Histoire@Politique : Politique, culture et société

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Image, éducation et communisme, années 1920-années 1930

Coordination : Jérôme Bazin, Cécile Pichon-Bonin, Anastasia Simoniello

A is for AZBUKA Anew: Reading (the art, pedagogy and politics of) Early Soviet Illustrated Primers

Jeremy Howard
Résumé :

The reconstitution of social and intellectual being that comprised the goal of the new Soviet authorities following their seizure of (...)

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That population of the Republic, between the ages of 8 and 50, which is unable to read or write is obliged to learn to read and write, either in its native language or Russian language, as desired. The teaching of this is to be conducted in State schools, be they already in existence or being established for the illiterate population in accordance with the plans of the People’s Commissariat for Education…

Peoples’ Houses, churches, clubs, private houses, appropriate rooms in mills, factories, Soviet institutions, etc. are to be made available by Narkompros [The People’s Commissariat for Education] for use in the liquidation of illiteracy…

Narkompros is charged with publishing instructions for the implementation of this decree within two weeks.

Chairman of the Soviet of Peoples’ Commissars V. Ulyanov (Lenin)

Manager Vl. Bonch-Bruevich.

Moscow, Kremlin

26 December 1919”

(Decree on the Liquidation of Illiteracy amongst the population of the RSFSR)

The reconstitution of social and intellectual being that comprised the goal of the new Soviet authorities following their seizure of political power in late 1917 signalled a fundamental campaign for literacy. The process of learning to read was commenced in a traditional way, i.e. through school lessons and by illustrated primer (azbuka/bukvar) in which letter, word and image were text. In the attempt to instil a socialist consciousness in every adult and child ‘HOW’ and ‘WHAT’ to read took on new significance. Just as the Cyrillic alphabet was reformed so too were the primers, with content and meanings being radically altered. It is the actuality and process of this transformation over the first fifteen years of Sovietised Russia that is the subject of this paper.

We concentrate on four illustrated primers, a pair from 1918 and one each from 1922 and 1932. The 1918 pair are by one artist, that of 1922 by two, and that of 1932 by fourteen. As the numbers increase so does the presence of women artists. The primers have been selected from the plethora of new textbooks, partly for their timing: 1918 coincides with the establishment of the Russian Constitution, 1922 with the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR, and 1932 with collectivisation and the completion of the first Five Year Plan. Yet they are also chosen for their distinctive visual and pedagogic approaches, the latter also marking the rise of women as early years education theorists. Through examination of these it becomes possible to appraise both their innovations and conventions. In so doing we probe their relative neglect by socio-political, art and education historians (particularly outside Russia). Thus these primers contain their own lessons about the scholarly community’s vocabularies and grammars of learning.

In 1917, less than 40 % of the male and less than 12.5 % of the female populations of the Tsarist empire over the age of seven were literate. The Bolshevik leaders were faced with a monumental task if they were to utilise literacy in their campaign to consolidate and develop their vast new state. The army of teaching volunteers established to deal with the problem numbered some 400,000. Teaching aids were at a premium. Unprecedented numbers of slates, chalk, sandtrays, paper, pencils, pens and inkpots, not to mention more improvised and creative early writing implements, were required. And these needed accompanying with illustrated primers. While there were plenty of primer precedents, given that much literacy teaching in late Tsarist times had been overseen by the Orthodox church, the majority needed substantial change. The place, choice and role of imagery in post-revolutionary primers can therefore be seen as critical for understanding new, Soviet formulations of being and identity.

Much has been written by art and social historians about the creative variety of early Soviet children’s illustrated books. They are generally beloved by historians, collectors and, indeed, children, for their fine, novel and seductive artistry. Questions of style are raised, political issues contended. That working for children was a haven for many of the brightest artistic spirits as the twenties progressed into the thirties and beyond, is certain. Yet more often than not the emphasis is on publications dedicated to illustrated stories, poems and folk tales, with non-fiction, textbooks and pedagogy coming in a skewed second place. There has been a reticence to consider the illustrated primer, perhaps because, on the part of art and design historians, it is subconsciously deemed either insufficiently ‘aesthetic’ or overly pedagogic, and hence difficult to conceive as within their field. On the other hand, educationalists do gather, discuss and analyse historical illustrated primers, yet to date they have done so with little consideration of either their visual art or visual pedagogy. It is high time that such mutual boundaries were breached.

One could be forgiven for thinking, if one peruses, say, the two massive tomes of Detskaya illyustrirovannaya kniga v istorii rossii 1881-1939 (Children’s Illustrated Books in Russian History 1881-1939) or the weighty Russian Artists and the Children’s Book 1890-1992 with its accompanying CD of a great library of children’s books, that the illustrated primer had very little part to play, or message to convey, either in the development of early Soviet art or even in the lives of Soviet children.[1] Its key formative place, for both children and illiterate adults, is all but absent.[2] However, the considerable range of Russian primers created in the first two decades of Sovietdom coincided not just with the newly official striving for communism and Lenin’s ‘likbez’ (liquidation of illiteracy) campaign that made them necessary but also with concurrent challenges to the prevailing phonics system of early education and changes in the orthographic system.[3] Furthermore, it followed on from the major growth in the primer as a principal literacy teaching tool in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Depending on the kind of primer and publisher, the identity of artists employed to illustrate it could or could not be revealed in the book itself (if indeed the primer was a book – it could be a set of cards, cut-outs to be made into cubes, or indeed, ready-made cubes). In keeping with a tradition, that in Russia went back to the seventeenth century (i.e. the early Romanov period), primers that were more illustration than text, i.e. where the illustration WAS the essential text (other than a letter), comprised one category of such visual textbooks. Within this category there were sub-categories of themed primers, including different ones for rural and urban learners, adults and children, native and non-native Russian speakers. In addition, there were primers where the artwork was an active supplement to a narrative of learning that built up in distinct ways as pages were turned. Questions concerning the design of these narratives, along with the changing/stable content (and with it the utilised subjects/objects) itself, are introduced here. Connected with this, as will be shown, some primers used the teaching of drawing and representation as ways to begin the journey to literacy and numeracy. In these cases literacy itself, therefore, derives from image-making.

Between 1918 and 1927, the set of artists who worked on azbuki included major figures, better known for their association with the Mir Iskusstva group or the so-called avant-garde. Among these, were Georgiy Narbut, Mstislav Dobuzhinskiy, Sergey Chekhonin, Dmitriy Mitrokhin, Vladimir Konashevich, Vladimir Lebedev, Vladimir Mayakovskiy and Petr Miturich. If one looked at the bukvari produced by these artists alone the impression would be that early Soviet ABCs were (with the exception of Mayakovskiy’s) remarkably aestheticised. In fact, one could be led to believe that they were as much about the artist’s individual language as about learning. The bigger picture reveals another story. For these artists, and the kind of primers they produced, were in the minority. Other artists, many of whom were more conservative in their visual vocabulary, and who worked for editions aimed at wider dissemination, were in the majority. Such artists included Vasiliy Vatagin, Aleksandr Deineka, Efim Khiger, Mstislav Pashchenko, Eduard Krimmer, Vasiliy Nevskiy, Vasiliy Sibiryakov, the ‘Eos’ Collective and Regina Velikanova’s Artists’ Brigade .

It has largely been left to Volya Lyakov, a specialist in graphic design, to allude to the problem of the illustrated primer. In 1968, in a critical lament on the conservatism and poor quality of Soviet textbooks per se, he identified key and connected areas in which improvement was necessary: 1) sense of ‘construction’; 2) illustration; 3) external appearance; and 4) polygraphic production.[4] The weak and piecemeal attention given to these by a key publisher from 1930, the State Scientific Pedagogical Press (Uchpedgiz), meant that Soviet artists only episodically worked on textbooks, their presence doing little to change the wider, unattractive picture. The trajectory towards such a situation in the 1960s, and which also happened to mean user-unfriendly books, is to be felt in our selected primers of 1918-32. For, as is shown, there is a decline in the place for imagination, creativity and space in learning. And, furthermore, there is a continuation of the design- and production-insensitive traditions of the pre-revolutionary era. That said, as Lyakov acknowledges, it tended to be the primer rather than textbook for more advanced students where significant artistry and a heightened concern for functionality could occasionally make themselves felt. Ultimately, the illustrated primer is an unique barometer of multiple fluctuating pressures and if read in new light it can help in the reconceptualisation of our histories. Hence, for example, with regard early Soviet training to read and write it makes sense to reread this principal tool. Furthermore, remembering and understanding the means by which we and others before us were moved out of our illiterate state can inform us of what we become. As such the lessons of Soviet primers can be applied further afield. To formatively reread we need to rewrite, to formatively rewrite we need to reread. Let us start with a text in the middle and work backwards in order to move forwards.

Into Autumn: Towards the Pine Cone Harvest: Bukvar dlya detey (Primer for Children), Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922

Having only been founded in 1893, by 1913 Novo-Nikolaevsk (from 1926 Novosibirsk) in southwestern Siberia was one of the first Russian municipalities to introduce compulsory primary education. Ten years later the population, of what was to become Russia’s third largest city as well as a renowned centre for higher education and academic research, had reached 75.000, this despite the devastation wrought by civil war. In 1922 Sibgosizdat, the Siberian Regional State Publishing House based in Novo-Nikolaevsk, released Bukvar dlya detey by N. S. Dmitriev and Nikodim Osmolovskiy, with Valerian Pravdukhin as its general editor. The edition was 50,000 and the book was the first primer for Soviet Siberia. Its publication marked the commencement of pedagogic output by the regional scientific laboratory of SibONO (Siberian Department of Peoples’ Education, Sibirskiy otdel narodnogo obrazovaniya) led by Dmitriy Chudinov. The direction for this came from Narkompros’s new State Scientific Council (Gosudarstvenniy ucheniy sovet, GUS) and its programme for educational methodology. From 1921, SibONO’s plans for the establishment of a new system of learning involved the creation of new schools, training of teachers, and a new pedagogical approach. The latter was to be based not on individual subjects but on acquaintance with local life according to a basic scheme in which the interlinked fundamentals were nature and man, labour and society. An integral part of the pedagogy was the preparation and publication of primers, the intention being that these were also designed with an underpinning of local material.

Bukvar dlya detey is eighty poor-quality paper pages long. It was produced, just as the Civil War was ending, by the printing house of the newly established Altay Section of the State Publishers in the city of Barnaul, 230 kilometres south of Novo-Nikolaevsk.[5] At first glance it looks rather messy, amateur and cheap. The print is black-and-white monochrome, with the exception of occasional individual red letters which arrest the eye in the azbuka section that comprises the first half of the book. It is liberally illustrated with a variety of unevenly sized and unevenly distributed images by Vasiliy Nevskiy and Vasiliy Sibiryakov. In the same year as it appeared these two artists, working together with engineer Aleksandr Kudryavtsev, were responsible for the Monument to the Fallen above the communal grave for 104 revolutionaries at the heart of Novo-Nikolaevsk’s new and central Heroes’ Square. This five-metre high concrete embodiment of a strong hand and lower arm holding aloft a flaming torch as it pushes up through breaking ‘rocks’ was, at least indirectly, a unique Siberian realisation of the Lenin Plan for Monumental Propaganda.

Fig. 1 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, cover. (State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk. http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

Fig. 1 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, cover. (State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk. http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

Fig. 2 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, title page.(State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk. http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

Fig. 2 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, title page.(State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk. http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

By contrast with the monument Bukvar’s thin paperback appearance was small, light and disposable. Its cover was adorned with an image of a wooden toy rabbit and toy squirrel on wheels either side of a reindeer. The simple flat forms of these lean down towards the title in bold, stylised ‘thick and thin’ writing. They are complemented on the other side of the title by a similarly delineated, flat bear who looks up longingly towards the words from a landscape featuring three conifer trees. The ‘embrace’ of ‘creative’ writing conveyed by these images is replaced on the title page by a more independent single image beneath the title. This is a near symmetrical picture of a Siberian crane and heron standing facing one another in water before a harmonious scene of two near identical timber cottages with smoking chimneys. Set against a backdrop of tree silhouettes and a rising sun, with their large crossing bargeboards (pricheliny) these rustic izby introduce the sense of nature, craft and community that prevails within the book. At the same time the linear combination of birds, cottages and sun hints at an aware meeting of rugged local folk tradition, delicate avifauna refinement and bright future. What the picture does not tell is that it is also an illustration to the Russian folk tale The Crane and the Heron that had been published by Aleksandr Afanasyev in the late nineteenth century and which is retold (with the same image) later in the book (p. 56-57). As such it condenses seven versts (kilometres) and different sides of a marsh into small neighbourly contact. Only the distinctive features of the birds and their somewhat haughty stances can be taken to hint at the discord and lack of resolution of the tale.

It is worth quoting at length Dmitriev and Osmolovskiy’s explanation of the rationale and methodology of their primer as printed in the “For Teachers” note on the unpaginated pages at the beginning and end of Bukvar:

[we] have attempted to organise the material in such a way that the Bukvar can be used not only by the followers of the widely disseminated phonics method but also by the supporters of the ‘whole word’ method that is beginning to penetrate schools.

Our sympathies lie with the ‘whole word’ method not just because work using this is psychologically closer to the child but also because it is more productive and interesting for them… An alphabet book, as such, is unnecessary. Instead children, together with the teacher, compile tables of words as a result of writing and reading the names of objects from the children’s surroundings. The Bukvar is only methodically arranged material for creative [learning (?) JH: word unreadable here], an almanach of pictures, examples of exercises and a guide to various sources and materials for reading after the passing of the alphabet…

We do not commence with handwriting at the outset, but only after the child knows several letters and, helped by the medium of drawing and making letters from paper and other materials, they have acquired confidence in the handling of graphic representations of words (i.e. through real objects). Thereby the first ‘tools’ for writing are scissors, coloured paper, clay, twigs, paints… etc., and only after that pencil, pen and ink…

In the second half of our Bukvar we have again departed from convention. First comes the simplest and favourite children’s folk tales, some of them arranged to be useful for singing (Repka, and The Cock, Cat and Fox), and with illustrations for acquaintance with their dramatisation. Poems and songs have been selected from those most loved by children. The majority can and should be used in various ways (for drawing, play acting, singing, etc.)…

Towards the end of the Bukvar there is a section for independent writing exercises and material for the development of children’s creativity and their oral speech… where the requirement is to write that which has been illustrated we have occasionally placed words in a different order to that of the pictures. The child should first look at the pictures, then read what is written, and then rewrite the words in the order of the pictures.

The development of creativity in children and their ability to speak nicely and correctly is the aim which teachers need to strive for from the first day of a child’s attendance at school. Hence we have added pictures to help with children’s composing of oral stories [p. 70-72].

In order not to inhibit children’s creativity, but rather imbue it with a grounding for subsequent development, besides pictures we have also included separate sentences giving just a hint at the subject of the story. Children should be able to tell what happened up until the moment shown and what may happen afterwards. Here there should be room both for individual and collective work by the children…

In conclusion, it should be noted that until now school has directed almost all its attention towards a most one-sided ‘cramming’ of children with a variety of ‘knowledge’, often through essentially mechanistic means, and that the child’s range of interests has hardly been broadened by this. In the new school the focus should actually be directed in the opposite direction, i.e. on the creative working over of the material presented here, not just with consciousness but with the whole being of the child. Less routine and distractiveness, and more life and movement that is closer to nature”.

That Dmitriev and Osmolovskiy’s Bukvar appeared less innovative and artistically polished than some of the more refined, visually rich, colourful and abstract textbooks for children being produced in the Russian capitals in the 1920s belies its pedagogic experimentation (and indeed the roots of this). Due to the methodology outlined above the experiment also actually entailed a deeply considered mixed and holistic cognitive approach to visual learning that, for all the publishing crudity and figurative conservatism of the imagery, outstripped (both in functionality and pedagogy) that of many of its more simplistic, aestheticised counterparts. Thus, in the first pages, alphabetic sequence is not followed. Simple monosyllabic and disyllabic, red and black, words and letters are placed in uneven rows and columns near associative pictures. While on page 3 the system is essentially phonics with the pictures representing sounds of sending to sleep (a-a-a), calling (a-u), hissing (s-s-s) and sighing (okh-okh), on page 4 the word ‘osa’ (wasp) is ‘written’ as if printed, stencilled, or made from folded paper, sticks and pebbles. Above these, a wasp is represented as drawn or made from the same elements as the written versions.

Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, p. 3 and p. 4. (State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk. http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, p. 3 and p. 4. (State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk. http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

As Bukvar (and the learning) progresses, so the complexity of words increases, sentences are added and handwriting exercises are introduced. The visual imagery complements that of the literary, and is diverse both in style (e.g. type of figuration, scale of illusionism and complexity), size and placement. While concentrating mostly on what was likely to be familiar for local children, with an emphasis on simple nature and rural ways of life, both forms of imagery also go on to make links with real and imagined realms beyond. Mechanised transport appears (a ship, plane, train). Soviet emblemata is introduced, yet in a very low key way: on page 19 with a hammer and sickle motif beneath which is written ‘Labour is our Law’, and a five-pointed star, and on page 33 with an image of an R.S.F.S.R flag. But with the introduction of literature (including nursery rhymes, lullabies, poems, children’s songs and folk tales) from page 36 these three hints of centralist socialist government are well-overtaken by material extracted from a range of late Tsarist writers and publications. Foremost among the tales (mostly of humorous foods and animals with anthropomorphic qualities) were five favourites (e.g. Repka [Turnip], Kolobok [Bun] and the rhyming Cat, Cock and Fox), which had been collected from across Russia in the 1850s and 1860s by Aleksandr Afanasyev. These were intermixed with five (e.g. Ducks, The Cock and Dog and Little Goats and the Wolf) by Konstantin Ushinskiy, the founder, in the 1860s, of Russian scientific pedagogy whose analytic-synthetic phonics method for learning to read and write provided the grounding from which Dmitriev and Osmolovskiy were gently departing. Another two were a fable (The Heron, Fish and Crayfish) and ‘true’ story (Little Kitten) from Lev Tolstoy’s First and Second Books for Reading which accompanied the publication of his New Azbuka in 1875 (and many editions thereafter). The compilers carefully selected a variety of prose and poetry from Tolstoy’s younger generation contemporaries, including Poliksena Solovyeva, Aleksandr Blok, Vasiliy Nemirov-Danchenko, Sasha Cherniy and Korney Chukovskiy. Those more personally connected to Siberia were Georgiy Vyatkin and Natan Vengrov. Significantly, the landscape scenes accompanying Solovyeva’s Little Birch poem (50) and Blok’s Lullaby (64) were decidedly symbolist in stylisation, this departing from the more caricatural primitivist treatment accorded folk tales such as Repka (41) and The Cat, Cock and Fox (45).


Fig. 5 and Fig. 6 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, p. 64 and 41. (State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk. http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

Fig. 5 and Fig. 6 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, p. 64 and 41. (State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk. http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)


Fig. 7 and Fig. 8 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, p. 70 and p. 71. (State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk: http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

Fig. 7 and Fig. 8 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, p. 70 and p. 71. (State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk: http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

Before concluding the Bukvar with a set of cut-out word and image games, the compilers placed three pages (70-72) where a group of the artists’ pictures acted as visual leads for children to tell stories. Using a triptych format the first four of these were ‘New Boots’, ‘Fetching Water’, ‘Pine Cone Harvest’ and ‘Everyone Works’. Of these ‘Pine Cone Harvest’ (‘Kedrovat’) was the most specifically local, depicting as it did a group of two adults and a child engaged in the early autumn gathering (before, during and after) of Siberian pine cones, the oil of which would then traditionally be used for cooking and as medicine. If this hints at the transference of a form of Christian art to the new secularised world of learning of Soviet Russia then it should also be noted that the only other hint of establishment religion in the Bukvar is an abstracted image of three church bells (10) utilised to illustrate the sounds ‘bom, boum, bam’ next to the Cyrillic letter ‘b’. In such ways the authority of the Orthodox church over public schooling, and in particular the religious-inspired formats it prescribed for primers in late Tsarist times, was usurped.

Fig. 9 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, p. 10 (State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk. http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

Fig. 9 – N. S. Dmitriev, N. N. Osmolovskiy, Bukvar dlya detey, Novo-Nikolaevsk, 1922, p. 10 (State Regional Scientific Library, Novosibirsk. http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK%7C%7C%7CBIBL%7C%7C%7C2000108707/)

From Spring: With Flowers to Trains, Training Flowers: Konushevich and Solovyeva’s Azbuki (1918)

Bukvar’s secularist transference coincided with that of Nevskiy’s and Sibiryakov’s Monument to the Fallen on Heroes Square, where the great hand and torch take the place of the traditional Orthodox cross that adorned most pre-revolutionary Russian graves. It became, and remains, a major ritual to take the schoolchildren of Novosibirsk to the heroes’ grave in order that they be instructed about the life sacrifices of previous generations, and pay homage to them. Despite the high significance of this, the artists of the memorial and their contribution to the pioneering Bukvar rapidly slipped into obscurity. Yet the teaching and learning offered by Bukvar were, as indicated by its compilers in a footnote to their “For Teachers” note, based on a synthetic pedagogy grounded in the innovatory methods of leading Petrograd and Moscow early-years education specialists, Elizaveta Tikheeva, Mariya Morozova and Evgeniya Solovyeva.[6] In many respects the Bukvar was an updated Sovietised and Siberianised version of Solovyeva and Tikheeva’s Russian Literacy (Russkaya Gramota) of which at least six editions were published between 1905 and 1918 (and more were to appear in the 1920s). Yet it also followed on from Solovyeva’s collaboration with Andrey Gorobets and the Eos Artists’ Collective on From the Countryside. A Primer (Iz derevni. Azbuka) (Moscow, 1922), which was published just before Bukvar.[7] For our purposes here, however, it is worth comparing Bukvar specifically with Solovyeva’s Rose Azbuka (Rozovaya azbuka), which preceded it by four years, and with Nina Scherbakova’s Little Octobrists (Oktyabryata), which appeared a decade after it in the early Stalinist era.

Best known for its being the pair to Azbuka in Pictures (Azbuka v risunkakh) (Petrograd, 1918) by Vladimir Konushevich, Rose Azbuka acted with its partner as the artist’s entrée to the world of children’s book illustration for which he was to set the Soviet standard.[8] If Christian traditions had been subsumed in Bukvar, in Rose Azbuka their appearance is also highly restricted and abstracted. Here, however, the abstraction comprises a section of prose that celebrates Pentecost (Troitsa) from a young girl’s perspective and its illustration derived from her mention of flowers and an open-air circle dance (khorovod) rather than of church (25). Thus Konushevich’s pictures take up the onus of the girl’s reflections on that which is beautiful, nature-related, folkish and pagan.

Fig. 10 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, p. 25. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

Fig. 10 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, p. 25. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

Konushevich’s Azbuka in Pictures also featured girls in a circle dance and ended with a garland of pink roses intertwined with letters thereby leading the user towards Rose Azbuka. Furthermore, the page associated with the letter ‘ts’ and illustrating the word ‘tsvety’ featured a bouquet of roses and other flowers similar to that in Rose Azbuka. Indeed, Solovyeva has composed the text of the Pentecost page in the latter so that it particularly (but not exclusively) trains usage of the letter ‘ts’, as in Troitsa, Tsvety, Tserkvi and Ulitse. Thus the relationship between Konushevich’s two Azbuki makes it necessary to consider their conception as one. Pictures was published both bound and loose-leaf, which Yuri Molok observed “made it something between a book, album and children’s game.”[9] Both Azbuki were commissioned by the R. Golike and A. Vilborg Association in the last year of the deluxe private press’s existence and when it was already under the auspices of Narkompros. Produced at the 15th State Printers in Petrograd, both are large (around 30 x 23 cm) and employ a distinctive, bold, upright (Roman) type of seriffed block letters printed from Konushevich’s handwritten originals (Rose Azbuka for its first 15 pages). This form of non-conjoined writing accords with the theory that cursive and mixed-case script is initially harder to read. Both also have covers in which a gracefully curvilinear frame contains an arrangement of sparing bibliographic matter that is expressed visually and literally. In the centre of Pictures, as Dmitriy Fomin has noted, there is a “charming vignette in the form of a ‘tangle’ of letters and little animals which reminds one of a flower.”[10] It shows a monkey, squirrel, hare, bear and parrot embracing their initials (in pink) in circular, energised format. This association with youthful flourishing and tender growth is made all the more floral in the cover of Rose Azbuka where a basket of numerous sorts of different blossoming flowers, with the pink rose at the centre, combine more intrinsically with their letters. Yet, here the movement is upwardly splaying, giving a sense of delicate beauty wrought by man’s sensitive and creative working with nature.

Fig. 11 – Vladimir Konashevich, Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, cover. (Runivers, Moscow, http://www.runivers.ru/lib/book4763/60538/)

Fig. 12 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, cover.  (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

The subtleties of the covers hint at nuanced differences in the pages behind each of them. Both books use whole words, in keeping with Solovyeva’s pedagogy, and both note the orthographic changes introduced by the Bolsheviks. However, they do so in carefully considered different ways. In Pictures, the sequence of pages is essentially alphabetical, and they each only feature one word and one image. The design is contained within a strong rectangular dichroic frame. The typeface is confined to a strict line at the top or bottom of the framed area and is black with the exception of red for letters that are either now being replaced or where the visualised word, out of necessity, does not begin them. The images are colour autotypes of watercolour originals. They fill much of the (otherwise uncoloured) space and appear close-up. They are mostly of flora and fauna, which, together with the exceptions to these, reveal much in regard educational intent.

Fig. 13 and Fig. 14 Vladimir Konashevich, Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, ‘stork’ and ‘monkey’ pages. (Runivers, Moscow, http://www.runivers.ru/lib/book4763/60538/)

Initially, the word-image choices of Pictures are familiar: stork (aist), squirrel (belka), grape (vinograd), mushrooms (griby) and tree (derevo). But at reaching ‘k’ a sense of the exotic is introduced, e.g. crocodile (krokodil), monkey (obez’yana), parrot (popugay), elephant (slon) and tiger (tigr). Thereafter, products of human craft and invention are revealed, e.g. a beautiful porcelain cup and saucer with rose motif for cup (chashka), a neo-classical porch for doorway (pod’ezd), the Kerch’, a full rigged sail ship for ship (korabl’), a steam engine with goods wagons crossing a bridge for train (poezd), and a horse-drawn trap for carriage (ekipazh). Modernity is all but absent. Likewise people only appear four times, thrice towards the end: the four khorovod dancers, a group of three figures (of three ages) heading away from the viewer in the carriage, and a group of four peasant boys playing with a top (yula).  Significantly, the one other human appearance was earlier when the lone figure of a semi-naked prancing and grimacing black African with spear and feather crown stood for negro (negr). Isolated among exotic and wild creatures, he or she is shown alongside a broken tree, this also being the prop for the preceding bear (medved’) and succeeding monkey (obez’yana). Such treatment and placement is easy to interpret as racist stereotyping, with the African primitivised and exoticised while the white folk are communal and local. Given Lenin’s much publicised designing of revolution in the name of decolonisation, i.e. the need for networks of oppressed peoples to be organised for rising up against oppressor nations and states, it would seem highly likely that Koneshevich’s negr was published due to lack of political supervision, this remaining possible in 1918.

Fig. 15 and Fig. 16 – Vladimir Konashevich, Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, ‘negr’ and ‘izhitsa’ pages. (21 Runivers, Moscow, http://www.runivers.ru/lib/book4763/60538/)

The illustration of the aggressive, wild and ugly black African can also be compared with that of izhitsa at the end of Pictures. For this too features on its left side a hacked tree stump, now irrevocably symbolising the past (and death). Together with the sombre autumnal wreath placed before a wattle lattice and above arid ground that represents the letter fita on the preceding page, the izhitsa image indicates the 1917-18 reforms of Russian orthography, and with them the cessation of use of the izhitsa letter (which had died its own death). The straight diagonal of its tree stump with its smooth, peeling bark contrasts with the more curvaceous, jagged and prickly stump, suggestive of a palm tree, of negr. The ‘V’ of izhitsa is completed by ivy winding itself around the slender broken branch that comprises the right diagonal and a tacked-on small sign giving Konushevich’s name and the year 1918. This visual coda thus becomes both epitaph and epigraph.

Fita and izhitsa are the only two pages in Pictures in which the illustration is the letter. This self-representation denies the associative qualities of the word-objects of other pages, thereby confirming the two letters’ redundancy. By contrast, Rose azbuka devotes ten pages of poetry, prose and images to coming to terms with the letters lost to the 1917 reforms, which besides fita and izhitsa, also included i-desyaterichnoe [decimal i] and yat. This then is a swansong for letters whose place in the Russian alphabet had long been questioned. Supported by Konushevich’s refined illustrations it is also a rare tribute to the quality of Russian literature from the traditional folk tale to neglected Silver Age poets. It commences with eight poems on the seasons, the first four, by Nikolay Ogarev, Spiridon Drozhzhin, Olga Belyaevskaya and Afanasiy Fet, being essentially celebratory. The second four, by Zinaida Gippius, Aleksey Pleshsheev, Fedor Berg and Mariya Moravskaya, are more questioning and melancholic, with Gippius’ in particular (Girl, [Devochka] 1912) lamenting the discrimination against girls’ education. The sense of development and discerning conveyed through the selection of poems is purposefully combined with a font smaller than those used earlier in the book. At the same time Konushevich’s charming vignettes make similar moves. They start with a beautiful landscape with two young figures relaxing beside a gently flowing river and avenue of lime trees that stretches across the whole page (illustrating the first verse from Ogarev’s It was a marvellous spring!, 1842). Subsequently Gippius’ Girl is small, set to the left, and stands still by her sledge with an angry expression. Thereafter, Berg’s Hare [Zayka] (1862) can only dream of winter-time human comforts such as the miniature pair of bast slippers that appear on the right of the following page.

Fig. 17 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, p. 34. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

Fig. 17 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, p. 34. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

Fig. 18 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, p. 36. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

Fig 18 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, p. 36. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

These pages dealing with obsolete letters come some two-thirds of the way through the fifty-six page Rose Azbuka. The first fifteen pages featured Solovyeva’s text (in Konushevich’s handwritten stylised upright type). There, there is a gradual build up from separate short words to sentences and scenarios, this coinciding with a diminishment in size of the script. The first page contains the word and image of a single blossoming ‘rose’ (roza) twice, growing wild and cut in a glass of water. This announcement of the book’s theme also introduces Konushevich’s lithographic crayon medium and his continuation of the close-up style of Pictures. Yet the close-up is not so close-up or large (compare, for example, these roses with that illustrating roza in Pictures, which appears as a blossom without any setting). Neither does it last. Instead it is quickly replaced by narrative scenes and smaller figures. The overarching theme remains both pastoral and domestic. While there is some borrowing from Pictures, as in the image of the bear on page 19 (a direct copy of the medved’ in Pictures), now the animals and objects frequently become parts of a larger whole. This growth in narrative quality involves evocative scenes that children could easily relate to, be they from the garden, kitchen, village or countryside.

 Fig. 19 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, p. 43. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

Fig. 19 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, p. 43. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

Fig. 20 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, p. 54. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

Fig. 20 – E.E. Solovyeva, Rose Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, p. 54. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf)

 Fig. 21 – Vladimir Konashevich, Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, ‘train’ page. (Runivers, Moscow, http://www.runivers.ru/lib/book4763/60538/)

Fig. 21 – Vladimir Konashevich, Azbuka, Petrograd, 1918, ‘train’ page. (Runivers, Moscow, http://www.runivers.ru/lib/book4763/60538/)

The exotic and industrial is limited to the last part of the book. There Solovyeva’s modern tales, in the new orthographic system, tell the story of (mainly) African animals in a zoo and end with an imaginary child’s view (from a distance), in prose and popular rhyme, of travel by train. Now instead of the free elephant, monkey, parrot and bear of Pictures the animals are placed behind bars. The human contact is not that of a negr in their midst, but of a curious young Russian girl, Olya, perusing the creatures with her father. As with the zoo, Konushevich’s picture of poezd in Rose Azbuka is more distant and panoramic than that of Pictures. True the train is still a steam locomotive with carriages crossing a bridge over a river and moving away from a water tower on the right. But now it is gazed at from afar by a child on a hillside, the wistfulness of the pose and the soft monochrome of the lithographic crayon’s marks contrasting with the harder edged colour forms of Pictures. Thus Solovyeva and Konushevich move the child on, so that now, unframed yet trained, the young mind can dream and run free. Whatever their flaws apropos ‘other’ and ‘belief’, and for all their seductive simplicity, these are two sophisticated and beautiful books. Their coordination of the literary and visual is conceived in accordance with a theory of whole language learning where, in keeping with Konushevich’s ideas for the agency of art in childhood, that language intrinsically involves simple, evocative and encapsulating imagery.

Towards Winter: The visualisation of whole language pedagogy in the early Stalinist Era: Little Octobrists (1932)

It was a long fourteen years between the publication of the Azbuki and that of Nina Shcherbakova’s Little Octobrists (Oktyabryata) in 1932.[11] In some ways, things got better. Black and Asian rights are recognised as equal to those of whites. Colonialism is criticised. Social commitment is emphasised. And while there is still stereotyping in terms of the division of labour, girls are getting educated alongside boys. But the cost to childhood, learning and art is also evident. Published by Uchpedgiz in an edition of 65,000 and printed on thin, inexpensive paper, the eighty-page book was the follow-up to Shcherbakova’s similar Youngsters-Little Octobrists (Rebyata Oktyabryata, 1931)[12]. While that earlier primer had been illustrated with delicate drawings by L. B. Goldenberg and M.M. Shtern, Little Octobrists was the domain of the more robust Brigade of Artists, the brigadier of which was Regina Velikanova. The composition of this collective, as seen in the book, bears witness not just to a new form of large-scale collaboration, but also to the emerging presence of women in Soviet art: of the fourteen illustrators at least eight are female.

Working at the Faculty of Pre-School Education within the Herzen Pedagogical Institute, Leningrad, Shcherbakova produced a number of primers in the 1930s. Little Octobrists was designed for teaching reading and writing to beginners at Industrial Seven Year School (FZS – Fabrichno-Zavodskaya Semiletka), this being an institution of primary education in Soviet workers’ settlements and industrial regions that had been founded in 1926. Such usage, and its theme of Little Octobrists, distinguishes it from the earlier primers. For the Oktyabryata was the organisation of children that was established in the mid-1920s as the grounding, in their first years at school, for the Soviet socialist path in life. Hence Little Octobrists is aimed at those aged seven and eight, and has the ambition that their next step will be to become Young Pioneers.

 Fig. 22 – N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, cover. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

Fig. 22 – N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, cover. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

Little Octobrists is much more urban, ostensibly purposeful and overtly political than the Azbuki and Bukvar. The tone is set by the cover. Gone are the animals, flowers and tangles of stylised letters. Present are a boy and girl placing names on a red grid board, and a second boy looking on. The second boy is more smartly dressed, wears the five-pointed red star Oktyabryata badge and appears quizzical, suggesting he is already an overseer of his peers’ development. The script on the board and of the title is sans serif while that denoting the author and publisher is cursive.

Fig. 23 and Fig. 24: N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, p. 7 and p. 9. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

Fig. 23 and Fig. 24: N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, p. 7 and p. 9. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

Inside the pedagogy is whole language and, other than the picture of children making a board dictionary on page 62, there is no hint of alphabetic sequence, of earlier orthography or pre-revolutionary literature of any kind. Nature, folk traditions and play, while still represented, are diminished in favour of work and discipline. After pages 3 and 4 introduce the collective nature of schooling in rhyme and image, the following twenty pages build back up to this from individual diminutives. The model accords with those of Rose Azbuka and Bukvar. Now, instead of starting with roza in two guises, we are given Mara, first on her way to school with satchel on back and then hanging up her coat on her peg in the cloakroom. And instead of joining Ira, Mama and others in a garden, the Ira Mara joins is at the blackboard and desk working on the word rama (frame). Furthermore, when she does go outside to play hide-and-seek (a-u) it is in the fenced-off schoolyard rather than the Siberian forest. After a few images of learning and play at home, on page 18 Little Octobrists indicates that adults and soldiers also go to school: a woman writes ‘Lenin’ on a blackboard, a military teacher points towards Leningrad on a wall map in front of his class.

It is difficult to distinguish which artist contributed which image to Little Octobrists but it is worth noting that more than half of the Brigade comprised recent graduates of VKhUTEIN, the Higher Art-Technical Institute that had replaced the Academy in Leningrad, i.e. Irina Valter, Regina Velikanova, Kleopatra Dumarevskaya, Anton Zubov, Eleonora Kondiayn, Miney Kuks, Evgeniy Charushin and Aleksandra Yakobson. There they had been taught by prime movers of the new Leningrad school of art, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Pavel Filonov, Mikhail Matyushin, Arkadiy Rylov and, in the case of Dumarevskaya, Konashevich. Others included the already more established children-specialising artists Mariya Lebedeva, Nikolay Travin and, perhaps most significantly given her place at the forefront of both Soviet modern art and children’s book illustration in the 1920s, Vera Ermolaeva.

Fig. 25 and Fig. 26 : N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, p. 28 and p. 38. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

Fig. 25 and Fig. 26 : N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, p. 28 and p. 38. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

On almost every page of Little Octobrists large, well-distributed black and white drawings have an active role to play alongside the text. On rare occasions towards the end the visual vocabulary correlates with that of its predecessors. Hence we begin to see trains (from 49), images of going to school in far-flung rural parts of the USSR (73) and animals in winter (74). Tellingly, the steam locomotive on page 70 is a goods train with five visible wagons, the picture of which acts like a remote frieze at the top. It carries no passengers, stirs no dreams. When the picture dominates there is an, albeit humourless, suggestion of 18th- and 19th-century lubok popular print traditions as the writing is subordinated to a stylised scene about which it teaches. Take, for example, page 28 which, beneath separate images of a cabbage and potatoes with their written form, has two genre pictures in which pairs of women dig potatoes and cut cabbages. Behind them, with little hint of spatial recession, smaller figures plough, sack, stack and transport. But for the inclusion of a small lorry, the bold, crudely delineated elements recall Nataliya Goncharova’s Neo-Primitivist lubok-inspired peasant paintings of c. 1910. These scenes become more industrial on page 38 with ‘Our factory’ and domestic on page 41 with ‘How it was’ and ‘What it has become’. The politics are patent. As the level of language acquisition is raised, so the pictures accompany more complicated, yet plain, text. On pages 50-51 the serial manufacture of shirts is eulogised in words and two images of grouped cutters and sewers. High viewpoints flatten and distort space so that the long workers’ tables are tilted to reveal orderly shirt parts and sewing machines.

Fig. 27 and Fig. 28: N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, p. 50 and p. 51. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

Fig. 27 and Fig. 28: N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, p. 50 and p. 51. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

After some more caricatural images (particularly on page 61, ‘We do not believe in god’), a new realist visual language is inserted. Thus on page 66, ‘Get to know the Kolkhoz’, a row of tractors plough a field which undulates towards scaled-to-size collective farm buildings depicted on a distant horizon (though the necessity of them all apparently ploughing the same furrow might be questioned). This scene is complemented by a close-up of men fixing a tractor with a Young Pioneer looking on. Three dimensionality is conveyed in convincing illusion of visual reality. The path towards such style and collectivisation subject was paved on page 57 with its dedication to the production of tractors at the Red Putilovets factory. Three tractors zigzag off the assembly line towards the viewer. That this machine manufacturing plant was in Leningrad and the tractors, both here and on page 66, were its groundbreaking Fordzon-Putilovets model, were ignored. Having produced around 40000 of such tractors from 1924, in 1932 the last one rolled off the line. If this made Little Octobrists a little outdated as soon as it was published, such anachronism was assuaged on the next page (58) with the announcement, in pictures and words, that the first Five Year Plan of economic development had been completed in four years and that there was readiness for the second.

Fig. 29, Fig. 30 and Fig. 31: N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, p. 57, 66 and 58. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

Fig. 29, Fig. 30 and Fig. 31: N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, p. 57, 66 and 58. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

The last three pages of Little Octobrists take the place often accorded to Church Slavonic reading and Christian prayers in pre-1917 primers and with that lay down the line of Soviet state building with slogans, beliefs and five Oktyabryata socio-political rules. This final section is introduced by realist drawings of the busts of Lenin and Stalin though nowhere in the text are the vozhds actually mentioned, other than in the cursive finale: ‘We will be Leninists’. In these pages, more than any before, as the size of the pictures diminishes, so the visual loses out to the proclamatory textual. With this challenge to word-image integrity, the pedagogy is evidently taking a new turn. Ultimately, then, Little Octobrists expresses the political, artistic and pedagogic crossroads that was being reached around the time of the fifteenth anniversary of the 1917 revolution. It participates in the process of Stalinist conservatism and anticipates the implementation of socialist realism as the authorised language of literature and art. Yet it also downplays the trumpeting of domestic, national and governmental identity that was to become intrinsic to Soviet propaganda of the early 1930s.

Fig. 32 – N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, p. 80. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)

Fig. 32 – N.A. Shcherbakova, Little Octobrists, Leningrad, 1932, p. 80. (K.D. Ushinskiy Scientific Pedagogical Library, Moscow. http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf)


It becomes clear that the early Soviet period was a time for experimentation with a synthetic whole language-phonics method of teaching literacy, that in part derived from Ushinskiy, in part from Solovyeva and her peers. The illustrated primer examples discussed here reveal a trend away from alphabetic and sublexical principles of phonics learning towards a system of analytical lexical reading. Images coordinated with written words, and the teaching of the child to be visually literate, were integral to the literacy campaigns of the era. In this there was recognition of the primacy of visual identification and internalisation in young children. As such the primers offer scope for further study in relation to contemporary social constructivist theories of knowledge and play by cultural-development psychologists such as Lev Vygotskiy. For now, let us just confirm that, for all the emergence of overt political underpinnings, the combined visual-literary content of the primers of 1918-32 was an expression of seasoned yet experimental pedagogy. Artwork was vital and as much text as text.[13]

Pour citer cet article : Jeremy Howard, « A is for AZBUKA Anew : Reading (the art, pedagogy and politics of) Early Soviet Illustrated Primers », Histoire@Politique, n° 33, septembre-décembre 2017 [en ligne, www.histoire-politique.fr]


Notes :

[1] L. Ershova, V. Semenikhin, Dmitriy Fomin, Detskaya illyustrirovannaya kniga v istorii rossii 1881-1939 iz kollektsii Aleksandra Lur’e, Moscow, Uley, 2009; Albert Lemmens, Serge Stommels, Russian Artists and the Children’s Book 1890-1992, Nijmegen, LS, 2009. See also, for example, Evgeny Steiner, Stories for Little Comrades. Revolutionary Artists and the Making of Early Soviet Children’s Books, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1999; Julian Rothenstein, Olga Budashevskaya (eds.), Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times, London, Redstone Press, 2013.

 [2] See the useful but minimal coverage in L. Ershova et al. Detskaya…, op. cit., vol. 1, 228-9.

 [3] For an indication of the range, see Azbuki, bukvari i knigi dlya chteniya c. 1918-1930 and c. 1931-1940 gg., K. D. Ushinskiy Nauchnaya Pedagogicheskaya Biblioteka, website: http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/index.html (accessed 08.03.2016).

[4] V. N. Lyakhov, “Uchebnik iskusstvo knigi”, Iskusstvo knigi, no.5, 1968, as published in V. N. Lyakhov, Iskusstvo knigi. Izbrannye istoriko-teoreticheskie i kriticheskie raboty, Moscow, Sovetskiy khudozhnik, 1978, p. 40-52.

[5] For a complete digitised version, see: http://нэб.рф/catalog/003673_000052_RU+NOVOSIBIRSK|||BIBL|||2000108707/viewer/

(accessed 08.08.2016).

[6] The authors cite M. Morozova, E. Tikheeva, Sposob estestvennogo usvoeniya det’mi gramoty, Petrograd-Moscow, Gosizdat, 1919; and E. Solovyeva, Metodicheskoe rukovodstvo k bukvaryu “Iz derevnyi” A. Gorobtsa, Moscow, Gosizdat, 1922). Concerning Solovyeva’s pedagogical methodology and bibliography, see O.V. Kabasheva, “Metodist nachal’noy shkoly Evgeniya Egorovna Solov’eva”, Problemy sovremennogo obrazovaniya, no.6, 2014, p. 149-175, at: http://www.pmedu.ru/res/2014_6_11.pdf (accessed 08.03.2016).

[7] See digitised copies of E. Solovyeva, Metodicheskoe…, op. cit., at: http://нэб.рф/catalog/000202_000006_2587933/ and Andrey Gorobets, Iz derevni…, op. cit., http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/gorobecz_iz_derevni_azbuka_1922.pdf (both accessed 08.03.2016).

[8] For digitised copies, see: http://www.runivers.ru/lib/book4763/60538/ and

http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/solovieva_1918.pdf respectively (accessed 08.03.2016).

[9] Yuri Molok, Vladimir Mikhaylovich Konashevich, Leningrad, Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1969, p. 24.

[10] L. Ershova et al., Detskaya…, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 227.

[11] N.A. Shcherbakova, Oktyabryata. Kniga dlya obucheniya gramote v shkole FZS, Moscow-Leningrad, Gosudarstvennoe uchebno-pedagogicheskoe izdatel’stvo, 1932. For a digitised version, see: http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/DownLoads/abc-book/scherbakova_1932.pdf (accessed 08.03.2016).

[12] The visual pedagogy of Little Octobrists could also be usefully compared to that of Little Octobrists at School (Oktyabryata v shkole by the Vera Menzhinskaya Collective of Pedagogues, Moscow, 1931) and Little Octobrists – Friendly Youngsters (Oktyabryata druzhnye rebyata by the P.N. Yakovlev Shock Brigade, Rostov on Don, 1931). For digitised versions of all of these, see: http://www.abc.gnpbu.ru/abc-book_3.htm (accessed 08.03.2016).

[13] It is worth noting that studies of early Soviet education, whether contemporary or historical, Soviet or non-Soviet, tend to overlook the significance of the illustrated primer. See, for example, Beatrice King, Changing Man: The Education System of the USSR, London, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1936; Larry E. Holmes, The Kremlin and the Schoolhouse. Reforming Education in Soviet Russia 1917-1931, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1991; E. M. Balashov, Shkola v rossiyskom obschestve 1917-1927 gg., St Petersburg, Dmitriy Bulanin, 2003. In his chapter entitled ‘Illiteracy and the New Education’ in The Mind and Face of Bolshevism (London, Chiswick Press, 1927), René Fülöp-Miller at least remarked upon the recent Soviet emphasis on elementary education via the primer and even included two photographs of students with primers. Yet his argument about their originality was undermined by his claim that ‘Their main aim, in accordance with the Bolshevik philosophy, was to arouse the interest of the children in machines and their constituent parts at a very early age. Therefore, the Bolshevik reading books had no pictures of flowers, animals, and such-like ‘bourgeois idyllic’ things, but only representations of technical objects’. (p. 226)

Jeremy Howard

Jeremy Howard is Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He specialises in Russian and East European art as well as the relationships between art and education. He is the author, co-author and editor of various monographs and essays, including, for example, East European Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) and The Decorated School. Essays on the Visual Culture of Schooling (London: Blackdog Publishing, 2013).

Mots clefs : Azbuka ; bukvar ; livre pour enfant ; alphabétisme ; livre illustré / Azbuka; Bukvar ; Primer; Literacy; Illustrated.



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