Ukrainian Children’s Books in the Interwar Period: Looking Back on Soviet Policy

The following blog is by a special guest: Polina Popova. A PhD candidate in History at the University of Illinois Chicago, Polina specializes in modern Russian and Soviet history and Soviet children’s literature. Having received a library research grant to study Cotsen material in the 2019-2020 academic year, Polina is uniquely suited to demonstrate what we can learn from the Soviet children’s books in Ukrainian held by the Cotsen collection.


With Ukraine on everyone’s mind and in so many people’s prayers, why not look at the books in Ukrainian held by Cotsen Children’s Library? Though Cotsen holds over 50 such titles, for this blog post, we will look at 3 books published during the Interwar period, in the 1930s. In the Soviet Union this period is usually characterized by the Stalinist cultural revolution, collectivization, the Great Ukrainian Famine (Holodomor), and intensification of political purges. But it was also a time when Soviet children’s literature was gradually becoming yet another tool of political propaganda aimed at the new young generation of Soviet citizens born after the Bolshevik Revolution. It was for them that Soviet children’s writers sought to build a new body of literature to help create future Soviet citizens: literate, well-educated about a wide range of subjects, and loyal to their leader, Joseph Stalin, and their state.

Although the interwar period only lasted about 20 years, Soviet children’s literature of the 1920s was quite different from the literature of the 1930s. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Soviet literature, for both adults and children, was experimental and modernist—in both content and form. Illustrations, for example, were often made in an avant-garde style. These stylistic choices accompanied radical political changes: the Soviet 1920s witnessed unprecedented legislative and political reforms—including the legalization of abortion, educational reforms that immediately followed the 1917 Revolution, and the policy of korenizatsiia.

The latter was state-promoted and controlled nationalism: the term literally meant “uprooting” or “indigenization” and consisted of policies promoting national languages, culture, and self-identification in the Soviet republics, which supposedly helped to integrate many newly created republics into the Soviet Union. Korenizatsiia involved de-Russification (both linguistic and cultural) of the former imperial territories. Ukrainization was a major component of this policy; it promoted the Ukrainian language, culture, and customs.

Ukraine has always been one of the most strategically important and politically contested regions within the Russian Empire. The Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 triggered a civil war, during which Ukraine actively fought for its independence. Trapped politically and geographically between two major geo-political regions of the former Empire—Poland and Russia—Ukraine struggled to gain its sovereignty. In 1921, however, Ukraine became part of the USSR as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. As a result, after 1921 and roughly until the mid-1930s, the Bolshevik government actively promoted korenizatsiia in Ukraine. In this regard, many books were written by local authors and published in Ukrainian, and many Russian-language books were translated into Ukrainian (as well as many other languages of the titular nations promoted by the Soviets).

In the 1930s, however, with the establishment of Stalin’s personal power and the increased promotion of conservative values as part of the cultural revolution, the korenizatsiia policy gradually ended. Instead, Soviet culture turned towards Russification and militarization; away from the dreams and experiments of the 1920s avant-garde and towards Stalinist socialist realism. Children’s literature was not immune to this political shift. Children, as vulnerable yet complicated political subjects,  experienced the Stalinist cultural revolution quite early. (1934 – the year of the First Congress of Soviet Writers – was a turning point for all literary genres, when they departed from the dreams and experiments of the 1920s avant-garde towards the Stalinist socialist realism.)

The first book we will look at is Na storozhi mors’kikh kordoniv SRSR (“Guarding the Sea Borders of the USSR”).

Front wrapper, Cotsen 153268. Na storozhi mors’kikh kordoniv SRSR [Odessa : Molodyĭ Bilshovyk, 1933].

On first impression, the book seems concerned with some rather generic “enemy of the homeland”. as the antagonist. But if we look closer in one illustration, a Nazi flag can be identified on one of the enemy ships:

page [8], Cotsen 153268.

The book ends with the establishment of peace by Soviet naval forces. The very last words are a quotation from Stalin: “we don’t want foreign lands, but will give not an inch of our land to anyone.” In its aesthetics and narrative, the book reads incredibly terrifying now. Its militarist rhetoric hidden under the images of a peaceful country that only wishes to protect its own land is almost identical to the recent rhetoric of Putin’s cultural propaganda in modern-day Russia.

Although the book is in Ukrainian, nothing indicates that the events it depicts are set in Ukraine. It could be suggested that the book portrays the Black sea, but it is never mentioned explicitly. It is not surprising that the book was published in Ukrainian, however. It was probably done not due to the korenizatsiia policy, or at least not fully due to it, but because Ukraine was located on the South-Western side of the USSR. It other words, Ukraine would be one of the first targeted territories for an invasion from the West (and indeed, in June of 1941, Kyiv was the first major Soviet city to be bombed by the Nazis). The book reads like an encyclopedia of military naval affairs as it highlights the names of different sea vessels and weapons.

The second book considered here is the 1934 Bratyky (“Brothers”)—a reissue of a 1928 poem by Agnii︠a︡ Barto. It is a lullaby in which working-class mothers of different races and ethnicities worldwide sing to their children about the struggles they go through every day. This work of the celebrated Soviet children’s poet was one of these children’s books that were translated into many languages spoken within the Soviet Union, even into Romani. Children of different races are presented as brothers who will eventually fight together to overthrow capitalist oppression. The book was a brilliant example of the movement of proletarian internationalism that, similar to many other utopian ideals of the Soviet 1920s, died down in the mid-1930s. The book was probably one of the very last to explore the topic of the idealized transnational working-class struggle. Since the Ukrainian children’s literature publisher Ditvydav was quite prominent, it published books in Ukrainian even after the end of korenizatsiia policy, especially those by the famous Soviet writers and poets, like Barto. The illustrations in the book were made in the late 1920s; thus, they preserved the modernist Suprematist style of bright, bold colors of red, black, and white with simplistic, minimalist drawings.

page [11], Cotsen 11480. Bratyky [Odesa : Dytvydav, 1934].

Page [13], Cotsen 11480.


Finally, the last book we will look at is Voi︠e︡nni khytroshchi (“Military tricks”) by the Ukrainian author E. Burche, published in 1935. Here, both thematically and aesthetically, we are dealing with a quintessentially 1930s socialist-realist book. It follows the line of Stalinist spy mania (a perfect excuse for ethnic cleansing and purges among the Party cadres and Red Army commanders). Like contemporary books for babies and toddlers with lift-a-flap pages, this book has two covers: one showing a haystack and another one revealing an armored vehicle under the haystack (it was somewhat unusual for Soviet children’s books of the time to have lift-a-flap pages, which means it was made to attract children – probably due to a particular ideological relevance of the book’s theme).

front wrapper, Cotsen 38057. The the tank (and publisher) is revealed in the image on the right when a flap covering the bottom half of the wrapper is opened.  Voi︠e︡nni khytroshchi (Kharkiv ; Odesa : Dytvydav, 1935).


The book has illustrations more typical for mid-to late-1930s and 1940s books with a photograph-like style. Similar to Na storozhi mors’kikh kordoniv SRSR, it reads like a handbook for a future Soviet soldier.

Page 10, Cotsen 38057.

Page 21, Cotsen 38057.

Despite its military theme, this book was definitely aimed at children—the language is simple and the chapters are short and written in an entertaining manner. Such books with military themes were published widely in the USSR in different native languages—not due to the korenizatsiia policy, but because they mentally and emotionally prepared Soviet children for an anticipated war. Perhaps more dangerously, they seem to create a certain atmosphere of fear and survival mode in which anyone—even members of one’s own family—could be convicted of espionage or anti-Soviet terrorism.

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