Peek Inside Thousands of Soviet Children's Books From Princeton University

Tea (Чай) by David Shterenberg, 1931. Courtesy Princeton University
Tea (Чай) by David Shterenberg, 1931. Courtesy Princeton University

Thousands of rarely seen Soviet children’s books are now available online. Playing Soviet: The Visual Languages of Early Soviet Children’s Books 1917-1953, a digital database, draws on Princeton University’s collection of 2500 Soviet picture books to create an interactive visual exhibition on the role of illustration and kid’s literature in the U.S.S.R. It includes digitized books with essays and annotations by scholars of Russian literature and history.

“In the selections featured here, the user can see first-hand the mediation of Russia’s accelerated violent political, social and cultural evolution from 1917 to 1953,” the website explains. “As was clear both from the rhetoric of the arbiters of Soviet culture—its writers and government officials—the illustration and look of Soviet children’s books was of tantamount importance as a vehicle for practical and concrete information in the new Soviet regime.”

A children’s book illustration shows a scene from above of three men gathered around a map.

How the Revolution Was Victorious (Как победила революция) by Alisa Poret, 1930. Courtesy Princeton University

Many of the books were designed to indoctrinate children into the world of the “right” way to think about Soviet culture and history. For instance, in a book titled How the Revolution Was Victorious (Как победила революция), the overt aim of the publisher was to teach children born just after the October Revolution of 1917 what happened—namely, as Yuri Leving writes in the book’s analysis on the site, “to ensure the correct interpretation of the anti-governmental coup among the young generation of new Soviet readership.”

Cubo-Futurist illustration of a worker from a youth manual on being a good Soviet laborer.

Youth, Go! (Юность, иди!) by A. Gastev and I. Shpinel, 1923. Courtesy Princeton University

This emphasis on children’s picture books as a tool for Soviet teachings elevated the role of the illustrator and artist in culture. Illustrators were considered on par with the great writers of the day and were given the opportunity to incorporate new, avant-garde styles into books for children and young adults.

Youth, Go! (Юность, иди!), a trade-union-commissioned manual on becoming an efficient worker, featured Cubo-Futurist and Constructivist illustrations that urged young people to become hyper-efficient machines, both mentally and physically.

A spread of a children’s book featuring a zeppelin on each page flying over a city.

The Song of the Dirigible (Песнь о дирижабле) by Nina Sakonskaia and V.P. Akhmetev, 1931. Courtesy Princeton University

The books included in Playing Soviet don’t include full English translations, but they are annotated to reveal important aspects of the artwork and the text. You can flip through the digital books or scroll through selections of individual pages from the whole collection. You can also search by artist, author, subject, year, or even color. The project is ongoing, and according to Princeton, the image database will add about 100 new images per year from now on.

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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