Back to childish mentality

By the early 1950s, Soviet literature had reached a dead end. The gulf between real life and what passed for realism in literature was enormous. In addition to state censorship, another kind of censorship was practised by writers who were rightly afraid of persecution. They had to write as prescribed by the authorities. Joseph Stalin’s personal cult entailed glorifying stories and poems about “the great leader and teacher, best friend of all children”; gratitude to Stalin was expressed in the ABC books, thanking him for the “good life” in the Soviet Union. After Stalin’s death, in 1953, however, the personal cult was condemned. The authorities also acknowledged that the gap between educational practices and real life had become enormous.

Children’s literature, too, gradually freed itself from the role of a social and pedagogical study instrument. Characters were depicted with a more human face and a childish way of thinking. Real freedom of creativity, however, was still a long way off. As late as 1961, there was a second edition in Estonian of Vitali Gubarev’s “Pavlik Morozov” (first printed in 1954), a tale of class hatred that eventually destroys a family, as the faithful pioneer Pavlik betrays his father to the authorities.

Estonia’s recent history and relations between Estonians and Russians were still taboo topics. Large industrial enterprises established in Estonia received their workforce from Russia. The newcomers did not bother to learn the language or understand local customs. The worst years of migration and Russification were the 1980s. It was difficult to address such topics in children’s literature, but one alternative to the half-truths was allegory or subtext. People developed the skill of reading between the lines, of understanding irony and allusions. In the 1956 fairy tale “Wolves and Goats” (Hundid ja kitserhvas), by Aadu Hint, for example, the average reader could easily recognise in the three lead wolves Stalin, Malenkov and Beria. The October 1956 issue of “Pioneer” magazine published Helvi Jürisson’s poem “House of Beavers” (Mägra maja), the subtext of which was a critique of the Soviet migration policy. For that reason, the page had to be removed from the magazine.

Translating contemporary children’s literature from beyond the Soviet Union was also important. This widened the horizons of children and of the authors who wrote for children. Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi Longstocking”, which broke all the pedagogical rules, arrived in Estonia only in 1968, 23 years after its publication in Sweden. Other Lindgren works had been translated before: “Master Detective” (1960) and “Karlsson on the Roof” (1964). Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories appeared as an instalment in the paper “Sparkle”, meant for pioneers, but were published in book form only in 1975.

Besides “Pioneer” and “Sparkle”, a new periodical, Täheke (“Little Star”), for small children (i.e. the October children – thus called after the Great October Revolution in Russia in 1917) appeared in 1960. Unlike the others, it is still published today. “Pioneer” and “Little Star” were quite literary, with new work by Estonian authors, children’s writing and popular scientific texts alongside the usual ideological pieces. “Pioneer” even printed domestic comics, a genre generally considered “Western” and therefore banned for a long time.

In the early 1960s, the endless moaning and groaning about the dismal level of Estonian children’s literature was gradually replaced by a more optimistic approach. A new generation of authors arrived who had grown up in the independent Estonia, taken part in the war and witnessed the drastic changes brought about by the Soviet occupation. These authors were keen to express their thoughts in the optimistic, post-Stalin cultural milieu. The professional children’s writer emerged. The second golden age of the Estonian children’s literature was about to begin.

Painting reality pink was replaced in the mid-1950s by realism, most notably in Silvia Rannamaa’s “Kadri” (1959) and its sequel, “Stepmother” (Kasuema,1963), which laid the foundation for the new generation’s books for girls.

Adventure stories for boys were written by Eno Raud, Jaan Rannap, Heino Väli and Holger Pukk. Inevitably, these centred on pioneers and their activities. An Estonian writer was well aware what was expected of him, but managed to depict many exciting and adventurous undertakings under the cover of writing about the pioneers. Behind the obligatory red colour, Estonian pioneer activities carried on scout-like traditions, and writers such as Väli and Pukk certainly contributed to that. Pukk’s “The Green Masks” (Rohelised maskid)changed the activities of young Timurs (charitable works by young pioneers, initiated by Arkadi Gaidar’s book “Timur and His Team”, which spread all over the Soviet Union) into undertakings connected with nature protection. The books offer a wide selection of adventures, war games and detective work that adds to the reader’s knowledge about nature, military history, criminology, psychology, technology and ethical values. In adventure books for boys, the summer idyll dominates. Children of that era have few work-related duties, a clear sign of an improved standard of living. To some extent, they help with shopping or weeding the vegetable plot and flowerbeds; working like adults seems attractive.

School, meanwhile, clings to its self-appointed role of universal educator and instructor for children, leading them to all the right decisions. Earlier, the hero of the book used to be a model pupil; now he develops an openly critical attitude towards school, as in Jaan Rannap’s “Salu Juhan and His Friends” (Salu Juhan ja ta sõbrad). Hypocritical aspects of education (children are called upon to be more active, but their initiative is often suppressed), excessive regulations and teachers’ attempts to make children express “correct” ideas depict school as an authoritarian institution. The writers use biting satire when talking about school and teachers. The trend continues in the prose of the 1970s. Rannap’s remarkably ironic “Agu Sihvka Reports” (Agu Sihvka annab aru, 1973) ridicules formal pioneer activities and shows schoolboys as enterprising experimenters and discoverers of the world, calling on adults to understand them. The form of the book is exceptional – explanatory letters or children’s confessions written in dry office language – which made it an enjoyable read also for adults.

Literature for young children again cultivated a child-focused way of thinking. Besides the tender-hearted rag doll Sipsik (Raggie), others emerge, such as Pille-Riin. A child has the right to be occasionally “bad” and say what he or she does not like. Writers for children were now friends; they trusted their readers and talked to them as equals, giving them the freedom to provide a subtext for the story and add something to the message. Fairy tales, which had fallen out of favour, gradually came back in the 1960s. After the war, the early 20th-century genre had retreated into stories about animals.

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