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24 October 2018updated 30 Oct 2018 1:08pm

Comrades in art

As young Communists in 1950s Britain, Soviet children’s literature transformed our world view.

By Michael Rosen

When I was around nine years old, in 1955, one of my favourite books was A White Sail Gleams by a Russian writer, Valentin Katayev. It’s a story set in Odessa in 1905 at the time of the Battleship Potemkin uprising and the revolution of that year. The events are seen through the eyes of Gavrik, a kind of street kid being brought up by his grandfather, who is a fisherman just about surviving on selling fish to the local wholesaler, and Petya, a middle-class boy at the “gymnasium” (grammar school). It is written in a mix of styles – one moment social realism, the next influenced by “symboliste” ideas, passing on a sense of yearning for something better. The white sail in question is taken from a 19th century Russian poem by Mikhail Lermontov in which the lonely white sail of a ship appears in the distance, leaving the poet to wonder about where it has come from and to conclude that the boat is neither looking for happiness nor fleeing it, but is a rebel looking for peace in the storms. In the book, the sail comes to represent a fugitive sailor from Potemkin itself.

If I ask myself how did an English child living in a flat over a shop in the London suburbs come to be reading this Russian book, then the answer at one level is simple: my parents were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, What went with this affiliation was a good deal more than “activism”: demonstrations, meetings, vigils, petitions, strikes, and the like. It was more than the writing and selling of newspapers, magazines and pamphlets. The way many of us experienced the “Party” when we were children was through culture: songs, poems, stories and plays, performed and distributed through books, camping holidays, bazaars, film shows and the informal gatherings of friends and relatives.

I learnt early on in my life that there was an official culture put out by school, radio, film and TV, in which my parents encouraged me to participate fully. This involved books read to us in school, borrowed from the local library, listened to on the BBC Home Service’s Children’s Hour, children’s programmes on BBC Television (ITV didn’t come along until I was ten) and family movies such as Treasure Island or Saturday morning “flicks” for the ABC Minors cinema club.

To one side of this, and out of sight of the mainstream, was the Party culture. A White Sail Gleams came to me via a Communist Party bazaar held in a church hall in Wealdstone, a working-class enclave in the northwest London suburbs, along with titles such as N Nosov’s Jolly Family (1950), a comic account of irrepressible naughtiness, and Mikhail Ilin’s Black on White (1932), a lively non-fiction book that tells the history of printing and books. If you turn to the opening pages of A White Sail Gleams – and almost all of the books that came from Russia – you find the name “Progress Publishers, Moscow”. This tells us that people sitting in Moscow, authorised by the Soviet government, translated Russian books for children, which were then distributed through sympathetic bookshops such as Collet’s in London, and through Party fundraising events.

My parents saw themselves as discerning people. They both came from the East End of London, where their forbears had settled in the 1890s and early 1900s, having fled from eastern Europe – Russia and what used to be called “Russified Poland”. They were all Jews and had developed their socialist and communist ideas out of the poverty, persecution and aspirations of those times. The fact that they were still Communists some ten years or so after they had got themselves into teaching jobs and a comfortable flat in the suburbs points to a grip that these ideas had over them and which superseded their specific conditions of work and home life.

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In their case, though, membership of the Communist Party didn’t last beyond 1957. They had joined in 1936, as 17 year olds, and so my position as a “son of Communists” only lasted till I was 11. However, unlike some “leavers”, they carried on being activists and socialists. Though it was comparatively easy for them to leave the Party, the Party never left them.

One of the ways in which it stuck was through literature. As teachers, they were always on the lookout for new books for their classes, and they were extremely – almost obsessively – involved parents. Their view was that it is through a broad range of culture that we learn to understand what it means to be human, how we might overcome our sorrows, and how we might aim for a better world.

Contemporaries of mine at school, parents of friends, relations, and of course the press, radio and TV looked on us as traitors and enemies, spear-holders for the Soviet Union. People such as my parents claimed legitimacy by being an integral part of the British labour movement, and by a worldview informed by their experience of life as migrants, ex-soldiers or British citizens. The problem – and there’s no getting away from it – was the Soviet Union.

Though between 1940 and 1945 the UK and the USSR were allies in one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts – and thought the survival of the UK was dependent on the invasion of Germany from the east – by the mid-1950s, the situation between the two countries was as bad as it could be short of open warfare. By the time I was reading A White Sail Gleams, all ideas connected to Russia lay under a tidal wave of fear and loathing towards the Soviet Union.

Now that Soviet communism has come to an end and the Cold War is over, it’s a little easier to discuss the culture. But is it possible to look at Soviet children’s literature and consider its worth without seeing it through the prism of the persecution of Russian writers, Stalin’s obsessive control over film-makers and composers, or the mass deaths in the Ukraine and the “archipelago” of prison camps?

I don’t propose an easy answer to this, nor an apology for it. Many of us enjoy the arts of ancient Greece and Rome without attending too much to the fact that these societies were based on slavery. Many of us admire the literature and art of white Americans, Spaniards and British from, say, 1600 to 1830, without constantly interrupting ourselves to reflect on the horror of the transatlantic slave trade. Often we assume that the best artists overcome the oppressive societies they find themselves in by responding to them in ways that express something of the human condition. We can debate whether this kind of art is consoling or collaborative, self-serving or propagandist.

As a ten year old I was under the impression that the Russian, Chinese, Polish, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian and Romanian governments were on the side of the people, working with them to create a new, fairer world. Books, films and songs were part of why I thought this. They were also part of why I thought that this kind of progressive society was going to one day come to Britain and indeed the whole world.

The vision offered me was not that we would live life as equals under Soviet rule. The Soviet Union was pictured to us as a place where they were doing it already, and we would eventually do it too. That’s why it was good to read Russian books. They had a head start, with nearly 40 years of trying out words, pictures and music to see what was helping them arrive at this just future.

In my case, the shock came when, in 1957, my family went to East Germany and then in the autumn, our parents came to my brother and me and said they were leaving the Party. In the many years since, I have pieced together exactly why my parents made this move. It wasn’t because Khrushchev related at the 1956 Party congress a long list of Stalin’s crimes against the Russian people; it wasn’t because Khrushchev commanded the invasion of Hungary. It was because my parents had joined that faction of the CPGB which favoured what they called “inner-party democracy”, and their report on the subject had been rejected by the Party’s Central Committee. Though their core beliefs in socialism and communism (of some kind) were intact, their belief that the British Communist Party and the Soviet Union could bring this about was shattered.

They didn’t, however, disown the culture. My copies of Black on White and A White Sail Gleams were not thrown out. That’s because we were part of a general leftish culture, wider than the Party. The most well-known aspect of this was in folk music. Songs originating with people who were often neither communists nor socialists were collected, sung, and adapted by people who often were. New songs were written and sung, too. Some even found their way into the popular culture of the 1960s: for example, Ed McCurdy’s pacifist “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and Alan Gifford’s collection If I Had a Song, which includes songs we sang in the Woodcraft Folk and on Aldermaston marches. There was Alan Lomax’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain, a folk-musical directed by Joan Littlewood at Theatre Royal Stratford, east London – a show that I was taken to in 1955.

We were also exposed to the writings of the wider left-leaning, bohemian intelligentsia. My grandmother, a poverty-stricken, disabled single mother to my father, became a friend of one of Modigliani’s partners and models: Beatrice Hastings, poet, essayist, and socialist. My parents were immersed in the new poetry of Auden and Isherwood, the theatre workshop of Joan Littlewood, modern libertarian ideas about sex education and children’s creativity. A children’s author such as Geoffrey Trease (Bows Against the Barons) was briefly very close to the Soviet Union and even attended the Writers’ Congress of 1934, where the principles of socialist realism were laid down.

We had a strong sense, though, that certain movements and artists were “in”, or OK, and others were not. As a very young child, I probably thought Marmite (which my mother gave me and which I loved) was in the Communist Party and lemon curd (which she didn’t) was Tory. Picasso was in, Dalí was out. Erich Kästner (“progressive”) was in, Henry Treece (“fascist tendencies”) was out – though I read Treece and my parents didn’t ban him. Joan Littlewood was in, Noel Coward was out. The anthology I have just compiled represents this tradition of “inning” people, too. It is a taste of how the children of left, left-leaning, libertarian, socialist, communist, and anarchist parents and grandparents enjoyed culture – and how children’s books and periodicals provided the foundations of a world view that for many has lasted a lifetime. 

“Reading and Rebellion: An Anthology of Radical Writing for Children 1900-1960”, edited by Kimberley Reynolds, Jane Rosen and Michael Rosen, is published by OUP. He is also the editor of “Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain” (Princeton University Press)

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This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash