Interpreting and Reinterpreting Mikhail Ilin’s How the Automobile Learned to Run in Pictures

1931 edition, front wrapper, Cotsen in process

While processing a new group of early Soviet children’s books, I came across two editions of Mikhail Il’in’s Kak Avtomobilʹ Uchilsi︠a︡ Khoditʹ. The second edition, pictured above, was published in 1931 by Molodai︠a︡ Gvardii︠a︡, an imprint of the State publishing monopoly OGIZ (unfortunately we do not have the first edition, published in 1930). The third edition, pictured below, was published in 1934 by another OGIZ imprint: Detskoi Literatury.

1934 edition, front wrapper, Cotsen in process

Mikhail Il’in isn’t a household name for a variety of obvious reasons. Though many of our readers weren’t raised on Soviet picture books in the 30’s, Il’in’s other name might ring a bell: Il’ia Marshak. Il’ia Marshak was the younger brother of the perhaps better known Samuil Marshak; another early writer of Soviet children’s literature. Mikhail Il’in is the pseudonym that Il’ia Marshak used when engaging with scientific and technical subjects meant for his young readers.

Kak Avtomobilʹ Uchilsi︠a︡ Khoditʹ translates to How the automobile learned to run. Crammed full of factual information, this book is about the history of the automobile, from the earliest propelled steam engine to the present day.

But at this point you might be wondering: “Say Ian, I know you don’t speak any Russian (you’ve told us already here and here), so how do you know what this book is about?”.

Well lucky for all of us, while processing this new material I came across a book we already had in the collection: How the Automobile Learned to Run (New York: International Publishers, 1945); a later American translation of this Soviet classic.

Miraculously International Publishers (which specialized in publishing and translating Soviet, Marxist, and Leftist material) managed to produce books during the height of the Red Scare and make it through a Dies Committee hearing.

Front board (ex-library copy), Cotsen 51732

While all three editions deal with the same subject, each book was executed by a different illustrator.

The 1931 edition was illustrated by Natalii︠a︡ Lapshina, who choose to use mostly photo illustrations for the sake of realism:

1931 edition, Spread [2-3]

1931 edition, page 5

The 1934 edition, was illustrated by V. Tambi, who choose to create simple monochrome illustrations:

1934 edition, page [3]

1934 edition, page [21]

1934 edition, Spread 4-5

The International Publishers edition was illustrated by Herbert Kruckman, using more color and a lot more space. Although this edition is attributed to Il’in, a substantial amount of material was added in order to make the book current for 1945 and speak to an American public. But perhaps for obvious reasons, our translator and writer is never attributed:

Each book begins with this introduction about Cugnot’s “Fire cart”, the Grandmother (Babushka) of both the automobile and locomotive. Page [2], Cotsen 51732

Cugnot’s “Fire cart” Page [1], Cotsen 51732

Spread [23-24], Cotsen 51732

Though each illustrator has a distinct style, they all seem to enjoy illustrating one scene in particular: a very explosive episode in 1834 that we might describe as the first major car accident:

Page [7], Cotsen 51732

1934 edition, vignette page 9

1931 edition, page 9

Page [8], Cotsen 51732

Not only do our three illustrators seem to gleefully enjoy this image (Lapshin even drew it twice), but the authors point out that the “picture of the accident” was “printed in all the newspapers”. Although the popularity of this original image might be because of its cautionary power, as our authors contend, we might suppose that folks in 1834 enjoyed a good head rolling as much as the rest of us.

After some web perusing, I managed to find what might be the original image (unfortunately I couldn’t pin down a source). You can judge for yourself about the moralistic virtues of this image appearing in all the newspapers of the time. . .

More cars here…

The Perils of Steam-Coaches