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.

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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.

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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Socialism in Translation: The Challenges of Teaching Communist History in the 21st Century

By Lani Seelinger

Let’s say that you want to teach communist history to students whose countries were never under communist rule. It’s an important episode of history to address, especially in the EU, which includes countries from both sides of the Iron Curtain. When you find source material you want to use, where do you start? By translating it, of course.

If you just translate the words in the source and have students look at it from their contemporary perspectives, however, you’re going to be facing a minefield of potential problems. Historical representations of Eastern and Central Europe during the communist period and otherwise so often orientalise it, which is counterproductive to the whole point of integrating these histories within the general history of Europe.

The best way to address these problems, then, is to integrate an element of cultural translation when preparing teaching materials — and to find sources that don’t need an overwhelming amount of explanation. This is particularly important when dealing with the sort of language that the communist regimes employed, because the people reading it and hearing it at the time would have picked up on the linguistic symbols and slogans that they were accustomed to, whereas the same language now doesn’t carry as much meaning for modern audiences.

We’ve seen an example of this in the news recently, when American president Donald Trump referred to the media on Twitter as an ‘enemy of the people’. While we cannot be sure why exactly he chose to use this phrase, it was a red flag for those who have studied the history of Stalinism, as it was one of Stalin’s favorite loaded phrases.

Knowing the mere meaning of the words isn’t enough to grasp the significance of such an utterance in 21st century politics; the cultural and historical weight must be noted for those trying to learn about it from the outside.

Let’s take a look at one of the video clips on our educational website, Socialism Realised. We call this one ‘Girl on a Tractor’, and it’s a clip from a 1950s propaganda film about collectivisation in Czechoslovakia.

Picture1

We’ve translated the lyrics in the video, but they’re relatively meaningless to modern audiences in either language. ‘In the sea of air and airplane/ tractor drivers of vast fields’? ‘The farmer worked like a dog/ we’ll plough the old boundaries’? There are, however, symbols hidden in those words that might have meant something to the people who heard them, and they certainly held some significance for the people who wrote them.

The references to airplanes and tractors allude to technology and progress, which was an important selling point of collectivization for those running it. Individual farmers wouldn’t have the resources to purchase tractors, but look at the power of the collective! Without the tractors, a farmer had to ‘[work] like a dog’ inside ‘the old boundaries’ of the fields — which the tractors are now happily ploughing through to create the collective.

And then there’s the music, which is Russian in style and not native to the former Czechoslovakia at all. The resulting image is, of course, of a bountiful harvest and a happy farmer.

Modern students can see the bountiful harvest and the happy farmers, and they can gather that it’s a clip from a propaganda film without any additional information about the symbolism in the lyrics. ‘Girl on a Tractor’ works precisely because it contains elements that were clear enough to all of the audiences that we tested without needing significant cultural contextualization of its language. In order to teach histories of authoritarianism to web users who may be approaching the subject for the first time, this absolutely key.

Take, on the other hand, an example of a source that we ended up cutting out. The newspaper article ‘Who Is Václav Havel’ was published in the Czechoslovak government newspaper in 1989 as a hit piece, portraying Havel as the scion of a rich family who went on to launch a ‘“holy war” against the socialist state.”

When we piloted the article with international students, it launched our focus group into a heated discussion of whether it was a propaganda piece from a socialist state or a laudatory article from a magazine like Time. The language implying that Havel was an enemy of the people, without stating so explicitly, went completely unnoticed by a number of our testing subjects, which showed us that it was not a suitable piece of educational material for our desired audience.

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In its place, we decided to feature instead an article entitled ‘Losers and Usurpers’, which has a stronger tone and language that is more blatantly defamatory. No one needs an explanation of the linguistic tropes that communist regimes used in order to figure out that phrases like ‘dogged fight against progress’, ‘unstable and disoriented individuals’, or ‘these usurpers scorn our people’ are meant to be negative. The ability to immediately understand the perspective of the article then allows users to pick up on elements of the communist rhetoric that they might not have known to begin with — the negative connotation of the bourgeoisie, for example, or the vaunted position of the proletariat, thus building a cultural ‘vocabulary’ with which to contextualize the less explicit pieces.

The biggest challenge of putting together our online learning environment was choosing material that could be understood by the broadest possible audience of people who have no experience with authoritarianism. The pieces we’ve chosen, then, are the ones that we believe are best able to get people thinking critically about the period — and those are the ones that needed the least cultural translation. Learning is, however, always a work in progress — so if you’ve got comments about something that we chose to include, we are always happy to hear them.

Lani Seelinger is based in the Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Prague. She is also the co-creator and curator of Socialism Realised, an online learning environment aimed at forging a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in communist regimes, and a comparison of these experiences to the present. You can find Socialism Realised on Twitter at @SocialismR.

 

Speaking Soviet – The Marriage of Soviet Linguistics and Literacy in the Early Soviet Period

By Kate Martin

With the advent of the early Soviet period, the idea of literacy and language was one which was at the forefront of the minds of the Bolshevik leadership. Although work had begun in the late 19th and early 20th century by the previous regime to make education and literacy more available to the population, it had moved at a very slow pace: in 1914, only 41% of the population was literate[1]. To combat this, the Soviets mobilised a variety of new literacy schemes, including the successful Obshchestvo doloi negramotnost’ – The Society for the Eradication of Illiteracy.

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‘We are not slaves’ – Soviet Illiteracy Eradication Campaign Poster

Parallel to this, in the upper echelons of Soviet sciences, work was being undertaken at a lightning pace as linguists raced to find a ‘true’ theory of Marxist Linguistics. One such individual was Boris Larin, who argued that language users could move between several metalanguages in their own mother tongue. He focussed on the language of the state, language of the family group and language of the workplace. Per his theory, the same word might have different connotations depending on the metalanguage being used at the time.

While he did not suggest that his theory could be used in terms of language planning, a study of literacy campaigns shows how they can be used to influence language use by interlinking and homogenising the metalanguages of each language user. The campaigns were quickly put into action by an army of teachers and volunteers. Figures from the Central Moscow State Archive, TsGaMo, show the scope of the Society for the Eradication of Illiteracy.

Numbers of Illiterates Educated                                 Numbers of Semi Literates Educated

Year In Moscow In the Counties Total in the Moscow Region In Moscow In the Counties Total in the Moscow Region Total
1920/21 12000 21000 33000 3300
1922/23 3155 4500 7655 2400 1500 3900 11555
1923/24 5000 10000 15000 3710 3500 7210 22210
1924/25 5399 22953 28352 5945 7756 13701 42053
1925/26 6095 29435 35530 4746 8931 13675 49205
Total 31649 87888 119537 16801 21687 38486 158025

Figure 2: Numbers of Literate and Semi-Literate Citizens Educated in the Moscow Region between 1920-26[2]

However, literacy, to the Soviets meant more than the ability to read books and newspapers. As one early literacy scheme curriculum stated on its sign-up sheet, as a way of repaying the debt that they owed to the freedom afforded to them by the Great October Revolution all citizens “Can learn and must study the national economy”[3]. This focus on national economy greatly influenced the curricula of the literacy classes.

As well as learning about grammatical structures and reading skills, students in these schemes also learned about the different industries of the USSR. Indeed, the curriculum above stated that. “The economy is made up of production, for example that of textiles, metallurgy, mining industries and farming.”[4]

So how does the linguistic theory link to the literacy campaign, and how does it teach citizens to speak Soviet? Interestingly, the answer to this lies in newspapers. One of the main skills in the literacy curriculum was the ability to read and understand newspapers. This appears to be a rare case of the Soviet powers successfully joining the dots between their different schemes: newspaper articles often focussed heavily on the efforts and ‘successes’ (to be taken with a large grain of salt) of the various industries in the USSR.

Thus, Larin’s ‘the political’ and ‘the workplace’ metalanguages became much more closely connected. The extended definition of literacy created an impetus for more people to learn to read. The design of the curriculum meant that learners were exposed to a wide variety of topics relating to industry, and were instructed in how to read about these subjects in the newspapers. As the topics in the curricula were broad in range, people could access a much wider variety of information, and indeed compelled to read on more topics than they would have previously.

The state, as controllers of the content of the media, was able to control the ideological content of the newspapers. Words from the work metalanguage could be imbued with ideological colourations from the political.

While this is just one small part of the language planning operation which was put in place by the Soviet government during the early period of the USSR, the use of this theory demonstrates the ways that they were able to implement state goals through a trickledown effect.

Kate Martin is a third-year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her doctoral research is a multidisciplinary project which brings together Soviet linguistics, censorship and translation theory. Her research interests include the development of the Russian language and Soviet linguistics in the 1917-34 period and the translation of anti-utopian novels from this period.

References:

[1] Ben Ecklof, ‘The Myth of the Zemstvo School: The Sources of the Expansion of Rural Education in Imperial Russia: 1864-1914’, History of Education Quarterly, 24 (1984), 561-84. p.142

[2] TsGaMO (Central State Archive of the Moscow Region) f.966, o.4 d.2408 l.6

[3] TsGaMO f.966 o.4 d.945 l.7

[4] Ibid.

 

Educating the ‘Uneducable’: Soviet Deaf-Blind Education and the New Soviet Person

By Charles Beacroft

In 1928, Lucy Wilson, an experienced educator and pedagogue, travelled from the United States to the Soviet Union to compile an accurate account of the advances of Soviet education for the Vanguard Studies of Soviet Russia. In her travels, she arrived to a school for the deaf-blind in the Ukraine and was stunned. She concluded that ‘in Kharkov… there is an experimental school for the scientific study of the deaf-blind which in its ideal, its equipment, its teachers and its results is far ahead of anything that I have chanced to see in any other country.’[1]

trawling-the-archive-for-letters-written-by-women-to-soviet-newspapers
Three children being led by their teacher at the Kharkov School for the Deaf-Blind

Wilson’s amazement concerned the Kharkov Institute for the Deaf-Blind, a school-clinic that remained the focal point for surdotiflopedagogika (deaf-blind education) within the Soviet Union during the interwar period. The founder of the school, Professor Ivan Sokolyansky, who was considered the father of surdotiflopedagogika, had formulated a method that involved the use of self-care techniques, educational practices and mechanical prosthetics to educate previously ‘uneducable’ deaf-blind children.

This was representative of the transformative mind-set of social constructivism during the 1920s and 1930s, personified through the proliferation of the New Soviet Person myth. His system, termed ‘humanization’, ensured that deaf-blind children, despite their sensory deprivation, could lead productive, purposeful lives within Soviet society.

Congenital deafblindness is defined as the combination of both sight and hearing loss, often through the catching of tuberculosis, meningitis or Usher’s syndrome at an early age.[2] Children who have not developed language before the onset of their multi-sensory deprivation, face an enormous challenge in communicating with others. They are unable to form relationships or interact successfully with their environment, yet they have a perfectly functioning brain.

Sokolyansky retorted that ‘the child himself will never reach full mental development through his own efforts. Without special pedagogical help, a child is totally disabled for life.’[3] Sokolyansky wished to bring about an ‘awakening’, to create the means for the deaf-blind child to utilise their active mind and develop a method of communication with others.

Before the deaf-blind child could be taught how to speak, Sokolyansky wished to teach such children how to form their own independence. All of his pupils were reliant on others to feed, dress and take care of them before they entered the school. Sokolyansky’s method relied on the formation of their own self-care skills. One particular method,

picture1
A Deaf-Blind man using a ‘reading machine’

known as ‘direct installation’, had the teacher place their hands on the inside of the palms of a deaf-blind child.[4] Together, they would complete a series of activities, such as dressing, washing and eating, so that the child would passively learn how to complete such activities.

Over a period of time, the child would eventually take a dominant role and would learn how to successfully complete these actions themselves, independent of their teachers. Sokolyansky was concerned with the creating of useful, industrious children who could think for themselves, form their own opinions and make decisions. His method began the process of ‘humanization’ and lay the foundation for subsequent development.

Language was the next step in surdotiflopedagogika. The ‘oral method’ was shunned by Sokolyansky, and he promoted a teaching curriculum that involved gesticulation, the learning of the dactyl alphabet and Braille.[5] The development of their tactile sense was paramount to the creation of language within the mind of the deaf-blind child. Language would lead to the formation of independent thought and the advancement of their education. With such an education, they could learn to live within Soviet society, free of the confines of their pre-institutionalized selves.

Mechanical prosthetics also formed a significant part of Sokolyansky’s approach to
language development, specifically through his creation and development of both the ‘reading machine’ and the ‘teletaktor’. Both of these machines had developed to allow for the deaf, blind and deaf-blind to successfully have an artificial means of communication within Kharkov.

The ‘reading machine’[6] was developed in Kharkov to allow for the transfer of electronical oscillations that passed through the tips of fingers of a blind or a deaf-blind child, thus creating language through tactile means. Likewise, the ‘teletaktor’[7] served deaf or deaf-blind children and converted sounds into vibrations.

Hence, the child would be able to ‘hear’ their own voices, the voices of others and from what direction the noises came from through the feeling of the vibrations. It was an example of mechanical social engineering and utilised the availability of modern contemporary technology to overcome the sensory impairments of the deaf-blind child.

picture3
Ivan Sokolyansky (left) helps transcribe Olga Skorokhodova’s (right) memoirs

Sokolyansky’s revolutionary methods bore fruit, with every single child within the Kharkov school being able to read, write and communicate (through various mediums) with each other and their peers. Wilson also reiterated how ‘none of the pupils hear, none of them see, but all of them have acquired the necessary basic habits, meaning that they can take care of themselves efficiently, making their own beds, eating like refined human beings, playing and working together happily.’ [8]

One student, named Olga Skorokhodova, became the triumph of surdotiflopedagogika after eventually writing her own autobiography in 1947, entitled How I Perceive the World, and defending her PhD thesis in 1961.[9] She succeeded in becoming a productive, useful member of Soviet society and her achievements paved the way for others to follow in her footsteps in the late Soviet period.

Charles Beacroft is a second year CHASE funded PhD student within the University of East Anglia’s History Department. His doctoral research deals exclusively with the education of deaf-blind children in the early Soviet period. His research interests revolve around the history of disability, social history, and marginalised groups, specifically homeless children and orphans.

References

[1] Lucy Wilson, The New Schools of New Russia (Vanguard Press, New York, 1928), p. 86

[2] David Bakhurst and Carol Padden, The Meshcheryakov Experiment: Soviet Work on the Education of Deaf-Blind Children, Learning and Instruction (1991) Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp. 201 – 215

[3] GARF, f. 10049, op. 2, d. 389, l. 3

[4] Tatiana A. Basilova, Istoriya Obucheniya Slepogluhih Detei v Rossii (Eskmo Punlishers, Moscow, 2015), pp. 88 – 89

[5] Tatiana A. Basilova, ‘About Sokolyansky and his Method of Teaching Deaf-Blind Children’, Cultural Historical Psychology Journal (2006), Issue 3, p. 12; Irina Sandomirskaya, ‘Skin to Skin: Language in the Soviet Education of Deaf-Blind Children, the 1920s and 1930s’ (2008), Studies in East European Thought, Vol. 60, pp. 332 – 333

[6] S-FPS, f. 1, op. 3.2, d. 51, l. 43

[7] S-FPS, f. 1, op. 3.2, d. 49, l. 62

[8] Wilson, New Schools, p. 86

[9] O. I. Skorokhodova, How I Perceive and Imagine my World (Pedagogy Publishers, Moscow, 1972)

Image Attributions

Image 1: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 189, d. 14, l. 1

Image 2: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 190, d. 21, l. 1

Image 3: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 191, d. 30, l. 1