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Those Sumptuous Russian-Flavored Storybooks

On six children’s books Russian in spirit and in artistic origin

Vasilissa the Beautiful, by Elizabeth Winthrop; illustrated by Alexander Koshkin.

Vasilissa the Beautiful, by Elizabeth Winthrop; illustrated by Alexander Koshkin.

Russian culture is, traditionally, exuberantly child-oriented and unabashedly kitschy. This combination makes for rich offerings on the children’s book front, since kitsch at its best is only the glorious overrichness and brightness of childhood taste. The sentimental morality that led the Russians to Communism in the first place — many of the Revolution’s progenitors saw Marxism as a fair system imposed on an unfair world — has a certain eloquence in books for children, a context in which idealism for its own sake is laudable rather than foolish.

While poets, philosophers and conceptual artists have been doing work, since the demise of the Iron Curtain, that breaks radically with the ideological restraints imposed by Stalin and Brezhnev, many illustrators of children’s books, like ballet dancers and other performing artists, are doing just what they did so admirably in the days of the dictators. Though our eyes were ever on the grands jetés of the Bolshoi stars, we have only recently, in our enthusiasm for Russia, noticed the tradition of sumptuous illustration that has long existed there. It is our openness, more than theirs, that has brought such work here.

Many of the conceptual artists who had to do their “serious” work in secret in the dark days of Communism earned their living and gained official status by illustrating children’s books. It was a field distinguished from almost all others because it called on creative energies but remained politically neutral. Though there were books for children that were designed to instill a high regard for the workers’ state, there were always more books that ignored such concerns. Part of the Soviet people’s nostalgia for childhood had to do with their notion that there was an innocence that came before political choices, a time early in life when you did not have to edit out feelings to avoid offending the state.

Illustrators of children’s books in the Soviet Union are reaching back for such an untarnished moment, and their nostalgic indulgence not only in childhood’s material and carnal innocence, but also in its ideological innocence, is manifest in many of these works. To anyone versed in the graphic and artistic traditions of the Soviet vanguard, these drawings seem to announce their lack of ideological content with as much bravado as the worst socialist realists brought to their declaration of political purpose. The artists’ pleasure in this freedom lends to their work, at its best, an easy eloquence and an exuberance that are a delight to encounter.

This year’s offerings of books Russian in spirit and in artistic origin vary in both technical and creative quality. The most sophisticated of the illustrators is the already well-known Gennady Spirin, a Ukrainian whose pictures recall the Northern Renaissance in clarity of light, abundance of detail and enamel-like precision of color. You feel you can lose yourself forever in them.

Rumpelstiltskin, by the Brothers Grimm; retold by Alison Sage; paintings by Gennady Spirin.

Rumpelstiltskin, by the Brothers Grimm; retold by Alison Sage; paintings by Gennady Spirin.

The Grimms’ Rumpelstiltskin has many lovely Spirin pictures, and the book has been elegantly designed. The scale and spirit of the drawings are consistent but varied; silhouette characters may wave from beneath a page of type to those in the full-page illustrations opposite. Alison Sage’s retelling is most satisfactory.

Sorotchintzy Fair is an altogether more complicated undertaking, with Spirin illustrations on a far more magnificent scale. Nikolai Gogol’s story, most familiar to Western readers from the ballet, is wonderfully packed with idiosyncratic Russian elements: a mysterious figure of the Devil in the shape of a pig, a red coat with a missing sleeve, a troop of cunning gypsies. The textual descriptions are enchanting: we have the ribbons flying from the beautiful girl’s hair, and we have the remarks of the young lads at the marketplace. Unfortunately, however, the adaptation by Countess Sybil Schonfeldt (here translated by Daniel Reynolds) is ineptly compressed, and the story becomes obscure and difficult to follow.

The Fine Round Cake is for very young readers. The story has been fluidly adapted by the German author Arnica Esterl (and here translated by Pauline Hejl) from an English folk tale, and the illustrations, by Andrej Dugin and Olga Dugina, Moscow artists, are utterly charming. The cake itself, which runs away from the oven only to end up being consumed by a fox, has features as classic as Humpty Dumpty’s. If Mr. Spirin’s illustrations recall the Northern Renaissance, these recall the sober peculiarity of the High Middle Ages; they could almost go in a whimsical monk’s illuminated manuscript.

Eric A. Kimmel’s adaptation of Bearhead is an endearing tale with a typical Russian moral stance: the well-meaning fool is rewarded for his good intentions and his plain, honest speech. The distinguished American artist Charles Mikolaycak, whose work often has Eastern European themes, has done illustrations full of charming anachronism: Bearhead wears archetypal Russian peasant dress, but sports a Soviet military hat with a red star; the witch whom he goes to serve has wire-rimmed spectacles, a telephone, some aluminum-framed lawn chairs and a newspaper with her supper.

Elizabeth Winthrop’s version of Vasilissa the Beautiful is the best-written tale in this group. She has retold an immensely complex and very Russian story without being either confusing or alienating. Vasilissa is a good and beautiful girl who, after many frightening trials, escapes from an evil witch and marries the czar. We are not bewildered by, say, Baba Yaga the witch or by Vasilissa’s magical doll, but we are also not bogged down by explication of them. The textual details — especially the three horsemen, one the bright, white day, one the round, red sun, the last the dark, black night — are astonishing, and offer great visual potential. Sadly, the potential remains unrealized. The muddy, wooden illustrations by Alexander Koshkin, a Moscow artist, look like the work sold by street peddlers there.

Oom Razoom: Or, Go I Know Not Where, Bring Back I Know Not What is a strange, engaging and poetic retelling by Diane Wolkstein of a traditional story. But Dennis McDermott’s illustrations, though stronger than Mr. Koshkin’s, are also disappointing. They are distinctly un-Russian in their feeling, and flatten the text into a banal placelessness; indeed, they resemble sketches for “The Arabian Nights” on which winter coats and fur hats have been somewhat eccentrically superimposed.

What is perhaps most frustrating about these books is that the best illustrations and the best texts have not been put together. But there is such a thing as Russian taste, and in one way or another most of these books fit with it. They are crowded, vaguely ordered and often brash; dramatic, mysterious and moral. In their details they are whimsical and sometimes fantastic. Several commentators in the West remarked, after this summer’s coup, that the members of the junta had been childish, and had undertaken to rule their country in a childish way; the juvenile attitudes of Soviet people, so dangerous in government, have an incandescent glory in books for children.