Rekindling the nostalgia around Soviet-era children’s books
If you grew up in the 1980s, you might remember a time when the classics of Charles Dickens and Jules Verne shared space with books printed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Thick volumes, with glossy pages and vivid illustrations, filled with marine adventures, fairy tales, evolutionary stories and much more. In addition to books like Winged tales by Vladislav Krapivin and The Adventures of Dennis by Victor Dragunsky, there was Micha, a children’s magazine filled with puzzles, folktales and puzzles.
During the pandemic, an older generation filled with nostalgia for a simpler time returned to Soviet-era literature, as it is called. Two Facebook pages – Soviet literature in Marathi and Aa Pazhaya Russian Pusthakangal (in Malayalam) – which have been in existence for a decade have seen their activity increase. These examine the translations of children’s books from the USSR into the two languages. A third group, Fans of Russian Children’s Books, has recently been launched.
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Sajid A. Latheef, 40, assistant professor at MES Mampad College in Malappuram, Kerala, launched Aa Pazhaya Russian Pusthakangal on March 28, 2013 to share memorabilia from books published by publishers such as Raduga, Progress and Mir. Today, the group has 11,258 members. “Someone suggested digitizing them for kids today, because a lot of them wanted their kids to read these books,” says Latheef. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Moscow publications were suppressed. But they remain in the collections of book lovers. So I bought a CanoScan LiDE 120 scanner and started sharing the books with the group. Others have also started to do the same. And so began the digitization process.
Latheef’s favorite book during his childhood was Achante Balyam (When daddy was a little boy) by Alexandre Raskin. It is about a mischievous boy called “Papa” – the story is told by his little girl, Sasha. “The book left lasting impressions on life, relationships, literature and politics,” he says.
These books, most of which have been translated into Malayalam by the couple Gopalakrishnan and Omana, were distributed in Kerala by Prabhath Book House. Image: Courtesy of Sajid A Latheef
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Some other books Latheef liked are those by Alexander Kuprin Garnet Vala (Garnet Bracelet), by Genghis Aitmatov Tales of mountains and steppes, Arkady Gaïdar Chukkum Gekkum, (Chuk and Gek) and Jeevitha Vidyalayam (School).
These books, most of which were translated by the couple Gopalakrishnan and Omana, were distributed in Kerala by Prabhath Book House, which had stalls on wheels. A stop was outside Latheef’s house in Changanassery. “My grandfather, PA Sayed Mohammed, was an active member of the Indian Communist Party in Changanassery, Kottayam. He had a library and took these books home. During my vacation with my grandfather, I got to know Russian books, ”he says. “Even after 25 years, our publishers have not been able to recreate the production quality of these books, although many have tried,” he adds.
Devadatta Rajadhyaksha, who started the Soviet Literature page in Marathi in 2012, still cherishes his copy of The Adventures of Dennis, Where Dennis Chya Goshti, as its Marathi title says. He was fascinated by the little boy and his dates with runaway bikes, distracted chess players, circus clowns and identical-looking dogs.
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One day, while browsing his childhood collection, he came across these books, translated by people like Anil Hawaldar. On the Internet, he came across blogs filled with nostalgia. It was then that he decided to create a Facebook page to allow people to share memories.
The appeal of these books, says Rajadhyaksha, is in the print quality, brilliant images, and affordability. “The genres covered were vast and brilliant. Indian books of the time focused on either history, mythology or science. But there were Soviet books on slice of life, war, human evolution and popular science, ”the 43-year-old explains.
Rajadhyaksha, who found Hawaldar’s translations unique, especially the cultural references footnotes, recently started another Facebook group with fellow readers Amit and Anita Vachharajani. In 2018, he and two other members of the group, Nikhil Rane and Prasad Deshpande, even produced a film about Soviet children’s literature translated into Marathi, titled Dhukyat Haravlele Laal Taare (Red stars lost behind the mist).
The rebirth earlier this year of the Mumbai-based India-Russia Friendship Society of West India (known as the Indo-Soviet Culture Society until 1991) by columnist and politician Sudheendra Kulkarni and others could breathe new life into Russian literature. On September 18, says Rajadhyaksha, his book club held a discussion on The Adventures of Dennis. The best part? The son of the author and eponymous protagonist, Dennis, has joined us.
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