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
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.
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.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.