The 1920s in Russia weren’t exactly what people had hoped they would be. After the 1917 Russian Revolution brought down the old regime and the Soviets took over, there was a swelling sense of hope in a potential egalitarian Communist future. Yet only a few years later, censorship was curtailing art and free expression. Fortunately, no one was paying much attention to the children’s books.
Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920–35: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times, published this October by Redstone Press, is a compendium of over 200 examples of the vibrant art and literature that throve in children’s books at this juncture. Edited by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, the volume contains many stories translated into English for the first time, which stretch from rambling tales with rambunctious animals to more stern depictions of everyday life — such as the book of careers presented at the top of this post, showing a fireman who maybe should be paying more attention to the full page of smoke.
Alongside the vibrant images in Inside the Rainbow are bleak photographs of the reality of children’s lives in Russia at the time, with austere school rooms in snowy landscapes. It’s too bad there isn’t a bit more translating of the texts, as we get glimpses of the content but have to guess the rest of what these children were reading; luckily, children’s books are nothing if not expressive. This was especially true between 1920 and 1935 in Russia, when many artists, writers, and poets found an outlet in children’s books after their “adult” work was suddenly not able to be published as the state took control of cultural production.
As Philip Pullman — of the not-too-subtly subversive children’s literature series His Dark Materials — writes in his introduction to Inside the Rainbow:
What were they doing, these commissars and party secretaries, to allow this wonderland of modern art to grow under their very noses? I expect the rule that applies to children’s books was just as deeply interiorised in the Soviet Union as it has been in the rest of the world: they don’t matter. They can be ignored. They’re not serious.
And so you have, among the frolicking fairylands and joyous animals in the books, experimental Constructivist art and the words of anti-establishment poet Osip Mandelstam, who once wrote: “To read only children’s books, treasure / Only childish thoughts, throw / Grown-up things away / And rise from deep sorrows.” Unfortunately, he, like many others, would die in Stalin’s camps in the late 1930s.
The books in a way represent a hope for a future that never came, and the last bastion of that spirit when everything was turning grey, a sort of safeguarding of the “rainbow” inside the minds of children where innocence hadn’t yet been overridden by ideology. As Arkady Ippolitov of the State Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg writes in an essay in the book, “already in the twentieth century it was apparent that nothing would come of this dream of a new world: everything was mutating into grey and mediocre socialism,” yet in the children’s books a fervor “for the radiant future” remained in the encroaching darkness.
Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920–35: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times, edited by Julian Rothstein and Olga Budashevskaya, is available from Redstone Press.