Weaving folk tales into Soviet children’s books, it turns out, was a fairly unconventional move in the 1930s.
The reliably fascinating Atlas Obscura has a new piece exploring avant-garde Soviet children’s books from the era. Specifically, it looks at Baba-Yaga and From Moscow to Bukhara, two surprising works recently acquired by Christine Jacobson, assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library. They depict classic Russian folklore and daily life. Which sounds harmless enough—but it actually runs contrary to the propaganda found in most popular literature at the time, which was meant to “inculcate young minds with revolutionary ideas,” Sarah Laskow writes in the piece.
The existence of the works—many of which were created by women, which itself was uncommon—challenges what Jacobson calls the “rules of early Soviet children’s books.” She spoke of Baba Yaga:
“It’s a very avant-garde cover,” she says. In the 1920s and 1930s, a golden age of Soviet children’s literature, that wasn’t uncommon: Some of the most cutting-edge art could be found in children’s books. But this book told a classic Russian folktale, in which a young girl encounters the witchy Baba Yaga and her walking house. That should have been off-limits. “You have anthropomorphic flora and fauna, magic, evil step-mothers—you have all these things you’re not supposed to have in Soviet children’s work,” Jacobson says.
Early Soviet children’s books are assumed to be purely vectors for propaganda, but, “The more you dig into Soviet children’s literature the more you find outliers doing really interesting things and breaking the rules,” said Jacobson.