Your People's Commissars at Your House
Unlike many other children's’ books in this collection featuring stories with distinct plot narratives, this book functions more as an information booklet than a fairy tale. It serves to introduce the Soviet child to various divisions of the state government and their respective functions, through visuals that occupy most part of the pages and accompanying texts on the bottom. On each page, the image and text complement each other to inform the child of what each Commissar does, how to recognize them (i.e. each Commissar officer is depicted with a distinct, recognizable costume associated with their position and function), and how their work contributes to the Soviet state.
The inclusion of a child in each image and the use of direct address (“ты”) in every text personalizes the narrative: the book strays away from the dryness and objective detachment usually associated with information booklets, but instead is designed to be experienced in an interactive, almost immersive way. The child reader is primed to identify himself with the child depicted in the book, follow his journey throughout the pages, and imagine himself on a tour with an elder, who takes him around to meet various Commissars and explains with direct, familial terms: “here’s what this Commissar is doing for you.” The simple, rhythmic language of the texts evokes children’s songs or chants with catchy rhymes and cheerful tones, contrary to the dry, technical language found in some other children’s books in this collection (such as “Bread Factory”), so that the book would be comprehensible to young (even pre-school) children, to read alone, in groups, or with family members, presumably out aloud or even recited.
This interactive experience defines the relationship between the child and the Commissars as a two-way street: the child recognizes both how the Commissar will interact with him (his accessibility, kindness and devotion, etc.), and how he is supposed to interact with the Commissar (and the sphere in which the Commissar operates). One important detail consistent across the pages is the red scarf worn by the child. From 1922 to 1990, generations of 10-15 year old children in the Soviet Union learned, exercised, explored and extolled the virtues of their society through the “Pioneers” movement. Outdoor exercise, camping and adventure trips, arts and crafts, as well as music and sports were all staples of the Pioneers as in most similar organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America. However, the Pioneers were altered to Soviet ideals about society and a young person’s role in it, as opposed to the imperial virtues in Britain’s (or Tsarist Russia’s) scouting movement, or Nazi doctrine in the case of the Hitler youth. These pioneers wore red scarves to identify themselves as a group, and would go on to join Komsomol (the Russian Communist Union of Youth) when they grow into young adults. In the case of our book, the child reader is primed to identify themselves with the pioneer child depicted in the book, so this book is not only teaching the child what these Commissars do, but also how he himself should behave and position himself within the Soviet society, such as doing physical exercises (i.e. the page on the Commissar for Health) and participating in labor (i.e. the page on the Commissar for Labor).
The Council of People's Commissars (Совет народных комиссаров or Совнарком as an acronym), was formed during the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets soon after the October Revolution in 1917, “to govern the country until the meeting of the Constituent Assembly.” It evolved to become the greatest executive authority of the state government since the establishment of USSR in 1922, until being transformed during 1946 into the Council of Ministers.
The Commissars depicted in this book are not abstract types (although they are certainly type-casted to facilitate recognition), but represent specific individuals. Here is a list of the titles and names of the Commissars according to the order they appear in the book:
Commissar for Education – Anatoly Lunacharsky.
Commissar for Health - Nikolai Semashko.
Commissar for Agriculture - Alexander Smirnov.
Commissar for Labor - Vasily Schmidt.
Commissar for Communications - Ivan Smirnov.
Commissar for Transport - Yan Rudzutak.
Commissar for Foreign Affairs - Georgy Chicherin.
Commissar for Commerce - Lev Kamenev.
Commissar for Foreign Trade - Aron Sheinman.
Commissar for Military - Mikhail Frunze.
Commissar for Finance - Grigory Sokolnikov.
Commissar for Justice - Dmitry Kursky.
Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars - Alexey Rykov.
All-Union Elder - Mikhail Kalinin
Many of these commissars from early years of the Soviet Union later opposed the party majority organized by Stalin, and were persecuted for their alleged conspiracy with the Trotskyist opposition groups. Amongst the fourteen Commissars listed above, six were executed (Alexander Smirnov, Vasily Schmidt, Ivan Smirnov, Yan Rudzutak, Lev Kamenev, and Alexey Rykov), two were killed in labor camps (Grigory Sokolnikov and Mikhail Frunze), one committed suicide (Dmitry Kursky), and one fled overseas (Aron Sheinman – fittingly the Commissar for Foreign Trade).
Kalinin is a somewhat particular, yet representative example of the contrast between the reality of these Commissars lives and their depiction in the book. As one of the few survivors of the Stalinist purge (amongst the Commissars in this book, but also in general), he was one of of comparatively few members of Stalin's inner circle who came from peasant origins, and his lowly social origins were widely publicized in the official press, which habitually referred to him as the "All-Union elder" (Всесоюзный староста), which is also his title as seen in this book. The term “elder” (“староста”) is usually used in the context of the village commune, where all villagers are welcome to visit and seek advice from the “elder” whenever they need. Appropriating this term to define his role as titular head of the state establishes him as a token politician of the people, down-to-earth and approachable.
The image and text on the last page of this book affirms this portrayal, as we see Kalinin shaking hands with the young child, smiling like a kind grandfather, while the text even more explicitly invites the child to go to Kalinin “if you are worried about something...And ask for his advice! He is the elder for that!”. In reality, however, an ordinary child would hardly have the chance to meet him one-on-one, nor did he hold much substantive power in the government. Recalling him, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said, "I don't know what practical work Kalinin carried out under Lenin. But under Stalin he was the nominal signatory of all decrees, while in reality he rarely took part in government business... one simply felt sorry for [him].” As readers, one may feel sorry for Kalinin, who is reduced to a token image, an instrument of propaganda; one may also feel sorry for the child reading this book, who might be filled with enthusiasm about the prospect of meeting Kalinin and asking for his help, only to realize eventually – maybe years or even decades later – that neither would he be able to meet Kalinin, nor would Kalinin be able to help him.
The author of the book is Nikolai Yakovlevich Agenivtsev (Николай Яковлевич Агнивцев), Russian poet and playwright of the Silver Age, also known as an author of children’s books. Born in Moscow in 1888, he came from a noble family and his father was a lawyer. He studied at the Department of History and Philology at St. Petersburg University, but did not graduate. His works were published in various well-known newspapers and journals; he also created and performed in several cabaret theater pieces, such as at literary-artistic restaurant "Vienna". His pre-revolutionary writings often had exotic and erotic motifs, with descriptions of a somewhat idealized aristocratic world. He was exiled from 1921-1923. In exile, he glorified the pre-revolutionary world and bemoaned its demise, and published a book of elegiac poems “Brilliant St. Petersburg” (Berlin, 1923). Upon returning to Soviet Russia, he wrote for satirical journals and composed more than 20 children's books. He died from tuberculosis in Moscow in 1932.
It is interesting that the author started with a White (i.e. aristocratic) background and then transitioned to the Red side after returning to USSR. The particular environment for literary and artistic creations at the time in the USSR allowed for it to happen: had he died 10 years later, he would have had a much more difficult time getting published (or joining the All-Soviet Writers’ Union) due to his background as a “class enemy”. Without knowing much about the contexts under which he was working, one should not read too much of his biographical information into our analysis of the text itself, but the text does depict western capitalist countries in a particular way that might be a bit ambiguous in terms of how the Soviet state is positioned in relation to the West (e.g. the Commissar for Foreign Trade brings to the child “all that the Union doesn’t have”). It is possible that the author’s experience while exiled abroad had certain effects on such depictions. Nine other Soviet children’s books are written by this author within Princeton’s collection, on diverse topics ranging from the young Pioneers to everyday objects like galoshes to modes of transportation.
This book is a relatively rare example of one with two illustrators instead of one. Konstantin Rotov (1902-1959) was a Soviet graphic artist well-known for his work in children’s books. His cartoons were mostly about daily living, featured an intricate level of detail, and were made in at most two to three colors. He was arrested in 1934 for a cartoon allegedly mocking the Soviet regime, and sentenced to eight years in a labor camp in 1940. In the gulags and after his release, he continued to produce artistic works. The other illustrator, Konstantin Eliseev Stepanovich (1890-1968) was a Soviet cartoonist, stage designer, costume designer, painter, and graphic artist. He began working as a graphic artist and cartoonist in the 1910s, creating satirical drawings for primarily newspaper and magazines. His work prominently featured political and social themes. In the 1920s and 1930s, his work was featured in international exhibitions. For his work, specifically in the field of Soviet satire, he was awarded in 1945 the title of Honored Artist of the RSFSR.
The collaboration between these two illustrators of diverse backgrounds is therefore intriguing. The specific details or process of their collaboration is unclear – we do not know if they co-drew each image together, or if each drew images separately and then combined them into a book. The former case seems inconvenient – it means they would need to be working from the same location and constantly be in contact; the latter case is perhaps more likely, since each page does have a distinct, coherent style, which varies sometimes from page to page, but not within the same page. The page on “Commissar for Military”, for example, seems to correspond more with Rotov’s drawing style, while the page on “Commissar for Finance” embodies Eliseev’s sharp strokes and realism. One other children’s book within this collection is written by Agenivtsev and illustrated by Eliseev (Rotov is not involved this time): How the Primus Stove Wanted to Become a Ford. We observe certain stylistic similarities between these two books; Kalinin also makes an appearance as an “elder” figure in the Primus stove story.
“Eliseev Konstantin.” Cartoonia.ru, April 5, 2008. http://cartoonia.ru/entsiklopediya-karikatury/e/eliseev-konstantin-eliseev-konstantin/.
“Rotov Konstantin.” Cartoonia.ru, April 7, 2008. http://cartoonia.ru/entsiklopediya-karikatury/r/rotov-konstantin-rotov-konstantin/.
“Soviet of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom).” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History( blog), August 13, 2015. http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/first-bolshevik-decrees/first-bolshevik-decrees-texts/soviet-of-peoples-commissars-sovnarkom/.
“Young Communists.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History (blog), June 17, 2015. http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1924-2/young-communists/.
“Агнивцев, Николай Яковлевич (1888—1932).” Accessed May 1, 2019. http://parnasse.ru/klassika/nikolaj-agnivcev/agnivcev-nikolai-jakovlevich-1888-1932.html.
“Твои наркомы у тебя дома.” Пикабу. Accessed May 1, 2019. https://pikabu.ru/story/tvoi_narkomyi_u_tebya_doma_6142986.
“‘Твои Наркомы у Тебя Дома’ - Книга Детских Стихов 1926 г.. СССР. История Пропаганды.” Accessed May 1, 2019. https://propagandahistory.ru/2304/Tvoi-narkomy-u-tebya-doma---kniga-detskikh-stikho v--1926-g/.
Context entry by Jianing Zhao, edited by Daniel Che (SLA 221, 2019)
Annotations project by Jianing Zhao, Daniel Che, Samantha Zalewska, Devon Wood-Thomas, Saad Mirza (SLA 221, 2019)