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.

Answers to the First Ever Cotsen Puzzler!

Before revealing the answers to our eighteenth-century puzzlers (and yes, the language shows its age), first a peek at a new acquisition that any of our readers interested in the history of math education or  the use of wall charts in classroom may find fascinating.  It’s a wall chart for teaching elementary arithmetic that was published in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Arifmetika measures 67 x 103 centimeters and is backed with linen to make it sturdier (in the corners there are two large grommets for hanging it on a wall).   It was to be used during quarters 1 and 2 in second grade when the fundamentals of addition, subtraction, and multiplication were taught.   There is a partly legible stamp on the back, that could be a property stamp from a school in one of the former Central Asian republics.


Wall chart Arifmetika by N. Nikitin, E. R. Fortunatova, and L. I. Bolodina. Cotsen NR Cyrillic unprocessed item no 7220451

Below is a detail of the upper left-hand quarter of the chart.   Most of the text is directed at the teacher, mostly suggestions for ways to visualize drills for the different operations, including different kinds of aides like the box appearing in the lower right hand corner, possibly standard issue in the schools then.

Cotsen_Arithmetika_Poster_1st Cotsen_Arithmetika_Poster_2nd

Below is a detail of the chart’s upper right hand corner.  You can make out the little booklet mounted landscapewise that contains the multiplication tables for 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.



Above is the lower right hand corner, with the rest of the credits running above the lower edge.  Arifmetika‘s illustrations are credited to A. I. Saychuk and the press run was 2000 copies.   Many thanks to Thomas Keenan, Firestone Library’s Slavic Bibliographer extraordinaire, for help translating the hard bits  (Pikov Andropov wasn’t delivering any public figures to campus this week or we would have flagged him down in the Firestone turn-out).

And now, the solutions for the puzzlers from Arithmetic Made Familiar and Easy

Puzzler 1 asked you to figure out the ages of girl and older man at the time of their wedding.  The answer is that she was 15 and he was 45 years old.  Here’s how the author of Arithmetic Made Familiar and Easy explains how to get the answer.

189 190



Puzzler 2 asked you to calculate how many geese the pretty maid was herding.  Here’s how to get the answer of 99 feathered friends…

183 184

And thanks for playing  “Stump the Chump”  with Cotsen…