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2004-2005 Visiting Fellows

William B. Husband
Oregon State University

The results of the investigation of Russian/Soviet children's literature of 1900-1939 I carried out during 15 June-9 July 2004 in Rare Books & Special Collections of Firestone Library significantly exceeded my expectations. I was initially drawn to the Russian collection of the Cotsen Children's Library by the general prospect of expanding a monograph-in-progress, Nature in Modern Russia: A Social History, as well as the unique opportunity to utilize children's literature as a major source base in a Western work of Russian history. The representations of Nature for children that I encountered in the portion of the collection that addressed the topic directly added an important dimension to my ability to substantiate the rapid development of early Soviet scientific and environmental policy. Children's literature reflected how the early revolutionary government moved rapidly from a perspective of transforming humans and nature simultaneously as an educational enterprise in the 1920s to the benighted and ultimately calamitous mobilization campaigns of the 1930s that were rooted in a mentality of overcoming scientific and environmental limitations and "correcting Nature's mistakes." I did not, however, only use the collection in this narrow, selective sense. Rather, I engaged it in its totality, which enabled me also to gather a significant body of material for a series of articles I plan to publish on the use of early Soviet children's literature in a broader enterprise of the early revolutionary period: the creation of the New Soviet Man and Woman.

The materials that specifically addressed Nature were valuable above all for bringing into focus the assumptions that informed early official Soviet views of Nature, the environment, science, technology, and economic modernization. Although it seems paradoxical from the current perspective of our culture, these seemingly disparate phenomena were represented in early Soviet thinking not as opposing or even discrete categories, but as complementary elements in the inculcation of a new world view in the USSR and, by extension, the creation of a more rational, activist, and collectivist citizen of the future. Consequently, Soviet children's literature overwhelmingly represented Nature as an infinite resource whose raison d'etre was to provide the raw material of economic development, which in turn would ease the burden of existence and allow citizens more leisure for consciousness raising activities. Children's stories about the reorganization of mining, mechanization of forestry, and even the rationali of food production and processing all depicted Nature as a passive agent and inexhaustible resource in a process that equated change with progress.

Engaging the late Imperial and early Soviet works for children in the Cotsen Collection in their entirety furnished a sense of context I would have missed had I used the collection more selectively. The collection contains a rich mixture that ranges from works for pre-school children through journals for adolescents. At each level, I was able to discern emphases on issues of priority to the regime writ large as well as the abrupt shifts of course that characterized political and social policy during the first two decades of the Communist experiment in Russia. The promotion of science and technology, the idealization of industrialization, the advancement of collectivism and activism, the denigration of religion, and a myriad of other foci common to general Soviet propaganda made their way to the center of children's literature. The Cotsen Collection is in this sense a living collection; that is, it mixes works of intelligence with the work of hacks and synthesizes statements of editorial objectives the most elementary offerings for the young. As I stressed in the short talk I delivered in Firestone Library on 6 July 2004, one can virtually "read" the early decades of the Soviet revolution through the children's literature its society produced.

I am grateful to the Friends of the Library for establishing this program and for the generosity of the Cotsen Children's Library in funding my fellowship. I thank Margaret Sherry Rich, Grants Program Manager. I also thank Andrea Immel and her staff as well as the staff of the Rare Books & Special Collections reading room for making this a productive and enjoyable experience. I thank Heather A. Shannon for making me aware of this collection and its importance.


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