Books as Big as Russia

[A version of the following was originally published in Print magazine.]

One of the best kept of the former USSR’s official secrets was the expunged legacy of its innovative children’s book industry that had revolutionized art and design while capturing the hearts and minds of malleable Soviet youth. Stamping out illiteracy was high on the government’s agenda between 1921, when Lenin allowed for a bit of free enterprise under the New Economic Policy (NEP), through 1936 to 39, the height of the “Great Terror” when Josef Stalin purged millions of so-called “counter-revolutionaries” including some children’s book artists and authors.  Until the end of the Cold War, early in the 1990s, universal literacy was achieved but a national treasure was lost, until recent years.

Children were the great red hope for the Marxist-Leninist “New Man” and as early as 1918 Pravda, the voice of the Communist Party, affirmed: “the children’s book as a major weapon for education must receive the widest possible distribution.” By 1924, two years after the Soviet Union was formed, the Central Committee of the Party announced its mission to develop a new kind of juvenile literature that rejected bourgeois ornamentation and trivial fantasy dominant during the preceding Mir iskusstva (The World of Art) era from around 1881 to 1917.

Fine Russian children’s book illustration and design was not unique to the Bolshevik revolutionary period. In fact, Mir iskusstva books produced during the so-called Silver Age, as the reign of Czar Nicholas and Alexandra was known, were impressively decorated in the style of the Russian equivalent of Art Nouveau, a curious fusion of Japonisme, Pre-Raphaelite mannerisms and Russian folk art. This was the time of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and Igor Stravinsky’s lush compositions, when artists like Alexdandre Benois, Ivan Bilibin, and Leon Bakst produced lavishly stylized embellishments and illuminations for fairy tales and other dilettantish eccentricities, ultimately condemned by the revolutionaries. In place of decadent Art Nouveau Bolshevik artists rallied under the banner of Modernism, which was influencing painting, architecture, and commercial art elsewhere in Europe. Russian Modernism, however, was rooted in abstraction, a radical, unprecedented formalist language that inspired children’s book illustration in profound ways.

After the 1917 October Revolution, with Russia in the throes of civil war, the Bolshevik state was bankrupt, forcing Lenin to reluctantly embrace capitalistic measures. Under the NEP free-enterprise was briefly allowed and as a result almost one hundred separate independent and state-run children’s book publishers were founded in Moscow and Petrograd (later Leningrad), each with the goal to enlighten and inspire the next generation through pictorial books.  “Even if the child cannot read . . . [pictures] will stimulate an interest in study and the child will to learn to read,” wrote the Soviet educator Anton Makarenko. And Pravda further noted: “Consequently, the design of a children’s book cannot be separated from the artistic education of our children.”  Hence quality book production was attained through high-graded paper stocks and advanced color technology, which in turn attracted a slew of progressive revolutionary artists including Aleksandr Rodchenko, Gustav Klutisis, Vladimir Tatlin, Natan Altman, and El Lissitsky to an art form that seemed to cry out for experimentation.  “Technology offers the most colossal possibilities for design,” El Lissitzky is quoted on one occasion and on another added, “We need greater inventiveness, independence, experimentation.” The New Society demanded new radical communications paradigms, which at least at the outset Soviet cultural leaders were willing to tolerate, if not encourage.

No one was more determined to end illiteracy and educate the masses than Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, a former school teacher (shades of Laura Bush), who assumed a leadership role (along with the avant garde-patron, commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky) in the Commissariat of Enlightenment, that Orwellian-sounding bureaucratic directorate of cultural life in the Bolshevik state.  She helped establish free libraries and schools, and given her unflagging support for the new literature, picture books were now regularly subsidized by the government as agitprop used for spreading socialist ideals and Communist programs throughout the land. Literally thousands of titles of various quality and merit – from the seemingly benign “The Circus” to decidedly propagandistic “How the Revolution Had Won”  – were published in hefty amounts between 10,000 to 50,000 copies, sometimes more. Children’s book historian Michael Patrick Hearn, who has written the massive two volume document (above and below) of the epoch, dubs this period the “Golden Age” of children’s book publishing in Russia. It was a standard that put Europe and the United States on notice, and in later years Germany and Italy embraced the children’s book as overt polemical/political tool as well.

The holy marriage of word and picture came with an ideological rationale representing the Prolectcult (or proletarian culture) movement, which sought to elevate the worker (and proletarian workmanship) to heroic status. Smirnov’s “Where Do Dishes Come From” (1925) and “The Adventures of Charlie” (1924) both illustrated by Olga and Galena Chicagova are rendered in a highly reductive style which may have influenced the ISOTYPE symbols developed by Otto Neurath in Vienna in 1936, designed as a universal pictorial information language. Simplification was ideologically integral to Socialist thought as it was diametrically opposed to the excesses of the past.  It was also a critique of the so-called “smudgy” or rendered art of the present that was attacked by ideologues as too personal or subjective. Correct methods reduced art from an elitist practice to its common denominator. “Dishes,” typographically formatted in a bold yet simplified Constructivist manner, feels like a how-to manual more than a narrative, and conforms to the Party’s desire to teach children about the everyday and commonplace aspects of Soviet life. Similarly, the illustrations in “Charlie,” a story about a Soviet boy’s travels through the new industrial state by airplane, are schematic, almost sterile, yet graphically eye-catching. On a lighter side of the same coin, Marshak’s “Yesterday and Today” illustrated by one of the masters of children’s illustration, Vladimir Lebedev, employed bold, simplified forms with a touch of wit. The book contrasts old an new – shown on the cover by dark smudgy renderings suggesting the old and colorful schematics for the new.  Inside the schematics are deliberately rendered with slightly less hardcore precision than “Dishes” and include a few witty scribbles. Lebedv was known for his interpretative gestures, which are delightful in Marshak’s “Circus,” which prefigures the cut-paper children’s illustrations of Paul Rand and Ivan Chermayeff.

Abstract, reductive Modernism was at its experimental zenith in Lissitzky’s “Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions,” (1922) which was published by Theo Van Doesburg’s De Stijl publishing arm in Holland (with a German edition). But I. Sunderland’s illustrations for Mayakovsky’s “Strolling” (1926), while more representational, contains many of the same abstract qualities that characterized Constructivist endeavor. Toeing the line between representational accessibility and abstract ambiguity was tough at times and those that stepped over came under bureacratic fire. While Hearn notes Lunacharsky tolerated nearly all manifestations of Russian Modernism (at least until the political climate made it impossible to do so), other leaders, including the crusading Nadezhda Krupskaya were more cautious. “Illustrations must be realistic,” she insisted, “ in bright colors, representing people, objects, and animals not personified. The text accompanying the picture, if any, must be brief, simple, and in direct relationship to the picture above.” Even though the children’s book field was the last to be regulated, the tensions between artist and state mushroomed. “Disillusion and fear quickly supplanted revolutionary zeal and optimism,” states Hearn.

The Golden Age ended in 1932 when Stalin collectivized the publishing industry (like he did the farms) into a single entity, and through functionaries decreed that artists and writers must embrace Socialist Realism’s turgid “Red Romanticism.” Despite a copious number of children’s books and pamphlets produced during the initial surge of artistic reform, when Uncle Joe’s iron fist fell from above – and many avant-gardists were denounced as counter-revolutionary – books failing to conform to sanctioned parameters were confiscated or destroyed. Formalists, meaning those who experimented with abstract visual languages, were considered “enemies of the people.” Anti-intellectualism reigned in large part thanks to Leon Trotsky, who referred to the formalist school as representing “abortive idealism.” Parochial thinking ultimately spilled over to children’s books.  Marshak once wrote that “children’s books ought to present the world of children as interesting, varied, and bright place, never as dull and boring,” but as Hearn notes it was impossible once the state imposed “dry, emasculated, empty language – the language of protocols.”

The politicization of children’s books was a double-edged sword. Initially it worked to the advantage of revolutionary artists, yet ultimately dogma cut the hearts out of these creative practitioners. Pravda was pretty clear about the official rhetoric when it announced “Nowhere else does Formalism unmask itself to such a degree, as it does in drawings for children. It’s precisely here that its inner emptiness, spiritual stagnation and rottenness stick out with utmost strength.” Suprematism and Constructivism were censured for not being unambiguous enough to be tools of state propaganda. Likewise the most progressive children’s books were damned for not conveying Stalin’s unequivocal need for obedience. As a result many of the artists and authors we deemed “non-persons,” sent into exile, and prohibited from plying their craft (unless they conformed). Those were the lucky ones; some were executed or committed suicide.

Yet many works were preserved, either hidden in the dank basements of state libraries or stowed in private repositories for decades. In the moment following Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin’s cult of personality Socialist Realism was rejected as stagnant state art, yet the pioneers of children’s book art and design were never entirely rehabilitated, nor were they celebrated. Lizzitsky, who spent time in Holland and Germany, was better known in Western art history, but lesser known artists remained unknown. Only after Glasnost and Perestroika began to thaw away seventy years of Communist hegemony, and Soviet Union finally fell, were these banned books once again valued by scholars and collectors as artistic accomplishments. The Russian émigré and New York-based Sacha Lurye has amassed over two thousand vintage – indeed classic – books and original art (from which the mammoth book was made). In 2004 portions of the collection at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts and in 2005 at the AIGA National Headquarters Gallery in New York City.  This work is currently being compiled into a three-volume Russian Children’s Illustrated Books 1881-1939 to be published by Studio Samolet in Moscow, along with a thorough analysis by Hearn.  The collection reveals what idealism can accomplish when wed to a clear mission – in this case literacy and enlightenment – yet how it can turn very sour when once the forces of reaction – be they editors, publishers, or politicians – use children’s art solely for political agendas.