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.

Celebrate the Encyclopedia Britannica's 250th Birthday by Checking Out Its First Edition Online

Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Mario Tama/Getty Images

While those gold-embossed, multi-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica were a feature of many an American childhood, the origins of the venerable reference work actually lie in Scotland. Two hundred and fifty years ago—on December 10, 1768—the first pages of the Britannica were published in Edinburgh. To celebrate the anniversary, the National Library of Scotland has put a rare first edition of the encyclopedia online.

The first edition was the brainchild of printer Colin Macfarquhar, engraver Andrew Bell, and the editor William Smellie. It was published in 100 weekly sections over three volumes (completed in 1771), but explicit engravings of midwifery scandalized some subscribers, and were ripped out on the orders of the Crown. The entries of the first edition—some of which ran to hundreds of pages—reflect the biases and preoccupations of their time: woman is defined as "the female of a man," while there are 39 pages devoted to horse diseases. Nevertheless, the work was a significant accomplishment that drew on at least 150 sources, from essays by famous philosophers to newspaper articles. It also featured 160 copperplate engravings by Bell.

The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica
The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

In a statement from the National Library of Scotland, Rare Books Curator Robert Betteridge said, "By the 20th century Britannica was a household name throughout the English-speaking world, and what is especially interesting about this publication was that it had a distinctly Scottish viewpoint. The first edition emphasized two themes—modern science and Scottish identity, including ground-breaking and controversial articles on anatomy and Scots Law."

The first edition (which includes those ripped-out midwifery pages) will appear as part of an exhibit on the Scottish Enlightenment at the National Library of Scotland this summer. For now, you can view all three volumes of the first edition, from "A—the name of several rivers" to Zygophyllum, a genus in botany—online here.

[h/t American Libraries]

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

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