Two Hearts: Explaining Pregnancy to Soviet Children

We’re happy to introduce the third post by our special guest blogger: 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 and Russian held by the Cotsen collection.   __________________________________________________________________

With the summer approaching, I would like to look at one of the most aesthetically warm, paradisiacal, and summer-like Russian language books in Cotsen’s collection of Soviet children’s books. It is the 1933, surprisingly bright and sunny, Dva serdtsa (Two Hearts) by Vera Smirnova.1

Front wrapper, Cotsen 34171

The book has a simple plot: a mother and her young daughter are on vacation in one of Odesa’s sanatoriums (Odesa is a port city in Ukraine, on the north-west coast of the Black Sea). In the Soviet Union, these were recreational facilities for short-term rest or medical services similar to European spa resorts. The mother, and daughter Irishka (probably named after the author’s own daughter), go for a walk through the streets of Odesa. The daughter is hopping and running, which causes her heart to beat fast. She confides in her mom that “something’s gotten into her” (“chto-to v menia zaletelo”), but mom explains that it is her own heart; that it is supposed to beat faster during physical activity. On the way to the beach, they encounter a family of goats with a kid: the mother explains to Irishka that the goat’s baby was born very recently and is in the care of its mother.

page [4], Cotsen 34171

Later, Irishka’s mother falls asleep at the beach, and the little girl wonders if her mom is well and alive. Irishka brings her ear to her mother’s body: surprisingly, she not only hears the heartbeat, but feels strange movements… Maybe her mother’s heart “moves” inside her, Irishka wonders. Or does she maybe have two hearts (“dva serdtsa”)? Irishka’s mother wakes up and resolves the mystery: a human heart cannot move, she explains, but unborn babies inside their moms can! The mom tells Irishka: “I now have two hearts inside of me. One of my own, the other – of the baby” (“… dva serdtsa u menia teper’. Odno moe, drugoe – rebenochka”). Mother explains that mother-goats, such as the one Irishka just saw, give birth to their babies, growing them first inside their bellies, just like humans.

The choice of topic for the book is unconventional. Never before in Soviet children’s literature was the topic of reproduction raised and gently explained to young children. But, there was a very particular political reason why Smirnova’s book was published at the time. By the early 1930s, with the introduction of the First Five-Year Plan, the Soviet government started to push a much more conservative political and cultural agenda, laying the groundwork for a more “traditional” (i.e., patriarchal) vision of the Soviet state. The “Stalin Constitution” of 1936 enshrined this vision legally, while the legislative act “On the protection of Motherhood and Childhood” from that same year criminalized abortions (which had previously been decriminalized by the Bolsheviks). With her political flair and talented intellectual sensitivity, Vera Smirnova started to adjust her writing style to the new realities of the Cultural revolution epoch much earlier than many of her writer colleagues.

Thus, Dva serdtsa has new, utterly different stylistics. Rhetorically and aesthetically, it is much closer to the socialist realist genre that, at the time, was just starting to develop in Soviet literature. But it was also rooted in themes generated by the 1920s Soviet Sanitary Enlightenment policy, going along with books such as Iakov Meksin’s Kak Alla khvorala (1926) and Sofia Zak’s Boria v ambulatorii (1928). Yet Smirnova did not go along with the 1920s rhetorical trend of Soviet avant-garde writers who explained medicine and health issues to children in scientific language; treating children as cognitive equals to adults.

In the immediate years after the Revolution of 1917, the path of Soviet children’s literature went in the direction of realism. The model child of the 1920s (promoted by Soviet children’s writers, as well as the official agenda) “‘could hardly wait to grow up’ to become an adult.”2 The 1920’s was also a time when gender differences between children were seen as minor and unpronounced.3 Smirnova’s book undoubtedly promoted a different idea of childhood more typical to socialist realist children’s literature: a little girl who will eventually become a mother, as it is “naturally” supposed to be (thus, there is a narrative focus on the goats’ family). The book also sets up a different ideal for women – Irishka’s mom’s quietness and feminine calmness is juxtaposed with the crowd of strong and manly young Komsomol men.

Page [10]. Cotsen 34171. Irishka and her mother in the crowd of the male Komsomol’tsi. The Komsomol was the youth wing of the communist party.

Dva serdtsa is a fascinating book – it does a great job of conveying the aesthetics of a hot summer day in Odesa where time almost freezes because of the burning morning sun. Irishka is a highly amicable character – fast, somewhat paradoxical in her thinking, and curious, as all children are. She is also caring – more so when she finds out about her mother’s pregnancy. Smirnova’s book is a true masterpiece of interwar Soviet children’s literature. However, it was a product of the newly-established Soviet conservatism (Stalinist cultural revolution) and cannot be viewed outside of this political context. Irishka is first a future woman, mother, and only after that – a child.

  1. The author would like to thank friend and colleague Ismael Biyashev for help with editing of this text.
  2. Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 78.
  3. Kelly, Children’s World, 79.

“Death from starvation threatens every working man”: A Soviet book about hunger, but not the Ukrainian people.

We’re lucky to once again welcome back a special guest blogger: 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.


In the year 1929, massive collectivization campaigns began all over the USSR. It was also the second year of the first Five Year Plan, when forced grain procurements were introduced. Despite the brutal enforcement of the regime, many peasants still resisted grain requisitions and refused to join collective farms. Acts of active and passive resistance from the peasants led to more repression from the government; the collectivization campaign went slowly and inefficiently. Despite the “voluntarily character” of the collective-farm movement affirmed by Stalin in his “Dizzy with Success” article on March 2, 1930, during the spring of that year, around 180,000 militant young activists were sent to the villages to enforce the campaign was followed through.[1]

Since Ukraine was the USSR’s primary grain supplying region, it suffered the most from mass collectivization. Serious food shortages in this region started as early as 1929.[2] By March of 1930 more than 60% of the Ukrainian peasants were collectivized.[3] 1931 became a turning point for many Ukrainians, because crop requisitions remained constant while the harvest was 20 per cent lower than in 1930.[4] Hunger had always been present in the Soviet countryside and small cities since the beginning of the 1920s, but 1932 would mark the beginning of the first man-made famine in Ukraine called, later, the Holodomor.[5] Famine brought not only disease, death, and despair to Ukrainian peasants, but also new abuses of power: people were punished for not meeting grain quotas and were arrested. Worse, on the basis of a law instituted on August 7, 1932, criminalizing “theft of socialist property,” many were sent to labor camps for stealing even a small amount of grain. [6] Yet, the government (or Stalin himself?) refused to make any concessions to grain quotas that would have prevented mass starvation. Thus, at the beginning of 1933, famine spread all over Ukraine, and death on a mass scale occurred in every small city or village in the region.[7] Famine also spread to other regions such as Kazakhstan, the Don and Kuban, the North Caucuses, and the Volga region.[8] The peak of the famine lasted through the whole of 1933 through the winter of 1934.[9] During 1933 at least 3.5 million people died of famine in Ukraine alone.[10]

With this sobering context in mind, we can examine one of the treasures of the Cotsen collection – Za Vladu, Rabotu, Khlib (Kyiv: Dvoy Molodai Bol’shevik, 1932), which can be translated “For power, for work, for bread”. The book is short but attractive and full of illustrations; with concise, clearly written paragraphs, it was probably intended for young schoolchildren (illustrated by E. Rachova, and written by I. Broĭde). Two pages slightly resemble modern-day graphic novels, with small illustrations one after another, creating a plot that follows the short story. Laconic, straightforward, and avant-garde in illustration style, the book was, perhaps surprisingly, expensively produced.

Frontwrapper, Cotsen 38417


Was it accidental that a children’s book about bread – and a rather expensive edition of such – was published in Ukrainian and not in Russia, the language that most Soviet children’s books were published in? Not at all. Obviously, its target audience was the children of Ukraine in 1932 and after. To put it bluntly, this beautiful book is a perfect example of Stalinist propaganda, which had two goals (and as is often the case for totalitarian regimes – the goals contradict each other). [11] On the one hand, the book normalized hunger for Ukrainian children. It argues that everyone, even people in capitalist states such as Germany, face extreme hunger. Though true to a certain extent, this claim is highly exaggerated in the book. On the other hand, the book demonstrates that the communist Soviet Union does not face this problem (a complete and utter hypocritical lie).

Illustrations on page 1 of the book are very telling: we see a family of four with no food at the table and hungry small children clutching their mom, seeking support. The father of the family is helpless in the ugly face of starvation. But the following image shows two “rich people” sitting at a restaurant ordering food (presumably, judging by the sizes of the two capitalists’ bodies, they are ordering in abundance). The text says that workers in Germany and other capitalist countries do not have work and bread, while capitalists use working peoples’ money “to build tanks and cannons.” Here, the book has another propogandist message, typical for 1930s Soviet children’s books – that enemy capitalist countries are inherently militaristic and war hungry; unlike the peaceful Soviet Union. On that same page, there is a vivid description of how workers are forced to stand in long lines to get “a [single] piece of bread” and even end up sleeping “in gardens and under fences.” Reading this, another graphic image comes to mind – an image common in the memoirs of people living in Kharkiv, Kyiv, Dnipro, and Uman’ during the 1932-1933 famine. Ukrainians in big cities of the time really witnessed starving people (most of them – fleeing from the countryside) standing in long lines at bread stores, begging for food in the streets, or lying in the streets (quite literally “under fences”), often with bloated stomachs, many of them dead.[12]


Page [1] vignettes, Cotsen 38417

The book describes how capitalists deliberately dump flour and grain in the sea to drive up food prices. Ironically, one can think of parallels with Bolshevik policies and inefficiencies. For example, grain was often lost due to poor storage capacities which lead peasants to starve. At the end of the first page, in bold, we see the statement “ГОЛОДНА СМЕРТЬ ЗАГРОЖУЄ КОЖНIЙ РОБIТНИЧIЙ (Sic!) РОДИНI” (“Death from starvation threatens every working [man] of [his] homeland”). How ironic that these words were applied to foreigners and not Ukrainians or other Soviet citizens. Although the famine was most severe in Ukraine, peasants were starving all around the USSR. One wonders how many Ukrainians understood this false rhetoric of the time presented by this book and by the Soviet authorities.

Page [1] bottom, Cotsen 38417

Other descriptions of the supposed brutalities of the Germany state against its starving and jobless workers, on page 3, depict policemen on the streets of Berlin looking for signs of discontent and riots. In response, children had to save the day, or better to say – “save the night,” as they secretly glued leaflets calling for a strike.

Page [3] vignette, Cotsen 38417

The book has an open ending in which workers are still striking in the factories. The goal of this kind of story was not to have a happy ending, but rather to present an impressionistic bricolage of hunger, children begging for food, helpless parents who are unable to provide it to the little ones, long lines for bread, homelessness, and the politicization of children. Soviet Ukrainian children were already too familiar with these realities, yet were supposedly spared from them by the Communist government.


[1] Joseph Stalin, “Dizzy with Success” (Pravda, No. 60, March 2, 1930), (accessed March 24, 2022).

[2]Investigation of the Ukrainian Famine 1932-1933. Report to Congress. Commission on the Ukraine Famine. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1988), 191.

[3]Ivnitskiĭ, Sud’ba raskulachennikh v SSSR (Moskva: Sobranie, 2004), 19.

[4]Bohdan Krawchenko, “The Man-Made Famine of 1932-1933” from Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933, ed. by Bohdan Krawchenko and Roman Serbyn (Alberta: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1986), 20.

[5]Nikolai Ivnitskii, Golod 1932-1933 godov v SSSR: Ukraina, Kazakhstan, SeverniyKavkaz, Povolzh’e, Tsentral’no-Chernozemnaia oblast’ (Moskva: Sobranie, 2009), 192.

[6]Krawchenko, “The Man-Made Famine of 1932-1933,” 21. Sergei Maksudov, “Victory Over the Peasantry,” in Hunger by Design: The Great Ukrainian Famine and Its Soviet Context, ed. Halyna Hryn (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008), 54.

[7] Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 243.

[8]Investigation of the Ukrainian Famine 1932-1933, 135.

[9]Krawchenko, “The Man-Made Famine of 1932-1933,” 21.

[10]Ivnitskiĭ, Golod 1932-1933 Godov v SSSR, 209.

[11] Something that was noticed by Umberto Eco in his famous list of fourteen features of “Eternal” Fascist regimes was the controversial, often illogical dichotomies that the oppressive totalitarian regimes operate within. One of the examples is an imaginary enemy who is strong and weak at the same time. Umberto Eco. “Ur Fascism,” (accessed April 13th, 2022).

[12] Robert Kusznierz, “The Impact of the Great Famine on Ukrainian Cities: Evidence from the Polish Archives,” in After the Holodomor: The Enduring Impact of the Great Famine in Ukraine, ed. Andrea Graziosi (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013), 16.