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Reviewed by:
  • Russian Children's Literature and Culture
  • Maria Nikolajeva (bio)
Russian Children's Literature and Culture. Edited by Marina Balina and Larissa Rudova. New York: Routledge, 2008.

The volume is the first book-length study of Russian children's literature in English, and as such it is particularly welcome. Remarkably enough, there is no history of Russian children's literature available in English, no comprehensive investigation of its main trends, and no author studies. Someone who does not read Russian will be limited to a handful of journal articles dedicated to very narrow topics. Because of the low status of children's literature within the academy, it is seldom studied at Slavic departments of Western universities (and even in Russia, it is restricted to teacher-training and librarianship). This fact is clearly reflected in the volume, as none of the contributors are children's literature scholars. This can be an advantage, since the authors are free from the usual prejudices about children's literature. However, it also leads to the arbitrary choice of subjects that indicate the contributors' area of expertise rather than a consistent rationale. Several essays feel conspicuously marginal, for instance, the overview of space exploration in a periodical not specifically addressed to children or youth.

The title is slightly misleading: the volume deals with Soviet and post-Soviet literature, which leaves the whole history leading to the emergence of the peculiar totalitarian children's culture untold. The title, however, underlines that the volume only takes up literature written in Russian, which was the overwhelming majority, but not the whole body of children literature in the Soviet Union. Although the selection is reasonable, the so-called multinational literature as an essential sociohistorical myth could have been mentioned.

Otherwise, Marina Balina's introductory chapter provides an adequate context for the early days of Bolshevik rule and for the premises of the bizarre evolution of Soviet children's literature. Appropriated by the regime as a powerful ideological implement, it could never be free from it—just as art never was in the Soviet Union or other dictatorships, such as Nazi Germany or Latin American totalitarian states, a parallel that Balina unfortunately does not draw. While in a democratic society literature is predominantly an individual issue, in the USSR it was a vehicle serving the purposes of the authorities in forming and manipulating the mentality of the masses. In the absence of a democratically elected parliament, independent press, and [End Page 88] freedom of speech, literature became an area where political, social, and existential issues were debated. The function of children's literature was doubly so, since it additionally had the usual objective of educating its young audience. Thus, children's literature was, to a higher extent than in other countries, an ideological tool aimed at raising new generations free from old beliefs and faithful to the Communist doctrine. The interconnection of literature and society in the Soviet Union cannot be overestimated, and it is inescapable to discuss this aspect in detail in a book of this kind. (The sarcastic essay on the ominous figure of Sergei Mikhalkov is most illuminating in this respect.) Possibly the balance is too uneven between ideological and aesthetic sides of the discussed phenomenon; on the other hand, the subject is too vast to allow a comprehensive examination. It would have been helpful, however, if the editors had made a clear statement concerning the predominantly ideological focus of the volume.

In the post-Communist period, children's literature, and literature at large, lost it social function, which resulted in a broader range of genres, styles, and subject matter but also considerably lower subversive potential. The second introductory chapter, tracing the changes in Russian children's literature after the fall of Communism, does not emphasize this transition sufficiently. Soviet writers, however opportunistic, used children's literature as an escape from the politicized sphere of the mainstream as well as a field of artistic experiment. In the disguise of harmless kiddie books, writers could, cautiously, question the issues of power, as did Eugeny Schwartz in his fairy-tale plays, a fact reflected in Anja Tipper's essay (although she does not mention The Two Maple Trees, the...


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