ZOiS Spotlight 32/2020

Russia’s other history

by Nina Frieß 09/09/2020
Illustration by Anna Desnitskaya from the book "The Apartment: A Century of Russian History" | Author: Alexandra Litvina | Original edition first published in the Russian language by LLC Samokat Publishing House in 2016. All rights reserved. © Anna Desnitskaya, illustrations, 2016

One of the Russian government’s priorities is to impart the “correct” version of history to the young generation. In schools, youth organisations and the cultural sphere, Russia spends lavishly on propagating this historical narrative. The most important reference point is the Soviet (Russian) victory in the Second World War – shorthand for, and a symbol of, the heroism and self-sacrifice of the people but also the power of the state. Indeed, ZOiS surveys show that young Russians regard the Second World War as the most significant event in their country’s history. By contrast, there is no place for historical events that could potentially undermine what is, ultimately, a positive narrative despite the immense human losses caused by the war. But while the state’s history narrative is omnipresent – particularly in 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War – some attempts are being made in Russia to convey a different version of the country’s past to children and young people. This is particularly apparent in the sphere of children’s and teen literature.

Children’s and teen literature is intended not only to entertain but also, in many cases, to educate. Through an age-appropriate narrative, young readers should acquire specific knowledge or be encouraged to adopt certain forms of behaviour. In the Soviet Union, the potential afforded by children’s and teen literature that reflected the official ideology was recognised and promoted early on.[1] Today, other than in school history textbooks, the state makes very little effort to shape young people’s view of history through literature. Any reading recommended by the state or affiliated organisations tends to consist of Soviet classics, which account for the majority of literature about the Second World War for adults as well. The Yunarmiya army cadet organisation, for example, encourages its members to read Boris Polevoy’s Story of a Real Man (1947), while the Immortal Regiment – the civil society initiative which has now been more or less taken over by the state – published a new edition of Valentin Kataev’s Son of the Regiment (1945), with additional eyewitness accounts, in 2017. Both these texts are classic examples of Socialist realism, with positive heroes whose Soviet virtues enable them to surmount all manner of difficulties. The reader searches in vain for the critical undertones that are undoubtedly present in other texts dating from this period.

A century in hidden object games

Nevertheless, contemporary Russian literature for children and teenagers features a surprisingly large number of texts which present a less than black-and-white version of history. A vivid example – not only on account of its colourful illustrations – is The Apartment: A Century of Russian History (the original Russian titles translates as The History of an Old Apartment) by Alexandra Litvina (writer) and Anna Desnitskaya (illustrator). Just 56 pages long, the book – first published in 2017 – takes the reader on a journey through 20th century Russian history. The authors employ a standard literary technique: they use small-scale personal histories to paint the bigger picture. In 13 dated episodes, they portray the life of a Moscow family from the turn of one century to another. While the actors change, the scene remains the same: the family’s apartment, which is shown in part or in its entirety in each episode. With the nationalisation of housing after the October Revolution in 1917, the living conditions become much more cramped and so the detailed illustrations of the apartment’s interior take on the character of a hidden object game, inviting the reader to look more closely to find familiar items. As the residents grow older, the appearance and disappearance of household objects – furniture, technology, children’s toys – reflect the changing times. The episodes are narrated in the first person by a series of child story-tellers aged between 5 and 12 years. As this is the book’s target age group, this technique enables the reader to identify with the narrator. In their stories, the protagonists recount a day in the life of their family, generally linked to a specific historical event. Their narrative shows how this event – be it Stalinist repression, the Second World War or Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space – affects family life. Each of the stories told by the children is followed by a double page of age-appropriate information and explanations of the historical event that forms the background to the story.

A book to engage with and inspire

The authors also include events that are left out of Russia’s official history narrative, such as Stalin’s purges and the systematic suppression of dissent under Brezhnev. This more nuanced version of history, which puts the individual at the heart of the narrative, clearly strikes a chord with the Russian public, as is evident from the book’s unprecedented success. It has been reprinted several times since 2017, with overwhelmingly positive reviews online and in the Russian press, and it has won numerous awards. It has also become an unlikely frontrunner export from the Russian children’s literature segment. The book is already available in translation in Germany, France and the US, with publication in Italy forthcoming, although this international success may well be due less to its nuanced portrayal of history than to the book’s innovative design.

The Apartment: A Century of Russian History is definitely a book to engage with. It is not there simply to be consumed; it is designed to encourage the reader to search, ask questions and recount stories of their own. The specific situation in which it is to be enjoyed – picture books are, after all, intended for children and adults to share and read together – encourages intergenerational dialogue and can inspire readers to explore their own family history. And in so doing, they might well discover that this history is not just heroic: it might also be tragic or conflicting, although not necessarily negative, as the authors repeatedly emphasise. In that sense, The Apartment can certainly be read as an “alternative to the state’s version of history”, to quote the book’s publisher Irina Balakhanova.

[1] In general, though, Soviet children and teenagers preferred to read fast-paced detective novels and adventure stories rather than “production-line” Soviet-style youth literature. For a more detailed discussion, see Marina Balina: Creativity Through Restraint: The Beginnings of Soviet Children's Literature, in: Russian Children's Literature and Culture, edited by Marina Balina/Larissa Rudova, New York/Abingdon 2008.

Nina Frieß is a researcher at ZOiS. Her joint project with Félix Krawatzek explores "History for young people: historical narratives and perceptions".