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Neobychainaia istoniia ob izobretenii vozdushnogo shara o velikom uchenom mongolʹfʹe, o shelkovoi iubke i goriashchei zharovne

Необычайная история об изобретении воздушного шара о великом ученом монгольфе, о шелковой юбке и горящей жаровне

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Pesnʹ o dirizhable

Песнь о дирижабле

Song of the Dirigible begins with the sighting of a gray, German dirigible among other airplanes in the sky. The dirigible lands in the city of Moscow, where a gathered crowd of thousands awaits. A German chef then emerges from the airship and opens his arms to the friendly crowd. Above the noise of the crowd, a voice proclaims that someday the Soviet citizens, themselves, will build their own, better airship. Once the dirigible is ready to leave, the crowd bids farewell to the visitors as the airship flies away. The final page of the book reveals an all-red Soviet airship as the embodiment of the collective Soviet dream of building their own, “best” dirigible.

This book illustrates the confluence of two key events of the time: Joseph Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan and the 1931 trip of the German dirigible called the Graf Zeppelin. By the beginning of the 1930s, the Five Year Plan (1928-1932) was well underway, with the Soviet government aiming to rapidly speed the growth of industry and technology in the USSR to meet and exceed the West.  In the years preceding, the USSR had relied heavily upon foreign goods and resources. For example, authorities had depended on Germany for supplying aluminum to build aircraft and officers that could teach at Soviet air training schools. By the end of the decade, however, the Soviet military had made significant progress with its air fleet, although airships remained a major weakness. Later, authorities became more interested in improvements in airship construction and development since they were proven to be extremely useful for long-distance flying and polar exploration (McCannon).

This interest in polar exploration coincided with the 1931 flight of a German dirigible, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin. This flight was an international collaboration to map the geography of and measure the earth’s magnetic field and air quality in the relatively unexplored Arctic. German, Soviet, American, and Swedish scientists and explorers participated in this expedition. The trip began in July 1931, with the airship stopping in Leningrad and in the Soviet Arctic on its way to the North Pole (“Graf Zeppelin”). Dirigibles make other appearances in Nina Sakonskaia’s work, seemingly to function as a symbol of industrialization and progress, including Mom’s Bridge and Review of Homemade Toys. But it is most centrally in Song of the Dirigible that the author celebrates a central aspiration of the first Five-Year Plan -- the collective Soviet ambition for industrial progress.


Works Cited

"Graf Zeppelin’s Arctic Flight, 1931.", Accessed 4 May 2017.

McCannon, John. "Sharing the Northern Skies: German-Soviet Scientific Cooperation and the 1931 Flight of the 'Graf Zeppelin' to the Soviet Artic." Russian History, vol. 30, no. 4, Winter 2003, pp. 403-31.

Colin Lualdi, Jackie Dragon, Zhi-Shui Hsu, Leora Eisenberg

SLA 221, Spring 2017

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2 pervomaia

2 первомая

Illustrated by Aleksandr Nikolaev under the pseudonym “Usto Mumin,” Two May Days portrays the disparity between Soviet Russia and Germany in the celebration of International Workers’ Day. Otherwise known as “May Day” (First of May, or Pervomai) International Workers’ Day recognizes the contributions of laborers and the working class. The holiday was established in 1891 by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International, and continues to be observed annually on the first of May. While the Soviet Union was still in existence, May Day ranked amongst the most important of its official public holidays. Elaborate military parades were held in honor of the working man, with the grandest of these occurring in Moscow’s Red Square. Nikolaev’s The Second May Day paints a picture of this day as it is celebrated in both the Soviet Union and Germany.

Two May Days follows two young boys, Sergei Litkov and Hans Stuve, as they prepare for and partake in the observance of May Day. A member of the Soviet youth organization, the Pioneers, Sergei is excited to attend a May Day celebration occurring at a nearby factory. He anticipates a joyous day filled with song, dance, and speeches. Sergei’s experience of May Day contrasts sharply with that of Hans, a German schoolboy who is imprisoned for his commitment to celebrating the holiday.

Published in 1930, Two May Days draws inspiration from the tragic occurrences of the year prior. On May 1, 1929, in Berlin, Germany, police officers responded with brutality to the May Day demonstrations of members of the Communist Party of Germany. The ensuing violence resulted in the deaths of 33 individuals, and injury to countless others. Two May Days condemns the political regime that oppressed the May Day celebrants, and glorifies those who risked their lives to exalt the common laborer.

It is important to note that Two May Days was published two years into Stalin’s first Five Year Plan (1928-1932), an effort to develop the USSR’s heavy industry while collectivizing agriculture. Nikolaev includes several details that emphasize key elements of this first Plan. For example, Sergei and his classmates parade about on tractors. Tractors played an integral role in collectivization, as peasants made use of state-provided tractors to farm their shared land. Nikolaev takes care to portray the vehicles in a positive light.

A unique feature of this book is that all the text is presented on the inside cover, before the illustrations. The narrative that accompanies Nikolaev’s illustrations was provided by Soviet author and playwright, Evgenii Shvartz. Shvartz, born October 21, 1896, was an employee of the Gosizdat (Children’s State Publishing House) as well as an author of numerous children’s books and a contributor to several youth magazines. Shvartz was also an active member of the Soviet avant-garde artists’ group, OBERIU. In this book, his commentary, which precedes all of Nikolaev’s illustrations, orients the reader in time and space, and introduces them to the characters Sergei and Hans.

While Two May Days garnered the approval of the Soviet State Publishing House, not all of Nikolaev’s works were so well received. A pupil of Malevich, Nikolaev moved to Uzbekistan after serving in the Red Army, where his artwork became heavily influenced by Central Asian tradition. Nikolaev was so enamored with the culture of the region that he converted to Islam and adopted the name “Usto Mumin,” which translates to “Faithful and Gentle Master.” While living in Uzbekistan, Nikolaev’s paintings grew increasingly homoerotic in nature. It is believed that Nikolaev’s depictions of homosexuality contributed to his sudden arrest in 1938. After four years of imprisonment, Nikolaev was released, and he spent the remaining years of his life painting and engaging in social work. He died in 1957.



Bulatov, Ivan. “Scouts Go, Pioneers Come: Russian Youth Movements during the Civil War and the First Years after It.” Romanian Journal of Population Studies, vol. VIII, no. 2, 2014, pp. 11-36. The Central and Eastern European Online Library, <>.

“Evgeny Schwartz – biography.” JewAge. Web. <>.

“Nikolayev Alexander (1897-1957) (Usto-Mumin).” The State Museum of Arts of The Republic of Karakalpakstan named after I.V. Savitsky. Web. <>.

Ruane, Christine. “Clothes Make the Comrade: A History of the Russian Fashion Industry.” Russian History, vol. 23, nos. 1-4, pp. 311-343.

Shachtman, Max. “Putschism and May Day in Berlin.” Marxists Internet Archive. Web. <>.

“The 1929s May Day Riots are coming to Second Life.” The 1920s Berlin Project. Web. <>.

von Geldern, James. “Young Communists.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Web. <>.

Richard Huang, Jack Allen, Erin Endres, Maya Silverberg (SLA 221, 2018)

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Myshinyĭ bunt : stikhi dlia detei

Мышиный бунт : стихи для детей

In The Mouse Rebellion, we see the tale of group of mice who, under the courageous leadership of the “tailless little mouse,” revolt against their tyrannical cat overlord, breaking the typical cat-mouse narrative through the power of collective effort. Written around 1920, The Mouse Rebellion is a relatively early example of a typical Soviet children’s book; it would have been published during the civil war that directly followed the revolution in 1917. The book’s temporal proximity to the events of 1917 cast The Mouse Rebellion as one of many attempts by Soviet authors and artists in the early Soviet years to process the revolution; in this case, we are presented a children’s parallel to the revolution, with the sympathetic “tailless little mouse” as an analogue to Lenin, and the ruthless cat as tsar. As an example from the civil war period, the book’s unmistakably pro-revolutionary lean connects it to numerous examples of anti counter-revolutionary propaganda; while The Mouse Rebellion does not explicitly attack the so-called “Whites,” the aim is undoubtedly to indoctrinate Russian children into the Bolshevik ideology.

The author of The Mouse Rebellion, “Oliver Twist,” proves to be somewhat puzzling; while clearly a pseudonym, the actual identity of the author remains unknown. Although there is no definitive answer, a very strong possibility is Valentin Kataev, a popular satirist and eventual Soviet realist author, who also published a multitude of children’s books. Particularly in his early career, Kataev wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, one of which was “Oliver Twist”. While the pseudonym alone may not offer definitive proof, other aspects of Kataev’s biography suggest his authorship--Kataev began writing in 1910 at the age of 13, fought in the Red Army against the counter-revolutionaries, and would have been writing professionally by 1920. While he is perhaps best known for Time, Forward!, a Soviet realist novel, Kataev’s early works were often humorous and light-hearted, further supporting his authorship.

While the artist, L. Dubrovskii, is relatively unknown, the woodblock print illustrations draw upon a long cultural history of woodblock and lithograph prints known as Lubok. This style of printing, likely chosen here for its cost and time efficiency, was a uniquely Russian folk style stretching back as far as the 17th century; while Lubok largely faded out after 1917, it had a significant influence on early Avant Garde artists such as Malevich, and in 1920 would have been immediately recognizable and distinctly Russian.


Works Cited:

Nedd, Andrew M. “Segodniashnii Lubok: Art, War, and National Identity.” Picture This: World War I Posters and Visual Culture, edited by PEARL JAMES, University of Nebraska Press, LINCOLN; LONDON, 2009, pp. 241–270. JSTOR,

Szarycz, Ireneusz. Poetics of Valentin Kataev’s Prose of the 1960s and 1970s. American University Studies, series XII, vol. 5. Peter Lang, New York, 1989, pp. 1-8


Jake Kirkham, Fiona Bell, Justin Athill, Helen Zhang (SLA 221, 2018)


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