How the Primus Stove Wanted to Become a Ford
Kak Primus zakhotel Fordom sdelat'sia (How the Primus Stove Wanted to Become a Ford), was published in 1930 by state-owned publishing house Raduga Publishers in Moscow and St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). Raduga was a short-lived publisher of Soviet children’s books, its name translating directly to “Rainbow Publishers”. The Primus Stove tells the story of an anthropomorphized Primus stove, the first pressurized-burner kerosene stove, invented in 1892 and used widely through the early 1900s as a reliable piece of equipment for everyday use. This Primus stove dreams of life as a Ford car and bemoans his life with the pots and pans and other kitchen utensils. The Ford Model T, produced from 1908 to 1927, is widely regarded as the first affordable automobile and revolutionized life around the world.
The Primus stove, jealous of the Ford’s significance, dreams of driving down the roads and leaving the kitchen behind. He repeatedly questions why he cannot be a Ford, eventually seeking the guidance of revolutionary leader Mikhail Kalinin. Kalinin informs the Primus stove that his role is just as important as that of a Ford, and that stoves and Fords alike play a significant role in Soviet society. This publication is the second edition of this story, but the first edition has proven well hidden.
The story’s author, Nikolai Agnivtsev (1888-1932), was a poet, playwright, and one of the more prolific children’s book authors of the Soviet era. He was exiled from the USSR in 1921 following the Bolshevik Revolution, but returned two years later and was a long-time fixture in Petersburg literary and bohemian circles. Agnivtsev’s children’s stories were of a decidedly Soviet flavor, tending to focus on either mechanical and industrial subjects or on child heroes. In both the story at hand and in Tvoi mashinnye druz’ya (Your Mechanical Friends), Agnivtsev humanizes the mechanical, thereby making it more familiar and friendly to children. His propensity for the child hero is also exemplified in Oktiabrenok postrelenok (The Little Octobrist Rascal), where through the eyes of a child he is able to relate the ideology of the revolution to the readers’ lives. The story of the Primus stove is most easily associated with Agnivtsev’s Vintik-shpuntik (Small Screw), the story of a small screw who, feeling unappreciated, decides to stop working to teach everyone a lesson. In both stories a small bit of machinery, one that could be seen as the mechanical analogue of a child, becomes upset with their seemingly small lot in life. Throughout the story, they come to realize that they are powerful and important and a significant part of Soviet life. Agnivtsev died in Moscow in 1932 of tuberculosis.
How the Primus Stove Wanted to Become a Ford was illustrated by Konstantin Eliseev, a cartoonist, stage designer, costume designer, painter, and graphic artist. He began his career as a scene and costume designer in the 1910s and continued working in the field through the years, but his primary work was in graphic art and caricature. He studied at the Drawing School of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (1910-14), the Free Art Workshops (1918), and the Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops (1922-23). In 1945 the title of Honored Artist of the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) was conferred upon Eliseev for his services to the field of Soviet art satire. Eliseev worked with Agnivtsev at least once before The Primus Stove, illustrating his 1925 work Your People’s Commissars at Your House.
Written in 1930, The Primus Stove was published well after the establishment of the Soviet Union, a number of years into Stalin’s regime. Under the old Tsarist regime, children’s stories were much like those of the rest of the world at the time. Fairy tales ruled old Russian children’s literature, providing colorful and fantastical, yet superficial, images to amuse the young. Under Lenin and Stalin, however, children’s literature was transformed into a tool “in transforming youth into good Soviet citizens” (McCannon). As such, Soviet children’s literature became highly didactic in the “cultural context that became increasingly politicized over time” (McCannon). The years of the New Economic Policy (NEP), 1921-1928, saw an explosion of diverse children’s literature resulting from the relative liberalism of the period and the tolerant cultural oversight of Anatoly Lunacharsky. Much of the work of this period dealt with the utopian future that would be achieved in the future with the help of science and technology. The year 1928, the end of NEP and the beginning of the First Five Year Plan, saw the utopia portrayed in children’s literature shifted even closer to the present and redoubled its emphasis on the role that technology would play in its arrival (McCannon). This represented a continued didacticism, with literature elevating technology even higher alongside the mechanical fanaticism of the First Five Year Plan. How the Primus Stove Wanted to Become a Ford was born from this era, placing the story of a worker who doesn’t fully understand their own importance in the context of machinery, but not alluding to the upcoming technological utopia. As such, the work fits in with the children’s literature of the era but is not emblematic of it.
The message of The Primus Stove also provides an interesting counterpoint to Socialist Realism, the official Soviet literary style adopted in 1934 at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers and lasting through the disbandment of the Soviet Union in 1991. How the Primus Stove Wanted to Become a Ford was written in 1930, four years before the birth of Socialist Realism, and is a children’s picture book. This book should in no way be held to the standards of Socialist Realism, but its messaging can be held up in contrast to it. Socialist Realist literature focuses on a positive male hero who succeeds a strong and aging “father” and overcomes a major obstacle (often originating in the natural world), reaffirming the country’s progress towards Communism (Clark 422-426). The message of The Primus Stove emphasizes that each role, no matter how small, is important, rather than and the hero-worship characteristic of Socialist Realism. Instead of encouraging children to aspire to great heights in the name of the USSR, the book reminds them that even the most seemingly humble role is important. It highlights the importance of the workers who individually seem to have just a small impact, but as a collective can be a powerful force.
Jasper Lee, Sean Kim, Marie-Rose Sheinerman, Phoebe Rogers (SLA 221, 2019)