- Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920–1935: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times ed. by Julian Rothenstein, Olga Budashevskaya
Inside the Rainbow is a very strange book. A press release calls it the first English-language “compendium of Soviet picture books from the 1920s and 1930s,” and yet it is neither the first nor a compendium. Evgeny Steiner’s [End Page 223] Stories for Little Comrades: Revolutionary Artists and the Making of Early Soviet Children’s Books (1999), editor Robert Bird’s Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary: Soviet Children’s Books and Graphic Art (2011), and Dutch scholars Albert Lemmens and Serge Strommels’s massive Russian Artists and the Children’s Book, 1890–1992 (2009) all precede this volume.
Inside the Rainbow’s historical gloss is consistent with an old-fashioned Cold War historiography in which a monolithic Soviet apparatus stood, absolutely and continuously, as a foil for the freedoms of the West. The introductory articles imply that these children’s books are evidence of an antiestablishment spirit that managed to express itself briefly. Setting this tone is Philip Pullman, who asks in his Foreword, “What were they doing, these commissars and party secretaries, to allow this wonderland of modern art to grow under their very noses? I expect the rule that applies to children’s books was just as deeply interiorized in the Soviet Union as it had been in the rest of the world: they don’t matter. They can be ignored. They’re not serious” (14). The book presents its own fairy tale: that the children’s books created in the period between 1920 and 1935 were consistent and uniformly brilliant, and that they prevailed against the dull, repressive regime, which is treated as a singular force. These claims are undermined by the material itself.
Inside the Rainbow’s subtitle refers to “terrible times” between 1920 and 1935, although the book includes examples from 1936 (the cover illustration for Готов! [Ready!] (139), commemorating the opening of the Moscow Metro, a showcase of Stalinist Russia) and from 1937 (the photomontage The Journey Inside the Electric Lamp (86–89), which also pays homage to the highlights of the five-year plans). The book not only exceeds its own time frame, however, it defies conventional time bracketing, both in terms of political history as well as the types of children’s books that were being produced. In the early days of the Soviet Union, many artists not only joined in common cause with the “commissars”; they were themselves part of the new government. It is an uncomfortable reality that the European modernists, whose work the West extols, were in large part motivated by the same rejection of the past and of the status quo as the radicalized left (and right, in the case of the Futurists). Furthermore, the Russians who were part of the pre-WWI international milieu returned home to create a new utopian vision for the future by working in the very media that the previous generation rejected. In other words, rather than children’s books being “ignored,” they became essential to the construction of the “New Soviet Man” of the future, and this business was deadly serious.
Scant reference is made here to Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed for the privatization of industry and foreign investment. This short-lived policy reversal, shut down by Stalin’s resumption of absolute state control, provided the conditions for the so-called Golden Age of Soviet Russian [End Page 224] children’s picture books (1922–30). During this period, the publishing house Радуга (The Rainbow) began issuing a new kind of children’s picture book, attracting the likes of poet Samuil Marshak and illustrator Vladimir Lebedev. Радуга produced the famous avant-garde books in which text and images interact on the page, and bold colors and abstract shapes dominate; this is the “rainbow” that the book’s editors say somehow missed the critical eye of the Party. Радуга, however, built on the work and vision of an earlier artists’ cooperative, Cегодня (Today), headed up...