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.

A Rare Print Makes A Poor Fan But A Great Find!

Cotsen 5363140

I came across the above item while rummaging through a box of unprocessed prints. I was immediately struck by the unusual semi-circle shape of the paper. Then, I was taken in by the details of the image and what they could tell us about who this item was for and when it was created. Upon even closer inspection, I was delighted to observe that the image was printed with color, using a rare and time consuming technique.

The dealer who sold it to us believed (and I think correctly) that the unusual shape indicates that the print was intended for use as a hand fan. The outside curve of the print does seem to suggest this. But the shape of the print is missing some key features that we usually see in a fan leaf: namely a second, lower curve cut out of the bottom center (for mounting to a collapsible handle) as well as acute angles at the bottom edges. See for example this contemporaneous unmounted fan from the British Museum:

Fanology or Speaking Fan (London: William Cock, 1797). The British Museum, Museum number
1891,0713.508, Asset number 361519001.

The position of the image on the sheet may explain why our fan shape is inconsistent with other fan sheets. If a semi-circle was cut out of the bottom, it would have cut out a piece of the image! The image was printed, perhaps by mistake, too low on the sheet. This might explain why our fan leaf did not receive additional cuts to form a fan shape and why it was never ultimately mounted as a fan.

Though this print may have made a bad fan, it’s still a fascinating image which seems to illustrate a typical upper-middle class (haute bourgeoisie) family in post-revolutionary France.

The period dress suggests a date range around 1800 to 1830. The man wears breeches and a tailcoat, while his son wears a similar jacket but with ankle-length trousers suggesting a date around the turn of the nineteenth century when long pants began to supplant the popularity of breeches. The seated woman wears an “empire gown” with a high bodice just below the bust, so called by later English commentators because this style of dress became popular in France during the First French Empire (1804-1814). This style of dress began to become unfashionable in middle class and high society in the 1830s, when, In England at least, it was supplanted by hour glass Victorian dresses. Since this style of dress was popular throughout Europe, we’ll have to rely on another detail which suggests the country of origin.

This small book, which the mother is handing to her son, is inscribed “Télémaque”. This is a truncation of Les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus) first published in 1699 by François Fénelon. It was written earlier as a didactic novel meant to instruct Louis, Duke of Burgundy (grandson of Louis XIV and second in line to the French throne) who Fenelon was tutoring. The novel follows Telemachus (son of Odysseus in Homer’s poems) as he journeys around Greece and receives moral tutelage from the goddess Minerva (disguised as his tutor, Mentor). As a thinly veiled rebuke of autocratic rule and by extoling peace and equality, the novel proved hugely popular into the the turn of the nineteenth century, especially in revolutionary France.

Other details of the print include recreations for well-off children typical of the period. The daughter clutches a dolly. A drum and a diabolo (a juggling toy) sit in the foreground on the right. A large Punch doll hangs from the tree in the background on the right. The implication here is that the family depicted is wealthy enough to afford leisure, having both the time and money to enjoy it, even for the children.

A harlequin doll resembling the character Punch, famous in British Punch and Judy puppet plays. In the early nineteenth century Punch and Judy plays were also extremely popular in Paris.

All of these details taken together suggest that our print was intended for an upper-middle class French woman around the turn of the nineteenth century. After all, hand fans at this time would have typically been used only by adult women in this class. If we examine the material production of the print itself, we discover further evidence of its high cost of production; suggesting that it would have been a costly item and a signal of wealth.

From the detail above (and the other images already shared) you can see that this print is special for its use of color printing. Intaglio prints of this period were usually printed in black ink only, and when colored, they would have been colored by hand with stencils. Hand-coloring is featured in this print, you can see it in places of continuous tone with flat color such as the shoes in the detail above. But from the detail, you can also see that that color printing has been used extensively. At this time (and continuing today), color printing was applied to intaglio prints using a technique later called à la poupée. Meaning “with the doll” in French, the “doll” refers to a wad of cloth shaped like a ball used to apply color to different areas for printing. This was a time consuming process requiring additional labor costs and material costs for more expensive color inks.

A la poupée inking by Bridget Farmer for her print “Pleasant Pheasant”.

Further, the print makes use of no less than three different intaglio printing techniques: etching, stipple engraving, and line engraving. Etching, the predominant technique, can be seen in the ample curving and wavy lines. Stipple engraving is the technique which applied all the tiny dots to the print, detailing the blue of the sky and other subtle details. Line engraving can be made out as well, characterized by straight lines with pointed termini, used to touch up and improve on the shadows and tonal qualities of the etching (a typical embellishment to etchings). Each of these techniques requires different tools and skills, indicating that a talented printmaker (their initials “D. Mo N.” are inscribed at the bottom of the print) applied considerable time, skill, and cost to create this wonderful print.

Clearly then, this print is a wonderful example of rare and skillful printmaking; but not without its technical mistakes! Our particular print was perhaps destined to never become a fan due to poor placement on the sheet. That it went unmounted, however, may have been serendipitous since lack of use probably preserved this piece of ephemera and spared it being discarded after wear and tear. Cleverly printed and luckily preserved, this print is a rare glimpse into upper-middle class French life at the turn of the nineteenth century.