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Funny Pictures of Difficult Era

What Soviet-era children's magazines can tell us about life at the time

Wikimedia Commons

The first major Soviet publisher of children's literature, Raduga, was established a century ago and featured the debuts of many authors who would later go on to become famous, from Agnia Barto to Eugeny Schwartz, as well as illustrations by prominent artists such as Boris Kustodiev, Vladimir Lebedev, Yuri Annenkov, and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. It started out on a small scale when the young authors Korney Chukovsky and Samuil Marshak joined the publisher Lev Klyachko to launch a magazine for children. The project took off successfully, and by late 1921, permission was given to expand it into a publishing house. Later on, Raduga's mission was carried on by children's magazines such as Pioner, Murzilka, Yozh, Chizh, and Kostyor, all of which formed an integral part of the Soviet childhood; these publications entertained and educated the new generation by explaining clearly, with compelling illustrations, what Soviet society expected from them. Based on a research paper by Marina Sazonenko, graduate of the HSE Doctoral School of Art and Design, IQ.HSE examines how — and why — the illustrations in Soviet periodicals for children changed over time.

From Uncle Styopa to Timur and His Team

Numerous publishers in the 'mature' USSR produced books and magazines for young people. Soviet people whose formative years fell in the second half of the 20th century were first introduced to Veselye Kartinki [Funny Pictures], followed by Murzilka, and later on by Rovesnik for young adults. Young Soviets interested in science and technology avidly read Yunyi Tekhnik, Tekhnika — Molodezhi and Znanie — Sila.

A Soviet child's morning usually started with a broadcast of Pionerskaya Zorka radio and sometimes a fresh issue of Pionerskaya Pravda, the children's version of Pravda, the main official newspaper in the USSR. But the most engaging content was to be found in magazines: riddles, puzzles, board games, funny poems, stories in pictures — Soviet-style comic strips, clothes for paper dolls, airplane modelling tutorials, school based stories and science fiction. These publications entertained and educated their young readership, while also indoctrinating them with the dominant ideology.

Arguably the most impressive and expressive part of children's culture is its visual component: illustrations in books and periodicals, animation, theatre, and consumer products for children, such as clothes, games and toys.

The pantheon of children’s literature and film was numerous and multinational, ranging from the Russian characters featured in Three from Prostokvashino to the French Musketeers and Jules Verne's 'global citizens’, to Buratino inspired by the Italian Pinocchio, to the American Br’er Rabbit and Tom Sawyer.

According to the cultural historian Sergei Ushakin, the fictional characters in children’s literature were also designed to show the general audience the kind of 'ideal adults' they could become or the 'spoiled children' they were able to avoid being.


One way or another, these childhood characters were unforgettable — as were the vibrant, expressive and funny illustrations that brought them to life. During successive periods of the USSR's history, such 'funny pictures' projected a different atmosphere. The courageous, avant-garde style of the 1920s was replaced in the 1930s by an air of militarism, vigilance and an eternal search for enemies. During Khrushchev's Thaw and in the late Soviet period, children's magazines focused more on family life and homemaking, and emphasised gender differences by drawing a clear distinction between boys’ and girls’ respective interests and roles.

In the 1980s, children's periodicals, including wall newspapers displayed at schools, often featured doves of peace, usually soaring over the Earth and symbolising the hope that a new war could be avoided. Other symbols of the decade included child ambassadors of peace: the American Samantha Smith and the Russian Katya Lycheva.

Literary representations of childhood reflected the respective changes in Soviet society, be it the overall political situation or the relationship between children and adults. Arkady Gaidar's books written in the 1930s and 1940s often convey a tense, stormy atmosphere, where the joys of summer, dacha and friendship cannot cancel out the anticipation of a war in which children must fight shoulder to shoulder with adults. In contrast, novels by Anatoly Aleksin (1960s-1970s) focus on child-parent relations and school life; children are no longer depicted as 'small adults' but are reasonably expected to take plenty of time to fully develop and grow.

Interestingly, the romanticism (both inherent in youth and expected of young Communists) of Gaidar's Timur and His Team bravely fighting against any injustice was replicated in 1960s-1970s by Vladislav Krapivin's characters — young, brave and intolerant of philistine narrow-mindedness. 

'New People' — from Early Maturity to Freedom to Be Different

Examining the childhood pantheon gives you a glimpse on how Soviet society functioned. According to Ushakin, 'due to their exaggerated features, fictional characters such as Khrusha the Piglet and Stepashka the Hare make it relatively easy to see the internal mechanisms whereby Soviet culture reproduced certain types of people and marginalised those who did not fit the pattern'.

However, despite the perpetuation of stereotypes, it became obvious in the later years of the USSR that children and adolescents were different from the earlier generations and felt free to engage adults in candid arguments over ethical issues.

According to culturologist Ilya Kukulin, '[Soviet] society, having lost confidence in its future, looked apprehensively at these adolescent harbingers — potential carriers of a new consciousness. As ideological erosion undermined the concept of “developed socialism,” school remained the last refuge for both utopian and social-project consciousness: most Soviet innovators in education were non-conformists <...>. They believed that by influencing the new generation, they could “fence off” a space within the Soviet system for de-ideologised, humanistic and responsible relationships among people'.

This was a long way from the early Soviet era where children were perceived as junior comrades in building Communism. Indeed, childhood was construed and perceived differently at different periods of the Soviet era:

the early Soviet period (1920s to early or mid-1930s);

the Stalin period (mid-1930s to 1953);

the Thaw and late USSR (mid-1950s to 1991).

Sazonenko examined some illustrations to Soviet books and periodicals characterising each of the above periods.

The Avant-garde 1920s: Flags, Drum-rolls and Freedom

The first decade after the Communist revolution was perceived by many at the time as a transition to a new way of life, a reforging of society and the adoption of new approaches to child socialisation — or resocialisation when talking about street children and orphans. The young generation was to be introduced to these new values: school was reformed, and new youth organisations were established, such as the Young Pioneers in May 1922. The patriarchal family was replaced by one in which both parents were employed, while their children were raised in collectives, such as nursery, kindergarten and school. The emerging new culture, including literature, was heavily ideologised.

'By promoting ideological stereotypes, the state created new cultural codes and symbols designed to evoke in children a sense of Soviet, as opposed to pre-revolutionary, identity', according to Sazonenko.

To indoctrinate children in communist ideals, the state needed dynamic, modern and effective tools, such as illustrated periodicals. In the 1920s, numerous 'ideologically correct' magazines for children appeared, such as Pioner, Murzilka, Baraban, Vorobey (later, Novy Robinson ), Yozh and Chizh .

Children were generally treated as 'small adults' and younger comrades in the rebuilding of life, so the visual symbols used in books and magazines for children were not necessarily associated with childhood and included factories, automobiles, collective farms, tractors, weapons, tools, posters and flags, etc. This was true not only of Pioner , which was intended for younger teenagers, but also of Murzilka with its audience of pre-schoolers and primary school students. According to some researchers, the absence of child-specific attributes aimed to promote intergenerational solidarity and facilitate a child's transition to adulthood.

Another cultural symbol of the time was that of a child with a drum or a bugle, ever since associated with school and especially with the Young Pioneers. Soviet children's literature of the period also began to feature attractive, endearing images of animals, birds and fish.

The case of Murzilka — both the character and the magazine of the same name — is a story of several transformations. The publication that helped launch the careers of many famous authors such as Sergei Mikhalkov, Elena Blaginina, Boris Zakhoder and Nikolai Nosov was originally named after a puppy character from a series of stories by children's writer Alexander Fedorov-Davydov, co-founder of the magazine. The first issue carried a story from this series, 'Murzilka's first day'.

Later, Murzilka transformed from 'the fourth puppy of Zhuchka the dog' into a yellow furry zoomorphic character wearing a red beret, a scarf, and a camera over its shoulder. Then in 1941, Murzilka became a human boy — a red-haired Young Pioneer, and other iterations subsequently followed. In 1959, the yellow fluffy character finally came back and has since been the mascot of the publication.

The 1920s marked a golden age for children's book illustrations, with famous members of the Mir Iskusstva artistic movement, such as Dobuzhinsky and Kustodiev, contributing early in the decade, and very young avant-garde artists joining in later. According to culturologist Evgeny Steiner, leading artists 'either willingly, or even despite their personal preferences, adapted to the mental climate of their time and engaged in artistic enhancement, design or (more or less conscious) modelling of contemporary life'. The avant-garde, with its freedom of experimentation, was in a good position to contribute to the new children’s culture.

According to Sazonenko, the visual design of children's periodicals at the time was characterised by simple minimalist forms, contrasting colours, creative fonts and frequent use of collage.

The Intolerant 1930s: Children's Periodicals and Fictional Characters Come under Attack

The situation changed drastically at the beginning of the 1930s. An era of experimentation and discussion gave way to a new imperative of like-mindedness. Creative exploration in art and pedagogy was discouraged and uniform approaches to child upbringing were imposed, with an emphasis on military and patriotic education, physical culture and productive work for the benefit of society.

Facing strong ideological pressure, children's periodicals adopted a more serious tone, and by the mid-1930s, were encouraging their readership — both teenagers and younger children — to be vigilant and to watch out for enemies.

At the turn of the 1930s, popular children's poet Korney Chukovsky came under severe criticism, in particular for omitting 'Soviet' themes in his books and failing ‘to promote social awareness and collective aspirations' in young children. Furthermore, his poem ‘Tsokotukha the Fly’ was chastised for ‘glorifying a philistine lifestyle and wealth accumulation', while ‘The Crocodile’ and ‘The Cockroach’ were also said to transmit 'the wrong ideas about the worlds of animals and insects'.

Fast forward a decade and the strict ideological censorship imposed by the 1946 ‘Decree on Zvezda and Leningrad Magazines’ had affected children's literature as well. But back to the 1930s campaign against Chukovsky: his fairy tale ‘ The Adventures of Bibigon’ came under attack for lacking an ideological message and as such being unsuitable for the communist education of children.

Literary critic Sergei Krushinsky wrote in his article entitled 'Serious shortcomings in children's magazines' that Chukovsky’s contributions to Murzilka were 'blatant nonsense'. According to the critic, 'Ridiculous and absurd events follow one another [in Chukovsky's works]. <...> Bad prose alternates with bad poetry. <...> Naturalism and primitivism. There is no fantasy in his "fairy tale" but only silly tricks'. Krushinsky concludes: 'The writer's inkwell is large, and the editorial staff of Murzilka is undiscriminating'.

Drummers' Fates: Stalinism in Children's Literature

The early Soviet years were a complex era. On one hand, it emphasised enthusiastic labour as a matter of honour (which also involved re-education of 'backward' people), and the early 1930s saw the first five-year plans. But this enthusiasm was combined with anxiety, accurately described by Arkady Gaidar in his story ‘The Drummer's Fate’ written in the late 1930s.

'<...> Anxiety — vague and inexplicable — has firmly settled in our home since that time', according to Seryozha, protagonist and narrator. 'This anxiety would crop up at an unexpected phone call, a knock on the door by a postman or a late-time guest; this anxiety was hiding in my father's eyes when he came home from work. I could see and feel this anxiety but was told that nothing was wrong except that my father was tired'. 

The next spring, the protagonist's father gets arrested and faces trial.

'Goodbye!', I was mentally addressing my father. 'I am twelve now and will be seventeen in five years. This will be the end of my childhood, and I won't see you again while I am still a child. Do you remember the time when a cuckoo was calling out loudly and sadly in the dense wood and you taught me to find the blue Pole Star in the sky? And then we walked together towards a light in the field, singing soldiers' songs'. 

Seryozha's reflections end with the words:

‘“Goodbye!” I thought as I was falling asleep. “Drums are beating a march. For each squad its own path, its own shame and its own glory. So we are parting ways. The stomping has ceased, and the field is now empty…”'.

The book was written at the time when the revolutionary ideals shared by Gaidar and his circle retreated under the Stalinist pressure. Many things in children's books could be read between the lines, and the coming of a thunderstorm could be felt in the air.

Children's periodicals were heavily politicised at that time. In its 1939 editorials, Pionerskaya Pravda published documents such as 'The Soviet–Estonian Mutual Assistance Treaty'; 'The German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Border between the USSR and Germany'; 'The Declaration of the Government of the German Reich and the Government of the USSR of 28 September 1939'; the operational summary of the Red Army General Staff. On the other hand, magazines still published a wide variety of content, from the technology-focused (about a new airplane) to the official (marking 15 years of the newspaper Lenin's Grandchildren ) to the school-related ('Many things are up to Uchkom', 'How to run a good class', 'Excellence in teaching, excellence in learning').

Children's periodicals shaped opinions, educated, criticised, and encouraged responsible consumption. Here is an illustrative passage: ‘Tsarina Elizaveta Petrovna reportedly owned 600 dresses and changed 12 times each day. <...> The Tsarina maintained a parasitic lifestyle. A highly cultured member of a communist society will never agree to live in idleness or entertain such absurd needs. They will wear tasteful, nice and good clothes, but hardly anyone will want to have too many dresses and to give them too much time which could instead be spent on work, sports or reading'.

Another popular idea shared in the same article is that although all people are friends, one needs to be vigilant against the 'remnants of capitalism' manifested through absenteeism, theft, rudeness, slander and backstabbing. 'We must all fight against these remnants tirelessly,' the author stressed, concluding the piece by calling on the readers 'to model their lives on Stalin'.

Decades later, it became possible to process and relieve children's trauma using humour. For example, according to Viktor Chizhikov, children's book illustrator and creator of Misha the Bear, the 1980 Moscow Olympics mascot, 'I would like children to have fewer fears'. He maintained that evil characters could be made less scary simply by making fun of them.

'In [my illustrations to Chukovsky's] Doctor Aybolit, [the villain] Barmaley is sleeping, and one can see Murzilka stuck under his pillow, because he loves reading it! [Using humour] this way is my method', said Chizhikov.

This approach was also used by other artists, such as Leonid Vladimirsky who illustrated the adventures of Buratino and those of Ellie and her friends. In his illustrations, the meanest characters did not look scary. 'One needs to be kind when creating things for children', the artist used to say. 'Only someone capable of projecting kindness can be a children's artist or writer, and they also need to use humour and to be expressive'.

The Great Terror: Artists Come under fire

During the Stalinist repression of the second half of the 1930s, the number of published magazines dropped significantly, as the Great Terror also affected children's literature. Fatal for a number of contributors and editors of children's magazines was the smear campaign launched at the dawn of the 1930s and continued in 1936 with the article ‘On Dauber Artists’ published in Pravda and targeting specifically the major publisher of children's literature Leningrad Detgiz and personally the head of its artistic editorial board Vladimir Lebedev. The prominent artist was suddenly declared a 'dauber'.

Meanwhile, it was for a good reason that this publishing house was often described as a 'university for illustrators of children's books'. Lebedev mentored many younger artists who later became famous book illustrators, including Yuri Vasnetsov, Alexey Pakhomov, Evgeny Charushin and Vladimir Konashevich. Owing to Lebedev's mentorship, each of them developed their own unique and recognisable style.

Sadly, this was no time for creative experimentation. Vladimir Lebedev was lucky to survive and — years later — to return to illustrating children's books, but many of his colleagues suffered even tougher repression. The editor of Chizh and Yozh magazines, poet and screenwriter Nikolay Oleynikov was executed in 1937 on trumped-up charges of counter-revolutionary activity and Trotskyism. The magazine Sverchok [Cricket] that Oleynikov had been publishing was accused of 'slander' and 'sabotage' and closed down.

The War and 'War Play': Promoting Courage

Even before the war of 1941-1945, Soviet literature for children was expected to promote courage, collectivism and a sense of responsibility, and these themes came strongly to the fore during the war years, when many school-age children were required to work hard and to take on adult duties.

Since the mid-1930s, the themes of war and sports had prevailed in Soviet magazines for children, and their illustrated stories usually featured boys. Later, children's periodicals introduced regular columns on physical exercise and chess, and began to offer ‘scouting games’ designed to develop attention and logical thinking by asking readers to guess who lived in a pictured room or to find hidden objects. Also popular were pictorial and crossword puzzles, mazes and riddles.

According to Sazonenko, 'war play' was an integral part of standard game plots and broader educational practices in the USSR, as reflected in the pro-military paraphernalia of the Young Pioneers.

Designing Children's Toys: Baby Dolls, Clockwork Bulls, and More

Most pre-war and early post-war Soviet children had few toys to play with. But there were impressive plans for designing and producing the right kind of toys. Back in the mid-1930s, educational methodologists and teachers came up with recommendations for the types of toys that Soviet children should play with, such as:

  1. Toys for developing the senses and motor skills.
  2. Figurative toys (people, animals, construction and transport) to help children broaden their horizons and develop self-identity, with a particular focus on baby dolls and figurines of Young Pioneers and Little Octobrists.
  3. Toys for plot-based games to help socialisation (figurative dolls with furniture and utensils, and sets for enacting the 'new Soviet environments’ such as kindergarten, school, public canteen or the Red Army).
  4. Technical toys (military vehicles, machine tools, construction sets) for teenagers.
  5. Board games for encouraging perseverance and teamwork.
  6. Fun toys such as a clockwork bull or a crowing cockerel.
  7. Creativity-promoting toys such as musical instruments or music boxes, and puppet theatre or shadow theatre sets.

In addition to this, it is hard to imagine Soviet childhood without animals and pets — from cats to fish to mice. Children's magazines published numerous stories and poems about 'cute little kittens and puppies'. Nikolai Nosov's stories ‘Alive Hat’, ‘Druzhok’ and ‘Karasik’ have become children's classics; there was a popular TV show ‘About Animals for Kids’. Some children's authors specialised on writing about wildlife, including Vitaly Bianki, Georgy Skrebitsky, Mikhail Prishvin and Vera Chaplina, and many of their stories were published in Yuny Naturalist, the main magazine on natural history for children and youth.

In addition to toys, the Soviet post-war educational practices incorporated 'useful work through play’ — something we would now call gamification. The principle of building both knowledge and skills was an emerging educational trend that made its way into children's periodicals, with magazines publishing manuals on handcrafting household items: 'Sewing Patterns and Tips', 'The Easiest Compass to Make', 'Hand-made New Year Tree Decorations'.

Late USSR: Family, School, Privacy

During and after the Thaw, family values came to the fore. The regime's ideological pressure on child rearing and education was gradually weakening, and although the public sphere continued to dominate, a focus on private life was increasing.

In the second half of the twentieth century, communal apartments shared by multiple families were replaced by private flats in which children could finally have personal space for study and play. Soviet society adopted the 'everything for children' attitude, and childhood was now accepted as a separate and special phase in a person's life. Children were no longer perceived as 'small adults'.

Social institutions, in particular school, assumed the central place in children's lives, and the school novel emerged as a new genre of literature for youth. In addition to general school, numerous opportunities for extracurricular activities were offered by palaces and houses of pioneers, by clubs for young fans of technology and nature, and by music, art, and sports schools.

Sometimes, children engaged in one too many extracurricular activities, as in the humorous poem 'Chatterbox' by Agnia Barto: 

'Drama club and photo club,

and a choir, for I want to sing,

and an art club, because

everyone has voted for it.


But what I really want, my friends,

is to become a pilot'.

Gender Education: Cutting and Sewing vs. Science and Technology

The post-war demographic situation in the USSR caused changes in gender patterns. Children’s activities and games were now segregated by gender. While some activities, such as sports and board games remained gender-neutral, girls were generally expected to play with their dolls and homemaking sets to prepare for their future role as mothers and keepers of the family hearth, while boys were encouraged to practice militarised games, to engage in aircraft, ship or car modelling, and to explore science and technology.

According to Sazonenko, 'Children's magazines of this period often included pages with cut-out paper dolls and patterns for sewing clothes and hand-made toys, as well as cooking recipes and homemaking tips. Magazines such as Pioner and Koster introduced columns on different types of handicrafts. Girls were increasingly depicted as homemakers with kitchen utensils, dolls and sewing kits'.

A popular hobby in the late 1950s and early 1960s was aircraft and vehicle modelling and building homemade technological devices. In response to popular demand, the newspaper Pionerskaya Pravda and the magazines Yuniy Tekhnik , Modelist-Constructor, Znanie - Sila , and Tekhnika - Molodezhi featured instructions for assembling various car models. In addition, these publications wrote about the USSR's achievements in space exploration, science and technology, projecting an optimistic vision of the future and an atmosphere of large-scale construction activity.

The Right to Childhood and the Right to Grow Up

In the late Soviet years, child characters were depicted with the appropriate attributes of childhood such as toys and games, books and school supplies, without the earlier emphasis on military symbols. Just as Chizhikov and Vladimirsky advised, humour was used to make things less scary as part of a more caring and gentler attitude towards childhood. Pacifist symbolism such as a clear sky, doves of peace, coloured balloons — and, of course, family members and favourite pets — prevailed in children's artwork.

Strikingly smart and sensitive teenage characters appeared in Soviet literature, especially in the works of Anatoly Aleksin, Yuri Yakovlev, Yuri Nagibin and many other authors. Perhaps the key question of that time can be found in Rybakov's epigraph to Krosh's Vacation: 'A boy is gazing into the distance. What do his eyes see?' What is meant by 'distance' here is not necessarily the vision of a large-scale construction project taking its final shape but rather a broader vision of the world and the people.

Child characters in books written in the late Soviet years could teach their grown-up mentors, both at home and at school, some useful lessons. These characters could also serve as role models to young readers in anticipation of a new challenging era to come.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, January 28, 2022