Remembering the Soviet Books for Children in the Cold War Years

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Extracted from Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960’s and 70’s CinnamonTeal Publishing, Goa, 2018.

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In the bygone 20th century or the Beeswin Sadi, the 1950s onwards,  right till the fall of the Berlin wall in Oct 1990, were the so called Cold War years. A relic of World War II, the world was said to be bi-polar i.e.divided into two power blocks with the USA, Western European countries on one side and Soviet Russia and its allies on the other. The cold war impacted the world and India was no exception. Growing up in those years, the lasting impression which I have of that period is remembrances of the Indian communists and their Soviet connection, which manifested itself in myriad ways. 

One encountered communists of the old order quite often in those days. I remember one gentleman, among the circle of  my family friends and acquaintances,  who was called Lal Siddiq—the prefix ‘Lal’ (which means red and is symbolic of revolution) in his name had been added because he was a committed communist. A contemporary and friend of the great Urdu poet Majaz, Lal Siddiq had led several protests and struggles during his younger days. However, during the years when I met him, after a few heart attacks and poor health in general, his revolutionary fervour was much reduced, though at heart he remained questioning, argumentative and combative. 

One of the striking things in those days was that the houses of all the communists seemed similar, with a distinct feel of the bygone ‘Stalinist’ era.  Lal Siddiq’s house, which I visited quite often, was no different. In the drawing room, the furniture was basic, just a few varnished chairs, a simple centre table. Like the houses of other comrades of that period there used to be old black and white portrait prints of Lenin, Stalin, (sometimes even Trotsky) Karl Marx, and Engels adorning the walls; a framed picture of a boy by a Russian artist ripped from a magazine. I would like to imagine that these then must be the typical ‘Stalinist era drawing rooms’, about which Tariq Ali, the well known left intellectual, in his autobiography Street Fighting Years, mentions, ‘were replicated throughout the world’ i.e. wherever Communism spread. Typically, such drawing rooms had bookshelves which were packed with books, mostly the literary works of Russian giants such as Lev Tolstoy, Turgenev, Maxim Gorky, etc. alongside books on economics, agriculture, music and poetry. 

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Apart from such personal associations, the main way in which we experienced the Soviet connection was through the propaganda literature, marketed in India by Russian agencies such as FLPH, Progress Publishers, Raduga (Rainbow), Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, Mir Publishers, etc. (The Indian communist party had its own ‘Peoples Publishing House’). I remember in my hometown Aligarh there used to be a bookshop called ‘Naya Kitab Ghar’, owned by a certain Mr. Kishen Singh, an enthusiastic party worker who stocked Soviet books. On our visits to such bookshops or exhibition of Russian books, which used to be regularly organized in all towns, we would buy several of the Russian classics in the hope that one day we would read them. This rarely happened, but over the years we discovered that we had stocked multiple copies of Gorky’s The Mother, Tolstoy’s Anna Karanena, Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, etc. Not surprisingly, books by dissident writers or critics of communism such as Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago), Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), Arthur Koestler (The God that Failed), George Orwell (Animal Farm), etc. were usually absent from such book stalls. 

Soviet-books-for-children-during Cold War

An avid reader of books I had in my collection the usual series by Enid Blyton, Alfred Hitchcock, Carolene Keene etc. Recently, going through an old chest containing some books harking back to childhood days I discovered there was yet another favourite of mine about which I had nearly forgotten—children’s books produced in Soviet Russia which I had bought over the years from various book stores and exhibitions.

 Most of these books had superb illustrations and endearing storylines. For instance, one particular story book in my old Soviet books collection, which I was overjoyed to see had survived intact after all those years was entitled ‘The boat’—a story about five friends, a ladybird, a fly, a mouse, a chicken and a frog.

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The five friends went for a walk when they came to the bank of a stream at which point the frog said, ‘Let’s have a swim’ and jumped into the water. When his friends said they couldn’t swim the frog made fun of them. Feeling deeply offended it was then that they decided to build a boat by using very simple and commonplace material—a stick, a walnut shell, a leaf and a piece of thread. 

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 With their labour the boat was ready in no time and the four friends sailed away much to the chargin of the frog.

As a child I remember being drawn to the simplicity of the story as much as the beautiful drawings accompanying it.  And there was something droll about the whole idea of playing in cool surroundings with a waterbody and aquatic vegetation closeby, attempting to cross the waters in a tiny little boat made out of a walnut shell with just a leaf as a sail. 

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There was no shortage of other Russian books which had beautiful drawings and interesting stories and these were a part and parcel of our growing up years. Surfing the internet I discovered that some people of my generation felt equally nostalgic about those beautifully illustrated Soviet books for children. Old but familiar names of Russian characters, Boris, Sasha, Nadya, Tatyana, Olga, and Vera, etc. cropped up and brought about a smile. 

All through I used to wonder why these childrens book from Soviet Russia which I enjoyed so much,  were different from the other books, say by Enid Blyton, Alfred Hitchcock, etc. At that time I couldn’t figure exactly how, but reading the material floating on the internet helped me to understand why these books took hold of a child’s fantasy so quickly. In one of the articles, entitled, ‘Why a generation of Indian writers, publishers and booklovers grew up reading Russian books’ by Nilanjana Roy, the author suggested, ‘The big distinction between Soviet children’s books and Enid Blyton was simple: the former were more real, while Blyton fell into the realm of fantasy . . . The world of the Five Find-Outers (and dog) or places like Sunnymead Farm were as exotic as Tolkien’s orcs and elves, and as remote to our experience. The muffins, scones and ginger beer could have been fairy food in that decade – dwarf bread was as foreign to our experience as the concept of a “scone” in a country where cakes were either Britannia’s sliced monstrosities or were flat, homely objects baked in a tin over a coal oven’. 

Another writer (Annie Zaidi) quoted in the same piece above wrote, ‘I had never seen a book where the illness and pain of a small child was at the heart of it, its raison d’etre. Silly stories about daddy’s childhood being an escape, and the father’s helplessness in the face of pain—this was very rare. It still is. Too many kids’ stories are about super heroic qualities or adventures, which is a sort of fantasy too. And now, even the fairytales are sanitized to remove all traces of real pain’.

So,  more real, closer to our Indian sensibilities (and less foreign than English ones) or Asian sensibilities. So perhaps that was the real reason why those books appealed to us so much and we could relate to them in a much more stronger way than the other books in English.  Another surprise while surfing the internet was that the Soviet books were loved all across India and still have their fan clubs even today. For instance, in Kerala and Bengal, both of which were communist states for a long time, fan clubs exist to the day and several books have been translated into Bengali.

Without the distractions of today, like internet, mobile telephoney etc such books were a part of the growing up experience. Perhaps growing up in those years,  the 60’s and 70’s, was a different type of childhood altogether of which books were an important part. As a facebook post (reproduced in full in my book Biswin Sadi memoirs, along with other similar posts) puts it, almost as an attempt to create an invisible school of nostalgic,  50 plus generation of oldies living today,  Anyone who was BORN in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s….We are the last generation who played in the street. We are the 1st who played video games, the last to record songs off the radio on a cassette tape. We walked over a mile w/no worries on being taken…We learned how to program the VCR before anyone else, we played from Atari to Nintendo…We are the generation of Tom and Jerry, Looney Toons, Captain Kangaroo. We travelled in cars w/out seat belts or air bags, lived without cell phones. We did not have flat screens, surround sound, ipods, Facebook, Twitter, computers or the internet…But nevertheless we had a GREAT time…..’.

Links:

Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960’s and 70’s

Links:
Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960’s and 70’s
https://www.amazon.in/Biswin-Sadi-Memoirs-Growing-During/dp/9386301733
Why a generation of Indian writers, publishers and booklovers grew up reading Russian books http://scroll.in/article/777690/why-a-generation-of-indian-writers-publishers-and-booklovers-grew-up-reading-russian-books. Dec 24, 2015.
Kerala https://scroll.in/magazine/858876/a-facebook-group-is-preserving-old-soviet-books-that-generations-of-keralas-children-grew-up-on
Kerala https://lithub.com/growing-up-with-classic-russian-literature-in-rural-south-india/
Russian books
  https://www.rbth.com/blogs/2014/10/03/looking_at_russia_with_nostalgia_38777
Mir Publishers
  https://mirtitles.org/2010/09/05/hello-world/ (Books from the soviet era)

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