Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 8: Stories for little comrades*

Read the previous posts, 1   2    3   4   5   6   7

Every year in school, we got a list of fifty books we were supposed to read during the year. Yes, you heard it right, fifty books a year, plus a separate reading list for summer. The teacher could test you randomly on any of these. It was called out-of-the-classroom reading, so it was on top of what we read in school.

Quite a lot were boring books about young communist heroes and revolutionaries, but even among these there were some books that we all loved, re-read and talked about, so they apparently had some qualities beside explicit ideology. It was not until much later that I noticed that there was any ideology at all.

One such favourite was Timur and His Gang, about a group of young pioneers, Soviet scouts, who help old people and protect helpless children and fight hooligans. They are all honest, brave and clever (except the hooligans, of course), and unlike many Western books of this kind, all adults are also honest, brave and clever. I truly cannot understand what we liked about this book. Many years later, a friend pointed out for me that the main character's father is going away to war, while the book was published in 1940 when the Soviet Union was not officially at war. So the war must be the war with Finland, which did not exist according to our history books. That's why I always tell my students that understanding the context may be significant. 

 A very similar book was Vasiok Trubachov and His Comrads. Even the title is structurally identical. Another group of perfect young Soviet citizens, this time actually caught in the war, but mostly doing good deeds and competing with each other in virtue. I believe that we simply ignored all this and read both books as straightforward adventure stories.

Vitia Maleyev in School and at Home, just what the title promises. A boy who has poor grades in maths, but works hard and finally succeeds. And helps a friend who has poor grades in... and so on. There was one detail that worried me in this book. At one point, the anniversary of the so-called October revolution is celebrated, and the boy describes how everybody gives each other presents. Now, whatever the authorities came up with, nobody ever gave any presents on the October day. International Women's day, yes. Army day, yes (equivalent of Mother's and Father's day). But October Day? That simply wasn't credible. 

The book I had serious worries about, very high on the recommended reading lists and highly regarded among ourselves, was called The Fourth Height, an authentic hagiography of a young Soviet girl, perfect in every respect. I truly loved this book because it was full of adventures: she was a movie star and an athlete and went to exciting places. One of the exciting places was, as I understand now, a tbc sanatorium, but it was never spelled out, so it sounded more like a summer camp. In the end of the book, she is a grown-up, married and with a little baby. And she leaves the baby and goes to war. Try as I did, I could not understand the choice. We were supposed to admire her self-sacrifice, but I felt that a mother should not abandon her baby. Here the official ideology and my own beliefs went wide apart. 

*Stories for little comrades is an excellent book about early Soviet children's literature.  

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