The Pedagogy of Images: Depicting Communism for Children

By Serguei A. Oushakine, Princeton University.

This article was originally published in the October 2016 edition of NewsNet.

Less than five months after the Bolshevik revolution, the newspaper Pravda published the polemical essay “Forgotten Weapon: On Children’s Books.” Written by Leonard Piragis (also known as L. Kormchii), a former editor of a children’s magazine Vskhody (Sprouts), the essay pointed to the fact that literature for young readers was completely neglected by the new regime. As the former editor put it, “The bourgeoisie knew all too well the Book Coverimportance of children’s literature as a useful tool for strengthening its own dominance. … The bourgeoisie did all it could to make sure that our children began as early as possible to absorb the ideas that later would turn them into slaves. We should not forget that the same tools, the same weapons, can be used for the opposite goal.” 

Weaponizing children’s literature, though, was not that easy. After the revolution, the book market for children almost collapsed (together with many other markets). For instance, in 1921, there were only 33 book titles published for children. Yet, by 1926, this situation began to change, and the number of titles reached 936; within three years, more than 1,500 new titles were available ((Lidia Kon, Sovetskaia detskaia literatura, 1917– 1929 [Moscow: Gosizdat, 1960], 63-65.) 

By 1936, Detgiz, a specially created publisher of children’s literature, produced annually 40 million copies of books and magazines for children. Within fifteen or so years, a whole new cultural field emerged. 

No doubt, this field was a part of the massive Soviet cultural industry, which made little distinction between education and propaganda; basic literacy skills were acquired through reading revolutionary primers. Still, this new – post-revolutionary – literature for children was more than just a newly reclaimed ideological weapon. Children’s literature had to deal with a radically changed audience. As Literaturnaia gazeta put it in 1929, “Whereas previously, kids of hunters and nomads . . . merely populated the pages of children’s books, now they demand books for themselves.” The necessity to take into account the radical expansion of the demographic borders of the reading audience significantly modified the Book Coverearly Soviet book for children. The modes of perception, levels of abstraction, or frames of metaphorical references on which books of the past had relied could no longer be taken for granted. Confronted by the actual comprehension skills of the socially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse “mass reader,” on the one hand, and the ideological demands of the time on the other, the practitioners of the new Soviet literature focused on two main goals. In content, children’s literature was to be concrete, useful, informative, and realistic, aimed at a reader who was active and independent (samodeiatel’nyi). In form, the new literature was expected to bring the textual components of the book as close as possible to the pictorial by turning the “graphic language” (graficheskii iazyk) of the new book into a default communication interface with “a multilingual” reader. Taken together, this dual approach resulted in a stream of picture books that explained the world by segmenting it into digestible gnoseological units. Titles like Where Do Dishes Come From? (Otkuda – posuda?), How Was this Book Made (Kak delaetsia eta kniga) or How a Shirt Grew in a Field (Kak rubashka v pole vyrosla) were ubiquitous. Against the backdrop of attractive color illustrations, actual narratives functioned as mere captions. 

In the end, it is precisely this graphic component of the early Soviet book that makes it so distinctive and interesting now. The need to translate complicated ideological notions into visual formulas easily accessible to the young audience coincides here with a very different trend, namely, the modernist attempt to explore the limits of the pictorial by deconstructing it to its basic structures, colors, or shapes. 

It is somewhat ironic that Princeton University benefited from these early Soviet attempts to create a special visual genre of political pedagogy. Over the years, the library amassed a vast collection of printed books available through The Cotsen Children’s Library. Not all of them are Soviet, of course. Some go as far back as the middle of the seventeenth century. Yet, out of more than 1,800 titles, about one thousand books were from the period between 1917 and 1941. The collection owns the best examples of the genre – books Book Coverillustrated by authors from Boris Kustodiev to El Lissitzky, from David Shterenberg to Vladimir Lebedev, and from Aleksander Deineka to Solomon Telingater. However, what makes this collection particularly interesting is that its holdings allow us to see how the avant-garde aesthetics of these truly innovative artists were quickly adapted and simplified by their imitators and followers, creating a peculiarly “mass” version of avant-garde visual sensibility. 

Starting in 2015, the Princeton Library began digitalizing imprints, making them publicly available through its Digital Library. For now, there are 160 titles, but this collection is steadily growing. Just as important is an attempt to turn this collection into a research resource.

In May 2015, Princeton hosted the first symposium called “The Pedagogy of Images: Depicting Communism for Children.” Organized by Thomas Keenan (Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies Librarian), Katherine Hill Reischl (Slavic Department), and myself, the symposium tried to map out approaches that could bring together the visual, the Illustrationpedagogical, and the ideological components of these books. The initial symposium created a foundation for a collective volume of essays, which were discussed during the follow-up workshop this fall. Also, the symposium pushed us more into the field of digital humanities. Together with the Center for Digital Humanities, Katherine Hill Reischl is working on a digital companion project, “Playing Soviet: Visual Language of Early Soviet Children’s Books, 1917-1953,” which would allow us to explore relationships among artists, image types, color, style, and publication information on screen. Finally, in March 2017, we plan to invite to Princeton (through an open call for papers) a group of graduate students who are interested in studying the already digitized imprints. 

Somewhat unexpectedly, this collection has emerged as an exciting and promising hub of new ideas, methods, and materials that give us a chance to re-imagine the ways we see and understand the early Soviet culture. 


Serguei A. Oushakine is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Slavic and Director of the Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Princeton University.