Teaching Soviet Children the Language of Science and Technology

By Laura Todd

At the beginning of the First Five-Year plan in 1928, the aims of children’s literature neatly intersected with those of the Soviet government’s plans to create a viable and powerful state, built on the promotion of knowledge, science, and technology. Soviet children, as the generation who would oversee and complete the transition to the bright future of full communism, were taught to be future constructors and leaders of science and technology from an early age.

fig 1
Figure 1: ‘Who I Will Be’ From L. Savel’ev’s book, What Are We Building? (1930)

The positioning of children at the forefront of scientific development was closely linked to the political necessities of the time. The First and Second Five Year Plans (1928-1932 and 1933-1937 respectively) were characterised by their push to rapidly increase industrialisation, and scientific and technological progress. However, Stalin had also enacted a wide-scale purge of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in 1930, leaving the new Soviet state without the scientific experts required to carry through this ambitious programme of change. In the place of these adult scientists, children were identified and educated to fill this void.

Unsurprisingly, literary critics and Party functionaries were clear that science and industrialisation were essential topics to cover in the ‘re-construction’ of the children’s publishing industry that was taking place simultaneously to the promotion of technology.[1] The focus on industry in children’s books was not by any means an independent occurrence. The 1925 publication of Fedor Gladkov’s Cement (Tsement) had sparked the birth of the Soviet ‘production novel’ (proizvodstvennyi roman), which evolved into a children’s version of the genre, the ‘children’s production book’ (detskaia proizvodstvennaia kniga).

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Figure 2: Laptev on the construction of factories and plants

Unlike the novels for adults, the children’s production book appeared in more varied forms than novels or stories about the heroes of Soviet industrialisation. In part, this difference arose from the very nature of children’s books, which, while usually moral and/or educational in tone, also needed to be entertaining in a way that Soviet adult’s fiction was wise to avoid for political reasons. However, there was also a wide recognition that the theme of manufacturing presented specific challenges across adult audiences as ‘even representatives of the Party nomenklatura perceived industrial tales to be something necessary, but unbearably boring.’[2]

The language of the Soviet production novel with its formulaic structures was particularly unlikely to appeal to the tastes of children, who seek out stories of adventure and entertainment, even in societies heavily restricted by political ideologies. One critic from the time suggested that, through the children’s production book, the theme of production could be transformed from a mere ‘topic of analysis and description’ into an art form of its own.[3]

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Figure 3: The page folds out to reveal more information on construction

In this manner, children’s texts on science and technology (these children’s production books) combined education with the process of discovery and an emphasis on transformation.

Some of these books taught children about the aims of the Five-Year Plans (piatiletki), including A. Laptev’s book The Five-Year Plan (Piatiletka), published in 1930. In The Five-Year Plan, Laptev teaches children the story of how the Plan was created and what it envisions. Using a trait common to many Soviet texts on science and technology, Laptev’s book presents these aims in visual form on maps of the Soviet Union, showing places where electrification, the construction of factories, and the creation of collectivised farms were taking place.


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Figure 4: An illustration of a ‘dynamo’ from What Are We Building?

Laptev’s illustrations and diagrams are not so different from those featured on Soviet agitprop posters from the time, but the book is constructed in a way to appeal to children’s curiosity. Each page folds outwards to reveal that the Plan is one of many layers, which need to be folded and placed in a specific way to ensure success.

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Figure 5: The exercise book cover of Savel’ev’s What Are We Building?

By contrast, Leonid Savel’ev’s part-storybook, part-exercise book (kniga-tetrad’), What Are We Building?: An Exercise Book with pictures (Chto my stroim?: Tetrad’ s kartinkami, 1930) presents children with the process of industrialisation in a recognisably educational way – the exercise book makes an appearance in most global education systems. The new language of science and technology is presented to children as new words often are – in picture-book format. Technical terms, such as ‘dynamo’, ‘cog’, and ‘lathe’, are accompanied by bright illustrations of what they are.

However, this multi-functional ‘exercise book’ allows children to fill-in-the-gaps and write themselves into Soviet industrialisation, as they are encouraged to answer questions on how their village/town/city contributes towards the Five-Year Plans. Children and their communities become small, but essential, cogs in the great Soviet factory. Children were firmly encouraged to imagine themselves as being ‘little-workers’ (deti-rabotniki) in the present, not only in the future.

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Figure 6: In Bumaga, trees are felled….

Soviet children’s books on industry frequently presented the process of science as one of raw material transformation. Many books helped children to understand the natural roots of products and how manufacturing allows nature to be transformed into useful items. N. Dirsh’s book, Paper (Bumaga, 193u?) shows children how trees are processed from a raw material into the paper that makes up their notebooks, journals, and magazines. The message of the transformation of raw materials into useful products has a dual meaning; knowledge and the manufacturing process turn natural products and children alike into items that can benefit Soviet society.

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Figure 7: …the trees are processed into pulp…

Finally, other texts played on fantasy structures well-established in children’s literature, moving away from didactic explanations of technology. N. Bulatov and P. Lopatin’s Journey through an Electric Lamp (Puteshestvie po elektrolampe) sees two children, Iura and Natasha, shrunk into a miniature size so that they can explore the inside of their father’s broken lamp. Ultimately, the book is designed to encourage technical knowledge – the children learn how electrical currents are channelled to create light and they become mini-technicians capable of fixing faults. But, the book chooses a deliberately fantastical tone, which echoes the adventures of miniaturised children in other books, including Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Children are taught the language of science and technology through play and imagination – traits not commonly associated with Soviet literature that follows the Party line.

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Figure 8: ..and transformed into the favourite magazines of children

Soviet children’s literature on science and technology from the late 1920s and 1930s is fascinating for a number of reasons. Considering that such books on science and technology did not appear as a concentrated stream in children’s publishing until the 1960s in the United Kingdom (when Ladybird Books began to regularly publish its ‘How it works’ series), the Soviet literary focus on science and technology in these early decades is impressive.

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Figure 9: Iura and Natasha try to fix their father’s broken lamp

Not only did these texts change the way progressive educators envisaged teaching children about complicated scientific and technical achievements, but they presented a means for authors to escape into worlds of fantasy that were not permitted in the adult world.[4] They are one of the many lesser-known sides of Soviet culture that demonstrate progressive ideas were to be found in the Soviet Union, despite the day-to-day restrictions on the literature and culture of adults.


Laura Todd researches histories of youth and childhood in Russia, the Western Balkans, the Soviet Union and Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Laura completed her PhD on ‘Youth Film in Russia and Serbia Since the 1990s’ in the Russian and Slavonics Department at the University of Nottingham in 2016. She currently teaches in the History Department at De Montfort University. Find her on twitter @laupaw


This blog is adapted from a paper written for the research project, ‘Pedagogy of Images: Depicting Communism for Children’ at Princeton University (https://pedagogyofimages.princeton.edu/). Laura would like to thank the project, its organisers, Thomas Keenan, Serguei Oushakine, Katherine Hill Reischel, and Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library, for their support in conducting this research. All images in the blog have been taken from digitised collections in the Princeton University Digital Library (available here: http://pudl.princeton.edu/collections/pudl0127).


[1] See, for example, Elena Putilova, Ocherki po istorii kritiki sovetskoi detskoi literatury: 1917-1941 (Moscow: Detskaia literatura, 1982), particularly Chapter 4, ‘Diskussiia o detskoi literature 1929-1931 gg.’

[2] Dmitrii Fomin, ‘“Proizvodstvennaia” detskaia kniga’ in Kniga dlia detei 1881-1939: detskaia illiustrirovannaia kniga v istorii Rossii: iz kollektsii Aleksandra Lur’e, glav. red. N Verlinskaia (Moskva: Ulei, 2009), 196-201 (p. 197.)

[3] S Margolina, ‘Proizvodstvennaia detskaia literatura’, Literaturnaia gazeta, No. 5 (1926), p. 107.

[4] See, for example, George S. Counts, ‘A Word for the American Reader’ in Mikhail Ilin, New Russia’s Primer: The Story of the Five Year Plan, translated from the Russian by George S. Counts and Nucia P. Lodge (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1931).


Empire and the articulation of fascism: The British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940

By Liam Liburd

The legacy of the British Empire left indelible marks on the political, social and economic fabric of Britain. This was as true on the political margins as in the mainstream and was no different for Britain’s most prominent fascist movement, the British Union of Fascists (B.U.F.). The experience of the British Empire, either first-hand or vicariously, influenced the B.U.F.’s articulation of their fascism.

Founded in 1932 by Sir Oswald Mosley and outlawed in 1940, the organisation wanted a British Empire reborn along fascist lines. In the words of the title of Mosley’s 1932 book

Sir Oswald Mosley, 6th Bt (1925, Glyn Warren Philpot)

—essentially the manifesto of the movement— the B.U.F. wanted to build a Greater Britain.[1]

Many prominent members of the organisation had encounters with the Empire. William Joyce (the infamous ‘Lord Haw-Haw’) spent his early years in Galway where his associations with the local Black and Tans eventually led to him fleeing the country in December 1921. Similarly, A. K. Chesterton was born in South Africa and grew up in a ‘racially stratified’ white settler community.[2] J. F. C. Fuller had fought in the Boer War and both he and Francis Yeats-Brown spent a number of years serving India. Beyond these examples, a glance at the profiles of the men and women who served as prospective parliamentary candidates for the B.U.F. shows that those with imperial careers —tea planters, colonial administrators and such— were drawn to the movement.

Alongside those with direct experience of Empire were those who had come into contact with the imperialism that permeated British popular culture particularly during the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Stories of imperial heroes were retold in history lessons, plays, music-hall acts and even pantomime. The B.U.F. maintained this tradition, worshipping imperial heroes in their periodicals.

The imperial heroes of legend became the masculine model for the B.U.F.’s ‘new fascist man’. They considered the men of their movement as the reincarnation of imperial pioneers like Sir Francis Drake and Clive of India.[3] Their fascism would mean the rule of the ‘true aristocrat’; the best kind of man because of his character and abilities.[4] Again based on pioneers like Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, this ‘true aristocrat’ was classless and above sectional interest, struggling only in the interests of Britain.

The B.U.F.’s enemies such as the ‘Old Gang’ politicians, socialists and pacifists were all compared unfavourably with the ‘Empire Builders’ they wished to emulate.[5] Next to these ‘rough men’, the others were painted as effeminate, indecisive and treacherous.

The B.U.F. expressed their vehement opposition to Indian nationalism in terms of this imperial masculinity, and when discussing India regurgitated almost unreconstructed the colonial hierarchies of race. When B.U.F. members wrote or spoke of India they employed the language of martial race theory dating back to the 1857 Indian Mutiny. This theory ordered the various ethnic groups of India according to how many qualities they shared with the ‘manly Englishman’. For the B.U.F., the culprits behind Indian nationalism were Western-educated Bengali Hindus. The latter were at the bottom of the martial race scale, referred to by the epithet ‘effeminate babus’.[6]

The B.U.F. made extensive use of this racist colonial stereotype to oppose independence and to advocate fascist leadership of India. For them, an independent India would be a

‘Clive of India’ was one of the imperial ‘pioneers’ admired by men of the BUF.

country of docile people run by effeminate and cunning ‘Babu lawyers’.[7] They argued that, culturally and psychologically, Indians were better suited to an authoritarian ruler than they were to democracy. In the B.U.F.’s vision of a fascist future, India was to be governed not by way of negotiation and concession, but in the strong and decisive style of the ‘Empire Builders’.

The history of British imperialism was also used to frame the B.U.F.’s support for the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935. The invasion was discussed in terms of a colonial rebellion in need of quelling. Abyssinians were not simply repelling an invasion but, in the eyes of the B.U.F., were ‘Black Murderers’.[8] A. K. Chesterton described the action taken by the Italians as ‘the heroism of Empire warriors’.[9] Mussolini’s actions were compared with Kitchener’s reconquering of the Sudan in the 1890s and both were found to be simply ‘put[ting] down slavery and barbarism with a strong hand’.[10] The Abyssinia crisis was portrayed as part of an ongoing race war, the fulfilment of the white man’s imperial ‘Destiny’. In this conflict, William Joyce asserted, fascism represented the defender of white civilization against the ‘Oriental and African barbarian’.[11]

Imperialism was not simply a past glory for the B.U.F.; it was a political model for the future. One fascist described the ‘direct object of fascism’ as the revival of ‘the pioneering spirit upon which the magnitude of the British Empire is founded’.[12] From stories of Britain’s imperial past, such as the exploits of Clive of India, as well as from the direct experience of Empire some of their number possessed, fascists took two lessons.[13] One was that imperialism worked best where a suitable person was appointed and given a free hand. And the other, that mistakes were down to the inference of elected party politicians. British imperialism became an object lesson in the qualities of fascist leadership when compared with its democratic counterpart.

Roger Griffin has written of fascism as one of a number of anti-Enlightenment ideologies seeking to give birth to an ‘alternative modernity’.[14] The B.U.F.’s use of the language of imperialism shows that they sought an alternative modernity based on their conception of British imperialism. In imperialism they saw a model of masculinity and a system of government that was anti-liberal, authoritarian, white supremacist and aggressively nationalistic. In short, they saw reflected in Britain’s imperial past their imagined fascist future.

The relationship between Britain’s far-right and the British Empire casts further light on the nature of fascist ideology and is an area ripe for study. The study of the far-right, a collection of nationalistic and racist movements, necessitates an examination of the engagement of these movements with the British Empire, an important aspect of both British nationalism and racism.

Liam Liburd received a BA in History and Sociology from the University of Sheffield, before going on to complete an MA in Modern History. Liam is now in the first year of a PhD, also in Sheffield, exploring constructions of race, gender and empire on the extreme Right in Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s. He has previously written blogs for History Matters, and was heavily involved in the organisation of the ‘Gendering Peace’ conference which took place in Sheffield earlier on this year. Find Liam on twitter @Liburd93


[1] The phrase itself has imperialist roots, originating in the 19th century, as the title of a popular 1868 book by Charles Dilke. It became a shorthand term for the Empire and the imperial ideal.

[2] D. Baker, Ideology of Obsession: A. K. Chesterton and British Fascism (London; New York, 1996), pp. 24-25.

[3] O. Hawks, ‘Revolution is a National Characteristic’, Blackshirt, 87 (December 21, 1934), p. 6.

[4] A. Raven Thomson, ‘Aristocracy of Worth’, Fascist Week, 13 (February 2-8, 1934), p. 4.

[5] “Lucifer”, ‘Pink Dreams in a Yellow Jacket – Sobbing Away the Empire: The Intellectual Noxiousness of Bloomsbury Socialists’, Fascist Week, 2, (November 17-23, 1933), p. 7.

[6]M. Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ in the late nineteenth century (Manchester; New York, 1995), p. 2.

[7] T. Lang, ‘The Albert Hall Rally’, Blackshirt, 101 (March 29, 1935), pp. 1, 2, 5.

[8] E. D. Hart, ‘The Bleating Wolf of Ethiopia: Britain’s Press Pets’, Action, 11 (April 30, 1936), p. 7.

[9] A.K. Chesterton, ‘The End of a Stupid Story – Let Eden Follow Selassie’, Action (12, May 7, 1936), p. 11.

[10] A.R.T., ‘With Kitchener to Khartoum’, Action, 2 (February 28, 1936), p. 3.

[11] W. Joyce, ‘The Forces of Darkness Arrayed Against Fascism’, Blackshirt, 119 (August 2, 1935), p. 2.

[12] J. Rudd, ‘Fascism’s Mission to British Youth, Blackshirt, 75 (September 28, 1934), p. 6.

[13] E. D. Hart, ‘Men Who Built the British Empire: A Survey of the Great Colonists’, Action, 65 (May 15, 1937), p. 9.

[14] R. Griffin, ‘Studying Fascism in a Postfascist Age – From New Consensus to New Wave?’, Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies, 1 (2012), p. 15.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: Glyn Warren Philpot [Public domain], currently at NPG London, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Francis Hayman [Public domain], currently at NPG London, via Wikimedia Commons