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).

fig 2
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]

fig 3
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.

 

fig 4
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.

fig 5
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.

fig 6
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.

fig 7
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.

fig 8
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.

fig 9
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

Acknowledgements:

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).

References:

[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).

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