From Moscow to Vijayawada: How generations of Telugu readers grew up on Soviet children’s literature
It is hard to overstate the impact of Soviet children’s literature on its Telugu readers.
The Tagore Memorial Library in Vijayawada’s Governorpet is one of the largest public libraries in Andhra Pradesh. The library collection, in dire need of attention, is barely accessed today. Among the browning and unorganised piles of books, one section stands out — books of odd size unrelenting to the shelves. These books are beautifully designed, hardbound, with colourful illustrations on high-quality glossy paper. Printed in Moscow but delicately typeset in Telugu, including title covers, these are Soviet children's books distributed in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. The books are a product of a literary collaboration between Progress Publishers in Moscow and Visalandhra Publishing House in Vijayawada. As a result, for three decades between 1960 and 1990, generations of Telugu readers grew up on a staple of Soviet children’s literature.
From Moscow to Vijayawada
In the winter of 1956, Svetlana Dzenith, who worked with Progress Publishers, started taking Telugu lessons from Kolachala Seetaramayya, a Telugu-born, American-educated scientist settled in Moscow. In the post-Stalin Soviet Union, the state-run Progress Publishers aimed to promote Soviet literature and ideas to a larger world population. Apart from the works of Gorky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Marx and Lenin, contemporary literature — more importantly children literature — was published in local languages across Europe, Asia and Africa. When Progress looked to expand to more languages, the emerging circle of Telugu students and scholars at Sitaramayya’s house opened the first door.
Svetlana started a dedicated Telugu division under Progress Publishers to translate Soviet literature. By then, Pragati (as Progress was known in India), was already printing books in Bengali, Urdu and Hindi. Soviet libraries barely housed any Telugu books or even a Russian-Telugu dictionary to help their cause. She invited Telugu writers and translators to visit Moscow and work with them. After a couple of unsustained efforts, Vuppala Laksmana Rao, who was in Germany at that time, joined forces.
Initially, the translation was neither easy nor comfortable for anyone involved. The books were first translated to English and then English to Telugu. They later developed a Russian-Telugu dictionary. With little to no contact with their Telugu readers, Svetlana realised they knew little about their Telugu readers' sensibilities and interests.
In 1969, Svetlana visited India for the first time. This marked the beginning of what later became a long-sustaining partnership between Visalandhra Publishing House and Pragati Publishers. Visalandhra took to translation and distribution of the books in Andhra Pradesh. Visalandhra also brought a unique reader experience. One could walk around their store and pick what catches their attention. This was not possible anywhere else (most were over-the-counter stores). Anywhere a bookshop couldn’t be, Visalandhra’s ‘mobile vans’ made their way travelling town to town and announced their schedule in major newspapers.
Pragati’s partnership with Visalandhra helped them reach out to previously inaccessible writers and translators. Kondepudi Laksminarayna, Nidumarti Umarajeswara Rao, Rachamalla Ramachandra Reddy (RaRa) and R Venkateswara Rao (RVR) came on board. From 1964, Telugu instruction started in Soviet universities. In 1980, Pragati split into Raduga and Pragati — the former to specifically concentrate on children's and contemporary literature. These publications went on to set a standard for children’s literature — writing which acknowledged children’s experiences, craftsmanship, colourful illustrations and all of this at affordable prices.
Warmth from the land of Siberia
Children held a special place in Soviet imagination, for they held the future. And thus, stories from as far as the Siberian land reached children in tropical Andhra Pradesh. ’Varsham lo nakshatralu/ Stars in the Rain’ and other quirky titles, distributed by Visalandhra Book House flooded the streets. At first glance, the world depicted within these books—the landscape, weather, food, architecture, dresses or where astronauts were called ‘cosmonauts’ — was far removed from the lives of Telugu children. But for children who had no problem imagining the magical worlds of mythology of Chandamama, it was not difficult to imagine a far away world, only real.
The distance, either cultural or geographical, faded away as children formed a strong bond with the experiences of the characters. “It opened up a new world for me. I still remember when I read Pedda Prapancham lo Chinna Pilladu (Seryozha) written by Vera Panova. Somewhere in Russia there was a boy as old as me having similar experiences. It felt very relatable. It was also very close to nature much like my own childhood in Srikakulam,” says Harsha Vadlamani, a photojournalist. Srikakulam, however, did not have a Visalandhra store until 1993. He and his friends shared their books ensuring they did not buy the same titles.
At a later point, American translations in Telugu, funded by the Ford Foundation, tried to penetrate the market. But they fade in comparison to the combination of superior quality and price of Soviet books, which started as low as Rs 2. When summer holidays came, even pocket money of Rs 10 meant one could carry home a huge bundle of books. “The most expensive and even the most beautiful one I got was Ukrainian Janapada Gathalu for just Rs 20. I stayed up all night finishing it,” Harsha recollects.
Sudheer Myneni grew up in Vijayawada in the 70s, right when the Soviet books entered the market. He describes them as a part of “life package” that came with the environment he was then surrounded by – influence of left parties and Visalandhra in Vijayawada. He adds, “Barely instructive in nature, at that young age, they were important in fostering independent thought and scientific perspectives by demystifying superstitions. There are no supernatural elements.” They also paved the path to consuming more serious works by Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Tolstoy and Pushkin.
Soviet books also became primers introducing world history, geography, science and even chess. Books like Pracheena Prapancha Charitra by Fyodor Korovkin, Modati Ettu by Alexei Sokolsky, Ivanni Kukkale by Igor Akimushkin were translated into Telugu. Around the same time, Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian ‘cosmonaut’ to fly into the space aboard the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz T-11.
The Soviet Union fell in 1990. Consequently, Progress shut its operations and Raduga followed after three years. Publication and distribution invariably came to an end. By the early 2000s, Soviet books vanished off the shelves. They became carefully treasured processions and hand-me-downs. For Sahitya Madabushi, a doctor, these were passed on to her from her older brother and cousins. They became the first books she knew. “My mother or brother used to read to me when I was very young. I remember Bulli Matti Illu very vividly and the illustrations just stay with you.” She adds, “They were more natural and humorous, relatable to our everyday life.”
Apart from the illustrations, Soviet books’ appeal lies in its portrayal of realism. They acknowledge children’s experiences — including their challenges, emotions and anxieties. The books relationships between the rich and the poor, the compassionate and the cruel, but also left potential and ambiguity in human nature much like the terrifying yet kind Baba Yaga, the courage of the common people, compassion to be on the side of the distressed or the wide range characters which can be named Ivan.
Few did not even know that they were from the Soviet Union. More than the political ideology, it is childhood nostalgia that ties many with these books. Maybe that is why when Anil Battula, a software engineer, started collecting and digitising Soviet children’s literature 15 years ago, support poured in from all parts of the world. Soon, Anil started a blog, sharing books that he has digitised from second hand bookshops and personal collections. So far, he has digitised more than 300 Soviet children’s books available on his blog site.
Today, Soviet children books might be found in their newly christened position as ‘collectibles’ or dusting away in public libraries. At stores and exhibitions, many parents look for more ‘practical’ books: ranging between encyclopaedias and competitive exam material. These shifts can make one wonder if the next generation of children will ever inculcate a habit of reading, leave alone in Telugu. Sporadic efforts are made by current publishing houses like Manchi Pustakam who fill the gap by republishing the archived Soviet children books for those who want to introduce to the next generations.
It is hard to overstate the impact of Soviet children’s literature on its Telugu readers. It may be easy for few to dismiss the flood of Soviet literature calling it ‘propaganda’ but the efforts to introduce Progress with a more palatable name ‘Pragati’ or gorgeous titles and illustrations carefully redone in Telugu speak more about their earnestness in the approach. Perhaps that is why even after three decades since the Soviet Union fell, the imagination still lingers in a generation which grew up with unparalleled beauty. More importantly, it also underlines the importance of a futuristic vision in children’s literature.
— Featured image: Nannari Chinnatanam, by Alexander Raskin. All images provided by the author.
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