In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the production of children’s books flourished and created a whole new wave of radical illustrated works. Let’s take a look at a few examples currently on our shelves and the stories behind them.

The tumultuous events of 1917 caused great deprivation and shortages of materials. Printing houses were seized by the government and paper became incredibly scarce, essentially bringing publishing to a halt. As a result, several prominent artists, led by Vera Ermolaeva, founded an ‘Artel’ (a creative collective) under the name ‘Segodnia’ [Today].

The aim was to continue to produce groundbreaking work using the limited resources available to them at the time, meaning that all the group’s works are hand printed from linoleum blocks. The harsh conditions limited the format and edition size but in turn generated a new wave of children’s books that were hugely significant in the development of avant-garde art.

Yurii ANNENKOV

1/4 Deviatogo [Quarter Past Eight]

[Petrograd], [1919]

£5,750

The studio produced 13 titles, with 1/4 Deviatogo [Quarter Past Eight] by Annenkov being particularly rare.

Mstislav DOBUZHINSKY

Veselaia Azbuka [The Merry Alphabet]

[Leningrad], 1925

£4,950

The Revolution changed many things, one being the removal of certain letters from the Cyrillic alphabet, which made it a lot easier for children to learn their spelling! Dobuzhinsky’s ‘merry’ alphabet book includes a witty nod to this by putting three of the abolished letters in a museum cloche dated 1917. The remaining letters are each paired with a playful yet elegant illustration with some clearly mocking the former regime. The letter O illustrates an ‘obzhora’ [glutton] stuffing his face with sausage whilst P for ‘pushka’ [gun] depicts incompetent soldiers in Imperial uniforms.

Dobuzhinsky’s lighthearted style was a little too jovial for the authorities and did not go far enough with its ideological message. He was advised to leave the Soviet Union in 1924 and it was lucky he did, poor Ermolaeva was executed for treason in 1937, despite her best efforts to tow the party line.

Teodor PEVZNER (illustrator); Evgeniy SHWARTZ

Skotniy Dvor [The Farmyard]

Moscow, 1931

£1,200

Nadezhda Sergeevna SHER; A. GONCHAROV (illustrator).

Dzhanik i Kiriusha [Dhzanik and Kiryusha]

Moscow, 1930

£1,350

Artistic experimentation was initially encouraged in the 1920s but there was also a need to foster a sense of class-consciousness among the young. Concrete and informative graphic language became key in demonstrating the success of the socialist dream. The result was eye-catching and artful propaganda for the mass reader.

Two such examples are this wonderfully bright example of The Farmyard, a Futurist work displaying the delights of milking cows and Dhzannik and Kiryusha, a tale of Communist friendship between two boys from different Soviet states.

Even these revolutionary works of the 1920s and 30s eventually fell afoul of the censor and the style of illustration reverted to more traditional forms, bringing the golden age of children’s book designs to an end.