If you grew up in the 1980s, you may remember a time when classics by Charles Dickens and Jules Verne would share space with books printed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Thick volumes, with glossy pages and vivid illustrations, filled with sea adventures, fairy tales, stories of evolution, and much more. In addition to books like Winged Tales by Vladislav Krapivin and The Adventures Of Dennis by Victor Dragunsky, there was Misha, a children’s magazine filled with puzzles, folk tales and riddles.
During the pandemic, an older generation filled with nostalgia for a simpler time returned to Soviet-era literature—as it has come to be known. Two Facebook pages—Soviet Literature in Marathi and Aa Pazhaya Russian Pusthakangal (in Malayalam)—that have been around for a decade saw a surge in activity. These look at translations of children’s books from the USSR in the two languages. A third group, Fans of Russian Children’s Books, was launched recently.
Sajid A. Latheef, 40, assistant professor at the MES Mampad College in Malappuram, Kerala, started Aa Pazhaya Russian Pusthakangal on 28 March 2013 to share memories of books published by publishers such as Raduga, Progress and Mir. Today the group has 11,258 members. “Somebody suggested digitising them for children today, as many of them wanted their kids to read these books,” says Latheef. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the publications from Moscow were terminated. But they remain in the collections of book lovers. So, I bought a CanoScan LiDE 120 Scanner and started sharing the books with the group. Others also started doing the same. And thus started the digitisation process.”
Latheef’s favourite book while growing up was Achante Balyam (When Daddy Was A Little Boy) by Alexander Raskin. It’s about a mischievous boy called “Daddy”—the story is narrated by his little daughter, Sasha. “The book left lasting impressions about life, relationships, literature and politics,” he says.
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Some other books Latheef loved are Alexander Kuprin’s Garnet Vala (Garnet Bracelet), Chingiz Aitmatov’s Tales Of Mountains And Steppes, Arkady Gaidar’s Chukkum Gekkum, (Chuk And Gek) and Jeevitha Vidyalayam (The School).
These books, most of which were translated by the couple Gopalakrishnan and Omana, were distributed in Kerala by Prabhath Book House, which had stalls on wheels. One stop was outside Latheef’s house in Changanassery. “My grandfather, P.A. Sayed Mohammed, was an active member of the Communist Party of India in Changanassery, Kottayam. He had a library and would bring these books home. During my vacations at my grandfather’s house, I familiarised myself with the Russian books,” he says. “Even after 25 years, our publishers were not able to recreate the production quality of those books, though many have tried,” he adds.
Devadatta Rajadhyaksha, who started the page Soviet Literature in Marathi in 2012, still treasures his copy of The Adventures Of Dennis, or Dennis Chya Goshti, as its Marathi title goes. He was mesmerised by the little boy and his trysts with runaway bicycles, absent-minded chess players, circus clowns, and identical-looking dogs.
One day, when he was sifting through his childhood collection, he came across these books, translated by the likes of Anil Hawaldar. On the internet, he came across nostalgia-filled blogs. That’s when he decided to create a Facebook page to allow people to share memories.
The appeal of these books, says Rajadhyaksha, lay in the print quality, glossy images and affordable price. “The genres covered were vast and brilliant. Indian books at that time either focused on history, mythology or science. But there were Soviet books on slice of life, war, human evolution and popular science,” says the 43-year-old.
Rajadhyaksha, who found Hawaldar’s translations unique—especially the footnotes on cultural references—recently started another Facebook group with fellow readers Amit and Anita Vachharajani. In 2018, he and two other group members, Nikhil Rane and Prasad Deshpande, even produced a film about Soviet children’s literature translated in Marathi, titled Dhukyat Haravlele Laal Taare (Red Stars Lost Behind the Mist).
The revival, earlier this year, of the Mumbai-based India-Russia Friendship Society of Western India (known as the Indo-Soviet Culture Society till 1991) by columnist and politician Sudheendra Kulkarni and others may breathe new life into Russian literature. On 18 September, says Rajadhyaksha, its book club organised a discussion on The Adventures Of Dennis. The best part? The author’s son and eponymous protagonist, Dennis, joined in.