During the ’90s, four or five booksellers used to sell children’s books at the corner of the Dhaka New Market mosque, opposite the corner cluster of tailors’ shops. They displayed their small collections on a cheap wooden cot, and the colourful covers of the books grabbed the attention of the passersby instantly.
Including mine. To me, the lone attraction of going to New Market with my mother was the chance of stopping at that corner and nagging her to death to buy me a new book. I was usually successful.
The books that I was most attracted to were from two Soviet era publishers, Progoti and Raduga. They were the priciest ones, perhaps because the quality of the paper and the standard of the illustrations were far superior to anybody else’s. Surprisingly – or not – the books were published in Bangla. As I learnt later, both Progoti (Progress) and Raduga were part of the Foreign Language Publishing House of Moscow, which translated books from the Soviet Union into different language around the world so that people from other countries came to know about them.
On the face of it, there was nothing overtly political in these books, whose stories were part of Russian culture over many generations – predating the communist age – and were set in the same world of magic, devils, angels, beautiful princesses, and poor peasants as folk tales from other parts of the world.
The magical realms
I still remember the fantasies I used to be drawn into when reading those books in my childhood. Sans tension or targets, deadlines and worries, they were worlds of imagination which it was easy to enter, unlike today. Even reading a few pages a day was enough to keep me engaged for weeks, wondering what would happen to the little prince who was struggling to retrieve his kingdom from the clutches of the lusty, cruel czar.
There was inevitably someone – a human or an animal – with divine to help the grief-stricken or beleaguered hero or heroine. It could be the Wise Yelna or the Beautiful Vasilisa, the brown wolf or the brown horse, the princesses or Feniest the Falcon, or sometimes even the kind witch named Baba Yaga.
As was the norm around the world, the peasants were innocent and exploited by local rich landlords. There was the handsome prince cursed to be frog, the retired army soldier who outsmarted and trapped “Death” and was believed to be “still alive”, merchants with magical objects like flying ships, kings who owned extraordinary beasts like a singing cat, a golden falcon or a flying horse, poor Ivan (almost always the hero of the tale) who had to walk across unlimited expanses of jungles or snow-covered fields to fight anacondas, the six-headed fire-throwing dragon named Zamai Gorinich, or the envious czar. Hateful cruel stepmothers, helpless fathers, wise and gorgeous daughters, and brave sons were part of practically every story.
The most beautiful things in these books were the illustrations, which helped to break the shackles of my imagination. The richly-coloured drawings of Brave Ivan fighting Zamai Gorinich, or Yelena sobbing under a tree, or the cruel looking czar sitting on the throne took away hours of my time.
The political truth
I was such a big fan of these Russian and Ukrainian fairy tales that my idea of a hero was always an “Ivan”, not a “Dalimkumar” from Bengali fairy tales or Prince Charming from English ones. My idea of a fairy land always included a palace shaped like an “Onion Dome” (a distinctive feature of Russian architecture) and snowy forests where you moved in sledges pulled by packs of wolves.
However, these fairytale fantasies, though diluted by adulthood, were shaken when I visited Russia for the first time in the winter of 2016. I asked Victor Petrovsky, one of my Russian friends, why those books from Raduga and Progoti were not to be found in Bangladesh anymore.
Victor informed me that all those fairy tales were translated into different languages and sent to other countries as a tool of communist propaganda. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the funding for publishing these books in different languages understandably ran out.
As Victor explained, as the world was largely divided into the Soviet-led communist regimes and the USA-led capitalist nations for roughly four decades, from the ’50s to the ’90s. Both blocks were actively trying to get more countries into their fold, and the Soviet Union wanted to lodge the ideas of socialism and communism into the minds of children at an early age through these fairy tales.
As it turned out, the versions we read, though derived from traditional Russian folklore, were edited to adopt the principles of Soviet ideology, becoming a significant vehicle for the official discourse of socialist realism. The narratives produced during the cold war used the fairy-tale paradigm as a deconstructive device built on the very underpinnings of the Soviet system.
All of this became clearer when I read a book titled “Politicising Magic: An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales” by Helena Goscilo, Marina Balina and Mark Lipovetsky, which combines the study of the origins, motifs, and characters of fairy tales with an analysis of these elements in literature and contemporary popular culture. The editors modestly call it an anthology, but the three introductory chapters – one by each of the authors – make it significantly more than a collection of texts, for the explain how fairy tale motifs were used by Soviet policymakers for “propagandistic purposes.”
It was after learning this truth from Victor and this book that I had an epiphany. I worked out how those books of my childhood had shaped my ideas about the world. I had learnt that the most powerful person of a kingdom was a czar and not a king – who could never be good and had to be overthrown by the brave young Ivan, the son of a peasant. I was convinced that three iron caps, three pairs of iron shoes, and three iron sticks were essential for every difficult mission. (Iron was the symbol of communism).
Learning that the magic I loved was actually a political device was certainly hurtful. Nonetheless, when I think back to those beautiful fairy tales – I still have one book on my shelf – the realm of wicked witches, fairy godmothers, talking animals and handsome princes turns out not to have become the theatre of anti-communist oppression that its creators intended them to be. It is still my go-to place for pure fantasy.
Faisal Mahmud is a journalist based in Dhaka.