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.

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
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.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss