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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.