The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In the good old days of the USSR, it was commonly held by my classmates and school-teachers that Soviet Literature, especially that for children, was the finest in the world. As I was seven years old when I first encountered this view, I was quite prepared to take it on face value. I was beginning to enjoy reading quite a bit, and the books readily available to me did fulfill my criteria for fine literature: driven by plot, full of conversation, and dotted with humour.

It must be admitted that not too many books were, in fact, available. For whatever reason, the authorities restricted print circulation of even approved authors. Books by the great writers, such as Dostoevsky and Turgenev, were difficult to find. Many of the more readily available books were works of propaganda, veiled as children's fiction.

The Italian writer Gianni Rodari's book The Adventures of Cipollino was very popular. This was your basic Communist treatise on class warfare and the eventual victory of the proletariat, but it was written for children and with such humour that the deeper message remained subliminal - at least at my age. Other well-loved stories were those translated and adapted from the Western canon, such as Pinocchio and the Wizard of Oz. There were also memoirs addressed to older kids by Mongolians and Burmese writers who described the transition of their communities from feudalism (or - a favourite term - obscurantism) to socialism. Not that I was too interested in them, of course. My tastes at the time started with Kornei Chukovsky, Alexander Volkov, Arkady Gaidar, and Nikolai Nosov, and as I grew older, progressed to Viktoria Vartan and Ariadna Shalar.

To begin, then. Chukovsky's Doctor Aibolit (which translates as Doctor Oh-it-hurts) was the entry-level series of books for kids. It began with a popular poem about a doctor who could speak to animals, very like the Doolittle stories of Hugh Lofting. His escapades occur in Africa, where he treats his patients with chocolate, while a villainous robber Barmaley dogs his footsteps.

Nosov's trilogy about Neznaika (meaning Don't Know) was the next step on my path to the Great Russians. The first in the series was the most light-hearted one and the most accessible. Like all of Nosov's works, this one was didactic and moralising, but not too obviously so to a seven-year old. Neznaika starts off as a self-important and misogynistic ignoramus with a vivid imagination, rebelling against the more proper members of his community, but who ends up a little older and wiser after a bunch of hair-raising misadventures caused entirely by his recklessness and stupidity. The next, Neznaika in the Golden Town, did have its serious moments, and the morality got a bit sterner. Neznaika obtained a magic wand which continued to do his bidding until he made three "evil" wishes, whereupon he ended up with serious consequences beyond his control. He needed to make difficult choices, admit his faults and mature a little in the process. The last book, Neznaika on the Moon, I never did complete. For one thing, it was a fairly bulky tome - perhaps 300 pages? - and for another, its plot was not quite as gripping as its predecessors'. This was an out-and-out communist propaganda piece, even more so than Golden Town, and written in a rather turgid fashion, addressed to older readers, and it didn't quite grab my fancy.

In my second (or possibly third) grade at school - I don't remember which, exactly - we were introduced to Nosov's Vitya Maleev at School and at Home. This is a humorous book with interesting protagonists. Vitya is poor at mathematics (the paragraphs where he works out a tricky problem entirely by himself has to be one of the best pedagogic examples of mathematical reasoning, the likes of which I have not seen anywhere else) but good at the other subjects, while his best friend is good at math, but terrible everything else. One of them improves his lot by hard work, the other deteriorates and becomes a dropout. Throughout the book is Nosov's superb understanding of children's psychology, which is marred only by his ultimate goal - to explicate a black-and-white morality and constantly underline the Communist ideology.

Arkady Gaidar's most famous book was (about a boy called) Timur and His Squad, which narrates the tale of Timur, and a young girl who falls in with his band, the disapproval of their elders who mistake them for a gang of thuggish kids, the battles between rival groups, and the eventual redemption of at least one misbegotten soul. Written during the Second World War, this grabbed the attention of children across the Soviet Union, for its frequently exciting plot, its reinforcement of the power of team-work, and - for those with attention deficit disorder - its terseness. It was short and gripping, and only now, looking back, do I vaguely recall its Communist agenda.

Volkov's books were based on L. Frank Baum's Oz series. The first was the wildly popular Sorcerer of the Emerald City, about Ellie and her dog Totoshka who are pulled into a magical world by a hurricane, and who help a lion to find courage, a scarecrow to become brainy, and a metal woodcutter to obtain a heart. One of my friends at school had the sequels, two of which dealt with an older Ellie, and the last few with her younger sister Andi and a new mutt, this one named Antoshka. One of the evil witches dies in the very first book, but an evil minion named Urfin Juice manages to take over her kingdom and spread despair across the land with an army of animated wooden soldiers. When he is neutralised, another villain arises as a fiery god of the Marrans, the high-jumping and xenophobic dwellers of a deep valley in (I think) the north. There is a book that discusses a Yellow Fog which envelops the magical demesnes, and another about Seven Kings Underground. There was, as far as I could tell, almost no ideology in these books, but plenty of good-old-fashioned courage and friendship, quests and magical talismans. I later discovered that, interestingly, in translation (by the famous Mir Publishers of Moscow), these books became far more famous than Baum's in such countries as Syria, Cuba and Germany.

Viktoria Vartan was of Armenian descent and her book Light To Your Eyes! is one of the loveliest I've ever read. It comprises several stories about two brothers who are sent to their grandmothers for the summer while their (separated) parents stay on in the city. It is set in 1943, and the shadow and terror of the war loom in the background, but for the most part, the stories are joyous, funny, and full of detail about the feuds and rivalries that permeate the village, affectionately recounted by the older boy. In particular, the grandmothers do not speak to each other, and try to undermine each other's prestige in the eyes of their neighbours. One grandmother is a stern and scary figure, while the other is loving and kind, but both dote on their grandsons and look out for them at every turn. The boys, as any other boys, are naughty imps and constantly get into trouble. As the book progresses, the elder boy learns a lesson in sensitivity, the village opens it arms to an old enemy, and heartbreaking news from the front serves finally to reconcile the matriarchs.

And finally, Ariadna Shalar, a Moldovan author, created The Irrepressible Alergush, or Who Triumphed Over Whom. We have here yet another tale of an impish boy who gets in and out of scraps, looks down upon the nerd in the class, and wins battles of wits against his classmates. He procrastinates and lies and insinuates his way through the academic year, gloating at his victories over the nerds and gormless classmates. At the end he realises that his achievements were inconsequential and emerges alone and forlorn. The book is a happy romp through an irrepressible boy's life, which to any less enthusiastic person would initially appear charmed, but at the end, the reader has a sense of schadenfreude when all of Alergush's plots and counterplots fall around his ears, and he realises the enormity of his final defeat.


Anonymous said...

Hi there, this isn't quite on point, but for the past 20+ years, I've been looking for an audio recording of a dr. aibolit story. I had the record when i was a child in the 70s/early 80's, but then my parents gave it away. The story was not written in verse and included songs -- the one i remember is about Africa being very away (Afrika Naverna Ochin Daleeko). I found the recording once on a website for Russian adoptions, but, alas, I never uploaded on to my computer and the site has been inactive for years now. I'm at a complete loss. There's a Aybolit66 movie -- which is very trippy and definately NOT the recording I'm looking for. There's a cartoon from the 80's, but since I had this recording in the 70's, it can't be it either. Anyway, sorry for the rambling, I was just googling and hit your site. Do you have any clue what I'm talking about???

Anonymous said...

sorry, i realized i didn't leave any contact --

Fëanor said...

I'm afraid I don't remember the particular recording you allude to. I recall cartoons of Aibolit, though, in particular his multistoreyed house with various animals sticking out of them and lots of singing. Perhaps that's the trippy version you mention?

You could try searching on Google with Aibolit in the Cyrillic script: I find that searching with Russian keywords sometimes elicits hits that don't turn up when searched for in English transliteration.

Unknown said...

WOW, this was so interesting! I stumbled across this page while trying to answer the question whether the book Cipollino was translated into English. I ended up reading this blog for 2 hours and will definitely put it in my favorites.

Reading "Kids books in USSR" article brought out the warm memories that I myself had as I child growing up in USSR and reading all those books. It was very refreshing to read their description in English as well as their connection to all the Soviet propaganda.

Fëanor said...

Anna: thanks for stopping by and your comments. glad you liked the piece. when were you in the USSR, and what books did you read?

Anonymous said...

I am from India and when I was growing up in the 90's my dad bought different Russian children's books which were translated into my own language.Vitya Maleev at school is probably my favorite children's book even now.I have been lookking for the russian version or the english translation.I live in Scotland right now.Is it possible of rme to buy this boo somewhere.Amazon doesnot seem to have any copy.
Sudeshna\my email id is

Fëanor said...

Sorry Sudeshna, no idea where this book can be found. The Russian version is available online, though.

Anonymous said...

My name is Anna T. I am from New York. However, originally I am from Moscow, Russia. I was brought up on all these samples of wonderful literature for children, and I think that I know it well. Let me help you to find what you are looking for.
Kornei Chuckovsky, one of the greatest Russian writers, wrote about Aibolit for children - in verse as well as in prose. Probably, someone used his story and, additionally, his verse for songs.
"Vitya Maleev at shool and home" was translated into English in 1954 by the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Moscow and issued under a different title - "Schoolboys". It can be found here:
Good luck to everyone who is interested in Russian literature for children, it is really amazing.

Fëanor said...

Hi Anna T. Thanks for stopping by and the links.

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