Do you ever wonder how people lived long ago? How did they get light and water, and what tools did they use to write?
In his poem Yesterday and Today, the children’s author Samuil Marshak describes how a gas lamp, a candle, a milkmaid’s bucket yoke (or carrying pole) and an inkpot with a feather quill are annoyed when they see modern tools coming to replace them. They feel abandoned by their masters (the people who live in the house). Chatting in a dark corner, they ask how anyone could trust an electric lightbulb, water pipes and a typewriter to do their jobs. But they are wrong and from now on, the people will use these new inventions.
When was the poem written?
The poem was written in the Russian language in 1925. Its first readers were children who were born around 1917 – the year of the Russian Revolution, when the tsarist government and old order were overthrown. The Soviet state led by the Bolsheviks (a radical socialist party) claimed that they would build a new and fair society. In reality, many people were hurt and felt unhappy as a result of the changes.
At the same time, the state paid serious attention to children’s education and entertainment, aiming to raise a generation of Soviet people, who would be loyal to the country and the new communist ideology. Many of Russia’s best writers and illustrators were commissioned to create children’s books about the Bright New World for new Soviet children.
Images and letters working together
Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev, an illustrator, worked together on the book. As a result, images and letters (or typography) are both carefully arranged in the page design. Can you spot how many fonts are used? When Marshak changed the poem for later editions, Lebedev’s illustrations could not fit and new pictures were created.
Soviet children’s books
The language of images has always been very important for people. Images can help people to learn how to read and write, but they can also be used to communicate simple messages and stir emotions. Egyptian pyramids, religious paintings or propaganda posters are very similar in the way they influence their viewers.
The early Soviet state was determined to promote the communist vision of the future, and many talented artists also believed in it. That is why they were happy to collaborate with state publishing houses and create books for children, where they could experiment with their radical futurist ideas about images, typography and links between pictures and words. However, the aim to raise strong citizens and young communists did not go well with experimentations. Experiments require freedom of mind and the communist ideology, under Stalin, restricted this. The golden age of Soviet children’s books did not last long.