During the first two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, children and adolescents in Russia often heard that they lived in a new country: a nation that had parted ways with its communist past and had entered a new era of political and economic development. This was not the first time Russian children had heard a version of that story: Peter the Great, Alexander II, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Vladimir Putin all claimed to take Russia in new directions, contributing to Russia’s reputation as an unpredictable actor in the international sphere. Although Russia is certainly not the first or only country to rewrite its history, its penchant for revolutionary change has caused grand revisions to the national narrative to shape its cultural DNA. The act of repeatedly disavowing the past poses interesting problems for historians and scholars of Russian culture, in part because the renaming of streets, cities, and the country itself does not necessarily change the values, assumptions, and habits of people who live there. Claiming to live in a new country likewise presents challenges for those who raise or educate children, whether they be parents, teachers, authors, librarians, or ministers of education. Explaining to children who they are, where they come from, and what their country stands for is a complicated act of cultural transmission in any case, and one that is made especially difficult in times of rapid social change.
Throughout Russian history, the repeated rejection of the previous political order has been remarkably productive for the formation of cultural canons. Revolutions demand new forms, thus creating conditions for the rapid development of new bodies of knowledge, artistic modes, and discursive patterns. Russia’s repeated 180-degree turns over the past three centuries have especially impacted its writing, from the very script of the language under Peter I in the early eighteenth century, to radical experimentation with literary genres in the nineteenth century, to the creation of revolutionary children’s books in the early twentieth century.1 After the fall of the Soviet state in 1991 and the societal rupture it marked between past and future, this innovative impulse once again created new literary forms for children and adolescents. The process by which the new literature emerged is by now familiar: a change in the political sphere prompted a flurry of translations of Western texts into Russian, followed by a burst of derivative works written in Russian, which was then succeeded by a rise in original literary works. It is clear that this pattern of cultural production, which was foreshadowed in the careers of Sumarokov, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tsvetaeva, Bulgakov, Sorokin, and Petrushevskaya, is deeply embedded in political disruptions and cultural divisions between old and new.
The cultural rift caused by the end of Soviet communism created a generational divide of momentous proportions: middle-aged and older adults born in the USSR spent their childhoods in a world that subsequently ceased to exist. Their children and grandchildren know nothing of food lines, ration cards, communal apartments, compulsory exams on Marxism-Leninism, or the collective project of building a better future through communism. This clash of worlds is nowhere more evident than in the new literature for children and teens coming out of Russia today. Initially created by authors who grew up in the Soviet Union, then later by younger authors who have no direct experience of Soviet life, these works bear little resemblance to literature for children and adolescents published in the USSR. Their protagonists are not larger-than-life heroes who save friends from certain death, sacrifice themselves for the communist cause, or care for soldiers’ families in times of war. Instead, they are ordinary kids trying to find their place in a globalized world. In addition to numerous formal differences, such as language, dominant genres, heroes, plots, and even sentence length, works published for children and teens after 1991 reflect fundamentally different assumptions about children and childhood itself.
In this book we trace the rise of a new body of writing for children and adolescents following the privatization of the publishing industry in the 1990s, and the subsequent appearance of small, boutique publishing houses in the 2000s and 2010s. The rapid influx of Western translated literature (primarily Anglo-American, French, German, and Scandinavian) in the 1990s introduced a formerly isolated reading public to new literary forms, including interactive board books for toddlers, children’s detective fiction, sex education literature, franchise texts (Disney, Barbie, and My Little Pony books), and the global Harry Potter phenomenon. While many members of the cultural elite were horrified by these developments, millions of Russian adults eagerly bought these books with the hope of giving their kids the childhood they never had. Following an influx of translations and profit-driven works for a mass audience, works with distinctly artistic ambitions began to appear, depicting the lives of contemporary children and teens with candor and complexity. This new literary fiction tends to portray childhood as a vulnerable, complicated, even dangerous time, and shows young people grappling with cruelty, poverty, neglect, alcoholism, homelessness, moral ambiguity, and sexual predation. Even in the more uplifting works published after 1991—those that continue in the Soviet vein to celebrate childhood as a time of creativity and wonder—contemporary authors approach their child readers as fully-fledged people and active subjects, rather than as passive receivers of prescribed, state-sponsored knowledge. This extraordinary shift in depictions of children and adolescents after 1991 is a defining feature of the new literature, which has come of age as an established body of writing in just a few decades.
The remarkable changes in treatment of the hero and implied reader in Russian children’s fiction after 1991 reflect alterations in received views of children and childhood. The experience of childhood as a phase in human development has changed radically over the past century, both in Russia and other parts of the world. No longer a time when most children toiled on farms, in factories, or at home, childhood in the twentieth century became a time of play, compulsory schooling, and legal protections. In Russia, the Soviet project was a driving force behind those changes, and the literature it produced for children offers a fertile field for examining the specificities of socialization, education, and child protection under Soviet rule. Similarly, books published for children and teens after 1991 reflect significant changes in state-sponsored care, school culture, and child rearing after the fall of communism. That said, our primary interest in these texts is not sociological: we do not aim to examine changes in Russian society as reflected in texts for children (although that would be a fascinating project). Rather, we examine the new literature for children and teens through three different lenses—institutional, formal, and reader-centered—to better understand how children and childhood have been reimagined in a short span of recent history.
Not surprisingly, our own backgrounds, professional experiences, and academic interests have deeply shaped the final form of this book. One of us is a Moscow-born, New York-based literary translator, writer, and specialist in contemporary Russian children’s literature (Bukhina), while the other two are American scholars with doctoral degrees in Slavic languages and literatures from UCLA who now teach at liberal arts colleges (Lanoux and Herold). Although we all work with texts in our professional lives and see literary texts as the primary object of analysis in this book, each of us brings different interests to this project. Literary canon formation, popular culture, institutional approaches to literary production, children’s reading habits, genre studies, and formal literary analysis are just some of the areas that have fueled our conversations since we first found common cause in 2011.2 Since then, we have completed over a dozen research trips to Russia and conducted over forty interviews with writers, publishers, librarians, bibliographers, and booksellers. Collectively we have read countless works of contemporary Russian fiction for children and teens, gathered primary materials at children’s libraries (as well as at book fairs, bookstores, and online), and collected secondary materials at Harvard’s Widener Library, the Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and multiple branches of the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The resulting study is a co-created labor of love nurtured by many hours of conversation and debate. Despite our varied interests and contributions to the project, we share several basic views of the subject at hand: first, that a combination of historical, institutional, and formal approaches is the best way to do justice to this complex field of cultural production; second, that a discussion of literary translations and mass literature, both of which have been essential to the creation of new narrative fiction for children in Russia, is central to our analysis; and third, that the opinions of child and teen readers are crucial to understanding children’s literature in Russia today, as in previous eras and other cultural contexts. The fact that millions of Russian children read daily for pleasure, but may not be recognized as doing so because they read online texts or material not considered valuable by their parents and teachers, is a significant point in itself. If we have learned anything from writing this book, it is that human behavior and its representation in cultural artifacts and public discourse are wildly different things. This point, of course, is well known to students of culture, but one that we often forget when we study very recent history.
Despite the vitriolic rhetoric of pundits, critics, and cultural activists who claim that “children don’t read anymore,” it is precisely children’s active engagement in the post-Soviet cultural marketplace that best demonstrates their agency in its creation. Attitudes toward privatization and consumerism are highly ambivalent in Russia, and we do not intend to celebrate post-communist, global capitalism in this book. We would point out, however, that the social position of children and teens as consumers has had enormous consequences for how they are viewed in their own society by authors, publishers, and their marketing departments, not to mention consequences for how children and teens imagine themselves and their own agency in shaping cultural production. For better or worse, cultural enjoyment and entertainment are aims in and of themselves for young people in Russia today, following decades of emphasis on moral obligation and duty. Reading for pleasure and choosing to spend time with a product of culture, be it a book from a friend or something you found online, reflects a significant sense of agency. Those who find such activities frivolous should note the very young faces of people taking to the streets and risking arrest to make their voices heard.
Pursuing this line of thought led us to texts that we did not initially intend to examine, works that many would call trash literature, including for-profit books, popular literature, and genre fiction. We felt that we could not engage solely in textual analysis of highly regarded literary works and fully understand the massive changes in literary production in Russia over the past three decades. Examining a wide range of texts has only made it clearer that the interrelated development of lowbrow and highbrow texts is central to the formation of literary canons.3 Their interplay can occur in many ways, and in the chapters that follow we discuss three such situations: 1) popular genres serving as a literary “sandbox” for the development of more complex works; 2) genre fiction familiarizing readers with new kinds of characters and cultivating a reading audience for more innovative texts; and 3) popular works dominating the market to such a degree as to prompt public outcries about the deleterious state of culture and a lack of “literature of quality.”
This last pattern has been especially robust in post-Soviet Russia, where renewed interest in popular literature and genre fiction created a new generation of readers, laying the groundwork for writers with explicit literary ambitions to push the written word in new directions. Although the term “literary” may sound outmoded to students of cultural studies, literature in Russia—and by that we mean artistic texts considered to possess high aesthetic and cultural value—remains an important category of cultural production. For the past two centuries, literature has served as an influential site of civic and moral debates in Russia given the suppression of civil society in the imperial and Soviet eras. Texts for children and teens published in recent decades continue to address issues under debate in Russian society (such as the state of the family, education, and generational conflict in post-Soviet Russia), while at the same time envisioning and addressing young people in Russia as citizens in a globalized society.
Although children’s literature as a field of study still suffers from discriminatory and outdated assumptions, works written for children and adolescents are crucial to better understanding cultural transmission, the socialization of young people, and the effects of rapid societal change on subsequent generations. Most people in the United States know little about developments in Russian society over the past three decades, in part because Russia largely disappeared from the Western press for years following the end of the Cold War. After Russia’s reassertion on the world stage under Putin, time-worn stereotypes reappeared in Western news sources, reinscribing Cold War paradigms by continually focusing on Russia’s authoritarianism, corruption, and imperial ambitions, thereby obscuring more interesting and lesser known cultural developments. While the political context cannot and should not be denied, Russia has experienced a cultural flourishing in literature for young people that is important to acknowledge and to better understand.
The striking differences between the new Russian children’s literature and its Soviet-era counterpart come as no surprise given the radical transformation of the Russian publishing industry after 1991. Now driven by market forces rather than a centralized economy, contemporary children’s literature issues from a fundamentally different infrastructure and social context. Following a repeated cycle of currency collapse throughout the 1990s, which brought severe financial hardship to millions of families with children, works for children and teens published in the immediate post-Soviet period abruptly ceased portraying childhood as a happy time. The difficult experiences of untold numbers of children throughout the 1990s, and the reflection of those experiences in literary works of that period, remind us that the collapse of states is a violent, traumatic process that most directly affects those farthest from power, children included. Even as writers of the new literature successfully disrupted the Soviet myth of the happy childhood, they did not stop developing the Russian literary tradition as such: they discuss Russia’s fractured history with an openness not found in the state school curriculum and give honest accounts of institutional failings, including those of schools. Many contemporary children’s authors directly cite Soviet-era and imperial classics in their works, thus writing themselves into an evolving Russian literary canon.4 Just as they embrace global publishing trends like YA fiction, these authors position themselves as distinctly Russian in their discussion of contemporary social ills, continuing long-standing debates dating to the mid-nineteenth century when Slavophiles and Westernizers deliberated incessantly over obvious outside influences on Russian cultural development and more homegrown movements.5
One notable aspect of post-Soviet literature for children and teens is its resonance with and echo of children’s literary developments of the 1920s. In both periods, replacement of a moribund political system reinvigorated questions of children’s socialization and the role of literature within it, though in opposing directions. The revolutionary literatures of the 1920s and 1990s stand as bookends to the Soviet experiment, marking movements into and out of a state-sponsored project to advance social equality based on the inculcation of a collectivist sensibility. This utopian vision was incredibly rosy, even fantastically so, at the start, and agonizingly jaded near the end. Adults in the 1920s who imagined children as natural collectivists and future communists occupied a historical vantage point distinct from those in the 1990s and early 2000s, who had witnessed the damage inflicted upon children by a state that claimed to protect and nurture them. If the writers of the 1920s viewed children as “raw material” to be molded in the state’s image, then their counterparts in the 1990s, having lived through the Soviet experiment and experienced its most coercive effects, had come to view children as agents of change who would rebuild the country upon the wreckage of the failed Soviet project.6 Like most adult authors of children’s literature, those writing at both ends of the Soviet era tended to bring their own baggage aboard the ship of political change.
Other factors impacting the radical changes in children’s literature in the early-Soviet period include attitudes toward social class, capitalism, and materialism. The utopian aim of creating a classless society fundamentally shaped presentations of children as the foundation of the future. Child heroes in Soviet texts often espouse the Party line with regard to social equality, their selfless acts providing vivid models of the yet-to-be-realized ideal. By contrast, in the post-Soviet era, endless discussions of an emerging, but still elusive middle class continue to shape public discourse. Some hope that this social force will stabilize the country both economically and politically once it has fully emerged. This hope is reflected in contemporary child heroes, many of whom are middle-class kids—that is, white, urban, ethnically Russian children with working parents—trying to find their voice and place in the world, a search which is itself a middle-class value. Works for children published after 1991 convey the child’s inner voice in new ways, depicting children and teens as individuals who first and foremost wish to exert agency over their own lives. The rise of the internet since the mid-1990s has deeply shaped children’s literature as well, giving children access to new online forms of expression and promoting child and teen consumerism. Taken together, these massive societal changes have informed the content, style, and tone of children’s texts after 1991, illustrating how various political and economic systems imagine children differently as people, national subjects, and citizens of the world.
The rebirth of children’s popular literature in Russia over the past decades has been an affront to what some consider to be one of the only things worth preserving from the Soviet era: “good” books that teach morals, values, empathy, proper social behavior, and how to be a good friend. As much as many intellectuals would hate to admit it, the “Western crap” that flowed into Russia after 1991 has been a driving force behind the creation of the new children’s and adolescent literature. The erroneous yet often repeated claim that “children have nothing to read” in fact reveals a key process of cultural renewal, dusted off from early-Soviet and imperial Russian playbooks. This recipe for a new literature—translate foreign texts, publish derivative popular texts, compose works that reflect current societal issues, overthrow the government, repeat—continues to be followed by social elites as a tried and true formula for creating something “completely new.”
The renewal of cultural canons can also be impeded by the persistence of previous canons, such as the canon of Soviet children’s literature, as well as the perseverance of entrenched ideas, such as Cold War thinking. Both the Soviet children’s canon and the Cold War mindset that much of it reflects continue to inform Russian cultural production today, thus making it challenging for contemporary children’s writers to find their readers. Despite the large number and high quality of new books in Russian for children and adolescents, beloved Soviet-era classics continue to be favored by millions of parents and grandparents, not to mention the Ministry of Education. While the Bolsheviks were able to create a new children’s literature in just fifteen years under difficult economic conditions through top-down state edict, today’s decentralized system of boutique publishers, cultural activists, and writers (many working for free) are no match for the well-funded machine that was the Soviet Writers Union and state-owned publishing houses. Given the astounding resources, energy, creativity, and coordination put into the development of the Soviet children’s canon, it is no surprise that the works produced by that system continue to persist and resonate beyond the life of the institutions that created them.
In addition to providing an ideal context for examining a new body of literature that advances different ideas about children and adolescents, the immediate post-Soviet period serves as a perfect background for studying the impact that repeated economic collapse and the rise of a market economy have had on the socialization of young people. Given that the effects of the fall of the Soviet Union are still unfolding, developments in the book market for children and teens illuminate a number of questions concerning the education of children as national subjects. One key question we address in this book is whether the revolutionary paradigm in Russian history—the recurring claim that Russians are new people in a new country—reflects a robust process of cultural renewal, or whether it is an ingenious strategy to perpetuate deeply held cultural values, political institutions, and social practices in a seemingly Western-striving, but never fully westernized body politic.
Questions of ideology are inescapable in the Russian context, given that the Soviet project broke the mold in embracing a political philosophy—Marxism, and later the official state ideology of Marxism-Leninism—as a strategy for forging a radically new system of governance. Soviet children’s literature is often criticized for being unabashedly ideological, a fact that cannot be denied. Literature for children and adolescents published in Russia after 1991 is likewise ideological, but not as overtly, and with less direct state intervention. Just as American children’s and YA literature reflects an ideology of individualism and self-reliance against a backdrop of white superiority, post-Soviet books for children advance new ideas about personhood and agency, but without the Soviet-era emphasis on state doctrine. The evils of late-stage capitalism all too obvious in the West, from gross social inequality to the unfolding climate catastrophe, are evident in Russia as well, despite the fact that capitalism in Russia is not late-stage but relatively new. President Vladimir Putin’s policy of “managed democracy,” a term denoting the regime’s antipathy to democratic processes, has already managed to shape contemporary children’s literature by supporting the publication of books that glorify and perpetuate the myths of the Soviet past, and by passing laws to “protect” children from exposure to non-heteronormative sexual identities.7 It remains to be seen, however, whether the state’s reassertion of its role as a driver of cultural production can stop, or even temper, the processes of cultural change in motion.
Growing Out of Communism sees the Soviet past as a vital progenitor of the new Russian children’s literature, while questioning whether the new literature has fully grown out of its socialist lineage. This is the third book published by Brill to advance the study of Russian children’s literature, following the 2013 publication of Ben Hellman’s seminal work, Fairy Tales and True Stories: The History of Russian Literature for Children and Young People (1574–2010), and the 2019 volume, A Companion to Soviet Children’s Literature and Film, edited by Olga Voronina. It is the first monograph to examine Russian children’s literature after 1991 in depth, and as such it aims to make lasting contributions to studies of childhood, gender, nationhood, globalization, and other fields in which cultural transmission is of central importance. After providing a brief overview of the major developments in Soviet children’s literature (Chapter 1), we examine the transformation of literary institutions after 1991 (Chapter 2) and the new mass-market texts they produced for children in the 1990s and 2000s (Chapter 3). Then, in the second half of the book, we examine the literary landscape for children after 1991 (Chapter 4), as well as the innovative field of adolescent fiction in Russia (Chapter 5). We close with an investigation of informal networks, reading habits, and reader responses to these works in the internet age (Chapter 6).
Childhood in all cultures is complicated by the fact that children are not treated legally as independent subjects: not only are they wards of their caregivers, but they are also fundamentally shaped by their parents’ choices and their society’s values. Children’s literature in all countries is likewise complicated by the fact that its authors are rarely children themselves: try as they might to give voice to children’s experiences, adult writers convey a culturally embedded, fully formed worldview for readers who are still being socialized into their societies. In our view, this complicated act of cultural transmission makes children’s literature one of the most important and fascinating cultural artifacts that humans produce. We have written this book for those who share our interest in the subject, and for whom the traumatic rupture between the Soviet past and the complex period that follows—one whose story is still being written—continues to captivate.
Sara Pankenier Weld situates the development of the Soviet avant-garde picture book within an ecological framework, arguing that a “a new ecological niche or habitat” arose in the 1920s and 1930s, followed by a process of evolution, adaptation, and finally, extinction, when met with competing forces, most notably censorship. Sara Pankenier Weld, An Ecology of the Avant-Garde Picturebook (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2018), 5.
This book grew out of a conference panel on Russian children’s literature at the annual convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) in New Orleans in 2011.
Pierre Bourdieu’s groundbreaking study, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), explores the distinction between high and low culture as a class-based system that subjugates those from lower socioeconomic groups, who are pressured to accept dominant aesthetic standards set by social elites.
Soviet-era classics such as Grigorii Belykh and Leonid Panteleev’s The Republic of ShKID, Arkadii Gaidar’s Timur and His Team, and Aleksandra Brushtein’s The Road Goes into the Distance receive frequent attention in contemporary Russian children’s texts, as do such nineteenth-century works as Aleksandr Pushkin’s fairy tales, Antonii Pogorel’skii’s The Black Hen, and Lev Tolstoy’s Childhood.
Even the questions “Who is to blame?” and “What is to be done?,” which have fueled Russian cultural development since the 1860s with the publication of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done (Chto delat’, 1863) and Aleksandr Gertzen’s Who Is to Blame? (Kto vinovat, 1866), resonate in works for adolescents by Ekaterina Murashova and Miriam Petrosyan published in the 1990s and 2000s.
Marina Balina writes of children in the early Soviet period, “These children were indeed the ‘Children of State’; they had no family ties, and quite often had no knowledge of their heritage. They were a much-desired raw material, as it were, a human tabula rasa on which the Soviet government could write a glorious and happy future.” Balina, “‘It’s Grand to Be an Orphan!’ Crafting Happy Citizens in Soviet Children’s Literature of the 1920s.” In Petrified Utopia: Happiness Soviet Style, ed. Marina Balina and Evgeny Dobrenko (London: Anthem Press, 2009), 103.
The 2013 Russian law, “Propaganda of Nontraditional Sexual Relations among Minors,” Article 6.21, also known as the “anti-gay law,” was approved by the Russian State Duma by unanimous decision on June 11, 2013, and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on June 30, 2013.