Princeton’s Cotsen Library Digitizes Classic Soviet Children’s Books

In News by Dennis Abrams

From an era when it was essential to have Russian children “accept all the slogans, concepts and new reality of the Soviet state,” the newly digitized collection at Princeton is growing.
From Princeton's Soviet Era Books for Children and Youth collection

From Princeton’s Soviet Era Books for Children and Youth collection

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘The Benefits of Being a Communist’
Writing for Russia Behind the Headlines, Alexandra Guzeva reports that fans of Russian literature and children’s books have the chance to take advantage of a new literary resource thanks to Princeton University Library, which has a new digital collection of Soviet children’s books on view.

Princeton cover 3

From Princeton’s Soviet Era Books for Children and Youth collection

Available for browsing now at Soviet Era Books for Children and Youth, the collection’s first 47 titles were digitized for a symposium at the university on illustrated literature for children from the Soviet era. Another 112 have been added this summer in preparation for a spring 2017 conference.

The physical collection is part of the Cotsen Children’s Library, which features illustrated international literature for young readers, with materials dating from the 15th century to today.

Thomas Keenan, Slavic East European and Eurasian Studies Librarian at Princeton University tells Guzeva, “The collection and the endowment used to develop it were gifts of Lloyd Cotsen, a Princeton alumnus and children’s literature enthusiast and collector. It’s the product of several decades of collecting, first by Lloyd Cotsen himself and subsequently by the Curator of the Cotsen Children’s Library Andrea Immel.”

The Cotsen Library’s Russian holdings–dating from the first 20 years of the Soviet Era and covering the period from the October Revolution through the start of WWII (1918-1938)–number nearly 1,000 titles.

Guzeva writest that during those years of the formation of the Soviet Union, it was considered essential to “bring up a new generation that would accept all the slogans, concepts and new reality of the Soviet state from a very young age.” Which meant that nearly all the children’s books published in those years came from the State Publishing House (GIZ) and were known for their “purely communist rhetoric, educating young readers on the benefits of being a communist.”

rom Princeton's Soviet Era Books for Children and Youth collection

From Princeton’s Soviet Era Books for Children and Youth collection

Translation to Come

Keenan, who chose the books to be digitized along with Princeton faculty members Serguei Oushakine and Katherine Hill Reischl, says, “The objective of the symposia has been to examine relationships between the verbal and visual idioms of Soviet illustrated books for young readers.”

“With that in mind, he says, a complex of criteria were used in the prioritization of the books from the Cotsen collection to be digitized.”

Among the books in the collection, all of which are in Russian, is Across the Pole to America, “an account of the first flight from Moscow to the United States via the North Pole, made by cult pilots Valery Chkalov, Georgy Baidukov (author of the book) and Alexander Beliakov,” with illustrations by Alexander Deineka.

Also available for users are books by poet Aginya Barto, including her classic Pioneers, described as “a poetic story about a pioneer named Fedya and the life and activities of Soviet scouts”; poetry from famed revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, also famous for such works of children’s literature as his poem What is Good and What is Bad, Whatever Page You Look At, There’s an Elephant Or A LionessOctober 1917-1918: Heroes and Victims of the Revolution, “in which the ‘good guys,’–a worker, a Red Army soldier, a sailor, a seamstress–are compared with the ‘bad guys’—a factory owner, a landowner, a rich farmer, a priest, a merchant and others.”

Also included are works by famed children’s writer and translator Samuil Marshak, Daniil Kharms, and many others.

Guzeva writes that Princeton hopes to continue digitization, as well as to start translating the Russian texts into English to help them reach a wider audience.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.