Pages from The Song of the Dirigible (1931) by Nina Sakonskaia (courtesy Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University)

Playing Soviet: The Visual Languages of Early Soviet Children’s Books, 1917-1953 is an online interactive from Princeton University exploring the vibrant art and propaganda narratives of Soviet children’s books. Stretching from the 1917 Russian Revolution to the death of Stalin in 1953, the books celebrate the rise of industry, the Red Army, and the progress of the Soviet Union in spreading its ideology. One book, The Little Octobrist Rascal (1925), even features a young boy handing out copies of the Pioneer to ward off pre-Soviet folkloric characters like Baba Yaga and Ivan Tsarevich.

Shaunacy Ferro recently shared the site on Mental Floss, noting that “[m]any of the books were designed to indoctrinate children into the world of the ‘right’ way to think about Soviet culture and history.” On the Playing Soviet site, Princeton states:

As was clear both from the rhetoric of the arbiters of Soviet culture – its writers and government officials – the illustration and look of Soviet children’s books was of tantamount importance as a vehicle for practical and concrete information in the new Soviet regime. Directives for a new kind of children’s literature were founded on the assumption that the “language of images” was immediately comprehensible to the mass reader, far more so than the typed word.

Playing Soviet: The Visual Languages of Early Soviet Children’s Books, 1917-1953  (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Princeton notes that it is still a work in progress, with future relationship mapping and data visualizations being planned, and more images to be added. The interactive database, co-directed by Thomas Keenan and Katherine Hill Reischl, follows last year’s launch of a digital library for the Soviet-era books in the Cotsen Children’s Library. The books were gifted by Lloyd E. Cotsen between 1994 and 2006. Under the direction of curator Andrea Immel, the collection has continued to grow, with 2,500 Soviet children’s books now in the library.

Illustration from Youth, Go! (1923) by Olʹga Deĭneko, I. Shpinel, and A. Makeeva (courtesy Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University)

Not all of these are featured in Playing Soviet. The included volumes feature annotations by scholars and students on their themes, background on the artists, and context for the stories. While the books themselves are not translated, you can flip through digitized versions, searchable by title, artist, or illustration, further sorted by publisher, subjects, techniques, year, and colors. Photomontage, letterpress, and creative typography appear in the art, such as modernist Aleksandr Deĭneka’s dynamic color lithographs for the 1931 The Electrician, and avant-garde artist Kirill Zdanevich’s illustrations of anthropomorphic animals for poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1928 Whatever Page You Look At, There’s an Elephant or a Lioness. The Chichagova Sisters — Galina and Olga — aimed to supplant old fairy tales with new stories on socialism and science. Their 1924 Where do dishes come from?, illustrated in a Constructivist style, follows the manufacture of crockery. Uzbek artist Aleksandr Nikolaev created the wordless 1930 The Second May Day, contrasting scenes of children joining joyous public demonstrations in the Soviet Union, while on the opposite page a German boy’s participation is curtailed by the police.

Although the Soviet teachings could be heavy, there was a freedom for artistic experimentation that wasn’t available in “adult” literature. In an introduction to the 2013 book Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times, author Philip Pullman wondered: “What were they doing, these commissars and party secretaries, to allow this wonderland of modern art to grow under their very noses?” He concluded that, much like in the rest of the world, children’s books could “be ignored. They’re not serious.” Yet children’s literature, in its embrace of colorful imagery and populist themes, can be an incredible window into a time and place where openings for free expression were closing.

Illustration from How the Beet Became Sugar (1930) by Olʹga Deĭneko and Nikolaĭ Troshin (courtesy Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University)

Playing Soviet: The Visual Languages of Early Soviet Children’s Books, 1917-1953  is available to explore online through Princeton University. 

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...