- Print This Post Print This Post


By John Helmer, Moscow

It’s possible to imagine that when Kornei Chukovsky wrote about crocodiles telephoning Moscow for take-out galoshes to eat (1926), or about the bear who beat up a crocodile and saved the sun from his jaws (1916), he was doing something secret and political for adults, instead of making children laugh and learn to read. It’s even possible to interpret Osip Mandelstam’s children’s book, Two Trams (1925), as a coded attack on Lenin’s definition of five years earlier — “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”

For those in the west who hate Russia, it’s anathema to suppose there ever was a time – tsarist past, communist past, or post-communist present – when Russians of any age smiled, either inadvertently or sentimentally, for the fun of it. This must be the reason why a newly published album of illustrations from Russian children’s books published between 1920 and 1935 recommends the artfulness of the works and designs, but feels obliged at the same time to castigate the country and regime in which they were produced.*

Thus, a Cheka mugshot of Mandelstam is sandwiched between the front-cover of a primer on numbers, Eduard Krimmer’s Numbers (цифры ), and illustrations from Post (почта), a book by Samuil Marshak on how the postal system works. Mandelstam’s first arrest wasn’t until 1934. Numbers appeared in 1925; Post in 1927. What possible connexion is a reader to find in the juxtaposition?

None at all — unless you don’t want to let go of Mandelstam’s insult to Stalin and Mandelstam’s subsequent fate, and insist these make the relevant frame and context in which to understand the children’s tales of the time.

Mandelstam’s fateful 16-line poem was recited privately in November 1933, and someone who had a score to settle with Mandelstam informed on him. It refers to Stalin as “the Kremlin mountaineer”, with fingers like “ten thick worms”, a moustache of “huge laughing cockroaches”, and boots “ringed with the scum of chicken-necked bosses”. According to Mandelstam:

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue, like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

There’s no doubt Stalin wouldn’t have enjoyed Mandelstam’s characterizations, though the Mandelstam histories aren’t sure that Stalin himself ever read the lines. There is no doubt that Mandelstam’s arrest followed; then his interrogation in prison; and his exile to Voronezh. Mandelstam had already run into problems with others – poets, intellectuals, apparatchiki — five years earlier, and had been despatched to Armenia to cool off. He didn’t; he couldn’t. His plight during the five years following the Stalin Epigram, ending in his death in a gulag in December of 1938, was terrible.

But of what relevance is Mandelstam’s story to the character of Russian children’s books during his time? What relevance now?

Mandelstam himself didn’t think much of “childish thoughts”, at least not in 1908 when he wrote a short poem on the subject. Later, when he wrote a children’s book of his own, Two Trams, his text is unoriginal, compared to the designs of the illustrator, Boris Ender. See for yourself.

So for a new appreciation of Russian children’s books, the insistence of the Russiaphobes on retelling Mandelstam’s fate is perverse. The introducer of Inside the Rainbow, Philip Pullman, claims to know better. As a British writer of children’s books, he says on his website: “As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means.” But introducing Inside the Rainbow, Pullman does exactly what he says he doesn’t. That might serve as a child’s definition of a fool.

“Nothing comes without a context”, Pullman opines on page 15. “The most haunting of these photographs is the one of Osip Mandelstam after his arrest in 1934. Darkness was gathering; all the hope and excitement of the early revolutionary years was being snuffed out. Mandelstam’s powerful face, grim, exhausted, defiant, stands for a generation whose creativity was peerless, and by that very fact a threat that had to be crushed.”

Another odd introduction follows from Arkady Ippolitov, a curator and researcher at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. He proposes the idea of opening an exhibition of Inside the Rainbow at a celebrity show for non-Russians. “Just imagine the opening in London,” says Ippolitov. “The crème de la crème of the design, lifestyle, travel, entertainment, fashion and media worlds have gathered for the event.” To these people Ippolitov contrasts “the cultured and not-so-cultured commissars in leather jackets…when, revolvers raised to the sky, they led the crowds of the dispossessed and downtrodden to storm the Winter Palace in Petersburg”, or when “they herded the same crowds into building a new world in the name of happiness on earth”.

This is more framing of the past with the past. Ippolitov goes on to intimate that for all its originality imagining the future, in doing away with the fairy princesses of pre-revolutionary children’s books, the books after 1917 led directly to the crime of the killings of Tsar Nicholas II, the tsarina, and their children in 1918. “In light of the government’s concern with childhood (i.e., the future), the crime was remarkable: the old world’s version of childhood had been finished off, and the pre-Revolutionary imaginationland’s main characters physically exterminated…after massacring the innocents and putting paid to the old Imaginationland, the Kremlin set to work building a new imaginationland under the direction of Krupskaya, a flabby, sick, and worthless woman with no claim to fame other than her status as the Kremlin dreamer’s [Lenin’s] wife…The clean, sharp, quite precise language and design of Soviet children’s books also exhibit features testifying to the presence of dictatorship. It is in just this way, defining precisely what is good and what is bad, that a dictatorship must talk with children.”

Whoaaa Horsey!

seminikhinRedstone, the small London publisher of Inside the Rainbow, has produced its album as excerpts from the much larger Russian-language compilation by Vladimir Semenikhin (right), published by Samolet of Moscow in 2009. At £35 Inside the Rainbow is a discount version of Illustrated Children’s Books in the History of Russia, 1881-1939, which can be bought for Rb23,500 in Moscow; more than $1,200 abroad.

And here’s where a little, or more than a little business calculation creeps in. Both books acknowledge the source of their illustrations as the collection of Sasha Lurye. Lurye is reported to be a Russian expatriate living in New York. Before the book versions of his private collection began appearing, he had been lending pieces and promoting the value of his collection in US museum shows. One of those exhibitions at the University of Virginia in 2007 turned into the catalogue, The Firebird and the Factory, Modern Russian Children’s Books, by Kelly Miller. She was the curator of the show; she had been working on Lurye’s collection since 2005.

But Kelly and her university weren’t the first off the mark. That seems to have happened in 2003 when the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, launched itself with a show entitled “From the Silver Age to Stalin: Russian Children’s Book Illustration from the Sasha Lurye Collection”. In 2012 the Carle Museum valued its assets at $12 million. That year it turned over revenues of $2.2 million for people to pay to look at the assets. As the Carle Museum’s assets have jumped in capital and recurrent value, so too has Lurye’s.

Lurye is not only a buyer and collector. He’s also a seller, as this advertisement for his copy of a Lenin death mask suggests.

If framing and flogging Russian children’s books isn’t to be judged, either as an education in the evils of the Communist period, or as a lucrative trade in buying cheap, selling dear, there remains one frame of reference which hasn’t been tried yet. That’s to demonstrate how children’s books have performed as a measure of all the freedoms which Boris Yeltsin, Yegor Gaidar and their colleagues introduced to Russia in 1991.

The compilers of Inside the Rainbow cite this edict of Lenin’s as an example of the oppressive fate which awaited, not only the writers and illustrators of the first generation of Soviet children’s books, but the first generation of Soviet children too. “Pornography and religious books shall not be released for free sale, and shall be turned over to the Paper Industry Board as waste paper”.

Now that all Russian children are free to read every kind of both, what aesthetic gain, moral improvement or asset multiple can the new generation look forward to in their books? Should adults like Bibliophile Lurye also calculate that the days of bargain-priced Russian collecting are over? What price, do you think, for Over the Rainbow — Russian Paedophilia, 1991-2021?

* Inside the Rainbow, Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times, Redstone Press, London: http://redstone.myshopify.com/products/inside-the-rainbow

Leave a Reply