This week the blog features a new post by Polina Popova, our guest expert on Russian- and Ukrainian-language children’s books, on a picture book for Ukrainian children published in the early 1930s. Her series of pieces bringing to light these unusual and strikingly illustrated books demonstrate the breadth and depth of the collection’s holdings.
One of the few children’s books in Ukrainian from Cotsen’s collection is 1933 Dva Svity (Два Свiти) – “Two Worlds.” A similar children’s book with disinformation and propaganda against the spread of real news about Holodomor – the Great Ukrainian famine, which was, as many scholars believe, orchestrated by the Soviet central government. Another similar piece of propaganda for children of Ukraine from 1932, Za Vladu, Rabotu, Khlib has already been explored in this blog. “Two Worlds,” with a poem by the Ukrainian poet Pavel Usenko, offers a similar perspective and even more striking rhetorical and aesthetical dichotomy of the “two worlds” (pun intended) – the communist Soviet and the Western capitalist ones.
The book is very distinctive in that it was illustrated by a very famous Ukrainian socialist realist artist Dmitrii Shavykin whose most prominent work of the 1930s was design for the carpet depicting Klement Voroshilov, Soviet Red Army commander and Stalin’s supposed “right hand” at the time, created by the Ukrainian weavers. First, the book invites its young readers to witness the tragedy of working-class people in the capitalist western countries: a picture of the prematurely aged adults with extremely skinny children, or a police state with gendarmes guarding the factory from workers organizing a strike. Later, the book shows a demonstration of workers with slogans in German in commemoration of the anniversary of the October Revolution. This march of solidarity is brutally shut down by the police.Illustration 2 above shows a hungry family of the working man in the West – a family of five having to share a piece of bread for dinner. The obviously well-dressed fat capitalists (“gentlemen”) who supposedly were enriched by the working-class people who are “surprised to see” factory workers being beaten by the gendarmes (“На ранених i побитих Роздивляються пани.”) are shown in the third illustration below..In contrast to that grim image of the hungry people of the West (presumably in Germany), the book continues, workers in the Soviet Union are not only well-fed and content, but they also have opportunities for education, and social mobility. Another aspect unique to the Soviet experience, Shavykin implies, is its internationalism. In Figure 4 below, Soviet male and female workers, among whom an Uzbek man can be easily identified in the foreground by his long striped coat, a khalat and the fez on his head are marching together towards a building marked the ”Technological Institute” past the “Palace of Labor” (Palats Truda) The woman in that illustration is holding a book by Lenin, Shavykhin’s shorthand to demonstrate her (socialist) moral education and imply the workers’ collective striving toward enlightenment. And even though Shavykin chose not to change his dark pastel color palette, the aesthetic contrast of the book’s illustrations went along the line of the dichotomy, reflected by Usenko’s poem. However, what is most fascinating is that Shavykin was well-known in Soviet Ukraine as the classical socialist realist painter, yet his illustrations for this early 1930s books were still rather avant-garde, more in line with the 1920s Soviet Suprematist aesthetics.
Overall, the book was clearly made for very young children as it has many illustrations and reads easily. It is intended to not only hide the fact of the brutal famine going on in Soviet Ukraine but more so to accessibly and clearly contrast the two worlds: “us” and “them.” Though full of modern cars and skyscrapers, the “West” (see illustration below of the archetypical big Western city – a place that looks like the 1930s New York City), unlike the Soviet Union, according to the book, disjoins and alienates its citizens. A family of (possibly) working-class immigrants who all look more like skeletons rather than actual living people (in contrast with the vitality of the rich bourgeois). The evil and somewhat genius hypocrisy of the book in its entirety was that in reality millions of Soviet Ukrainians of the time (those who were able to survive the brutality of the 1932-1933 famine) looked more like skeletons – though they were not living in capitalist Germany or the US.
By Polina Popova
“Death from starvation threatens every working man:” A Soviet book about hunger but not the Ukrainian people,” Cotsen Children’s Library Blog, April 15th, 2022, https://blogs.princeton.edu/cotsen/2022/04/death-from-starvation-threatens-every-working-man-a-soviet-book-about-hunger-but-not-the-ukrainian-people/.
 See, for example, his work in the Encyclopedia of Ukrainian Folk Art in the Moscow Nekrasov Central Library’s digital books’ collection here: https://electro.nekrasovka.ru/books/6150794/pages/33
 When millions of peasants, including many children, dying from starvation in the countryside, often came to the big cities like Kharkiv (the capital at the time), Kyiv, and Odesa, to search for food only to perish on the streets there.
 The author would like to thank friend and colleague Ismael Biyashev for help with editing of this text.