Skip to Content

Members' Research Report Archive

Images for the New Generation: Russian Illustrated Children's Books, 1918–1936

Alla Rosenfeld, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, June 15August 15, 2014

In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the new Soviet regime regarded children’s books as a major means of influencing the new generation, transmitting Soviet ideology and teaching children about contemporary developments in Soviet Russia. The nation’s greatest artists and writers came together in an effort to produce publications that nurtured and challenged young minds, uniting the leading experimental artistic tendencies of the time with radical ideology.


N. S. Smirnov, author, and Galina and Olga Chichagova, illustrators, illustration for Otkuda posuda? (Where Do Dishes Come From?; Moscow/Petrograd, 1924). Sasha Lurye Collection, New York

My book in preparation, “Images for the New Generation: Russian Illustrated Children’s Books, 1918–1936,” is organized around this important development and will explore several key issues. The most central of these is how the complex relationships among the Soviet state, artists, and public are manifested in the creation and reception of children’s books. My approach draws on a wide range of sources, including rare archival documents and Soviet studies of children’s reading habits, uncovered during my earlier research in Russia, as well as some recent American and European scholarship on Soviet educational and cultural history. My research is also informed by a variety of disciplines: art history, education, sociology, and children’s literature.

Shortly after the revolution, the newly installed Bolshevik regime turned its attention to the child. Beginning in the early 1920s, the Soviet government organized conferences on childrearing, established “children’s studies” departments in a number of institutions of higher learning, and founded centers of experimental pedagogy. As the children’s literature of a socialist country was thought to be totally different from that of bourgeois Europe, it followed that the new Soviet children’s book needed to reflect the major objective of the rearing of Soviet youth: to nurture “builders of Communism.”


Galina and Olga Chichagova, photomontage cover for Egor-monter (Egor the Electrician; Moscow, 1928). Sasha Lurye Collection, New York

The Soviet regime’s concern with children’s literature gave rise to serious discussion of one of the oldest and most beloved literary genres: the fairy tale. During the 1920s the fairy tale and its place in Soviet children’s literature were among the most highly contested cultural issues of the day. Since many fairy tales were seen as filled with religious superstition and promoting monarchism, many educators and critics felt that it was essentially “criminal” to introduce proletarian children to old morals relevant only to a capitalist society. New Soviet children’s literature, by contrast, was thoroughly rooted in contemporary Soviet reality. Popular themes included industrial and agricultural topics, the class struggle in capitalist countries, the international Communist movement, and the heroic lives of the Communist Party leaders. Aimed at the nation’s youngest readers and essentially constituting the antithesis of the fairy tale, the new genre of the “production book” promoted Soviet social and economic ideals by exploring various professions and trades.

Starting in the late 1920s, the Soviet government’s initial encouragement of artistic experimentation was replaced by the imposition of much stricter control over the arts. In 1935 the Communist Party issued a decree placing all publishing houses under the supervision of the Komsomol (Young Communist League), which established a system of strict censorship over children’s publications and initiated an intense state crackdown on avant- garde experimentation. The government now set new priorities on the rendering of illustrations in a clearly accessible, realistic manner.

The bulk of my research for “Images for the New Generation” derives from a careful examination of hundreds of Russian illustrated children’s books of the 1920s–1930s. These books are now rare, with only a limited number of copies in existence worldwide. Before my fellowship at CASVA, in conducting my research and locating examples of rare books and mock-ups, I visited many archives and libraries in Russia, Europe, and the United States. During my two-month residency at CASVA, I completed my research in the National Gallery of Art Library and the Library of Congress, where I consulted many publications concerned with pedagogical and sociological issues relevant to children’s literature in Russia. I also revised several chapters of my book. The first chapter, “Does the Proletarian Child Need Fairy Tales? Debates about Children’s Literature in the 1920s–1930s,” demonstrates how children’s literature was subordinated to the educational goals of the new political system. The second chapter, “Molding the ‘New Man’: Educational Experimentalism, Soviet Ideology, and Children’s Literature, 1918–1936,” is devoted to exploring the connection between the new Soviet children’s literature and contemporary developments in Russian and American education and pedagogical theory. Included in this discussion are the writings of John Dewey (1859–1952), which were widely available in Russian translation and influential in Soviet education. “Photography as a Sign of Modernity in Soviet Illustrated Children’s Books,” the third chapter, shows how photo-illustrated books exemplified Russian avant-garde artists’ shift from abstract compositions to works that incorporated documentary elements capable of satisfying the government’s mandate to reach the masses.