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The Kid’s Book That Connects Me to My Lost Soviet Childhood

26 October 2017

From Electric Lit:

I twirl a package in my hands, a crumpled plastic sleeve with line after line of stamps and my mother’s neat handwriting. She memorized the list of items approved for mailing to the States by heart. Russian chocolate, gingerbread cookies, newspaper clippings, socks — all okay. No luck on tea bags, CDs, religious paraphernalia. Sometimes she gives packages a false bottom and hides an icon for this saint or that. She says she worries about my spirit. This package came earlier today and I know, before I rip the plastic open, that it’s a book. A copy from my childhood, worn edges, the price — six kopeks — listed on the back cover.

The Adventures of Dennis by Victor Dragunsky is classic Soviet literature — Soviet, not Russian. Does the difference matter? It didn’t when I was a kid. My grandfather read those stories to me at bedtime. In them, a mischievous eight-year-old boy finds all sorts of trouble. Perched on my stool at the gate, I open the first page. These titles! “3rd Place, Butterfly Stroke,” “Exactly 25 Kilos,” “Who Ever Heard of It?” Each one resurrects a memory. In one story, Dennis forces himself to drink a full bottle of soda to weigh exactly 25 kilos and win a year’s subscription to Murzilka, a children’s magazine. In another, he performs “satire verses” during a Young Pioneers concert, only to suffer from extreme stage fright and be stuck singing the same line. Twin stories “Things I Like” “…And Things I Don’t” list with lucid detail the tastes of a young boy in the 1950s, one of them playing “Reds and Whites.” He doesn’t like to be a “White,” Dennis says. He’d rather drop out of the game.

Pioneers, Murzilka, Reds and Whites were relics by the time I entered school in the early ’90s. Things of the past, but not forgotten. Reds, of course, were the Bolsheviks in the Civil War; Whites were the remains of the old society, the side that lost. My great-grandfather, a White Officer, disappeared in the prison camps. “I love stories about Red Army cavalrymen who always win their battles,” Dennis says in “Things I Like.” I did not hear it as a child, but now that I sit with this book 25 years later, I wonder. Did my grandfather’s voice falter when he read this story to me?

. . . .

I want to slow down, savor the stories, but the moment I finish one my eyes find the first line of the next. “The Mystery Clears,” “Chicken Soup,” “Twenty Years Under the Bed.” New editions of the book come every year, but it’s becoming harder and harder for parents to translate the realities of Soviet life to their children. “Chicken Soup” begins with Dennis’ mother bringing home a whole chicken, which she hangs on the window frame. The English translation published in 1981 by Raduga has the mother put it in the fridge instead. Playing hide-and-seek with his friends in “Twenty Years Under the Bed,” Dennis enters an unfamiliar room only to be accidentally locked in by the room’s occupant, the elderly Efrosinya Petrovna. This won’t make a bit of sense unless you’ve lived in a communal flat.

. . . .

The book is flimsy, with a faded image of a boy bundled in a thick winter coat marching in front of his father. It doesn’t scream of being a children’s book, not unless you can read the title in Russian. Or is it my connection to this book? After all, The Adventures of Dennis is an intimate part of my childhood. Somewhere in it are chocolate stains from my six-year-old fingers. Trapped between its pages is the smell of meatballs and pickle soup my grandmother made every month.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Children's Books, Non-US