Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature

Children and Art in the U.S.S.R.

S. Marshak

Published: Foreign Languages Publishing House 1939;
HTML Markup: For in April, 2002.

One day a boy of eight or nine appeared at the Child Art Center carrying an enormous roll of paper under his arm. Set on end it would have stood half as high again as the youngster himself. He unrolled it.

"What's that you've got there?" he was asked.

"A Socialist City," he replied briefly.

The immense scroll was a patchwork of several pieces. The young artist had evidently drawn his many-tiered city in parts and then pasted them together.

The parks, squares and underground roads and elevated ways had been planned with equal care and thought.

The drawings of Soviet children, like their games, reflect the great work of construction and renewal going on in their country.

That is quite natural. Children of all ages and all countries have always responded to the life going on around them.

We who were born in tsarist times, at the end of the last century, also reflected the ways of our adults in our childhood play. Of political events we knew very little. True, the Russo-Japanese War figured in our games; but it was usually the doings and happenings of our own street or city that appealed to our young imaginations. We put out fires, saved drowning men, buried each other in turn, played at being stall-owners in the market, tracked down robbers.

More often we were Red Indians, whom we read about in books, or played the traditional childish games invented by our distant forefathers.

We added little to the range of make-believe the previous generation had left to us.

We were so brought up as to be almost incapable of reacting intelligently to the big events of our times, of reflecting them in our drawings, games and songs.

But Soviet children are generously endowed with this gift.

They play at airmen flying across the North Pole, at frontier guards protecting the Soviet borders, at Asturian grenade-throwers. Their drawings and verses depict the building of the Moscow Metro, the search for the crew of the Rodina in the taiga, the work of the deep-sea divers, the celebration of revolutionary holidays on the Red Square in Moscow.

When the four plucky explorers, Papanin, Krenkel, Shirshov and Fyodorov, were drifting down from the North Pole on their ice-floe, two Moscow schoolchildren, Nick and Serge Robin, expressed the emotions of thousands of Soviet youngsters in the following appeal to the "Papaninites":

We, too, would like to visit
The frozen Pole, and land
By the earth's jutting axis
And feel it with our hand.
Too small, too small, dear children,
Is all the answer we get.
There are no Pioneers camping
Around the North Pole yet!
But if we do not hurry,
And wait until we're men,
All Poles will be discovered--
What will there be left then?
We'll wait on one condition.
Sergei and I implore:
Leave us undiscovered
One spot at least to explore!

This humorous appeal was written when there were still no grounds to fear for the safety of the men on the icefloe. Cheerful messages were being received from the "North Pole" station almost daily.

But their icefloe began to break up. The country was plunged in alarm. Airplane expeditions were fitted out to help the intrepid explorers; the ice breakers Yermak and Taimir were sent to join the work of rescue.

The general anxiety and concern was expressed by Sergei Feinberg, a fourteen-year old schoolboy, as follows:

...And then the country in a trice
Its planes and ships sent forth
To save its heroes from the ice
Adrift in the perilous North.
O happy hour, when the valorous four
Saw the lights of the Taimir gleam
And through the murk of the Arctic night
Spied the Yermak's wandering beam.

These schoolboy verses very well express the emotions experienced by the whole Soviet country in those days in the early spring of 1938.

* * *

There are preserved in the Palaces of Young Pioneers and the child art centers many thousands of notebooks and sheets filled with verse and prose composed by schoolchildren.

The Main Child Art Center in Moscow received in one year alone about 20,000 letters from young authors all over the Soviet Union. The majority of them contain eager requests for advice and counsel and for a critical opinion of material sent.

Youthful authors--especially of verse--were not rare in Russia even in pre-revolutionary times. Nearly every college had its "poet laureate" who would recite his own compositions at school festivals and celebrations. Nor was it rare for college boys to bring out amateur magazines in manuscript form where the literary novice could test his pen.

And some of these beginners were really talented youngsters. But how pallid, unsubstantial and anemic does this hothouse college literature seem compared with the writings of schoolchildren in the U.S.S.R. today! How much more vigorous is the latters' sense of reality, and how richer their knowledge of practical life! They write with a surer pen and greater independence. They set themselves weighty and difficult tasks; they are careful observers and students of reality, and delve into historical documents for material.

And the chief thing is that they know what they want. They are convinced that creative labor, and nothing but creative labor, is the basis of human society; they look upon work as a matter of honor, a matter of valor and heroism.

They are strong in the opinion that racial enmity should be banished from earth. A ten-year old youngster writes:

All Soviet children are happy and gay.
All children are equal in our land today--
Chinese, Japanese and Malay ...

They are equally convinced that there will be a wide sphere for their activities when they grow up. It never enters their heads that circumstances might force a man to choose a lifetime occupation which he dislikes. They have no misgivings for the morrow. So much wonderful, useful and necessary work is going on around them, and so much remains to be done--it cannot be that no use will be found for their hands, brains and energies!

This conviction is the source of the optimism which inspires the writings and verses of Soviet children.

Nowhere in the poems and stories with which these thousands of notebooks add sheets are filled will you find any impotent whining or fruitless complaining. None of these young authors regards himself as superfluous and useless in the world.

And they speak of their country as only its future full-fledged masters can speak of it.

* * *

Of course, the verses of hundreds and thousands of young poets cannot be of equal literary value. But a careful study will disclose that they all possess certain common typical features. These are the features of their time and country.

The character of the poems varies considerably. You will find among them a ballad on Chapayev, the national hero; a long poem about Lomonosov, the poet and scientist and the first of Russia's academicians; a lyrical composition in which descriptions of urban or rural scenes alternate with the reflections and sentiments of the poet. You will also find school satires, epigrams, addresses to friends, and so on.

But however varied these youthful poetic efforts may be, they are all profoundly realistic, specific, even concrete. They offer a striking contrast to the lyrical imitations-the romantic poems about knights and ladies, corsairs and nuns--the vague effusions and lamentations with which the adolescents and youths of earlier generations filled the pages of their cherished diaries.

Whatever may be the subject of the young Soviet versifier--whether an historical ballad or a poem to a modern hero--he will always strive for precision of imagery and vitality and truth of action.

An eleven-year old youngster writes:

Hammer on anvil
Rang like a bell.
Said iron to hammer--
I'll be a shell.

For brevity and vigor of expression these four lines in the Russian bear the stamp of genuine folk poetry--they smack of the proverb and folk rhyme.

A schoolgirl, aged twelve, succeeds in the very first lines of a lyrical poem in depicting an old garden in Leningrad, with its broad walks and its statues encased in wooden sheaths for the winter.

A hoary frost has settled on the trees,
And all the world shines white where'er
we look;
The nymphs hide in their shelters from the
And snow has shrouded every path and nook.

So far we have been speaking of young poets.

But are there no Soviet children and adolescents who display their literary gifts in the field of prose?

Of course there are. We find in their school notebooks and the productions of their literary circles stories of Young Communist airmen or heroic frontier guards, and sometimes whole novels--short ones, it is true--on the subject of future war or inter-planetary flights.

But the young authors feel more at home in verse; there they display greater variety and achieve greater finish and perfection.

Stories and novels written by children in all times have for the most part borne the stamp of naivete and childish immaturity.

But young folk are more successful in certain fields of prose than others.

Such is the essay--about an excursion or journey, for example, which the young author has undertaken, a city which he has visited, or local customs which he has observed.

In this branch of literature children are sometimes very felicitous. Here they are aided by their adolescent inquisitiveness, their fresh perceptions and retentive memory, and most of all by that earnest attitude to life which is fostered in Soviet children by the fact that from their earliest conscious moments they are witnesses of epoch-making events.

Another branch of literature in which the young author is often very successful is the satirical or fantastic tale.

But, after all, the short tale stands on the border line between poetry and prose, and often contains more of the poetical than verse itself.

A little while ago I happened to read a short tale of a page or two written by Vladimir Petrov, a boy of thirteen, who lives in a colony for waifs and strays. Here it is:

* * *

There was once a boy who lived in a children's colony. He was called Foolish Ivan. During one dictation lesson he managed to make thirty-two mistakes.

One day he wandered into a clearing in the forest and fell asleep. He was awakened by a rustling noise. He rummaged in the bushes, and out jumped a fox. Scarcely had the fox made off when a lovely white goose strutted out of the bushes with her little goslings.

"Good morning, Ivan," said the goose. "You have saved me from cruel Reynard, and I am going to reward you. What would you like? Speak!"

At this moment the goslings began to squeak in their shrill little voices:

"Mama, mama, we know what he needs. He needs a magic quill so as not to make mistakes in dictation."

"Very well, Ivan, don't blush." And she led him to the goose kingdom, the capital of which is Goosehurst.

There, in the central square, was a blue lake, in which many geese and ducks were paddling about with their young.

"Good morning, Ivan, good morning!" was heard on all sides.

And Ivan had all he could do turning from left to right, bowing and answering: "Good morning, citizens!"

At this moment a peacock with real peacock's feathers in its tail came striding out of the park. The peacock thanked Iian and ordered that he should be given a magic quill which would write without a single mistake.

The goose stretched her wing, and said:


Ivan pulled out the end feather. To his surprise he found that it had already been made into a pen and even dipped in red ink. Foolish Ivan returned to the colony.

"Don't think I am a fool now," he told his schoolmates. "I know more than you do....And I can write better than the lot of you."

Next time they were given dictation Ivan did not make a single mistake. He rose to the top of the class. Now he was called Clever Ivan.

At first they all wondered why he wrote with a goose quill; but then they got used to it. After all, Pushkin and Krylov wrote with quills!

In the autumn, Clever Ivan and some other of the best pupils were sent to a university preparatory school.

But on the way a misfortune occurred: a strong wind rose and carried away the magic quill! Clever Ivan again became Foolish Ivan....

* * *

Authors know how difficult it is to write a tale containing all the elements of folklore--bold ideas, vivid and fluent language, and fresh and unexpected humor. They know how hard it is to avoid the dangers of allegory and of ponderous didacticism.

But this boy has successfully coped with the task. He instinctively felt that the essence of a fable lies in the ease of its language and the simplicity and unobtrusiveness of its moral.

* * *

Young writers of poetry and prose of former days would scarcely have taken upon themselves the difficult and complex task undertaken in our days by Soviet schoolchildren of the Arctic city of Igarka.

This city, lying on the border line between taiga and tundra, is only ten years old. It is younger than many of the schoolchildren living in it, who have seen its port and sawmill after sawmill spring up under their very eyes.

These schoolchildren of Igarka decided to be the chroniclers of the life and manners of their city and region. They conceived the idea of writing an account of the taiga and tundra, and of how this port city, to which ocean steamers come from all parts of the world, arose in the Far North on the banks of the broad Yenisei.

Such a work could only be done collectively.

Before setting about their task, the children wrote to Maxim Gorky telling him of their idea. Gorky, a great writer and warm friend of children, lived at that time at the other end of the country, in the Crimea. He replied in the most cordial terms and outlined a rough plan for the book.

The children assigned among themselves the subjects for the stories and articles, and set to work with a will.

Over one hundred children contributed to the book, and practically every schoolchild in Igarka took part in the discussions of its form and contents. The work is now finished. We in Igarka has been published. Its concluding chapter is called "A Great School of Life." This might well have been the title of the book itself.

It recounts what these historians of ten to fifteen have witnessed. Some of the older ones were present when the first steamers arrived and landed the first parties of builders on the marsh and wilderness of the Yenisei's banks.

The aspect of the city has changed, and is changing now, with every year and every month. Houses and factories spring up; theaters, cinemas and clubs are built. In the open air and in hothouses, vegetables are grown which had never been heard of here in the Arctic circle, and hitherto unknown flowers blossom in the gardens.

With what pride these children tell of the new buildings springing up in their city of Igarka, and of the new automobiles appearing in its streets.

They keenly detect the peculiarities which make their city different from all others in the world.

They describe the reindeer sleds on which their neighbors, the Nentsi, drive into Igarka. They tell how in the wood-paved streets huge timber trucks will sometimes encounter harnessed reindeer, their branching antlers tossed back, and teams of shaggy, noisily barking sled-dogs.

But the biggest event in the life of this Arctic port is the arrival of the annual Kara Sea expedition, the caravans of ocean vessels, escorted by ice breakers, that come for cargoes of Yenisei timber.

The youngsters talk like experts of the sorting, stacking and loading of timber. And they have a fair knowledge of ships and their ways. They know which of the steamers has recently been in drydock, and which is badly in need of it. Their eye at once detects any disarray in the toilet of a Queen Olga or a Good Hope, such as damaged rails or peeling paint.

But they become genuine poets when they speak of the wild and stern majesty of their region. They are profoundly acquainted with its natural life and scenery. They are all hunters, fishers and naturalists. Their skis have laid tracks to many an unvisited part; their canoes have shot many a rapid in the turbulent rivers.

They know what a stern struggle their fathers and brothers waged to conquer the savage, unpeopled North, extending the boundaries of their country without war and bloodshed.

They too are training to continue this intrepid conquest of the Arctic; they are impatient to be grown up.

On one of the concluding pages of the book, the hero of the tale says to his friend, a schoolboy like himself:

"...When you have learnt everything and are sure of yourself, you will enter life a staunch Young Communist. Then your elder comrade--the airman, the captain of an ice breaker, the geologist or the hydrologist--will turn over his job to you with a smile, confident that it is in safe hands."

* * *

Many children have a leaning for literary composition.

But far more love to draw, and are able to draw.

Long before the child begins to clumsily trace the letters of the alphabet he can already draw a house with its chimney, the sun in the sky, a leafy tree and a girl holding a balloon by a thread. Give a child a sheet of paper and a thick red and blue pencil and he will be happy.

And there is no child in the world who does not know how to play.

In the old days, before the revolution, when people who are now nearing the thirties were children, their play and their drawing did not receive much encouragement from adults. The young artist or play-actor of five or six was allowed to indulge in the delights of imagination only if he did not spoil too much paper or make too much noise.

And if a lad of nine happened to take up a colored crayon, or arm himself with a stick to play at being a robber chieftain, he would be told reproachfully:

"You had better be doing something useful than playing like a baby."

But the majority of children at that age never had any time for play. Vanka Zhukov in Chekhov's tale had already been "placed" at the age of nine. In the daytime he was run off his legs as an errand boy in a shoemaker's shop; in the evening he would rock the cradle of the boss's baby; and all the pay he got was to have his ears boxed, or his head cuffed, or his face swiped with a raw herring.

Only the children of the rich, or at least the well-to-do, had any real childhood, with games, stories, theatricals and colored crayons.

Today, every one of the millions of young inhabitants of the Soviet Union has the right to real childhood.

The point is not the number and magnificence of the toys they have to play with, but the fact that child labor in the Soviet Union is absolutely forbidden.

All children attend school. A country which was so recently universally illiterate is now universally literate.

Every child enjoys the legitimate and inalienable right to play, sing, dance, draw, model and find an outlet for his aptitudes and tastes.

Adults are imbued, and become more imbued every day, with respect for the child's play and the child's exercises in imagination.

Family, school and kindergarten eagerly foster and encourage any aptitude shown by children for drawing, music or dancing.

In every part of the country there are Palaces of Young Pioneers, clubs, and child art centers with studios, classes and circles of all kinds.

No conditions are set for admission to the art, music, dramatic or dancing classes; any child can join who wishes.

Take any youngster who joins one of these art classes, a Chekhov Vanka Zhukov of our day. He has everything at his disposal, all the paper, crayons, paints and modeling clay his heart may desire. Side by side with him there are other boys and girls who draw, model and make toy airplanes and gay masks and carnival costumes. He has instructors to advise him how to use his material, to suggest an interesting theme and unobtrusively to direct the lively imaginative play of the young pupil into artistic channels.

As the children grow older their aptitudes begin to differentiate. As a rule, the child of seven to nine shows an equal interest in drawing and modeling, in making an amusing toy or a fearful mask for a children's play. But gradually his taste turns into a definite channel. He undertakes tasks of increasing complexity. And if he is not armed in good time with a certain knowledge and skill, and if his imagination is not supplied with richer nourishment, his young talent may be extinguished.

At this stage the studio comes to the child's aid. This is not a professional art school; its chief purpose is to foster the child's creative activity; but it definitely sets out to arm the child with a certain knowledge, proficiency and skill.

For children who display definite talent there are the junior departments of the schools of art.

These classes and studios, and numerous contests and expositions, are designed not only to discover and develop gifted children but also to raise the general artistic level of the rising generation.

Of course, by no means all the children who exhibit talented work at contests or expositions will become professional artists. But one thing, at least, is certain: they will grow up with a genuine appreciation of art and a keen faculty of observation of the life around them.

Seven-year old Tanya Brzhevskaya, drew an illustration to the fairy tale "Konyok Gorbunok" ("The Hunchback Horse"). Against a deep blue sky, thickly studded with golden stars, flies a snow-white horse,mounted by Ivan the Fool, sitting back to front and clinging to the horse's bushy tail. Both lower corners of the drawing are cut by steep hillsides running down to a rippling sea. One of the hillsides is all white and is covered by a scattered design of dark trees, bulbous and mushroom-like. The other hillside is black and forms the background for the white gleaming walls of a row of peasant huts.

When you examine this picture you feel convinced that a child who displays such a sense of rythm and poetic feeling, such a faculty of imaginative description and brevity of expression must possess considerable artistic powers. We cannot say whether Tanya will be an artist (it is too early to predict anything of a child of seven), but one thing is clear: whatever she does when she grows up she will do with imagination, boldness and taste.

But of fifteen-year old Gene Chesnokov, a youngster from the Niva Collective Farm in the remote forest region of the Kirov Territory, it may already be said with reasonable confidence that he has a big artistic future before him.

One glance at his water color, "Autumn," shows that.

It is not because his picture is good that we can say that Gene Chesnokov is an artist; his picture is good because he is a real artist.

Only an artist can display such a peculiar feeling for the stern yet delicate charms of Russian scenery, and design his composition with such harmony and simplicity. The whole landscape seems to be centered around two small boys intently gazing up at some birds perched on the thin branches of a naked birch. The boys take up so minute a space in the painting, yet they are the real focus of the composition. Without them the spacious autumn landscape would seem cold and lifeless.

In this water color a keen eye is happily combined with profound poetic feeling.

This same combination of sober observation with a poetic sense is to be detected in depictions of battle scenes by young artists.

All boys of twelve and thirteen love to draw infantry attacks, cavalry charges, air battles and sea engagements.

But the young artists we are speaking of display specific characteristics. They not only strive for military romanticism, but for genuineness of heroic type, historical truth, and vitality and precision of action.


Take for example, a drawing by a thirteen year old artist, Anatole Ksenofontov, called "The Attack on the Winter Palace." A slanting rain, a slippery, slushy road. Serried ranks of armed workers, soldiers and sailors move towards the palace. The drenched banners flap heavily. The old houses of St. Petersburg cower apprehensively in the gloom.

No one who recalls the events of 1911 in Russia can be left unmoved by this picture. And very few of the eye-witnesses of those events could convey with such conviction and fidelity the stern and tense spirit of battle which led to the victory of the October Revolution.

Here is another drawing: "Shchors at the Approaches to Kiev."

The artist is Vladimir Shulzhenko, a schoolboy of fifteen.

It would be quite excusable in a boy of that age to be carried away by outward effect, by the spectacular aspect.

But what interests young Vladimir is not theatrical effect but genuine types and faithful description.

He does not want his Shchors to be an abstract military chieftain imitated from the pictures of others, but that live partisan whom the revolution turned into one of its most famous military leaders.

* * *

We have mentioned only a very few of our young poets and artists.

The fact that we have singled them out from among numberless others does not mean that we consider them the most gifted.

We selected these poems and drawings because we considered them most typical and most indicative of the tastes and aspirations of Soviet children.

It would be impossible to mention here, even briefly, all the boys and girls who have attracted attention at our numerous contests and expositions of young artists.

Six thousand youngsters sent in drawings and pictures to one exposition alone--in commemoration of the death of the poet Pushkin.

As to the poems and stories dedicated by children to Pushkin on the anniversary of his death, their number is countless.

But in addition to poets and artists, there are numberless gifted young musicians, actors, reciters and dancers.

There is hardly a music, dancing or dramatic class in the Palaces of Young Pioneers and clubs scattered all over the country where you will not find children who delight us by the freshness and richness of their talents.

What is the reason for this unusual artistic activity displayed by Soviet children?

Firstly, the fact that they enjoy real childhood.

That whole period of life in which the human mind and organism grows and develops, they are able to devote to study, play, growth and development.

None of them has to bend his back in tailor's shops or shoemaker's shops; none of them has to run about all day delivering purchases; none of them has to spend his time sweeping the floors of barber shops. But that is not all.

Just as the schools are free, so are the music, art and dramatic circles, studios and clubs.

And these circles, studios and clubs are to be found everywhere, in big cities, small towns, factory settlements and collective farms, in the center of the country and in its border regions.

Everywhere the child is provided with paper, canvas, crayons, paints, costumes and a stage.

There is a veritable army of trained men and women to guide the artistic education of children. There is always an older comrade to whom the child can turn for help and advice.

Even children in the most remote and sparsely inhabited parts of the country do not feel alone and isolated. They may send their verses and drawings to Moscow, Leningrad, or the nearest city. A skilled adviser from the child art center or the Pioneers' club will reply at length to his letter, giving an opinion of his work and advising him what to do next.

Such an exchange of letters will often be carried on regularly for several years, constituting in its way an art correspondence school. Sometimes the young aspirant is invited to Moscow or Leningrad to meet his advisers and to be shown round the town and its museums.

All music schools and academies of art have their junior departments, where gifted children are instructed by the best teachers and professors.

Theaters in the Soviet Union give regular children's performances with a carefully selected repertory.

In addition, there are special children's theaters. In the twenty-one years, 1918 to 1939, 138 children's theaters have been opened in the various national republics of the U.S.S.R. They perform in twenty different languages.

Nobody is out to turn these theaters into money-making enterprises. The cost of their maintenance, like the cost of public education, is borne by the state.

In the U.S.S.R. the artistic development of the child is part and parcel of the general system of producing well-educated men and women and good citizens.