Arifa Akbar: Truth, lies & storytelling - but can propaganda ever do good?

The Week in Books

Some of the most important writers and artists in 1920s Leningrad were making picture books for children. One such book, from 1926, was Baggage. Republished by Tate this month, it is an exquisite fragment of early Soviet history made-up of bright, stencil-flat images that resemble Rodchenko's graphic illustrations, alongside punchy, pared-down storytelling. This book was created by the avant-garde duo, Vladimir Lebedev, a painter, and the poet, Samuil Marshak. Their work toured the West from Paris to London to New York, and became a blue-print for Modernist picture books.

Given the Russian revolution a few years earlier, it's not all that surprising that the edgiest artists were focusing their talents on children's books. The avante garde was made up of idealists who had faith in a communist utopia. These books were aimed at peasant children and illiterates who were – it was hoped – beneficiaries of the revolution.

To us today – or to my eyes at least – they look like beautiful artefacts of Soviet state propaganda. A MoMA curator writing the afterword in Baggage says they were a "crucial tool for moulding young minds". The story of Baggage is of a woman who boards a train with her "pedigree pooch" but her designer dog is replaced by a shaggy mutt. The old lady represents a bygone world, out of kilter with the new egalitarian one. Yet one informed Russian I spoke to – Olga Mäeots, the head of children's books at the Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow – says it would be wrong to mistake it for propaganda. Marshak and Lebedev exercised freedom of creative expression in these years, she points out. The state interference would come later when another children's book, The Circus, was destroyed for its "dangerous" non-realist aesthetic, in 1936.

If a Soviet message was embedded in their earlier books, it is because they believed in it. It was not dictated down to them.

Ms Mäeot's clarification raises interesting questions of how propaganda literature can be defined. Propaganda means different things to different people, depending on where and when they live. In a modern democracy, we clearly have greater liberty to question and challenge the 'truth' of any one narrative, in the way those in 1930s Soviet Russia, or even those in modern-day China, could nto have done. So where is the place of propaganda in our world, and how is it distinct from the most fervent political writing, which also tries to beguile and persuade and portray itself as truth in similar ways. Perhaps it is only separated by degrees?

As a judge of this year's Orwell prize for books (a long-list is to be announced next month), these questions bear some urgency for me. Orwell described political language as words "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable…". Orwell's language of 'truth' and 'lies' may sound dated but it is still utterly relevant. If he were alive today, he would doubtless be writing about the lies that governments feed us to go to war, among other 'democractic world' untruths.

Yet propaganda is not all bad. On an aesthetic level, Rodchenko's Soviet photography is stunning, as were Norman Rockwell's 'support the war' posters in America during the Second World War. Ian Cooke, a British Library curator of an upcoming exhibition on propaganda, thinks it can, at times, be a force for good. It can rally and inform us of regime change, from 1920s Russia to 1994 South Africa when the end of apartheid was marked by voter's comic books.

"Propaganda only becomes malevolent when you don't have the power to critique back," says Mr Cooke. So propaganda inspires ideological debate and freedom of thought – sometimes. Perhaps we need more of it, not less.

The biographer's surprise over da Vinci's cold soup

How biographies should be written was up for debate at a conference, co-organised by phD student, Blake Darlin. Richard Holmes cautioned that the "cradle to grave machinery" of a traditional biography could limit and control. Miranda Seymour spoke beautifully, as did Claire Tomalin. But the best came from Charles Nicholl. The simple, daily humanity of the good and great can make for compelling reading, he said, citing a da Vinci document that logged a break from theorising, as his soup was getting cold.

Healing war wounds with words

English PEN is collaborating with an armed forces recovery centre to give creative writing lessons to wounded, injured and sick Service personnel, veterans and their families.

We recently heard how doctors were prescibing books to patients. Writing, as well as reading, has its own, often powerful healing properties.

The initiative also highlights the fact that people seek to write when they in pain, or in extremis. Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon's war poetry, some of it from the frontline, are examples and so too are those Jewish writers in Auschwitz pressing sheafs of poetry into the hands of survivors as they were led to the gas chamber during the Second World War. Of course, poetry can't change the course of events. At best, it may have ameliorated the terror felt by these writers, and also carried a sense of profound importance and urgency.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot