How the East Was Read, or Hooligan Communism

Submitted by Vijay Prashad on Mon, 07/17/2017 - 12:57


As I work on the LeftWord Books edition of How the East Was Read, on reading Soviet books and on being surrounded by Soviet letters, I encountered Alisa Poret's thirteen delightful pictures for the 1930 book - How the Revolution Triumphed (see the back page, above).

The book was intended for children who were born after the 1917 Revolution and who would not have felt the urgency of Red October. There is no author's name with the book, which you can read in full here. The main show are the images. The text was likely written by someone in the editorial department of the publishing house. The images are all by Alisa Ivanova Poret (1902-1984), the avant garde artist.




Alisa Poret illustrated children's books, most famously the Russian edition of A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh. It is much funnier, more whimsical than EH Shepard's drawings for the English edition that I saw as a child. And it also has an edge of the sinister, which many Soviet children's book had.


Милн, А. Винни-Пух и все-все-все. Художник Алиса Порет


While doing this work, Poret was involved with the avant garde group - Master of Analytical Art led by Pavel Filonov (1883-1941). To get a sense of their work, contemporaneously with Poret's How the Revolution Triumphed, have a look at the cover by the October Group's Solomon Telingater (1903-1969) for Semen Kirsanov's Kirsanov Has the 'Right of Word' (1930):




The writing appears almost incidental to its meaning, being part of the drawing itself. Almost like calligraphy in a mosque, where it does of course have meaning but it is so importantly part of the design. What I love about How the Revolution Triumphed is this dominance of the visual over the textual. Poret seems to want the reader to feel the events - to get a sense of the enormity of them.

Poret is not as well known as a painter as she is for her children's books. But her paintings are very vivid and wondrous. For instance, here is 'Hokusai and Spanish Castles' (1928):


Poret, 1928


And here is her 'Dark-haired and dark-eyed girl' (1937):


Poret, 1937


Going through Soviet books from this period is a real joy. They are beautifully illustrated, trying to break through the conventions of bourgeois art and sensibility. Similar moves were of course afoot elsewhere, as artists tried to come to terms with the new technology, with capitalism, with the alienation of modern society. But there is something different here, particularly in the first decade after the Revolution. One hears it in Vladimir Mayakovsky's poetry. In 1921, Mayakovsky (1893-1930) wrote and published a lyrical epic - 150,000,000 (the population of Russia at the time of the Revolution). Lenin read the poem. He was taken aback, slightly uneasy with Mayakovsky's attempt to smash language, to create a new kind of idiom for a new epoch. Lenin wrote, 'This is very interesting literature. It's a special form of Communism. It's a hooligan Communism'.

Poret would be familiar with this hooliganism. Her partner during this period was the poet Daniil Kharms (1905-1942), who founded the avant garde group Union of Real Art and was a member of the Association of Writers' of Children's Literature. To get a taste of his writings - written for the 'drawer' - see the collection Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. He died of starvation in a psychiatric ward during the 1942 Siege of Leningrad. Kharms work meanders, tells stories of starvation and longing, needs to be yelled rather than read, with feeling falling off the pages.


Keep an eye out for our book The East is Read, which essays by Pankaj Mishra, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Samia Zennadi, Akram Ismail Mohammed, Irvin Jim, Nilanjana Roy, and others.

Thus far, LeftWord Books has two books out for our 1917-2017 celebration:

(1) Red October: The Russian Revolution and the Communist Horizon, edited by me, with essays by BT Ranadive, Sitaram Yechury, Prakash Karat, Irfan Habib, Prabhat Patnaik, Amar Farooqui, Prabir Purkayastha, Jodi Dean and Shahrzad Mojab. In this book, leading communist intellectuals discuss the achievements and failures of the October Revolution, as well as the future possibilities of Communism.

(2) Cecilia Bobrovskaya, Rank-and-File Bolshevik: A Memoir. One of my favorite books by a Bolshevik, whose story tells us how the revolution was built. Bobrovskaya went from factory to home, building the organisational capacity for the spontaneous uprising of 1917. She was one of the tens of thousands of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. After the Revolution, Bobrovskaya, as part of the Society of Old Bolsheviks, collected the stories of rank and file workers. Her book is part of that quest. We have added in her recollections of Lenin. It is a charming addition.


Red October