Two Worlds: Yet Another Piece of Genius Social-Realist Propaganda

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.[1] “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.[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4]

By Polina Popova

[1]“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,

[2] See, for example, his work in the Encyclopedia of Ukrainian Folk Art in the Moscow Nekrasov Central Library’s digital books’ collection here:

[3] 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.


[4] The author would like to thank friend and colleague Ismael Biyashev for help with editing of this text.


An Image of Japan and its People in 1920s Soviet Children’s Literature

Polina Popova, our roving correspondent on Russian- and Ukrainian-language children’s books, has written a new essay for the Cotsen curatorial blog based on her research when she was in residence at Princeton several years ago.  In this post, she looks at how Japan has been represented in the former Soviet Union.  Thank you, Polina, for bringing our attention to many different dimensions of illustrated children’s books in the Russian language.

Russia and Japan—there have never been the easygoing political relationships between the two countries. In the early 20th century, Russia was defeated in the Russo-Japanese War —the war ended with the Treaty of Portsmouth of 1905. At that time, in 1905 and later in 1911, the Japanese allied with Britain and maintained good relationships with the United States, but tensions with Russia continued because Russia controlled (not legally but de facto) parts of Manchuria, for example, the Chinese Eastern Railway and the regional capital city of Harbin.

Russia and Japan signed a series of treaties in 1907 and later—first, about fishing rights for Japan within Russian territorial waters; and in 1916—a treaty of mutual defense. However, in the 1910s, especially after the American entry into World War I, public figures in Japan embraced phrases like jikan no sūsei (“trends of the times”) and sekai taisei (“world situation”).[1] The 1917 Russian revolution greatly influenced Japanese foreign affairs: the coming to power of the Bolsheviks in Russia both unnerved many Japanese but made others “dizzy” with the potential collapse of Russian central authority opening the door to the extension of Japan’s political reach on the mainland.

Plans for Japan to intervene politically and militarily in Siberia began to form mid-November of 1917 as the news of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power spread around the world. Organizations like the National Destiny and the Amur River Society began to advocate Japanese intervention into Siberia and even the incorporation of some Siberian territories into the Japanese empire.[2] The international law professor Ninakawa Arata from Kyoto was one of the Japanese public intellectuals of the time who saw Japan as a future leader of the “new Orient.” In March of 1918, in an article (in English) for the Japan Magazine he wrote: “Now that China is helpless and Russia [is] on the verge of disintegration Japan has no formidable rival to prevent her rise to a supreme place in the Orient…”[3] However, Ninakawa’s plans came to naught as the Bolsheviks established Control of most cities of Eastern Siberia.[4]

In the late 1920s, and especially the early 1930s, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was mostly preoccupied with Soviet industrialization and the First Five-Year Plan, thus, the Soviets attempted to negotiate a Non-Aggression Pact (NAP) with Japan, similar to the ones signed with Germany, Finland, and the Baltic states). In early 1926, the Soviet Consul-General, Grigorii Bessedovsky, pursued negotiation of an NAP with the Japanese government, but without success.[5] In 1927, some commercial pacts were signed. In the 1930s, a new region—Mongolia (the Mongolian People’s Republic)—became a battlefield of Soviet-Japanese diplomatic relations. The Soviets won that battle, culminating in the 1936 pact of mutual assistance between the USSR and the MPR signed in Ulan Bator. But the Soviet leaders understood that Japan was not neutralized by the pact and, in fact, Russians grew increasingly worried about the growing closeness between Japan and Germany.[6]

The uneasy political and diplomatic atmosphere hanging over the early Soviet Union were reflected in the Soviet children’s literature of the time. And Cotsen Children’s Library has some unique materials that demonstrate how the literary and artistic imagination of Soviet children’s writers and illustrators imagined Japan and its people in the 1920s.

The 1924 fairy tale Mai i Oktiabrina (“May and Oktiabrina”) written by Lev Zilov and illustrated by Vladimir Orlov in grotesque black and white style shows an unsympathetic racialized image of Japanese children who are poor and malnourished. A Japanese boy explains to the Soviet boy and girl (Mai and Oktiabrina) who magially travel to Japan that Japanese children are exploited in sweatshops and factories and often become homeless.

Illustration 1. Terrible working condition of the Japanese children in the 1924 Soviet fairy tale Mai i Oktiabrina.

With childish naïveté and boastful straightforwardness, the Soviet children reply that in the Soviet Union children—even those who are homeless—live in almost luxurious conditions. They conclude that in the USSR children always “go first” (“… у них вместо дома хоромы, И тепло, и сыто, и пригоже. У нас дети на первом месте…”). After that laudatory tirade, the Japanese children all decide they want to live in the Soviet Union. At the end of the book, Japanese children join others (Africans, Indians, etc.) who are led by Mai and Oktiabrina in a collective parade which demonstrates a simplistic internationalism that the early Soviet children’s writers promoted through racialized lenses of the “affirmative action empire.”[7]

Puteshestvie Charli (“The Travels of Charlie”) by Nikolai Smirnov and Galina and Olga Chigarova is another book from 1924 which also depicts Japan. The book is famous among scholars and collectors of Russian children’s literature for rendering, in avant-garde, absurdist style, madcap travels of Charlie Chaplin around the globe. The book contrasts dramatically with Mai i Oktiabrina both aesthetically and ideologically: Puteshestvie Charli is funny, amusing, and mostly apolitical. Charlie travels from New York City to Europe by boat, through Europe by plane, through the USSR by train, and to Vladivostok by submarine, before hopping on a rickshaw in Japan.

Illustrations 2 and 3: Charlie Chaplin travelling through Japan using different modes of modern transportation.

Charlie was sent by the Japanese to San Francisco on another modern kind of transport—a hydroplane; there the actor traveled by motor boat, automobile, and tram right to his house. The next morning, Charlie wrote thank you notes to all the sailors, pilots, machinists, and drivers who took him on his journey around the world. The book ends on a positive though ideologically straightforward note: “I send my hello to the workers of all countries!” (“Мой привет рабочим всех стран!”)

The last book is Japonskie deti (“Japanese children,” 1929), by Aleksandr Solodvnikov with realistic lithographic illustrations by Vasilii Vatagin and Mikhail Ezuchevskii. The book is quite unusual for its time, as it was one of the rare ethnographic and encyclopedic works created for Soviet children to introduce them to ethnographic origins and traditions of world regions. Solodovnikov, and one of the illustrators, Ezuchevskii, also teamed up to create a similar book about how children in China are raised, nurtured, and educated. (Ezuchevskii illustrated books related to the history of pre-historic times and about children of Africa, too.)[8]

Illustration 4: Reminiscent of the Japanese-style paintings of Claude Monet, the cover of the Soviet children’s book Japnoskie deti.

The book begins with an explanation of how Japanese parents carry their babies and then portrays different episodes in lives of the Japanese children—from how they play to how they help their parents and dress up for the occasions. The illustrations are orientalist and Monetesque, but with careful attention to details of Japanese clothing, traditions, and customsIllustration 5: First page of the Soviet children’s book about customs and traditions of Japanese children’s upbringing.

All three books exemplify different tendencies in the Soviet children’s writers’ representation of the Japanese people: one that presented Japanese children as political “others” living in the conditions where working class people, especially children, are treated badly (and Soviet children are represented as the saviors of all children of other races and ethnicities); another one that shows Japan neutrally as simply a geographical neighbor of the USSR near the city  of Vladivostok; and a third one, an ethnographic, almost scientific study of the Japanese children’s upbringing and family customs. To generalize, the books analyzed above represent three aesthetical and literary tendencies of the Soviet children’s literature of the 1920: explicitly ideological books that harshly criticized non-communist societies (and empires); experimental, avant-garde, somewhat absurdist books that had ideologically neutral tone; and encyclopedic books that were educational in nature.

[1] According to the historian Paul Dunscomb, “these phrases generally served as euphemisms for respect for constitutional democracy at home and an embrace of the spirit of Wilsonian internationalism in foreign relationships.” See Paul E. Dunscomb, Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918-1922: “A Great Disobedience Against the People” (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2011), 32.

[2] Dunscomb, Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918-1922, 33-36.

[3] Arata Ninakawa, “Japan’s Policy Positive,” Japan Magazine, vol. 8, no. 11 (March 1918), 625.

[4] Dunscomb, Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 40.

[5] Jacob Kovalio, “Japan’s Perception of Stalinist Foreign Policy in the Early 1930s,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Apr. 1984), 319.

[6] Brian Bridges, “‘An Ambiguous Area’: Mongolia in Soviet-Japanese Relations in the mid-1930s,” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 54, no.3 (2020), 730, 746.

[7] Here, I am using historian Terry Martin’s description from his book, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

[8] This information was taken from the web site of the Russian State Children’s Library’s electronic database: (Accessed on January 14th of 2023).