Once Upon a Time in Cotsen

From left: Slavic librarian Thomas Keenan; Director of the Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Serguei Oushakine; and Assistant Professor of Slavic Language and Literatures Katherine Hill Reischl enjoy the charming Cotsen Children’s Library.

Scholars Turn the Pages of a Russian Children’s Book Collection

By Leda Kopach

Tucked inside a nook in Firestone, the Cotsen Children’s Library is a delight for all who encounter it. Large, green, bunny-shaped topiaries, a faux fireplace adorned with kitty-cat andirons and a giant bonsai treehouse in which children can climb and play, ensure that this library gets plenty of attention from the tykes who pass through its doors.

Another frequent visitor to the library these days is Serguei Oushakine, the director of the PIIRS program in Russian, East European and Eurasian studies and an associate professor of anthropology and Slavic languages and literatures. He has been turning the pages of an exciting, rare collection of Russian illustrated children’s books that have become the center of a research project he is working on with Thomas Keenan, the University’s Slavic librarian, and Katherine Hill Reischl, an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures. The threesome are examining and digitizing a collection of Cotsen’s rare books — some of which are the only known copies in the world — to bring attention and scholarship to this unique collection.

The 1,000 books being studied were published during the first two decades of the Soviet era — the period from the October Revolution to the beginning of World War II (1918-1938). Many of the books were published by the State Publishing House (GIZ) and contain mostly communist rhetoric, educating young readers on the benefits of communism.

“The books were an attempt to introduce children to politics in an accessible way, and to give them a basic picture of the way ‘the world works,’” Oushakine explains. “The books were also a strong backlash against fairy tales, God and religion by discussing things pragmatically. Titles like ‘How Newspapers Are Made?’ ‘What Does Oil Consist Of?’ ‘Where Do Tea and Chocolate Come From?’ were common. While communist rhetoric is a component of these books, they are also informative and entertaining.”

The collection is part of the benefaction to Firestone Library made by Lloyd E. Cotsen, Class of ’50, and emeritus charter trustee. Since 1995, Andrea Immel, curator of the Cotsen Children’s Library, has continued to add to the collection, and she and Keenan have been collaborating on an acquisitions strategy since 2014, when Keenan joined the library. There are about 2,500 Russian books in the entire Cotsen collection.

“This collection was really underexplored,” Oushakine says. “We have a great resource here, but there is little scholarship on Soviet children’s books outside the field of literary studies. Yet many of these books were created by notable artists and graphic designers. With the Bolshevik Revolution, the art market collapsed, so many famous artists worked on books for children to earn a living. While some art historians understood the importance of this collection for quite some time, our goal was to put this collection on a larger map and to make it available not just for a few scholars who might come now and then, but for the global community. And I think we’ve started making a difference. There was a lot of response to the recently digitized materials in the Russian media, for instance.” Authors from the collection include children’s poet Agniya Barto, who wrote “Pioneers”; and Vladimir Mayakovsky, who wrote “What is Good and What Is Bad?” There are also several books in the collection by iconic Soviet artist Alexander Deineka, including “Parade of the Red Army” and “In the Clouds.”

In 2015, the three collaborators invited a group of 12 scholars from around the world to gather at Princeton to discuss 47 of the books in the collection that they digitized for the symposium, “The Pedagogy of Images: Depicting Communism for Children” (, sponsored, in part, by PIIRS. They chose books that were rare, visually enticing, and written or illustrated by notable authors or artists. They also considered the themes and subjects of the books, and if they contained strong propaganda messages, with the hopes of eventually bringing synthesis to the collection.

The symposium was purposely interdisciplinary. “We weren’t tied to any specific approach or method,” Oushakine adds. “Because there are so few experts on these materials, we invited researchers who we thought may be interested in exploring these books. We wanted people who would see in these books not just their political content (which is a very common approach) but also their visual component, which would often tell its own, autonomous story. The idea was to unpack this uneasy dialogue between what was said by the writer and what was depicted by the artist.”

The papers presented during the symposium are being co-edited by Oushakine and Marina Balina, chair of the Department of German, Russian and Asian Languages at Illinois Wesleyan University and a major authority on children’s literature in the U.S.S.R., into a book that will be released in the coming year. The first exploratory conference was so productive and spurred so much discussion that another symposium will be held this spring, adding another 111 books (for a total of 159) for exploration.

In addition to the conference and upcoming compilation, a new website is being developed by Keenan and Reischl to catalog the images in the books.

“While the library is handling the digitization of complete works, we are designing an interface that will annotate and map individual images,” Reischl says. “It will be a searchable, annotated database of the visual language of Soviet children’s books. Once the site is up and running, I will be incorporating it into my Soviet literature survey for undergraduates. The hope is that each spring students will annotate one or more images from the digital library to be added to the website.”

To view the digital collection, visit

How-To Books

Explaining the World to a New Reader

“Tea,” pictured here, is a prime example of the genre of books prevalent in early-20th century Soviet literature that was meant to not only entertain young readers, but educate them on how things were made or worked. In “Tea,” the author explains the process of how tea leaves are grown and dried in a factory before being shipped to be sold.

“In content, children’s literature was to be concrete, useful, informative and realistic, aimed at a reader who was active and independent,” says Serguei Oushakine, who is the director of the PIIRS Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and is leading a research project on Soviet children’s books. “The books were an attempt to show children a basic picture of how the ‘world works.’”

PHOTO: Ben Weldon