The Secret Lessons of Soviet Children’s Poems – The New Yorker

When my family left the collapsing U.S.S.R., we took with us the Russia
we wanted to remember: classic volumes passed from one generation to the
next, carbon-copied samizdat, and beloved mass-market storybooks,
concealed in luggage and clothing. Every day after school in Israel,
where we immigrated, my sister and I would sit in the kitchen,
spellbound as my grandmother conjured up the ghosts of Russia’s literary
past. As a child, my grandmother had considered reporting her parents to
the authorities for their anti-Soviet talk; she had cried into her
school uniform when Stalin died. But the de-Stalinization processes of
the Thaw and Perestroika, in which archives were opened, and hundreds of
thousands unjustly persecuted people freed and rehabilitated, released
untold numbers of suppressed literary masterpieces to a public hungry
for the truth. In teaching us about our heritage, my grandmother made
the world-historical figures of the Soviet regime seem like footnotes in
the nobler history of Russian poetry, if not outright objects of
ridicule. Under her guidance, we committed to memory and performed
innumerable Russian poems. One popular one from the early Soviet period
had given Stalin his nickname, “the whiskered beetle,” which my
grandmother uttered with special revulsion.

I thought of my grandmother recently, when I read “The Fire Horse,” a new translation of children’s poems, out from New York Review Books. In the volume, the translator Eugene Ostashevsky, a Russian
émigré who is a talented experimental poet in his own right,
presents the popular children’s verses of three major Russian poets—one
each by the Russian Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, the antiquarian
modernist Osip Mandelstam, and the absurdist Daniil Kharms. Rendered in
a jubilant, spirited English, these narrative poems are accompanied by
their original and beloved avant-garde illustrations. Both Mayakovsky
and Kharms wrote children’s propaganda poems for the state, earning
much-needed cash; Mandelstam, who couldn’t bear to write for hire,
supported himself as a critic and translator and relied on his wife, the
memoirist Nadezhda Mandelstam. But for their work as children’s authors
all three poets drew upon the images and techniques used in their
overtly experimental, subversive writings. Amid social upheaval, they
spoke to young people over the heads of the censors about finding and
defending the territory of the imagination.

An illustration accompanying Mayakovsky’s ”The Fire Horse.”

Illustration by Lidia Popova

In the 1927 Mayakovsky poem that gives the collection its title, for
instance, a boy intent on becoming a cavalryman in the Red Army has to
assemble his own hobbyhorse from scraps. He drags his father to plead
for materials from the city’s artisans. Drawn by Lidia Popova as blocky
paper dolls, the workers contribute piecemeal to the boy’s making of the
Fire Horse. Ostashevsky’s translation telegraphs the spirit of
revolution in this collaged creation:

What a charger,

what a horse!

Like a fire, it’s as hot!

You can go forward,

you can go backward!

You can gallop,

or you can trot!

Its eyes are blue,

Its sides are dappled,

It is bridled,

It is saddled . . .

As a teen-ager in tsarist Russia, Mayakovsky was already attending
anarchist meetings and distributing socialist leaflets. A stint in
prison converted him into a poet; the Revolution made him a Communist.
Proclaiming himself a “Bolshevik in art,” Mayakovsky founded innumerable
avant-gardist groups that variously inspired or horrified the Soviet
authorities in the nineteen-twenties. When he killed himself, in 1930,
ostensibly because of romantic rejection, authorities were able to
smooth his image into that of an exemplary Soviet writer. “Bridled” and
“saddled” like the hobbyhorse he described, Mayakovsky’s legacy is
still contested today. Renegade poets gather at his monument in Moscow to read their oppositional verses, while protests take place in Mayakovsky Metro
Station and marches start from Mayakovsky Square.

Mandelstam’s “Two Trams.”

Illustration by Boris Ender

If Mayakovsky was the sloganeering poet of the broad Moscow street,
Mandelstam was a writer in the St. Petersburg tradition: a moody
neoclassicist. In Mandelstam’s “Two Trams,” from 1925, Zam, a streetcar,
looks for its companion, Click, which is lost in the city. Ostensibly
inspired by the rapidly modernizing cityscape, the work is also a bitter
homage to the poet Nikolai Gumilev, Mayakovsky’s friend, who was
executed in 1921. Mandelstam’s amiable streetcars are overworked and in
terrible shape: “Rattling and clattering over joints on the track / Gave
Click a shattering platform-ache.” The illustrations, by Boris Ender,
show the streetcars floating in a sea of undifferentiated blue, as if,
for all its zeal, the machines’ brave new urban world constantly
threatens to melt into thin air. For Mandelstam, less than a decade
after he wrote “Two Trams,” it did. In 1934, he recited his notorious
epigram on Stalin to dinner guests; he was denounced by one of them,
arrested, exiled, arrested again, and sent to his death in the Gulag.

An illustration accompanying Daniil Kharms’s “Play.”

Illustration by Vladimir Konashevich

Daniil Kharms’s poem “Play,” the last one featured in “Fire Horse,” is
the best known; I remember, as a child, running around and hollering its
infectious stanzas. Kharms liked to say that that he despised kids, and
devoted several stories to describing their brutal dismemberment. But,
as the son of a legendary anarchist, Kharms had a sense for the affinity
between insurrectionary politics and the rowdy, uncompromising
imagination of children—and his books are still read widely by young
Russians today. In “Play,” written in 1929, a fleet of small boys
imagine whizzing around as cars, airplanes, and steamboats. But all they
find, in the end, is an enormous cow in their path. Ostashevsky’s
translation beautifully conveys the plodding steps of this creature,
blocking the way to progress:

A cow was walking down the road

Down the road,

Along the pavement

A cow was walking

Along the pavement

It was mooing

“Moo-moo-moo”

Just a real genuine cow

With some real genuine horns

Walked towards them on the road,

Taking up the whole wide way

As Vladimir Konashevich’s tender illustrations indicate, this is hardly
an industrialized utopia—subdued browns and olive greens evoke the
village, rather than the city. Kharms’s lines captured the inchoate
world inherited by his young readers, its new ambitions and old
problems. Yet they relinquish none of their mischief for a compromise
with reality.

Today, the revolutionary era of 1917 seems as distant as the Middle
Ages—both to Russians and to Americans. In our efforts to understand it,
through online quizzes and
palimpsests,
we resemble the Soviet children miming steamboats and airplanes in
Kharms’s poem—in order to envision revolution, we have to launch
ourselves into a world that doesn’t exist. Stalinism, on the other hand,
is very much alive today. The Whiskered Beetle is polling better than ever among Russians, and Putin’s administration increasingly reverts to Soviet tactics to hold onto power: textbooks are being rewritten, archives are closing, censorship flourishes, and the opposition dies. Crucial to Putin’s project of an eternal state is making the idea of revolution unthinkable.

In the United States, meanwhile, discussions of children’s literature
have lately focussed, understandably, on coping with feelings of fear and anxiety.
But if today’s readers want to empower their children to construct a
better world from the miserable resources of the present one, the crafty
poems of “Fire Horse” are necessary literature. Teaching children to
wildly identify themselves, their bodies, with the literal vehicles of
revolution (the army horse, the streetcar, the airplane), to embody a
leap of radical faith, they dismantle the kind of submissive
consciousness that once made kids bitterly mourn a dictator. In doing
so, they connect a generation of new readers to the revolutionary spirit
of those who came before. Or, as “Fire Horse” ’s translator, Eugene
Ostashevsky, puts it, in “The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi,” his own newly published collection of poems about a swashbuckling duo
lost at sea:

The pirate fell into deep thought.

“Will we exist when this book is over?” he suddenly asked.

“If it’s a good book,” said the parrot.

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