It has been 26 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its children’s books still fire the imaginations of those who grew up reading their Malayalam translations in Kerala. The glossy books, with their touching stories and fascinating illustrations, served as a sort of connection between distant lands sharing a belief system. The last of them arrived from Moscow in 1991 and gradually disappeared from bookshelves over the last quarter century, save for an odd library or in a bibliophile’s collection.

Sajid A Latheef did not forget them. In 2013 he started the Facebook group Aa Pazhaya Russian Pusthakangal – Those Old Russian Books, in Malayalam – with the objective of sharing the covers of Soviet children’s books. That initiative took on a life of its own, and the 6,000-member-strong group is now preserving the literature by digitising them.

“Digitisation is a tedious process,” said Latheef, better known by his pen name Maria Rose. “Only a handful of members do it.” The process begins with scanning the books. The pages are then saved to Google Drive and the links shared for downloading on the Facebook page.

Latheef, a lecturer of English at MES College in Mampad, who owns a collection of old Soviet books, is the brains behind the project, while Rajaram Vasudevan, who works with LIC International in Bahrain, provides material support. Vasudevan is an aficionado of Russian literature and had launched a blog to promote it in 2013. “I came to know about Latheef’s activities during a casual online search for Russian books,” Vasudevan said. “Now, we are working together to preserve the treasured books of our childhood.”

Vasudevan’s father bought him a lot of Russian storybooks from Prabhat Book House’s touring bookshops when he was a child. He lost most of them over the decades. “I want my children to read these books,” said the 41-year-old. “I hope this group will help me get back my lost books.”

A wonder world

The works of Russian masters such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Olga Perovskaya and Maxim Gorky were popularised in Kerala by the Communist Party of India’s Prabhat Book House, which got the rights to import Russian books in 1952. A heavy subsidy from the Soviet Union made sure that readers got them relatively cheap.

Their Malayalam translations began arriving in 1966, after K Gopalakrishnan and his wife Omana became translators at Progress Publishers, which was established by the Soviet government to distribute Russian books at affordable prices. Gopalakrishnan edited Soviet Review of the USSR Information Department in Delhi before heading to Russia, where he and his wife helped translate close to 200 Russian books into Malayalam, including folk tales and the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin. The couple’s efforts were supplemented by Abraham Parakunnel, another prominent translator from Kerala.

“Most of the children’s books were translated by Gopalakrishnan and Omana,” said 37-year-old Latheef. “The language of the books was superb. People of our generation owe a lot to the couple for giving us a treasure.”

Primarily, the appeal of the Russian books lay in their realism, Latheef noted. Popular Malayalam children’s stories were in the realm of fantasy, but “Russian characters were real”. “Besides, all the books had beautiful colour illustrations,” he added.

AV Sherin, a journalist with a leading Malayalam daily and a member of the Facebook group, said Soviet books had “a unique aura”. “Availability of books was limited during the 1980s. I used to get Soviet books from the village library and they opened up a wonder world to me. From names of characters to description of places, they amazed me.”

Latheef’s Aa Pazhaya Russian Pusthakangal has so far uploaded books of children’s stories and on science, along with biographies of some Communist leaders. Among them is the iconic Achante Balyam (Daddy was a Little Boy), written by Alexander Raskin and translated by Omana. The 116-page book has stories from the author’s childhood, which he used to narrate to his daughter when she fell sick. The stories are about Raskin’s life, including how he threw away the bread given by his dad, how he learnt to write, how he wrote essays. “It’s my favourite biography,” said Latheef.

Vasudevan contributed to the digital collection Appooppante Veettil (Visiting Grandpa), which narrates the story of two children spending vacations with their respective grandfathers. The book by Nicolai Nosav was translated by Parakunnel. “Anyone who reads Appooppante Veettil will understand the value of labour and learn to love nature and animals,” Latheef said.

Kiran Kumar Joseph, a software engineer in the United States, shared Rathnamala (Mountain of Pearls), a 323-page collection of Russian folktales. “I read it when I was in school,” Joseph said. “The stories drew nice folk pictures on my mind. I still cherish those memories. I don’t remember how many times I read the book.”

Latheef said all members of his group are professionals working in India and aboard. “Digitisation is our voluntary work for future generations,” he said.

Although concerns have been raised about copyright, Latheef is unperturbed. The books they are digitising, he said, were published by either Progress Publishers or Raduga Publishers of Moscow, both of which are now defunct. Prabhat Book House in Kerala only has distribution rights. “So the copyright issue will not affect us.”