Literature Review Starring:
Russian Children's Literature and Culture (2013) Edited by Marina Balina and Larissa Rudova. Florence: Routledge.
The Storytelling Animal : How Stories Make Us Human (2012) By Jonathan Gottschall. Boston: Mariner Books.
Today’s blog will be a casual literature review of Russian Children’s Literature and Culture, edited by Marina Balina and Larissa Rudova and the paperback The Storytelling Animal, written by Jonathan Gottschall. Both of these texts were ones which I had chosen to deepen my understanding of narrative messaging, how storytelling can be used to disseminate information and the effectiveness of such a form.
The first text Russian Children’s Literature and Culture is a 390-page book containing 16 monographs on specific aspects of children’s entertainment in the Soviet Union. As I had a limited loan on this book I chose to focus on only two of these monographs which studied film and animation.
The 1st monography was: Arresting Development: A brief History of Soviet Cinema for Children and Adults by Alexander Prokhorov. As the title suggests, this text was a historical account of the development of Russian cinema over the 20th Century, and how it was adopted by the government to communicate propagandist messaging to children and adults. In the beginning Russia cinema was more commercially focused, however as time went on the Bolshevik (Russian Social Democrats) Party came to see its potential as an educational tool to disseminate their communist ideologies. The text is very informative in these areas, going into detail, analysing how films succeeded or failed in achieving this. Stalinist era children’s films would often exploit the impressionable nature of their target audience, using appealing characters, environments and genres as a hook whilst bombarding them with ideological messaging at the same time. Protagonists as walking models of the communist ideal were wholly loyal to their county and tended to demonstrate self-sacrificial behaviour, martyrs. The author quotes Evgenii Donrenko, who writes how these films fostered an ‘infantile deindividualized audience, obedient to the government as the audience’s ultimate parent. Infantilism guarantees the underdevelopment of individual personality and agency.’ Essentially brainwashing viewers into accepting these ideologies.
The second monography I read, Comforting Creatures in Children’s Cartoons by Birgit Beumers, gave a deeper analysis into the animated films of this time which were treated very differently to their live action counterparts. Unlike live action, animation was not fully adopted by the government and was often sidelined to communicate economic and political news. Without being bound to the same level of scrutiny, it had less constraints and could therefor get away with its subversive critiques of society. The boom of Disney in America saw a rise of animation in Russia with the government beginning to appreciate the impact which it had on Children. Fairy tales were commonly chosen as the narrative medium of choice, the author writes: ‘the fairy tale suited propaganda purposes for two reasons: on the one hand by drawing on national heritage, on the other hand because of the inherent element of moral instruction as considered appropriate over centuries and could therefore hardly contradict socialist principals.’ However, fairy tales worked to both serve and dismiss propagandist messaging, focusing on morality rather than ideology.
Visually, Russian animation was far less cartoony than its American counterpart, many animators coming from graphic design backgrounds. Some films had a very realistic aesthetic with character animation based off live action reference, others, like the work of Yuri Norstein, had a much more handcrafted feel, using painted textures and/or puppet animation.
Overall, I found this text to be very informative, it was especially interesting to know some of the workings behind propagandist film making and how certain film making decisions can work for and against their messaging. In terms of my research project and its focus on narrative as a communications tool, this text provided me with some insight into how fairy tales, which are associated with tradition and morality could function as familiar (safe) vessels for with to safely conceal ideologies and messages.
The second text, The Storytelling Animal illustrates the breadth of storytelling and how it permeates our lives and culture, covering television, dreams, advertising, science media etc. The text also studies how stories effect our brains, how narrative sufficiently simulates real world events enough that it tricks us into believing them as real (which is why as spectators we become so emotionally invested in the stories we are reading). The author speculates why this may be the case and why we are drawn to storytelling in general, ‘fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.’ He also brings up some interesting research such as fiction being more persuasive in disseminating information than non-fiction, which has to do with us dropping our guards when we are immersed in story.
Like Russian Children’s Literature and Culture, The Storytelling Animal observes the function of narratives in helping us, as humans, understand the world. The former mentioned text observes the different forms of storytelling for children in Russia with great emphasis on its role in propaganda, governments employing narrative devices to engage viewers whilst feeding them subversive, ideological messages. The Storytelling Animal could be seen as a sort of prequel to this book, while Russian Children’s Literature and Culture is very specific, The Storytelling Animal is quite general and highlights the breadth of storytelling in our culture. Despite the fact that this text could have been longer or more focused it does a pretty good job capturing how and why we are attracted to stories and how, like humans, stories have adapted over time.