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.

Cotsen Research Projects: Fear Neither Hardship nor Death: Stories of Disabled Chinese Children in the Early 1970s

Note: The Friends of the Princeton University Library offer short-term Library Research Grants, awarded via a competitive application process, to promote scholarly use of the research collections. The text and images below were kindly provided by Melissa A. Brzycki, recipient of a 2015 Library Research Grant. She conducted research work with Chinese-language materials at the Cotsen Children’s Library for her dissertation project titled “Inventing the Socialist Child, 1945-1976” in August 2015. This essay reports her investigation of children with disabilities as portrayed in publications for young Chinese readers from the early 1970s, when publishing resumed after a hiatus during the first half of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Brzycki is currently a doctoral candidate of Modern Chinese History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Fear Neither Hardship nor Death: Stories of Disabled Chinese Children in the Early 1970s

by Melissa A. Brzycki

From 1970 to 1972, children’s magazines and storybooks in the People’s Republic of China featured stories about children with disabilities. These documents were products of a time when Chinese citizens experienced a re-establishment of order following the upheaval of the early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The first two years of the Cultural Revolution included many student and worker uprisings, and revolutionary fervor in many cases devolved into factional infighting. These struggles brought China closer to a civil war than it had been in the nearly 20 years since the Communists and Nationalists had fought China’s civil war (1947-1949). In the early 1970s, many of the revolutionary policies of the Cultural Revolution were folded into state practices as state control and order was re-established.

Using the Cotsen Children’s Library’s extensive holdings of Little Red Guard (红小兵) magazines and children’s storybooks, I found six stories published from 1970-1972, both nonfiction and fiction, about children with disabilities. In these stories, children found ways to overcome limitations imposed by their disabilities, either through personal struggle or with the help of other children. The stories showcase many of the ideas that structured Maoist thought at the time, including the notion that through the application of Maoism, everything and everyone can advance beyond previously conceived limitations. Furthermore, the revolution depends on every individual, including every child, devoting him or herself to the masses and the revolutionary cause.

The Little Red Guards were a counterpart group to the older Red Guards. Red Guards referred to young people, mostly high school and university students, who took up Mao’s call to renew the revolution and criticize those within the Chinese Communist Party who were straying from the revolutionary path. Red Guards began organizing themselves in 1966, and soon after the state extrapolated from these extra-state (and sometimes anti-state) organizations to create a state-sanctioned junior organization called the “Little” Red Guards. The organization replaced the Youth Pioneers, or “Red Scarves,” which had been the junior organization for the Communist Youth League in the 1950s and 1960s, modeled after the Soviet organizations for children and youth. Little Red Guards were primary school students, generally between the ages of 6 and 14. They were chosen for their good character and revolutionary attitude and deeds. The Little Red Guard magazines that circulated during the Cultural Revolution told stories of Little Red Guards overcoming obstacles and doing good, revolutionary deeds.

Four of the six narratives center on Little Red Guards, and the other two are about “little heroes” (小英雄), children who committed exemplary revolutionary deeds, often risking or resulting in loss of life or limb. All of the stories describe children with physical disabilities. Mental disabilities are rarely mentioned, and only one child, a young girl in “The Three Little Companions,” is described as having mental disabilities in addition to physical ones.

Two essays, “A Disabled Body with a Resolute Will, A Young Person with a Red Heart” and “Making Bricks for the Revolution with a Disabled Body and Resolute Will,” were published only five months apart. “Making Bricks for the Revolution with a Disabled Body and Resolute Will” comes from a Little Red Guard Pictorial published in Tianjin in August 1970. “A Disabled Body with a Resolute Will” was published in January 1970 in the Jiangsu provincial Little Red Guard. Both of these stories are first-person, nonfiction narratives written by children with disabilities who learn to overcome obstacles created by their disabilities through hard work and Maoist thought.

Fifth-grade Little Red Guard Wang Dongfeng wrote a first-person account of her political development in “A Disabled Body with a Resolute Will.” Wang was born with only one arm, so she wrote that for a long time she envied other people who had two arms, and she did not think she could do the things that they could do. Eventually her parents and teachers helped her study Maoism and the examples of Communist heroes, including a Liberation Army soldier who continued all his revolutionary work despite losing one arm in battle. Wang realized her own potential to contribute to the revolution, and she began participating in the same work that others did, as well as volunteering for difficult tasks like cleaning the toilets at school. The illustration for Wang’s story shows her carrying rice plants on her back, with one arm stabilizing the bundle.

A Disabled Body with a Resolute Will, A Young Person with a Red Heart Little Red Guard, “A Disabled Body with a Resolute Will, A Young Person with a Red Heart” [身残志要坚,人小心要红]. Nanjing, Jan. 1970. (Cotsen 46581)

In “Making Bricks for the Revolution with a Disabled Body and Resolute Will,” Li Ruilin also narrates his own story. Li was a Little Red Guard from Dingjiaqiao Primary School. He was paralyzed since birth, so his classmates used a little cart to help him get to school everyday. When Mao called everyone to “prepare for struggle, prepare for famine, for the people,” Li and his classmates decided to contribute by making bricks. As his classmates struggled to carry enough clay back and forth, Li realized that his cart would make the process much easier and more efficient. He hesitated to offer his cart, however, since it was the only way he could get to school everyday. After he thought through the problem with Mao’s teaching on combining learning with practice and not fearing hardship, he offered his cart for his classmates to use. Li himself molded the bricks, despite getting covered in mud and cut by stray shards of glass. In the end, he was satisfied with his decision and the discovery that he “[could] use [his] own energy to fight a struggle and make bricks” (Little Red Guard Pictorial, Tianjin: Jan. 1971.)

In two other stories, “Under the Sunlight,” from a Tianjin Little Red Guard Pictorial and “The Three Little Companions,” from a Shandong Little Red Guard, groups of Little Red Guards helped classmates with disabilities get to school. In both stories, all the primary characters are girls. In the former story, a girl named Xiaohong realized that one of her neighbors, Chen Xiaoyan, could not use her legs, so she had not been going to school. Xiaohong and her fellow Little Red Guards discussed the problem and came up with a solution: using a cart to bring Chen to school. They brought her to school everyday, as well as occasional visits to the local hospital, where – through the use of acupuncture treatments – Chen recovered use of her legs and became not only a Little Red Guard, but also a skilled performer with the Little Red Guard Literature and Art Propaganda Group.

In the latter story, three girls, all Little Red Guards, became close friends as two of them helped the third, Ji Haiyan, to school everyday. Ji had a spinal cord problem that affected her legs, so she could not walk on her own. She also had mental disabilities resulting from her condition, so her friends not only helped her get to school, but also tutored her. They are depicted as close friends, all proudly wearing red scarves.

The Three Little Companions Little Red Guard, “The Three Little Companions” [三个小伙伴]. Shandong, Dec. 1971. (Cotsen 63947)

Children’s storybooks were also full of stories of real-life child heroes, including those who acquired a disability as a result of their good deeds. Dai Birong (戴碧蓉) is one of the more famous examples of a child hero who was disabled as a result of her heroic actions. The storybook Little Hero Dai Birong, published in Shanghai in 1971, tells her story. The book also contains other stories of child heroes, but Dai receives the most attention for her sacrifice. In 1968, when she was 12 years old, she spotted three small children playing on the train tracks as a train approached. Heeding Mao’s call to fear neither hardship nor death, she managed to save all three children but lost an arm and a leg in the process.

Two sisters from Inner Mongolia were also praised for heeding Mao’s call to fear neither hardship nor death. A 1971 version of their story, The Heroic Grasslands Sisters, explains that in 1964 11-year-old Longmei and 9 year-old Yurong risked their lives saving the commune’s sheep during a surprise winter storm. At one point, Yurong lost a boot while trying to catch an errant sheep, and was so focused on the herd that she did not notice her own boot was gone. Her foot quickly froze, and she had to crawl. The illustration of this scene is a still shot from the 1965 movie. In it, Yurong looks ahead with determination as she crawls in the snow.

Yurong raised her head, stubbornly pushing her body forward in a crawl. "I must protect the herd. I have to catch up [with them], I must catch up." She recalled the teachings of Chairman Mao, phrase by phrase: "Make a firm resolution, and don't fear sacrifice. Conquer every difficulty, as you go strive for victory." She encouraged herself to move forward. The Heroic Grasslands Sisters [草原英雄小姐妹]. Shanghai, 1970. (Cotsen 32669)

Caption: Yurong raised her head, stubbornly pushing her body forward in a crawl. “I must protect the herd. I have to catch up [with them], I must catch up.” She recalled the teachings of Chairman Mao, phrase by phrase: “Make a firm resolution, and don’t fear sacrifice. Conquer every difficulty, as you go strive for victory.” She encouraged herself to move forward.

When her older sister Longmei found her, she wrapped up Yurong’s foot, and carried her the rest of the way. Eventually both were saved after a day and a night in the blizzard. Both sisters had sustained extreme frostbite, which necessitated amputations. Longmei lost a toe, and Yurong lost both her feet.1 Though both sisters were permanently disabled, the ending of the storybook emphasizes that they emerged from the storm healthy, rather than disabled. Just as the other stories emphasized the ability of disabled children to participate fully in educational and revolutionary activities, so do the endings of these stories emphasize the abilities of the sisters. While it is true that neither sister lost the ability to walk, Yurong needed prosthetics and could not engage in physical activities in the same way she could before losing her feet.

Immobilized Yurong, stubbornly and heroically crawling forward, much like the disabled children featured in other articles and stories, demonstrates the ideal revolutionary hero, who struggles for the revolution and the masses, fearing neither injury nor death. In these stories, children are raised up as revolutionary models, showing that children, just like adults, were important social and political actors.


[1]. 崔玉娟, “玉荣: 有些事留给时间去验证,” 中国青年报, (Jan. 13, 2015): 7,