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A collection of Soviet children’s stories becomes a UK bestseller

An album of colorful kids’ books from early Soviet Russia has become a surprise hit this autumn. The 1920s and 1930s were a golden age for Russian children’s literature, producing tales whose playfulness subtly subverted official Soviet dogma. “Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times,” published last month by Redstone Press, presents highlights from this era of innovative design.

Nonsense and gibberish

A lively performance, featuring music, dance and theater, marked the book’s official launch in the GRAD gallery in London’s Fitzrovia. GRAD’s current exhibition of constructivist models was a perfect backdrop. The script juxtaposed official commentary with excerpts from the poems and stories of Kornei Chukovsky and others.

Chukovsky’s work was, according to a Soviet psychologist in 1926: “an example of the perversion of children’s poetry with nonsense and gibberish.” In Irina Brown’s play, written for the launch party, red-scarfed pioneers reply to the psychologist with: “Once the kittens raised a row:/ Oh, how dull it is to miaow!/
Let us better bark like doggies:/Bow-wow-wow!” Likewise a speech about the “basis of communist morality” is interrupted by a great shout of “ICE-CREAM! МOРОЖЕНОЕ!”

The packed audience included familiar faces from the worlds of art and literature, including children’s author Philip Pullman, who has written an enthusiastic foreword for the new book. Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy has become a modern classic since the first volume was published in 1995 and is one of the most popular works of contemporary fantasy.

Ostensibly writing for younger readers, but dealing with complex themes, controversial questions and “the struggle against religious tyranny,” Pullman knows very well that children’s literature can be a powerful platform for big ideas. He ascribes the fact that the “early Soviet period was a miraculously rich time for children's books and their illustration” to growing censorship of writing for adults.

Wit and brilliance

“For a few years Russian children’s books were free of the darkness that descended over the Soviet Union,” Pullman writes, “and the light they shed … sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun, is here in this book still.” These works are far more, though, than a bright, fantastical refuge from the gathering gloom. Many of them, in terms of style and content, are active parts of an attempt to re-educate children.

“The artistic idiom, both verbal and visual, was … updated,” writes State Hermitage Museum curator, Arkady Ippolitov, in an introductory essay: “In order that children would mesh with the radiant future being built for them, they themselves had to be rebuilt.”

The radical constructivist experiment had not yet given way to the soullessly over-ornate neoclassicism that characterized the later Stalin era. “At first sight it looks like a textbook of suprematism,” said Pullman. He notes how Malevich’s “Black Square” has become Chukovsky’s telephone in Konstantin Rudakov’s classic illustration.

In these pages, you can find El Lissitzky’s cover for Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child” or Vladimir Tatlin’s cover for a counting book by Daniil Kharms. Alexander Deineka brings to the pages of “A Sparkle, An Easy ABC” the same focus and dynamism that characterize his war paintings or his mosaics for the Mayakovskaya underground station in Moscow.