Marek Tesar. Early Years. Volume 38, Issue 2. 2018.
Drawing on archival documents and magazines, this article argues for the complex, non-simplistic governance of childhood through stories, and will present data from the 1950s (the revolutionary, Stalinesque, punitive era) and the 1970s and 1980s (equally punitive, but less focused on total outside control and relying more on self-control and self-censorships of all citizens). Communist and socialist childhoods in their most mundane, everyday form, are incredibly complex. Yet, too frequently they remain barely visible since researchers pay little attention to them (unlike stories of ‘poster children’, or children of dissident families, who experienced the extreme rough edges of this governance). However, there is a growing research interest in these notions (see for example Pupala et al. 2011). The questions this article asks are: what are these mundane childhoods, and what images of socialist children and childhoods were present in the Czechoslovak early years settings during communist ideological governance, in particular through the lens of children’s literature?
It is easy to fall into thinking that ideology was fully embracing and governing the educational sector in Communist Czechoslovakia. While ideology plays an important part in the formation of childhoods and early years experiences, it is important to recognise that communist era Czechoslovakia was not a homogenous period spanning four decades, but a vibrant time with developing complex power relations. The communist system was continually changing, if not re-inventing itself, and was utilising its ideological potential as well as responding to economic needs. While strong, direct, ever visible control and punitive power was in place in the 1950s, since the 1970s, government agencies became less vigilant in keeping the system’s ideology and censorship tight, which became particularly visible in education and children’s literature (Ash 1991; Janáčková 1999; Měchýř 1999; Soldán 2002).
The argument for considering these complexities of childhoods and early years through children’s literature and such an image of a child and childhoods has been legitimated through a childhood studies lens. For example, Zornado (2001) argues in his seminal work that:
The story of childhood, is a story of the process of literary production as a cultural, ideological and psychodynamic event. It is a personal process, and a political one, a public as well as private event. The story of childhood is found in children’s literature, its rise, and its ongoing popularity as a consumer product and as a central part of elementary school curriculum (xviii).
Through such a lens, it is possible to investigate and relate to these mundane, everyday communist childhoods, which often are considered ‘grey’ childhoods—barely visible, and perhaps overlooked. The greyness, referred to above, lies in the invisibility of these childhoods, positioned in the cracks between the extreme examples of ideological governance. These everyday childhoods are often unattractive for researchers, and uncomfortable for those who lived them. Whilst mundane, everyday childhoods were central to the public domain of the communist system. Yet their nature remains unheard and unspoken, out of the limelight of the public discourse of the former Czechoslovakia. The grey, mundane, everyday production of multiple childhoods under communist ideology does not draw the attention of researchers or of the media, but these narratives live both in the individual memories of people, and in the archival documents containing images of ideal, desired children and their childhoods, as published for children in children’s magazines.
Brief History of Communist Czechoslovakia
The history of any country is complex and detailed, and calls for a complex exploration, particularly if we are to foreground educational development and policy in any meaningful, logical or ethical sense. A good example of how complex such a task is, and the thorough connections the researcher needs to make, is explored in the work of Helen May on New Zealand’s early years policy and politics, interlinked with historical accounts (see for instance May 2009, 2013). This brief section sketches the contours of the major political events that provide some explanatory context of the early years education in Czechoslovakia, and frames its civil and educational implications.
After the February 1948 communist coup, the Stalinist totalitarian government exercised brutal, repressive power on the citizens of Czechoslovakia during the 1950s. Citizens were divided into two passionate groups. One side fully embraced the ideology of the government and its agencies and blamed capitalists for the post-war suffering. The other side opposed Stalinist communism and criticised it for all the injustices in the country (Šimečka 1984). During those times, citizens made a conscious decision to align themselves with one or the other (Bauer 2009). Public and private life was charged with a strictly executed ideology in all areas. The official discourse was filled with the tragedy of political trials, deaths and long terms of imprisonment of so-called enemies of the state (Bauer 2003; Knapík 2006). Official stories were sometimes so ridiculously fabricated that they bordered on being some kind of black comedy or farce, and clearly affected children (see for example American Beetle stories reported in Tesar 2014a). Life in society under Stalinist Communism appeared to citizens as governed by a black and white set of rules. Citizens had to be very careful about what to say and where to say it, both in public and private, to avoid potential of punishment from government agencies. Any resistance was brutally punished, and there was either pro-government conversation, or no conversation at all. The Stalinist period of the 1950s is an indispensable precursor to the Czechoslovakia of the 1970s and 1980s.
The social and political situation in Czechoslovakia changed in the late 1960s, during the so-called Prague Spring, and is often portrayed by citizens as a romantic period of change and hope (Měchýř 1999; Williams 1997). The Prague Spring was important, because during a short period of time different conditions for governing citizens were produced through shifts in government agencies and edicts (Albright 1976; Karabel 1995). For example, censorship was lifted and foreign thinkers and children’s books were translated and published. New ideas, books and films were drafted and produced. In schools and universities, themes and topics that were previously unimaginable and kept in silence were openly discussed. Topics that had been added in the 1950s as part of direct government propaganda were removed or ignored in curricula, including in children’s texts and magazines. Newspapers openly critiqued the governing agencies (Friday 2010; Renner 1989; Šimečka 1984; Windsor and Roberts 1969). In short, during the Prague Spring, the Communist government and its public figures attempted to transform the country to so-called ‘socialism with a human face’ (Ekiert 1996). The governing Communist Party made some substantial changes in the way the country was run, one of the most critical being the abandonment of the censorship law (Gruša 1992; Tomášek 1994). Once censorship is abandoned, people feel free to discuss and challenge the hegemonic ideas that form the system. The reaction to the Prague Spring from the Eastern Bloc, led by the Soviet Union, was harsh, brutal and shattered Czechoslovak society’s idealism about the recent changes. Purges in the Party and society followed the events in 1968. Citizens changed places and spaces, as Ash (1991) satirically notes:
That window cleaner over there—his thesis was on Wittgenstein. Ask your waiter about Kafka—before his trial, he lectured on The Trial. Yes, the nightwatchman is reading Aristotle. Your coal will be delivered by the ordained priest of the Czech brethren. Kiss the milkman’s ring: he is your bishop (56-57).
For Ash, a scholar studying Central-Eastern Europe under Communist governance, Czechoslovakia became like a ‘lake permanently covered by a thick layer of ice … politics, and indeed the whole of public life, is a matter of such supreme indifference’ (57). But, to continue his imagery, under this metaphorical ice, within the lake, everything and everybody moves in a certain form of resistance, whilst above, on the surface, there is peace and quiet.
The 1970s and 1980s in occupied Czechoslovakia have become part of the discourse of ‘normalisation’. The developments during the Prague Spring were complex, and together with the freeing of censorship, they created a threat, a deviation in the form of a resistance to the governance of the political system. The term ‘normalisation’ thus suggests that the Prague Spring was not a viable option for the governing agencies in the 1970s and 1980s. Purges, regulations and censorship were the main technologies of the government, which attempted to maintain a state of what normalisation required: a return to the era prior to the Prague Spring (Gruša 1992). During this time, citizens and children actively removed themselves from public life. This opting out of public participation, and therefore withdrawing oneself into private life, removed the need for intervention by government agencies and educational institutions. On the surface, these seemed to be less complicated times, where one could retreat into the private sphere to ignore so-called socialist political, educational and cultural developments. So, the term ‘normalisation’ conceptualises the essence of how government agencies acted in all areas of public life, including education. However, it does not fully capture the shift in power relations, spheres of influence and the subversiveness of the new system (Kusý 1985). This system was more selective and operated by different rules. It is not surprising that Šimečka (1984) argued that very young children became ‘hostages’ of the normalisation process, through which the system tested the strength of adults’—parents’—citizens’ character (Měchýř 1999). Nevertheless, since the citizens did not know when they were under surveillance and being observed, they self-governed and behaved publicly with appropriate manners, and displayed a constant public loyalty to the Party.
The Logic of ‘Communist’ Childhoods
The prior section explored the complexities of the ideological and political space where ideology and philosophy of the early years in communist Czechoslovakia were conceptualised. The following statement from the Ministry of Education in 1976 highlights the desired direction of preschool education in kindergartens in the 1970s, and presents the sense that it has multiple purposes, including economic functionality and educational ideology:
The function of the pre-school education in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic is not only social and economic—to care for the children of employed mothers but also it has an educational aim which is being gradually spread on all children of the whole population. The priority have children at the physical age of 5 to make them better conditions when they start the compulsory school attendance … (Ministry of Education of Czechoslovak Socialist Republic 1976, 24, errors in original).
While this statement is very direct and commands a particular positioning of early years education, within which children become particular beneficiaries and objects of state ideological interest, it also leaves some space for interpretation. The following quote from the Ministry further shifts the focus on ideological education, and provides an additional lens through which the state perceived all children in communist Czechoslovakia. The quote also highlights the importance of the ideological need for preschool education, for which the setting, curriculum and pedagogy was aimed. This direction was openly positioned as an ‘ideological direction’, meaning:
… to perform by all means the communist education in the conditions of the socialist school. The professional, pedagogical content of the school management comes out from ideological content of formation and education. The matter is to fix an exact and appropriate content of education and formation, which would correspond to the requirements of existing state, to the needs of a developed socialist society and to physical and mental abilities of youth … Ideologically-political and pedagogical management is secured by ministry of education (Ministry of Education of Czechoslovak Socialist Republic 1976, 6, errors in original).
A further perspective on childhoods and early years education in communist Czechoslovakia can be gained through Havel’s philosophy. The relevance of Havel’s work to educational discourses has been explored (Tesar 2014b), together with an interpretation of his philosophies and theories on Czechoslovak childhoods through memoirs and vignettes collected in archives (Tesar 2014c). For the purpose of this article, it is helpful to utilise Havel’s (1985) notion of how each citizen, child, everyone, is responsible for, and implicated by, the governing ideology and system. This system is shaped by the complexities of how all citizens, including children, are victims, supporters, and rebels of such ideological governance and systems. These notions allow space for very complex subject positions. Under such a premise, every child becomes a victim, supporter and rebel at same time. This is particularly relevant for the mundane, everyday condition to which all citizens and children are subjected. The shift in the governance of citizens moved from censorship by government institutions towards a self-censored, re-created and re-invented culture and society.
Conceptualising the Power Relations
Power in the 1970s and 1980s was still central to the executive committee of the Communist Party, but the way it operated in the public and private domain had changed. If citizens wanted to live a comfortable life without any repercussions, they had to accept living within a lie and to publicly conform with the system and its requirements (Havel 1989). Unlike in the 1950s, citizens’ private lives were undisturbed by the system as long as they did not cross into the public sphere. As such, power relations in the 1970s and 1980s system were bound by a social contract, that if citizens supported the prescribed rules and publicly demonstrated their support of regime, its ideology and the leading party, there would be no repression towards them, and their private lives would remain untouched. Consequently, citizens, including children, publicly declared their support for the regime, for example in marches with their teachers down the main square during May Day parades, holding pro-regime banners, and waving and cheering to the members of the Communist Party standing on the stage above. However, the 1970s and 1980s power relations and mechanisms interact within more anonymous, selective and calculated power relations than during the 1950s. Keane (1985) notes that Havel identifies the main difference of the 1970s:
no longer do these regimes strive to control fully the bodies and souls of their subjects, to embrace everything in depth, to bring everyone together so as to produce a single will, crystallized in the Caesarist leader. Contemporary totalitarianism demands precisely the opposite of its populations: passivity, opportunism, mediocrity, cynicism, an exclusive concern with cultivating such ‘private’ concerns as career and family life. The regime of ‘real socialism’ is content with the regulation and control of apparent behaviour; so long as its subjects conform and only disagree silently, they are probably safe (8).
Ideology was something that all citizens, including children, experienced as an inseparable influence on their everyday life. In the kindergartens of the 1970s, the children’s magazine Little Bee represented an official structure, which channelled power through the ideology to inculcate childhood subjectivities within a context of desired socialist moralities. Citizens exploited the fluid and free nature of power that they harnessed and had access to. Thus Havel’s (1985) notion of ‘power of the powerless’ created the possibility to provide pressure and to produce an anomaly in the greyness of everyday communist life. The image of the socialist child through the children’s literature further complicates the dichotomy of those with power and those who on the surface were perceived as powerless, as Havel identifies. This is present also in the way the isolation of the subjugated element of the communist version of power was exemplified in the official discourse of children’s magazines, with an inherently subversive manipulation of power unique to childhood. This unique form of power was experienced by children in the kindergartens where this literature was distributed and used for the pedagogical process. There, the structural nature of power comes from the teacher, creating a reactive polis of ‘inbuilt’, and possibly resistant and secret childhoods. This separation from the adult world is the essential element for the production of multiple child-subjects and childhood subjectivities.
Children, including young citizens in the kindergartens in the normalised Czechoslovakia, had their very own complexities to face. For them there were many colourful Western toys to desire and dream about, which their parents would be able to acquire for them under specific conditions. In this way, public loyalty to the system was maintained through the promise of materialist advantages and desires, and citizens and childhoods were governed by the desires for Western products.
Methodologically, this article explores selected stories from the 1950s and the 1980s in magazines that were very influential for children, and used as part of the curriculum activities in kindergartens: examples were the magazines Wild Thyme in the 1950s, and Little Bee in the 1970s.1 The children’s magazine Little Bee was distributed to and was used in almost every kindergarten in the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia. Children’s magazines and literature are an example of the impact of such power within childhoods and kindergartens. For example, children’s magazines published ideologically charged articles, reports, tales and illustrations, as well as stories from children responding to the texts, demonstrating how they thought, felt and engaged with them. These engagements were captured in interviews and illustrations sent by children and their teachers to the magazine. In this way, children were victims and supporters of the panorama of everyday life, the hegemonic, public discourse that produced communist/socialist subjects and particular powerful images of a ‘good’ child.
Unlike children’s literature, children’s magazines, as a researcher from Czechoslovakia towards the end of communist period argues, then ‘fulfil a heuristic and experimental function in that they allow for a more speedy publication of new works responding to topical events’ (Opravilova 1989, 72). In this sense, children’s magazines responded in their texts to public celebrations and mournings in communist society. In Czechoslovakia, every age group of children, including those in the early years, was targeted with a specific magazine which, according to Opravilova (1989), ‘ensures immediacy and individualisation in the child’s contact with text and illustrations. The intensity of individual perception of each child is moreover enhanced by the shared thrill experienced by the group over each page of the magazine’ (72). Opravilová acknowledges the impressive dissemination and impact of children’s magazines and notes the various activities these magazines provide. She concludes in her study that socialist literature for children is
the primary tool[s] in our endeavor to create a balanced world of childhood and to meet the child’s natural demand for happiness. Hence we extend a helping hand to children by offering them books for guidance. Children may accept this kind of guidance with mixed feelings, with reluctance or with confidence. But once they learn to appreciate books as life-long companions, the battle is won. Books are here to help children respond to the world that surrounds them, to make them realize that the world can be a pleasant place to live in, to make them wish to participate in this world (73).
The stories embedded in children’s literature and children’s magazines are powerful technologies of the government, in moulding childhoods and in the production of child-subjects and childhood subjectivities. Whilst studies of children’s magazines are embedded within the field of children’s literature, and perhaps even within the wider discourse of mass culture, children’s magazines represent in themselves an extremely diverse research area. Little Bee is acknowledged as an integral part of children’s early years education and care in the Czechoslovak context through communist Ministry documents (see, for example, the Curriculum document published in 1975).
Data 1950s: Childhoods of Equal Opportunities
The Czechoslovak government agencies in the 1950s recognised a shortage of miners and planned to enrol 6000 new miners for training. This goal soon became the focus of stories and articles in children’s magazines. Instead of traditional fairy tales, children were suddenly exposed to tales about miners, who were compared to brave knights (Formánková 2007). Schools and kindergartens conducted field trips to the mines, and miners visited the schools and kindergartens to educate children about their profession. Many poems and stories addressed this concern and consequently shaped childhood and children’s education in kindergartens. In the children’s magazine Wild Thyme, one poem told the story of a child asleep, tucked under the blankets, while miners dug the coal and protected the children’s happy childhoods. Under the poem was the text: ‘We read this poem to the Kindergarten children … and as we finished, they knew the poem by heart. Will you learn it as well as them?’ (Mateřídouška 1951b, 256). A different poem narrated how children wanted to be like the father, who ‘overcomes the set goal by another 100%’ (Mateřídouška 1951a, 259). Underneath this poem is an editorial comment requesting children develop a melody to this text and sing it as a song, which acts as a pedagogical extension of the poem. Other published stories focused on a picture exhibition of miners, and how young children could learn about this ‘beautiful’ profession (Mateřídouška 1951d). Similarly, childhoods were shaped by a modern fairy tale about a dwarf that had not realised what kind of ‘treasures’ he was protecting under the earth and decided to support progress and live in the furnace factory instead (Mateřídouška 1950b).
Not only boys, but also young girls were targeted for their involvement in industries such as mining. The slogan ‘Girls, enrol!’ was intended to lure girls, to reduce their hesitation and fear of jobs stereotypically perceived to be for boys in Czechoslovakia (Formánková 2007). Formánková (2007) cites the children’s magazine Pioneer which states: ‘Stay side by side with those brave and handsome boys who decided to be miners!’ Another graphic story in Wild Thyme focused on the involvement of girls in the traditionally male professions, as Ferda the Ant—a popular anthropomorphic children’s ant character and his friends—bugs—support a female beetle in the competition to collect the most paper. She is then celebrated as the winner of the competition (Mateřídouška 1949). These stories shaped childhoods by demonstrating how being a boy and a girl in the communist society should be experienced. However, Wild Thyme also took a more direct approach, by publishing letters from girls about how much they enjoyed the work that boys were traditionally associated with. Subsequent commentaries by children’s magazine editors emphasised that only the victory of the working class had brought about ‘true’ equality between men and women, as girls could now become miners. One of these letters was from a girl, Věrka:
Dear Comrades, as I have written before, I am in the senior year and next year I enter into the period where I need to decide which occupation to choose. However I have already decided that I will begin training to become a miner. Maybe you see my decision as weird, but I have decided this because I know how much coal our country needs; that if there would be no coal, workers wouldn’t be able to work in factories and other industries. Therefore I would like to ask you to write to me, about how you like my decision and I also ask you to write a couple of words to my mother, who is trying to stop me from becoming a miner. She is not letting me choose a miner’s profession, and I think she would get softer if you would write her something about the importance of mining in our socialist country. With a comrade’s greeting, Věrka (Košařová 1950a, 80).
Through this letter, the importance of a child’s duty to the country shifted the way gender was perceived in childhoods. As Věrka role modelled, when children chose their profession, they were not supposed to think about themselves, but about what the country needed. This notion of collective and peer pressure which influenced Czechoslovak pedagogy was based on Makarenko’s pedagogical work (Makarenko 1951, 1953). Children’s magazines and literature emphasised that the country and the working class knew what is best for childhoods even better than parents: the importance of honour, the necessity to choose this profession for the good of the country and a motivational reward to visit the president. Wild Thyme urged its readers—from kindergartens to schools—to write letters of support, and to explain this and persuade Věrka’s mother. The best responses were promised to be published:
We have welcomed a letter from Věrka and we hope that her mother will let her become a miner, the most honourable occupation in the whole world. Maybe then Věrka will go to visit Mr. President, who invites all children who have entered training to be miners every year. But first you and we must persuade Věrka’s mum, who cannot decide. All of you, every one of you write a letter to Věrka’s mum soon and explain to her, why it is necessary for Věrka to enter mining training. Write to Věrka’s mum, that a miner’s work is honest and important for each and every one of us. Write to her, that she does not need to be afraid, that nothing will happen to her daughter (Košařová 1950a).
And, in the next issues the responses were published. One girl in her letter explained the excellent conditions at the mining boarding school and the quality of the education. She stated: ‘I do not miss anything here, I only wish that you, girls, would also choose mining as your profession. I would like to welcome you here, we would have so much fun’ (Mateřídouška 1951f, 156). More letters were published in which young children, especially young girls, promised that they would also become miners. A fourth grader Dana wrote: ‘If there were no miners, there would be no coffee on the table, the factories would stop, and without coal we cannot imagine the world’ (Platilová 1951g, 198). Other young girls, Drahuše and Věra, responded:
We know what coal means for us and therefore we respect people like you, who are not afraid of work and choose mining as a profession. We have realised, how much you long to be a good worker, and how you long to work for the good of mankind. Thank you for your decision, which will contribute to the peace, which all working class people wish for, and let’s hope that we will not have a war, started by Western imperialists, so they can gain more money into their pockets so they do not have to work (Filipcová and Krůlová 1951c, 199).
This campaign became extremely successful. Suddenly, under these letters a response from Wild Thyme’s editors states that the number of miners required in Czechoslovakia’s planned economy had been reached. Therefore, Wild Thyme encouraged girls, including Věrka, to enrol in other training professions—such as to be bricklayers, blacksmiths and construction workers—where ‘you are needed, Věrka and other girls, even more than in mining. Think about it, consider whether you should change your decision. Think about it carefully—and if you change your decision to another industry, you will not break your promise. Here you can help the country, support socialism, help the fighters for peace’ (Mateřídouška 1951e, 199). In this sense, the communist ideology was targeting and overtly involved in the production of childhoods and shaping children from a very young age, through these stories and texts as the collective, public good was supposed to govern private desires.
Data 1970s/1980s: Celebratory Streets
The prior section has indicated how the concept of work was represented in children’s magazines in the 1950s with a focus on the magazine Wild Thyme. Notions of ‘work’ also dominated many stories and articles in the magazine Little Bee in the socialist ideology, however it was more invisible, hidden under layers of beautiful pictures and glimpses of happy childhoods. Work was usually manifested through holidays such as May Day, which celebrated work, the working class and peace. In the annual May Day parade, citizens and children, including very young children, were expected to march through the squares and streets, singing, celebrating work, waving posters and flags at government and Communist Party leaders, as they stood on the tribune above, waving back. Children marched with flags and balloons alongside the adults. The stories and illustrations published in Little Bee presented children as eager to join these celebrations, which were portrayed as enjoyable activities. For example, Little Bee portrayed a family in the process of getting ready for the May Day parade: dad fixes his tie, while mum helps to dress up the little children. They all march together, proudly carrying flags and balloons, and joining the parade with thousands of happy citizens that had come to celebrate work. As they all return home smiling, the son announces to the dad: ‘Now I understand why spring is the most beautiful time of the year!’ (Uhrík 1980b, 16).
Children were essential cogs in the performance of the May Day parade and celebrations. The themes of peace, work and the May Day parade appeared in every volume of Little Bee. Little Bee often portrayed children as taking part in the parade on its cover, with Czechoslovak and Soviet flags above their heads, and even infants in a pram decorated with flags. The illustrations in Little Bee produced ideas about how children should behave and think about themselves during the May Day parade. These parades represented innocent and happy childhoods, as cute children played in the meadow, surrounded by flowers, birds and trees in a romanticised way and an ideal pastoral environment. Children waved with flags and flowers, and enjoyed the tranquillity of the beautiful May Day (Včielka 1979b). They were portrayed as excited and happy, and their childhoods were depicted as in harmony with nature, as they waved with enthusiasm to the child reader of Little Bee. Similarly, another cover of Little Bee portrays a happy family during the May Day parade. While mum plays a harmonica, dad has a boy on his shoulders proudly holding Czechoslovak and Soviet flags. Their daughter, dressed as a Pioneer in her red scarf, smiles and holds balloons in an idyllic image of a happy, stereotypical socialist Czechoslovak family (Včielka 1980c). This represented the public, expected, unsurprising ideal of the celebration of work in the May Day parade, in which children, as its active supporters, took the central role. The accompanying poem recounts the experience of a kindergarten child, to remind all children of how they should actively participate in society as good citizens: ‘I was dressed by my mummy, in celebratory clothes, my father took me on his back, and walked with me through the celebratory streets’ (Včielka 1980d, 1).
Furthermore, stories such as The First of May emphasised how citizens, adults and children, were part of the public sphere that created the platform of support for this celebration day. In the story ‘thousands of people suddenly were calling with a strong voice and waving with flags: Hooray, Hooray, Glory, Glory!’ (Včielka 1970a, 9). These Little Bee stories, which teachers read with kindergarten children, represented their active enthusiasm and engagement in celebrations. Children were governed through these stories, and the subjectification of childhoods was linked with the children’s understanding of how they should participate and engage in the parades. Little Bee provided children with a clear idea of how other children behaved and celebrated May Day through the illustrations in the story The First of May, which portrayed how children should experience and perceive themselves within their own childhoods. Stories like these produced images of public childhoods, of happy, excited children having fun and waving Czechoslovak and Soviet flags, balloons, and colourful sticks, as they marched in the parades. These were illustrations of the childhood supporters of the system.
The First of May was only one of the stories that portrayed children as active participants of the May Day parade. Little Bee published poems that children were to learn and recite by heart. These poems highlighted the experience of being a kindergarten child, and how children should feel and behave when they marched in the May Day parade, with the sun smiling and streets filled with exciting noise as ‘the pre-schoolers are singing the swinging May song’ (Ferenčák 1974a, 6). Another poem focused on the experience of a child in a May Day parade. His mum gives him two flags, one of which was Czechoslovak, and the other was red ‘from the lands of our friends, from the great country of Soviets’ (Ferenčák 1974b, 6). The dilemma the child faced of having to select which flag to use in the May Day parade was resolved with the decision to use both at the same time. The ‘sea of flags’ and ‘marching youth’ (Rázusová-Martáková 1978, 12) was used in another poem to vividly portray the implications of the march for children. In the poem, socialist childhoods were represented through illustrations of blossoming trees that symbolised not only spring and May, but also new beginnings and youth. The child’s voice was strong and spoke to all readers of Little Bee: ‘I have a red shirt, I have a red beret, and when I am a little bit older, I’ll be with them in the front’ (12). These lines gave a compelling promise of the bright future all children could expect. The beautiful, hopeful and peaceful future, with a promise of work for all, was celebrated and children were reminded of how they should position themselves towards these notions through texts, poems, songs and illustrations.
Little Bee informed children how all citizens prepared for the celebration of May Day, and how they should be dressed, behave and feel about themselves (Včielka 1982a). The article implores children to be neatly dressed, to have their flags and waving sticks ready, and to join the parade together with their mums and dads, as it would be a parade of ‘happiness, relaxation and peace’ (15). Similar messages were conveyed through illustrations of kindergarten children, walking, neatly dressed in the parade, waving flags, sticks and balloons. The text asks children to count the number of flags, balloons or waving sticks used in the parade when they joined in with their parents. Little Bee admitted that this task would be very difficult, if not impossible for pre-schoolers, as children would struggle with counting such a huge mass. The suggestion is then altered to focus instead on guessing what is most represented in the parade—flags, balloons or sticks, and to colour them accordingly in the illustration (Včielka 1983). Children were thus actively engaged in supporting the march as the youngest, and at the same time the most celebrated participants. The childhood subjectivity of a supporter was produced on many levels: on a physical level by being part of the march, on an emotional level through their engagement with the crowd and the celebrations, and on a cognitive level through the games and counting.
Songs were also used to focus on how children should experience May Day. The focus on rituals associated with the May Day parade was emphasised as children learnt through one song how to march with their feet ‘left, right’ so they would fit in with the parade (Hudák 1980a, 9). Another song explained to children how important it is to wave their flags when they march, and to identify with the working class: ‘Children, children have you seen how many flags were above our heads? Our working class people have raised them as the May Day celebration approached’ (Čobej 1979c, 8). The friends of the working class, the Pioneers, join them as expected, and the song asks the rhetorical question ‘and where are all those beautiful songs and blue shirts from? Young boys and happy girls came with them’ (8). The song makes the point that if any naïve child would raise the question ‘why do people around the world celebrate May Day? Because it is a celebration of work, and do not ask me more!’ (8). On the surface, the abrupt answer ‘do not ask me more’ meant that while the song does not teach children more, the teachers in kindergarten through the stories in Little Bee explained May Day in detail, as a celebration of the notion of work, of the working class, values and life style of the socialist citizens as active producers of their childhoods.
No Cakes Without Work
The articles in Little Bee portrayed children as devoted supporters of the socialist ideology and governing system, and expected them to march in support of the notion of work. The celebration of work on May Day was often linked with educating children about desired working class professions. Kindergarten children were expected to know what their parents do, and how they contributed to building and defending the homeland. The importance of knowing the working class professions was also presented to children in a letter published in Little Bee, where the teacher describes how a miner visited the kindergarten. The teacher starts her letter with a quote by the miner: ‘There are no cakes without work’ (Včielka 1982b, 14). This is an old folk saying, and when used in the kindergarten setting it emphasises the importance of work, the reward of work and reasons for celebrating work. The letters published in Little Bee clearly indicate that kindergarten teachers used the poems, articles and guidelines from the magazine in the educational programme.
Letters from kindergarten teachers published in Little Bee further produced the public discourse of childhoods and children’s subjectification as active supporters and producers of the system. Through these letters children learnt how other children had responded to the ideas in the previous issues of Little Bee (Včielka 1986). For example, a letter from one kindergarten outlined how children were very excited about the competition organised to celebrate the 17th Congress of the Communist Party, which asked ‘What do our dads do, and what do our mums do?’ Teachers proudly reported that ‘Monika’s dad is a miner, Erika’s a cook and Martin’s a driver’ (15), as children expressed the desired and celebrated professions. In the letter, teachers also wished for ‘stable peace for all children’ (15), which they supported by marching in the May Day parade. Another letter described how kindergarten children actively celebrated the friendship with the Soviet Union. The children not only proudly decorated the kindergarten, but together with the teachers they established a ‘red corner’ with toys, books and pictures, to celebrate the friendship with the Soviet Union. In addition, ‘children performed a rich cultural programme … and their impressions were manifested in paintings and drawings during the afternoon activities’ (15). These letters published in Little Bee were read in kindergartens, and through them children perceived how they could and should defend and support their homeland (Včielka 1986).
Havel (1985) analysed how the ideology of the 1970s and 1980s was different from the 1950s’ performance of governing agencies. In the post Prague Spring era, government agencies were less concerned with what citizens thought, but with how they behaved in public. This control of citizens, and therefore also of children, is achieved through conformity and agreement with the social contract, which citizens and children fulfil by writing publicly appropriate letters that are published in children’s magazines, by performing desired public behaviour that is reported and praised, and by participating in May Day parades. What occurred in public was essential and counted as the truth in the 1970s, and for the system it was imperative that children participated in the march and were engaged with ideas that constructed the public sphere from their kindergarten. How children engaged with these ideas outside the public gaze was of minimal concern to this system.
The socialist system in Czechoslovakia possessed, as Havel argued, an ‘unprecedented and uncontrollable capacity to invest in itself’ (26). This was particularly visible in the investment in the prison systems, police, state security agents, the bureaucracy of the state, but also ideology of the education section. Havel noted that the system, in a certain way, had become ‘simply another form of the consumer and industrial society’ (27). This capacity to act like a business that invests in certain projects aimed at controlling citizens was a pre-requisite for Havel to think as such of any ideology, such as neoliberalism.
This article has explored the complex power relations within Czechoslovakia of the 1950s and 1970s, and how children’s literature and magazines published stories that were influential in the production of the particular socialist image of a child, and has explained the relevant historical contexts that have led to such a form of production. Children’s literature is only a tiny cog in this production; it is only a fragment of what contributes to the production of socialist childhoods, or a ‘good, socialist child’. As childhoods are produced within public and private spheres, so too are the childhood subjectivities of its everyday victims and supporters, as Havel (1985) reminds us. The focus on the normalisation—and the production of the image of the child and childhoods—also reminds us of all the subversive spaces within these landscapes, and the cracks in the production of these ideological kindergarten child-subjects. These cracks are the openings in which children can become rebels, and oppose the dominant notions by asking questions, refusing to play along and exercising their agency. Perhaps being ‘naughty’ is the first step to becoming a rebel, and to contesting the public hegemonic discourse, creating a crack within the everyday panorama, regardless of which ideology or political system is in place (see the notion of childhood undergrounds, Tesar 2017). Perhaps the power of any mundane everyday childhood lies in the cracks created in the public panorama of the political system and the history that we examine.