Units (1925), by Olga Deineko and Nikolai Troshin, is a masterclass in layout and design.

Lissitzky’s About Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions (1922) is more abstract, following two flat squares which crash to earth causing three-dimensional destruction. The red square of communism then rebuilds the earth creating order from the chaos, with text set in a variety of fonts, sizes and angles for emphasis. The books were often interactive, requiring sequences to be put together like a film, or cutting and swapping images. Whether it be everyday objects, animals, people’s occupations or, indeed, international solidarity, there is a sense of adventure and discovery.

This was a time of great experimentation and investigation. The catalogue states: "From 1917 to the early 1930s, there was an open forum on what Soviet children’s books should be: celebrated pre-revolutionary illustrators, leading avant-garde artists and politically motivated creators experimented with approaches to illustration, design and layout with the belief that the book was the most important cultural form in modern Russia. The result was a period of innovation unmatched in the history of picture books".

Even so, the exhibition seems to be saying that the individual artists were the sole innovators – independent of the attempt to transform society on socialist lines. For instance, without explanation, Lenin is quoted as saying that the task was to "imbue [children] with communist ethics". The catalogue also states: "Politicians and educational theorists relegated pre-revolutionary books to the past with the belief that the kings and queens of fairy tales and remote imaginary worlds were irrelevant to the Soviet child. They called for a new form of children’s book that would give practical instruction, instil socialist values and present a politically-endorsed vision of the future".

Yet, what did Lenin mean by ‘communist ethics’ and what does it mean to ‘instil socialist values’? Lenin was renowned for getting to the point directly. Communist ethics and socialist values mean a world without exploitation, where war and poverty are things of the past, a world of solidarity. Furthermore, stories which do not reinforce the hierarchy of kings and queens – feudal ethics – do not mean a world without wonder and imagination. It is true that, at the time, the best way to educate children was hotly debated – as it is in Britain today, with the Tory government’s drive for academies and ever-rising tuition fees which can only reinforce capitalist ethics. None of that is explained in the exhibition, however.

Nor does it explain why the first decade of the Soviet state was so different from later years. Why was state censorship enforced with increased severity once Stalin had increased his grip on power? Why was Yiddish publishing shut down and books destroyed? Why had there never been a diktat on artistic style before ‘socialist realism’ was imposed in 1934? It can only be explained if there had been a fundamental shift in power. Stalin represented the top-down, privileged bureaucracy which secured its grip on power with ever more oppressive rule. It snuffed out the last remains of workers’ democracy brought in by the revolution – and derailed revolutionary movements internationally.

There is an image which portrays what went on. The 5 Year Plan (1930), by Aleksei Laptov, depicts an official, holding the number 5 behind his back. He then, suddenly, reveals it and hands it down. Not a mass meeting of the local soviet (council) in sight! An accidental but graphic illustration of the top-down bureaucratic plan. It marked the end of an era, described succinctly by the exhibition "as the key to the modern picture book and the form that we recognise today".

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