The Young Polytechnician: Housing
The Young Polytechnician: Housing, published in 1931, is an interactive children's book. The book introduces the reader to housing and construction through a visual timeline that starts with the state of nature, continues to hut shelters, traditional village dwellings, and ends with comparatively massive Soviet apartment buildings in the constructivist style. The cover of the book is emblematic of this position, as it shows a new apartment building towering over a dilapidated wooden home. Importantly, the red color of the home matches that of the flag atop the apartment building, suggesting a desired perception of continuity with the past, even if the present take a radically different form. Images of that same past are, however, destroyed on the front cover, as the dome of an Orthodox church is pulled from its pedestal, the dome’s impending crash into fragments implied.
The book also gives the reader a guide to the processes of brick making and meal preparation, on an industrial scale. The images are not of a family preparing a meal, but rather of a commercial kitchen, perhaps intended to serve a work unit. The reader is then encouraged to “build” an electronic circuit, thereby participating in the process of electrification that the book celebrates. The implications of these lessons are, however, quite significant. The children is asked to record the amount of time spent by their family on household chores, and it is suggested that this time could be better spent elsewhere, if new, communal institutions such as the industrial kitchen were embraced. Thus the book intercedes in family affairs and asks that children questions they ways in which they are used to living.
The physical qualities of the book are somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, it is clearly intended for an individual child, as the several interactive activities ask the reader to complete a series of successive tasks. Yet at the same time, the Soviet Union was grappling with a paper shortage, which might imply that each student could not be supplied with his or her own book. They were instead been used as classroom reference material, meant to be explored collectively, the activities completed using scrap paper or shared verbally. At this time, Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union through aggressive means. He sought to modernize Soviet agriculture through collectivization, in part to bring “the vast masses of the peasantry to the side of the working class” (17 Moments, “Collectivization”). Inefficiencies resulting from lack of incentives and peasant resistance to the oppressive nature of collectivization led quotas to far exceed production capacity. Millions died during ensuring famine. In some ways, the book deals indirectly with this theme of change and scarcity.
The images of The Young Polytechnician: Housing are from the book’s fifth edition, which was published jointly in Moscow and Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). One can image the book’s diffusion, from the centers of Soviet administration to the students of provincial towns, for whom images of towering constructivist apartment buildings may have been totally foreign. Importantly, however, the site of the new, Soviet building in the book is the city of Kharkov (in present-day Ukraine) which conveys the sentiment that even if the modern apartment may be unfamiliar to the reader, such novel housing is spreading throughout the Soviet Union, not exclusively to the USSR’s largest cities.
The book was created by two authors: Nikolai Diomidovich Beliakov and Valerian Pavlovich Kardashev. The two also collaborated on a handicrafts manual for children titled The Little Craftsman, which was distributed to elementary schools by the State Education Commission. Nikolai Diomidovich Beliakov is the author/illustrator of numerous additional works, including a significant guidebook to handicrafts, which echoes the interactive, cut-out qualities of the The Young Polytechnician: Housing. Beliakov authored a similar book that instructs the reader on poultry farming (including construction of a chicken coop), though perhaps the book is intended for an older audience. Beliakov also wrote a guide for teachers, another children book focused on construction and nature, and a construction-themed exercise book for primary school students. Less information is available concerning Valerian Pavlovich Kardashev. A document attests to his having been born in Kharkov (the site of the new building in The Young Polytechnician) in 1905, and was the author of teaching materials for schools.
Kyle Zelenitz, Hailey Colborn, Henry Harrigan, Misha Tseitlin (SLA 221, 2019)