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Beyond Baba Yaga

The Treasures of Russian Children’s Literature

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Following on from "Not so lost in translation", the new Fairtales column, Giulia De Florio (University of Modena) and Odile Belkeddar (French translator, author and librarian) provide an overview of the latest Russian literature for children: suggestions and recommendations for books for young readers in need of translation.

(Illustration by Lida Larina)

The Treasure Trove that is Russian Children’s Literature

What do we in Italy and France know about Russian children's literature - the literature of the past, the present and, perhaps also, the literature to be? For some readers, a gallery of strange characters might spring to mind: the perfidious Baba Yaga, in hot pursuit of the beautiful Vasilisa, the Firebird hunted by the young Prince Ivan, or other spirits and monsters that inhabit the enchanted forests of Russian folktales. Others might remember an old edition of the Cossack epic, Taras Bulba, told by Nikolai Gogol, later taken to the big screen in 1962 by J. Lee Thompson in his movie Taras Bulba. But beyond these two sources – fables and the classics – Russian literature has remained largely unknown in Italy, with very few stories and characters becoming part of our collective consciousness.

There are many reasons for this absence both here in Italy and in France, two countries where the Communist party played a considerable role on the political scene in the period following the Second World War. However, the exchanges that took place practically never involved the child’s world, which had only just begun to carve out a place for itself in the publishing world, with the appearance of the first specialist publishing houses, boosted by the strides made in colour-printing technology and the experimental work going on in the field of pedagogy and education. Another reason for the absence of Russian literature in our country might well be that for a long time Russia was considered too close to be considered a completely different cultural area, yet too distant to be seen as a recognisable world.

Whatever the reasons for our unfamiliarity with Russian children’s literature, it is now time to look at the rich laboratory of stories, genres, experimentation and cross-fertilization that is Russian children’s literature today. Its vitality is evident from the very many prizes in existence but especially from the active network of libraries, reading circles and schools that join forces to encourage children and young adults to explore books and find a voice that will help, amuse and console them but also encourage them to question, the experience and emotional breadth they gain making them stronger and more aware. Underpinning this world is a vast and heterogeneous base of determined and highly professional publishing houses, adept at identifying and disseminating the work of excellent authors and illustrators. Their production ranges from picturebooks to children’s theatre, from poetry to graphic novels, and from novels for young adults to funny stories for school children. There is no literary genre that is not solidly represented in Russia today. At the same time though, the country’s main publishing houses follow closely what’s going on outside their country, including the best foreign literature in the Russian publishing circuit.

A few key names must be mentioned to avoid speaking in the abstract. For anyone interested in exploring the world of Russian children’s literature, mention must first be made of Samokat, the ‘historic’ publishing house whose very solid reputation is confirmed by its impressive catalogue. A visit to their website will show the broad spectrum of their publications, which range from novels, poetry and short-stories to bold ventures like 25 avgusta  (25th  August), an account of the eight dissidents who protested in Moscow’s Red Square on 25 August 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, or Transsib, an account of the route taken by the Trans-Siberian railway with a wealth of information about little known places and people along the way. Albus Corvus Publishing House (Belaya Vorona) is another publisher that excels for its refined graphics and painstaking selection of authors. One of their most recently publications, Davaj poedem v Unalašku! (Let’s Go to Unalaška! OK) by Anja Krasilščik, has met with enormous success. Told from the main character’s point of view, the story is an impelling, authentic account, told in a deliberately straight-forward style, of a family that suddenly has to come to terms with its origins. Then there are the detective stories by Anna Starobinets whose characters are animals; the steampunk atmospheres of Nikolai and Svetlana Ponomarëv; the hilarious adventures of the longstanding couple Evgeniya Pasternak and Andrej Zhvalevsky; and the splendid poems of Michail Yasnov. Animals also populate the books of Asya Kravchenko, while Dina Sabitova’s characters are orphans.

Russian children's literature is known for its marvellous tales and fantastic characters, among them, the witch Baba Yaga, who can move through the air. Also on the move are many other stories and characters, their wonder before nature and animals creating an overall poetic that puts a smile on the readers lips and in their eyes. An example is Olga Aprelskaya, the author down the years of around one hundred mini-tales. Her Skazki pro kota Bonku i vsekh vsekh vsekh (Tales about Bonka the Cat and all all all the others) adopts an environmental take in a story about animals that although not always friends in real life, here come to an understanding. It is a brilliant way of stimulating the reader’s imagination with just a few words, encouraging her to look at the world in a different way: "Outside... it was still autumn, and the Kind Cat sat on a roof counting the stars. "One, two, three, four... one thousand one hundred and ten.... Three thousand two hundred and seven..." A passing wind dusted off the sky. The stars shone even brighter. The cat stopped counting and just marvelled. You don't always need to count!”.

Sometimes the written story gives way to illustration as in the case of the picturebook Teremok, set in a contemporary squat. The dream-like world of this amazing graphic novel targets young adults. This is also the case for the work of Igor Oleinikov, winner of the 2019 Andersen Prize winner in Bologna in 2019. However, written children's stories are part of a consolidated literary tradition - in fact, many authors write for both children and adults – in a context where reading is solidly entrenched. The text is often versified, not with facile rhymes but rhythmically, like a song that is easy to remember. Traditional tales are likewise taken and revised. Alexander Timofeevski's collection of stories illustrated by Natalya Petrova is a thoroughly modern take on classic stories, the tradition turnip that refused to be dug up becoming a space-shuttle that has fallen to Earth by mistake…

Before Timofeevski, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky had contemplated the skies and in November 1917 written thoughtful but little-known verses about the shapes of the clouds. Toutchkiny chtoutchi (Cloud figures in the sky) has been taken and made into a pop-up for very young readers by Julien Gorrias: an international book for playing with the sounds of words and surprising the reader with its constructivist paper folds. Still in the realm of pop-ups, Ekaterina Kazeikina has just published a game of hide and seek (Kto ne spryatalsya? Who is not hidden?) in which a little girl learns to be observant by seeing things at ground level where the flowers grow and learning how very many tiny but magical discoveries there are to be made... 

Nature, animals and the impenetrable forest, essential themes of traditional Russian culture, are continued by recent picturebooks, with a real concert of frogs that can be listened to via a QR-code in the book for very young readers by Ekaterina Panfilova whose illustrations are appropriately “bouncy”! This same artist will soon release a new book about how a tooth feels as it grows. But this vast world is also full of mysteries, as Lidiya Larina shows in her very visual journey in I know nature explaining why in some countries it rains and snows but not in others, and where the wind comes from. Then there’s Kak spyat zveryata? - lying down, sitting, standing up, with both eyes closed? Evgenya Gunter’s book illustrated by Natalia Karpova is enlightening.

Leonid Tishkov, the artist and imaginative author of Malchik i luna  (The Boy and the Moon), brings the moon down to earth just long enough for it to come to its senses... In her Leto v derevne (A Summer in the Country), author-illustrator Zina Surova recalls childhood memories and family life as she describes the wildlife in a traditional but still very animated Russian village. Masha Slonim also has animals - a goat, a dog and a rooster drawn by Tatyana Kormer - which behind her back re-enact Les Contes du chat perché...

Human nature is also a vast subject, which, as we grow up, we must learn to decipher! This is the subject of a comic strip by the young cartoonists Timofei Yarzhombek and Aleksey Oleinikov on the misfortunes not of Sophie, but of SONIA FROM 5 B (a tragedy in 8 lessons): a shy, only average middle-school girl who has to clash with ‘the others’ before learning to perhaps have more self-esteem. School and high school are recurrent themes; how to break loose when you’re 13 or more... While still living in Soviet Russia, Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature, Joseph Brodsky, wrote a rhyming but especially rhythmic text that no rapper would disdained on the difficulty of remembering Who Discovered America? Using humour and playing with words and many well-known names, Brodsky encourages young readers to want to know. The very young illustrator, Kasya Denisevitch, winner of the 2021 Bologna Opera Prima Award for her book Neighbors, has chosen Brodsky’s poem, A Ballard about a Small Tugboat, a superb allegory of how the world goes round thanks to the work of many apparently insignificant people.

When, on the other hand, the text - as short stories or novels – prevails over the pictures, we meet Lada Kutuzova and her little Nikita as he vainly tries to memorise a poem, drawing a cow in his notebook only to see it start grazing on the verses he has to learn. This is only the beginning of Nikita's school adventures and of course, it’s all Pervoe slovo sela korova!  (The cow ate the first word!) Marya Fedotova, on the other hand, transports us into the world of little Noulguinèt, who lives in the tundra in Yakutia, far from any shops but where it’s normal to know how to ride a reindeer before learning to read, and to invent Igra v kameshki (Knucklebones / Jacks) with what you find on the ground - small animals or stones. Back in the city, Mezhdu nami koshkami (Among us, the kittens) by Natalia Popova delights readers with the hilarious adventures of a street cat who becomes the spokesperson for homeless cats, even rising to become a Parliamentary delegate. In Chuvstva, u kotorykh bolyat zuby (The feelings that have toothache), Asya Petrova looks with discreet yet piercing humour at how pre-adolescents observe the behaviour of adults who have completely forgotten what it was like to be young. It’s nothing serious, of course; it’s just the way life is. The question of fitting in - in this case of an autistic pupil who’s brilliant at maths - is the theme of Den’ chisla PI (The Day of number PI) by Nina Dashevskaja. With ACHIM, Misha's pseudonym, who is involved in his high school's website, the issue comes to a head when social networks become an important factor, as they also do in a masterfully developed work by Evgenya Bassova. The various forms of violence are also subjects dealt with by Russian children’s literature. In the news every day, neither it nor History bypass children. In Vovka, kotory osedlal bombu (Vovka who saddled a bomb) by Yuri Nikitinsky, war separates two childhood friends in a story that is told from the point of view of a bystander with no concessions made for the reader’s age. Deti vorona (The Raven’s Children) by Yulya Yakovleva is about two children whose parents disappear one day on account of the Raven (Stalin). Questioning the ravens on the banks of the river Neva, the children are given an answer that will allow them to imagine and keep hope alive. The strength of the book lies in its fantastic dreamlike quality that transcends time and borders.

To end on a happy note, Kuda skachet petushinaya-loshad? (Where does the horse-cock run?) by Svetlana Lavrova brings together nature, animals, the forest and human beings in a tale that straddles fantasy and the popular legends of the Komi, one of the many peoples in the immense country that is Russia. The heroine, the young Dasha, wants to become a famous writer of vampire stories, and do so quickly thanks to the internet. She will find herself caught up in the characters of the Komi's folklore...

While numerous websites, literary prizes and festivals disseminate literature in Russia, there are also French sources, such as issue no. 221 of the Revue des Livres pour Enfants, Voyages en Russie, issues nos.44 and 45 of the magazine Lettres Russes with excerpts of texts for children and teenagers, and the article En Russie aujourd’hui, 2018, 2020, 2022.

A former librarian, Odile Belkeddar, edited the Passages imprint of Le Sorbier from 1995 to 1999. She has translated from Russian for many years, specialising in Russian literature for children and young people. She is also one of the founders of the association Les Trois Ourses (1988). Her translations include: Les deux carrés by El Lissitsky (MeMo), Les metamorphoses d’Olia by Olga Sedakova (Actes-Sud), L’insigne d’argent by K. Chukovsky (Ecole des loisirs, 2015), Kaplia, histoire d’une goutte d’eau by N. Kovalenkova (Points de suspension, 2017), Kolya by Lida Larina (Caetla, 2019), Les lettres de ma Baba Yaga by I. Kraiéva (Harmattan bilingual, 2021)

Giulia de Florio is a Professor of Russian Language and Literature at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, and a translator. Her main interests are Russian and Soviet children's literature and Russian songs of the second half of the XX century. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Centre for Research on Children's Culture (CIRCI).

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