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The Uncivil Servant: Reading to Baby Bolsheviks

Mitchell Abidor
June 30, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: The Fire Horse by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, and Daniil Kharms, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky. The New York Review’s Children’s Collection, 2017.

THE SOVIET UNION sought to turn babies into Bolshevik babies. Schools were, of course, a key element in this, as were the various youth organizations. But as in almost every modern society, a literature aimed specifically at children, one that taught them the values they were expected to adhere to, was developed.

The newly-published reproduction of Soviet children’s poetry from the 1930s, The Fire Horse, warmly and amusingly translated by the poet Eugene Ostashevsky, provides us with three wonderful examples of the poetry and illustrations produced for young Soviet citizens.

The three poems in the volume demonstrate the interesting uses of poetic talent in the Stalin era. If there’s no surprise at finding a work by the greatest of Soviet poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky, it is interesting to find officially published works by Osip Mandelstam, who died in the gulag, and the avant-garde poet Daniil Kharms, who spent time in the gulag, published only two adult poems in his lifetime, and died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad, after being again arrested. In the latter two cases, the poets’ inability to publish for a wide adult audience led them to take advantage of the field of children’s verse.

As to be expected, the Mayakovsky poem, which gives the book its title, is the one closest to being political, the tale of a young boy in a red Pioneer scarf who (rather clunkily) tells his father, “I am growing up a cavalryman.” Unable to purchase a toy horse, the father and son set out to make one, visiting with workers who give them advice on how to make one of their own. A carpenter, a smith, a painter, in good Soviet fashion, “collectively get busy” until the young boy has his horse, and can “hop on that saddled back” and “help out the Red Cavalry!”

Mandelstam’s “Two Trams” is the tale of two anthropomorphized trams, Zam and Click, who have lost each other. Zam asks all those around him, buildings, cars, horses, if they’ve seen his missing cousin. “And on the square Zam finds Click,” who tells his errant relative “it’s so lonely without you, brother.” Demonstrating solidarity with the weakest, he takes his weakened relative in tow.

Daniil Kharms’ contribution, “Play,” tells of three little boys, Vasco, Peter, and Mikey, who decide they are now, respectively, a car, a steamboat, and a Soviet airplane. The joyous little boys, “Jumping, skipping, hopping, springing,/ down the road,/ along the pavement:/ ran so hard their heels were flashing/ as they shouted/ “Doo-doo-doo!”/ Ran so fast their heels were flashing down the road,/ along the pavement,/ throwing hats up in the air,/ loudly shouting/ “Roo-roo-roo.””

All three of the poems are beautifully illustrated, each in a strikingly different style, from the Constructivist cutout figures by Lidia Popova of the Mayakovsky, to Boris Ender’s minimalist figures in the Mandelstam, to the straightforward illustrations by Vladimir Konasevich in “Play.”

A parent or grandparent reading these poems to a child today might have to explain precisely what a Soviet steamboat is, or the role of the Red Cavalry during the Civil War. (Some parental advice: One should never pass up a chance to tell a little one about Red Cavalry commander Semyon Budyenny.) Alternatively, the adult can omit the historical references when reading them aloud, or can purchase this beautiful book for his or her own enjoyment.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.