Thank You for Drawing Our Happy Soviet Childhood!

Over the years, the Friends of the Princeton University Library have underwritten major purchases for the Cotsen research collection–Musical Games, an elaborate early 19th-century educational toy invented, designed and marketed by Ann Gunn Young, several Beatrix Potter drawings, Natalie Parain’s maquette for her picture book Baba Yaga, a collection of writing blanks filled in for presentation to parents in several generations of one American family, and more.

After the success of the May 2015 conference, “The Pedagogy of Images,” which featured Cotsen’s important holdings of Soviet-era children’s books to a new group of scholars, I wanted to make a major addition to that collection.  Instead of adding a few titles at a time, I submitted to the Friends a proposal to purchase nearly forty titles that were being offered for sale by four different antiquarian booksellers.  Thanks to the Friends’ enthusiastic support, this will be the first of several posts highlighting this windfall.

What do we in the West see when we think about Soviet childhood?  Probably images like the one below, where healthy, attractive little citizens of the Soviet Union bask in the love of their leader, Stalin.


Detail from Viktor Govorkov’s poster, “Thank You, Beloved Stalin, for a Happy Childhood” (1936).

It would be easy to show that the picture is not especially truthful, compared to photographs documenting the actual living conditions of Soviet children between 1932 and 1953.  Invaluable as archival photos can be to a historian like Catriona Kelly, author of Children’s World: Growing up in Russia 1890-1991 (2007), they may not project a society’s aspirations for children as clearly as that poster does.  Some illustrations and paintings are better than workmanlike shots at revealing ideals for the treatment of children or the discrepancies that emerge in the process of trying to prioritize and reconcile social values.  This seemed to be the case with the illustrations of children this group of books I randomly assembled from the offerings on the antiquarian book market at one point in time.

This skillfully composed cover design that balances blocks of colors like Tatiana Chevchenko’s cover for Letom kartinki [Summer Pictures] is a good example of what I’m talking about.  Its bucolic representation of children playing at farming, a popular subject  in Western European children’s books of this period, is surprising in a Soviet book.  Notice the boy in the lower right filling a toy wagon with hay, an innocent activity which somehow looks out of place in a book produced by a society racing to industrialize its economy.


Tatiana Chevchenko, Letom kartinki (Moscow, Leningrad: GIZ, 1929) Cotsen in process 7208276.

Children at play are the subject of the great Avant-garde poet Aleksandr Vvedenski’s Begat, prygat [Run, Jump].  “Play” is perhaps the wrong word, because it is obvious that the children are exercising.  As charming as the illustrations by Vera Ermolaeva are, all the boys and girls exude a strong sense of purpose, as if good Soviet children are so determined to build strong bodies that no prodding from adults is necessary.


Aleksandr Vvedenski, Begat, prygat [Run, Jump] illustrated by Vera Ermolaeva. (Leningrad: GIZ, 1930) Cotsen in process 7208293.

Andrei Brei’s cover design for Vetep na rechke, a tribute to the benefits of attending summer camp, on the other hand, expresses a more hedonistic sense of joy in a healthy body.


Ye. Aleksandrov, Veter na rechke. Illustrated by Andrei Brei (Moskva: Vetizdat tsk VLKSM, 1936) Cotsen in process 7203345.

Likewise, this double-page spread seems less intent on inculcating an internal sense of discipline in children.  On the left, a boy is concentrating on turning a sheet of paper into a ball, while on the right, his comrades happily toss a paper ball around.  But perhaps the purpose is to inculcate a sense of cooperation in whatever children do, just as the previous picture.


A. Abramov, Konveier. Illustrated by A. Laptev (Moskva: OGIZ/Molodaya Gvardia, 1931) Cotsen in process 7208480.

It was even possible to find in one of these books a tribute to the socially unacceptable activity of making way too much noise for the fun of it.


Mikhail Ortsev, Baraban [The Drum] Illustrated by M. Purgold (Leningrad, Moskva: Raduga, ca. 1925) Cotsen in process 7208584/

Which is not to say that if things get out of control, that someone in the household will take matters into his own hands.


Cotsen in process 7208584.

 This next double-page spread is one of my favorites for its capture of a sense of stillness and of energy. Like many little boys, Eremka draws pictures of complex machines like trolley cars.  But Nas mnogo [We Are Many] is not a picture book about a dreamy, artistic child.  It’s about Eremka’s discovery of belonging on the city’s busy streets–of being pressed by a crowd of passerbys, of dodging cars and horse-drawn wagons, of watching, then joining in a parade of Soviet youth.


M. Ivensen, Nas mnogo [We Are Many] Illustrated by Andrei Brei (Moskva: OGIZ/Molodaya Gvardia, 1932) Cotsen in process 7208265.

Creating a  wider sense of unity with workers around the world was  Agnaia Barto’s goal in her famous Bratishki [Little Brothers].  Its cover design by Georgi Echeistov shows children of the white, yellow, brown, and black races united in brotherhood.  Yet some of the most striking images Echeistov drew were of  mothers with their babies.  These two illustrations come from the Tatar-language translation published by OGIZ/Molodaya Gvardia in 1933.


Sometimes there are unexpected spaces in Soviet picture books where boys can stop and smell the flowers….


Ye. Aleksandrov, Beter na rechke. Illustrated by Andrei Brei. (Moskva: Detizdat tsk vlksm, 1936) Cotsen in process 7203345


V. Glinka, Poleviye tsvetii [Field Flowers] Illustrated by M. Stepanova (Moskva: G. F. Miramanov, 1927) Cotsen in process 7208315.

 Next time, I’ll feature the publisher Raduga, one of the twentieth century’s great children’s book publishers.

Marcus French Celebrates Halloween in 1926

toothy pumpkin

Eighteen years ago on Halloween, the Cotsen Children’s Library opened its doors to the public.  This year, we’ll commemorate both occasions with a letter written by Marcus French, one of the most amusing and vivid of the child authors in the collection.

Some years back Bruce C. Willsie ’86, one of RBSC’s most generous donors, presented to Cotsen this delightful archive of thirty illustrated letters Marcus wrote to his big sister Eleanor when she was away at school between 1925 and 1927.  Marcus formatted all the news that was fit to relate–and fair amount that wasn’t–as if it were appearing in a Pathe newsreel.  Over the next few months I’ll be running a series of Marcus’s letters.

In 1926, ten-year-old Marcus wrote Eleanor a long letter on Halloween–four pages of news accompanied by four pages of pictures within borders of seasonal imagery he drew himself.  The first picture shows his cat Jock being run over by a motorcycle he tried to chase (maybe a classic Harley-Davidson?).  Don’t believe the bit about Jock losing a leg–he was just bruised.

page 1The inside double-page spread is a rogue’s gallery of Marcus and his friends in their Halloween costumes: Marcus as a clown (how appropriate…) Vedder as a pirate “with bandages and sword,”  William as a ghost, and Mike in a stovepipe hat and mask masquerading as a desparado Abraham Lincoln??  The boys had to wait until the rain stopped to go trick-or-treating, or as Marcus put it “make some calls,” and “have some fun,” that is, make mischief. They tore apart a big wooden frame and threw the pieces on porches, broke milk bottles, and rang doorbells and ran away.  “We didn’t get any pies,” Marcus reports sadly, raising the interesting question of, were homemade baked goods handed out to children making calls on Halloween night in lieu of Reese’s Pieces and other packaged candies?

page 2The significance of the news on the facing page is unclear, but it doesn’t look like a serious account of what was going on in the wider world.  Probably just a local newscast.  What do you suppose Marcus is doing in the upper right hand corner?  Turn the page to find out.

page 3

Do the dog and cat look identical or are my eyes going?

On the back page is an illustration of William heaving a plank on someone’s porch, yelling at his accomplices, “Hey cheesit kids,” with Marcus joining in, “Cheesit run kids.”   Spelling and punctuation were not Marcus’s strong points, but a lexicographer might be interested to know that a kid in Montgomery County, New York, during the 1920s used that expression to signal that it was time to beat it.

page 4

The P.S. reads “There was a man with overalls on in church this morning.”

Now Don’t Try This at Home!

Have a safe and sane Halloween from Team Cotsen!

Andrea, Dana, Ian, Jeff, Minjie and Miriam