Reflections after the Moscow Book Fair, ’09
When I was invited to be part of the Indian delegation to the Moscow Book Fair last month, the ghost of an old love stirred again…and I thought once more about the wonderful Soviet books that I had read as a child.
Cheap and widely available when I was growing up in the 1960s, they remained a staple in Indian children’s fare until well into the 1990s. They stood out because nothing quite like that was available elsewhere – combining the Russian genius for storytelling with such quirky art and design. Not that these details registered with me as a child reader. It was just that even without understanding all the parts to their fullest extent, the impression the books left on me was a deep one. When I started Tara in 1994 – looking to create something unlike the existing children’s literature around me – Soviet children’s books were a great inspiration.
I have been reflecting on their entirely unique – and in many ways radical – nature, and I find that most Western and post-Soviet Russian critics tend to dismiss this literature too quickly as mere propaganda. True, the huge Soviet publishing industry was entirely subsidised by the government, and they did keep a sharp eye out for what was being put out. But children’s literature enjoyed a very special place, with privileges not granted to other cultural output. Not that it was considered unimportant – on the contrary, it appears to have been a crucial part of the official publishing agenda – but what mattered was the freedom to be lighthearted. From the start, children’s literature had to entertain as much as it had to educate, and this meant that the creators were granted the freedom to be playful and experimental. The party line towards children’s literature was the subject of much debate, from as early as the 1920s. It was in 1934 that an important decision was made – to grant folktales the official seal of approval. This meant that old stories could now be re-interpreted, and a host of wonderful writers from the past restored. Pushkin’s fairy tales were printed in millions of copies, and I remember owning several versions.
Fairy tales had another unsettling aspect which was now tolerated: the enchantment of magic. This implied a serious break from the official realist culture that the party endorsed, but it was nonetheless condoned. So from nonsense verse to folk myth – creators of children’s literature had a wide palette of forms to experiment with, even in the heyday of Soviet rule. And many dissident writers and artists did use children’s literature subversively, which meant that such books were really meant for all ages. It gave them a sophisticated edge that other children’s literature did not have, at the time. My favourite edition of Alice in Wonderland is an extraordinarily illustrated Soviet version from the 1980s, in an unusually tall and narrow format. I can see contemporary marketing managers shaking their heads sorrowfully – certainly the book would be hard to sell in – but then, Soviet books didn’t have to worry about appealing to a market. It was one of their greatest advantages.
For the rest, they had a glorious tradition not only of storytelling, but also of the visual arts. Again, the best children’s book illustration looked back at tradition, combining it in surprising ways with modern developments in the arts. Classic children’s book art – like those of the master illustrator Ivan Biblin – had its roots in the late 19th century, when decorative elements from folk art were put together with evolving forms of modernist painting into a very distinct aesthetic. In the following decades, other major development in art and design – especially in the graphic arts and film – were reflected in very creative ways in children’s literature.
So what happened to this unique culture of the children’s book after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Many of my favourite books had been from the Baltic region, which were obviously no longer a part of post-Soviet Russia. The other publishing houses that I was familiar with – like Progress and Raduga – also no longer existed. Publishers I spoke to at the Moscow book fair said that sadly, very little of the Soviet inheritance was left. Writers and artists from Soviet times had other jobs, and almost all the publishing houses had collapsed. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian publishing had put out very little original children’s literature. The 1990s had been dominated by translations from other countries. This was in itself not a bad development, since such literature had not been freely available earlier. But it had all been put out in such a hurry that the translations were more often than not of poor quality. There was another positive development though, and that was the reinstation of several pre-revolutionary writers, who had been banned earlier for political reasons. So there were some good developments, but in spite of everything, the overall situation was depressing: there were just a handful of children’s book publishers left in Russia. For me, the saddest part was the tentative impression they made – a rawness and immaturity I would expect from a fledgeling industry, not from the heirs of one of the most formidable publishing empires of the twentieth century. They really had joined the rest of the publishing world, in which all of us are struggling to survive in a market where success is defined by numbers sold.
In a deeper sense, this tied in with the general impression I had from my trip to Russia, which continues to trouble me: I felt that in their eagerness to shrug off the years of Soviet history, they had given up a creative – or even productively critical – engagement with the recent past.
Publisher, Tara Books