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.

Before Viral Animal Videos: Andrew Lang’s Animal Story Book (1896)

Any old family vacation house by the sea should have a neglected cache of old books somewhere and I discovered one in the  second story bedroom, where  I picked out The Animal Story Book edited by Andrew Lang because it looks exactly like one of his Colour Fairy Books.  H. J. Ford, the main illustrator of the set, decorated this volume as well.  His design of a huge lion roaring at the moon on the dark blue binding is still imposing even though the cloth is shabby and the gilt faded.

Lang’s avuncular introduction has not aged very well: “We now present you (in return for a coin or two) a book about the friends of children and of fairies—the beasts. The stories are all true, more or less, but it is possible that Monsieur Dumas and Monsieur Theophile Gautier rather improved upon their tales….There ought to be a moral; if so, it probably is that we should be kind to all sorts of animals, and, above all, knock trout on the head when they are caught, and don’t let the poor things jump about till they die.”  The portrayal of Indigenous peoples, South Asians, and Blacks in word and image leave something to be desired by today’s standards.  But at least Lang graciously credits contributions by others, including his indefatigable wife Leonora, who provided “all the rest.”

There were fewer selections about animals famous in Classical literature like Alexander the Great’s horse Bucephalus or Androcles’ lion  than I was expecting.  Travelers’ tall tales about blasting off the heads of gigantic pythons or the predations of blood-thirsty packs of wolves are carefully balanced by ones about animal loyalty and sagacity.  One about a friendship between man and beast, another about an unlikely bond between species, and a third about a perfidious bird and obedient dog are worth sharing.

Here is a delightful anecdote about Sadi, the Indian elephant in  the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s menagerie of exotic animals:

 This lucky captive had a roomy house of its own built expressly for it in the park, a field to walk about in, and a keeper to look after it, and to do a little light gardening besides.  This man treated the elephant (a female) with great kindness, and they soon became the best of friends.  The moment he called out she stopped and at his bidding would take a broom in her trunk and sweep the dead leaves off the grass; after which she would carefully carry after him a large pail of water for him to re-fill his watering pot—for in those days the garden-hose was not invented.  When the tidying up was all done, the elephant was given a carrot and some of the water, but very often the keeper would amuse himself with handing her a soda-water bottle tightly corked, telling her to empty it.  This she did by placing the bottle in an inclined position on the ground and holding it at the proper angle with her foot, while she twisted the cork out with her trunk.  This accomplished, she would empty all the water into her trunk without spilling a drop and then hand the battle back to her keeper.

Sadi died in 1829 and is supposed to have been buried at Chiswick, although the site of her grave has not been found.

“A Strange Tiger,” the biography of a famous tiger sent as a gift to George III in 1790 and resident of the Tower Menagerie, comes from the Rev. William Bingley’s Animal Biography in three volumes, first published in 1803 and reissued multiple times in the 1800s.

Unlike most of its tribe, the little tiger soon made itself at home on board ship, and as it was too small to do much harm, it was allowed to about loose and played with anybody who had time for a game.  It generally like to sleep with the sailors in their hammocks, and they would often pretend to use it for a pillow, as it lay at full length on the deck.  Partly out of fun, and partly because it was its nature so to do, the tiger would every now and then steal a piece of meat, if it found one handy.  One day it was caught red-handed by the carpenter, who took the beef right out of its mouth, and gave it a good beating, but instead of the man getting bitten for his pains, as he might have expected, the tiger took his punishment quite meekly, and bore the carpenter no grudge after.  One of its favourite tricks was to run out to the very end of the bowsprit, and stand there looking over the sea, and there was no place in the whole ship to which it would not climb when the fancy took it.  But on the whole, the little tiger preferred to have company in its gambols, and was especially fond of dogs, of which there were several on board.  They would chase each other and roll over together just like two puppies, and during the ten month or so that the voyage from China lasted, they had time enough to become fast friends.  When the vessel reached London, the tiger was at once taken to the Tower, which was the Zoological Gardens of those days.  The little fellow did not mind, for he was always ready to take what came and make the best of it, and all the keepers grew as fond of him as the sailors had been.

This sounds quite unbelievable, but historians of the wild animal trade during this time have established it was normal to give the animals their freedom on board ship unless circumstances warranted otherwise…

“Signora and Lori,” which Leonora Lang translated from the 10th number of Deutsche Blaetter (1867) is a variation on those fables in which one clever but unscrupulous animal takes advantage of  a more amiable one.

A German gentleman owned a handsome parrot who was a great talker and a poodle Signora Patti named after the great soprano.  He trained the dog to fetch a basket at the command, “Go to the baker.”  When she dropped it in front of him and patted the floor with her paw, he would drop money into it, which was the sign for her to run to the shop and return with cakes.   Sometimes her master sent her without any money, saying “On the tick.”  The baker would fill the order and put it on account.  Either way, the Signora was rewarded with cake.   The clever parrot quickly learned the commands and turned the situation to its advantage.

But it was not only for pastime that Lori exercised his gift; the cunning bird used it for the benefit of his greedy beak.  It began to happen often to the master to find that his private account-book, carefully kept in the smallest details, did not agree well with that of his neighbor the baker.  The Signora, declared the baker, had become most accomplished in the art of running up a long bill, and always, of course, at her master’s orders.  Only the master, when he looked over the reckoning, growled to himself: “My neighbor is a rogue; he chalks up the amount double.”

How very much was he astonished, then, and how quickly were his suspicions turned into laughter, when he beheld, through a half-open door, the following absurd scene.

It was one fine morning, and Lori sat upon the top of his cage, calling out in his shrillest tones: ”Signora, Signora!” The poodle hastened to present herself before him, wagging her tail, and Lori continued, “go to the Baker.”  The Signora fetched the little basket from the place, and put it before her tyrant, scratching her paw on the floor to ask for money.

“On tick!” was Lori’s prompt and brief remark: the Signora seized the basket, and rushed out of the door.  Before long she returned, laid the basket, full of the little cakes before the parrot, and looked with a beseeching air for the reward of her toil.

But the wicked Lori received her with a sharp, ”Get out,” putting her to” flight, and proceeded to enjoy his ill-gotten gains in solitude.

The situation surely demanded that Lori be punished.   If it is any consolation, the anecdote is  more good-humored than La Fontaine’s well-known verse fable, “The Monkey and the Cat,” because the duped animal isn’t hurt (the cat who pulls the roasting chesnuts out of the fire for the monkey is badly burned).

It’s a subject for another time to explore when the appetite for stories like these about animals became so beguiling to readers and how they came to cross media in our time.