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New Eyewitnesses to the War: Time Travel in Russian Children’s Literature about Word War II

Nouveaux témoins oculaires de la guerre : le voyage dans le temps dans la littérature de jeunesse russe sur la Seconde Guerre mondiale
Svetlana Maslinskaia


La littérature de jeunesse et le cinéma jouent un rôle dans la formation des attitudes idéologiques à l’égard des épisodes de l’histoire nationale. La fiction littéraire dispose d’un dispositif particulier pour représenter un transfert temporel dans un récit historique fantastique : le voyage dans le temps. L’article examine ce sous‑genre en utilisant le matériel de la littérature de jeunesse des années 1950 aux années 2020, en mettant l’accent sur les périodes soviétique et post‑soviétique. Notre recherche se concentre principalement sur les récits de la Grande Guerre patriotique, également connue sous le nom de Front de l’Est pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Pendant la période soviétique, l’intrigue du voyageur temporel envoyé en pleine Grande Guerre patriotique avait deux variantes : dans la première, la guerre apparaît comme un espace d’aventure et de volontarisme individuel (Lev Kvin, Leonid Martyniouk), tandis que dans l’autre, c’est l’espace où les descendants peuvent manifester leur empathie pour leurs ancêtres autrefois belligérants et partager un moment de communion avec eux (Viatcheslav Naoumov, Iouri Iakovlev). Alors que le premier modèle, principalement didactique, a simplement pour objectif d’élargir l’horizon intellectuel des lecteurs, le second modèle vise à susciter la participation émotionnelle du lecteur, de manière à faciliter l’endoctrinement idéologique et l’adhésion au récit héroïque de la guerre. Pour les écrivains soviétiques Naoumov et Iakovlev, le voyage dans le temps permet de mettre l’accent sur la préservation de la mémoire familiale des ancêtres héroïquement tombés au combat (années 1970‑1980). Oleg Verechtchaguine, écrivain post‑soviétique des années 2000, reprend la même trame dans l’autre sens : la continuité générationnelle n’a pas lieu d’être et la mémoire de la guerre ne peut pas être transmise aux descendants. Pour son protagoniste, un adolescent du xxie siècle, le seul combat légitime est celui mené contre le mal en temps de guerre. Par conséquent, ce même procédé littéraire du voyage dans le passé peut être utilisé pour délivrer un message à la fois pour et contre la guerre. Cela consolide l’idée que la forme littéraire en elle‑même est dépourvue de signification idéologique.

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1Representing events from the past is a way of conveying the current historical narrative to readers or viewers. When we are talking about large-scale historical events, the monolithic nature of this narrative is often exaggerated. For example, in the literature one can find generalizing expressions regarding the Second World War: “The Pan-Soviet version of the war”, “The Soviet Myth of World War II” (Brunstedt, 2021). In fact, specific cultural products, both Soviet and Post-Soviet, may notably differ in the understanding of historical events. One could find significant discrepancies between the version of the war narrative reconstructed from official declarations and popular culture for adults (movies and TV series, popular genre literature, etc.) and the history of the war as it is presented for certain subpopulations, such as children or national minorities. Moreover, historical narrative on the war has obviously changed with time, undergoing content shift from the second half of the twentieth century until recent decades.

2Literary fiction arguably plays a role in the formation of ideological attitudes to the episodes of the national history. Hence the analysis of fictional works that were part of children’s reading may shed light on how history was ideologically framed for children. As Marina Balina suggests, historical prose “allows us to observe different trends in the formation of the discourse of children’s literature—from openly propagandistic to outright ‘fronde’” (Balina, 2018: 115). Both propaganda and fronde (dissident position) are ideological positions of adults related to children, the latter just being less popular. Historical changes in the popularity of different ideological narratives should also be taken into account. What was the dissident position in the 1970s may turn out to be the ideological mainstream in the 1990s. When we observe the development of discourse about the Great Patriotic War in historical prose for children such ideological shifts in the 1990–2010s are obvious and require research reflection.

3In modern discourse about the current socio-political situation in Russia, one can often find formulations—“we are in the past”, “the past has returned”, “we are in 1937/1941”, etc. Literary fiction has a special device to represent such a temporary transition in historical fantastic story—the time travel plot. The main character, a time traveler, “slips” through time and finds himself in a different historical context in order to participate in the events taking place with varying degrees of involvement. This plot type is known in children’s literature worldwide (see Cosslet, 2002). In Russian children’s literature, both Soviet and post-Soviet, as well as in cinema and animation this plot can unfold in a variety of historical times, including the WWII. Alexander Lobin, based on the material of a military historical novel of the 2010s for adults, identified the following properties of this type of narrative: a hero or group of heroes is unexpectedly transported to another reality; they are not ready for this journey and cannot return on their own. Regardless of the place and method of transfer, they are sure to face problems of survival, adaptation and status enhancement; after successfully growing into the new world, they can more or less successfully change it in accordance with their ideal (Lobin, 2020). The named features of the plot and characters can be found in all time travel stories, regardless of whether the characters are transferred to peacetime or wartime.

4My main objective in this article is to study the ideological framing in the works written in the form of time travel. First, I characterize this subgenre using the material of children’s literature of the 1950s–2020s highlighting the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. Then I discuss the literary devices used to represent the Great Patriotic War (the Eastern Front of World War II) in Soviet and post‑Soviet time travel for children and adolescents and reconstruct the changing versions historical narratives of the war presented for children.

1. Soviet history — Soviet everyday life

5The function of the time travel plot in the Soviet literature was mainly educational—to introduce young readers to other historical (and prehistoric) eras and to give them the opportunity to ask an existential question “who am I in the present”. These books include Vera Kuznetsova’s “Extraordinary Journey” (1955), Yrii Vilkin’s “The Extraordinary Adventures of Gennady Diogenov” (1963), Ilya Turichin’s “Adventures October’s Vasya Somov in the Past” (1967), Radij Pogodin’s “Step from the Roof” (1968), and others. The protagonist, with whom the young reader identifies, receives new (or consolidates old) knowledge about historical phenomena and events driven by the adventurous type of narration. In general, the protagonist comes into contact with other characters against his will. In a classic adventure narrative (say, a Greek novel or action film) the central character is deprived of evolution (Bakhtin, 1981), he is free from social connections, and his only function is active participation in the events. In Soviet children’s literature it was not possible to avoid educational pragmatics altogether even in the adventurous genre. So the protagonist evolves somewhat in his personal development: from an irresponsible adventurer who, out of curiosity, found himself in the past, he becomes a “matured” conscious person who has acquired knowledge of personal responsibility for their actions, especially in conditions of such social catastrophes as revolution or war.

6This approach to depicting time travelers has been continued by modern authors of children’s literature. In the works of Tamara Kryukova “Repetition of the Past” (2007), Andrey Zhvalevsky and Evgeniya Pasternak “Time Is Always Good” (2009), Anna Remez “Cat from Jupiter and Vertebrates” (2018) characters find themselves in the Soviet past. The authors place their characters precisely in periods coinciding with their own school age, and let them obtain knowledge about everyday life of the 1980s. Besides that, they are personally enriched by getting aware of the life of people in the 1980s, and their psychological and behavioral differences from their own contemporaries. That is meant to expand the horizons of the protagonists and at the same time stimulates humanistic reflection on the diversity of people, the contextual conditioning of their emotional and behavioral reactions. Pure didacticism is balanced by the benefits for the past: protagonists make some kind of active contribution to the time in which they find themselves.

7When depicting the past, every writer proceeds from the current understanding of historical events and circumstances. For example, Ilya Turichin depicts life in Russia in 1907 in accordance with the Soviet narrative of pre‑revolutionary life as built on social inequality, police brutality and oppression of the weak. In the novella, a little octobrist Vasya Somov, living in Leningrad, accidentally finds an old magic coin and is transported to the year of its issue—1907. From the realities of the 1960s he falls to the old Avtovo, a large factory village where most of the workers of the legendary Putilovsky (Kirovsky) factory lived. The pre‑revolutionary scenes take place against the backdrop of a dull urban landscape, contrasting with the Soviet Avtovo, where “the streets are straight, the houses are tall, and the courtyards are just a sight for sore eyes, gardens. If you want to do some pull-ups on the horizontal bar, please do. If you want to read a good book, sit on a bench in the shade and read” (Turičin, 1967: 2). Overall, all aspects of pre‑revolutionary life get negative assessment, yet the workers aiming at the revolutionary change of the social order are represented as unequivocally positive characters. In the post-Soviet context the assessment of the same historical circumstances may change into the opposite. In the story “From Star to Water” (2020) by Irina Shiryaeva, the interpretation of the early forms of the revolutionary movement turns out to be radically different. A prominent participant in the pre-revolutionary People’s Will movement, Sergei Nechaev, is shown as a cruel puppeteer and hoaxer.

8The kind historical horizon that is relevant for adults is reflected in the choice of historical material by the writers. Soviet writers preferred to focus on historical events (the strikes of 1905, the revolution of 1917, the Civil War, the Great Patriotic War), while post-Soviet authors of time travel stories pay much more attention to the everyday life of the late USSR. Historical events remain outside their interest. One notable exception is the recent Shamil Idiatullin’s story “The Return of the Pioneer” (2022) in which the author explicitly discusses the reforms of the late 1980s–1990s. The pragmatics of the works of the 2010s are determined by the authors’ desire to narrate their own childhood, the time in general and ordinary, “family people”. In this case, the authors focus not on history, but on memory. This opposition between history and memory is fundamentally important when it comes to plots of time travel leading into the chronotope of the Great Patriotic War.

2. A misfit in the Great Patriotic War: a space of adventure

9There are only a few works of Soviet children’s and youth literature, where the protagonists are transferred to the space of the Great Patriotic War. A lot of historical prose for children are written about the war, but stories about the time travelers are extremely rare among them. This can be related to the more general fact that alternative historical fiction was on the periphery of the literary process in the Soviet period. Following Vadim Chupasov, this can be explained by the “teleological vision of history characteristic of Soviet culture” which does not allow alternative versions of the past (Čupasov, 2009: 275). This is especially true with respect to the Great Patriotic War. Starting from the 1960s, the war became an event that legitimized the political regime in the official discourse.

10I am aware of only two works of the Soviet period where the plot is structured as a time travel in the war period. These are the story by Lev Kvin “It Was — It Was Not” (1974) and the film by Leonid Martynyuk “The Brave Five” (1971). In the former, the protagonists Lenka and Geshka travel through time having climbed into an old dentist’s chair in the attic. First, they participate in a skirmish between Reds and Whites in the Civil War, and then they help repair the railway in a rear city during the Great Patriotic War. In the latter, five teenagers, finding themselves in a museum in front of a diorama dedicated to a wartime combat episode, are transported to a border town occupied by the Nazis, “not knowing that the adults are preparing for guerrilla warfare, the five guys decide to act independently”. A series of episodes of teenage initiative during the war eventually ends with the subordination of children’s initiative to the adult commander who formed a guerilla group.

11The war in these works is shown as a space of adventure. The writers of the 1920s represented the revolution and the Civil War in the same adventurous way, for which they received a derogatory label from critics — “red adventure”. Edmond Keosayan produced the film “The Elusive Avengers” (1967) in the same tradition. In the aforementioned novella by Lev Kvin, the characters behave like tricksters, which is very atypical for the historical prose about the Great Patriotic War for children. In the Civil War, they cannot tell reds from whites. Talking about their breakfast to a railway worker they met they report that they ate chicken for breakfast which is impossible in the wartime conditions of food shortage. They are shown as folkloric “fools” who do not understand what’s what. Simultaneously, they broadcast post-war stereotypes about the meaning of military life: “I thought — heroic feats. And then there’s work and work. The only hope is to catch the saboteur” (Kvin, 1974: 45). At the same time, having returned to the 1970s, the heroes state with relief: “How nice it is, after a long and dangerous journey through the shaky past, to find ourselves again in the attic, so familiar and familiar!” (Kvin, 1974: 54).

12In the absence of representation of alternative historical versions in children’s literature, the influence of the time travelers on the course of history is limited to the intrusion into the personal/family fate of their ancestors. During the Civil War, Geshka and his comrade save his own grandmother Klasha from execution by the White Guards, and then meet his future parents, Andrei and Lena, during the Great Patriotic War. Thus, alternative history in children’s literature is limited to the circumstances of family fate. However, in adult literature of this period writers did not dare to reimagine the events of the war (for the reasons, see: Čupasov, 2009: 274–76). Arkadij Gaidar in the story “Hot Stone” (1941) stated the position that seems to be later acquired by the post-war children’s literature: “I will not break the stone at all, because I don’t want to start living all over again” (Gajdar, 1949: 6). Here a recognition of the lack of alternative in the individual fate apparently outweighed the potential opportunity to change anything in the individual and collective past. That is why Soviet works in which characters change something in the past are so rare. Let’s turn to discuss these rare examples.

3. To the places of military glory: memory instead of history

13Along with the emergence of the adventurous narrative about the Great Patriotic War, another type of narrative about time travelers who arrived into the time of war emerged in the early 1970s. In this latter type the characters belong to the generation born in the mid‑1950s–1960s. They learn about the war firsthand from older relatives or other authoritative adults. The protagonists are transported into the time of the war to gain new knowledge about how everything “really” happened, this time as witnesses. The rise of this narrative model at the turn of the 1960s–1970s coincides with the moment when the period of post‑war denial and oblivion has passed and mass commemorative practices were launched.

14In the film “If This Happens to You” (directed by Igor Nikolaev, screenwriter Vyacheslav Naumov), released in 1973, a group of teenagers goes on a hike to the places of military glory of their class teacher, Yuri Semenovich. The commemorative practice for schoolchildren in the form of a hike developed in the 1960s. By the 1970s it acquired stable ritual features and functions: a group of children (usually classmates, but these could also be groups of “red rangers” created on the basis of pioneer squads) under the leadership of an adult (leader of the pioneer detachment or teacher) went on a hike to places associated with wartime combat and/or partisan operations. The purpose of the campaign was to search for wartime artifacts, establish the names of the dead, erect memorial signs at the site where the remains were found, etc. (see Melnikova, 2018 for more details).

15To the screenwriter and director, this commemorative practice used as a plot frame for the film allowed to touch upon problems of eyewitness memory. The placement of the characters into the eyewitness position helps to awaken empathy for war participants. Shots of children playing football on the field alternate with a teacher sitting on the edge of a trench, immersed in memories of the military past. At the evening fire, the teacher tells the children how while trying to break through the encirclement he lost sight of his comrade Kostya Mikhalev in the fight. He was later listed as “missing in action”. One of the girls, Katya, asks an awkward question: “We are participating in a campaign so that there are no unmarked graves, right? Why are there so many of them?” and does not receive an answer. According to the scriptwriter, the neglect of the bodies of those killed during the years of war should be redeemed by those who were born much later. It is not surprising that the “eyewitness frame” chosen by the screenwriter gives rise to the development of the plot about the time travelers. Three of the hike participants find themselves in 1941 to rescue a surrounded Soviet tank driver thereby reducing by one the number of those missing in action. In a conversation with a wounded soldier, Katya tells him about the Victory Day holiday, her mother’s favorite holiday. As her mother would say, “old people get younger, and young people get older on this day”. Here commemoration of the war is pronounced as a time traveling device in itself.

16In fiction the time travel plot turns age shifts into a literary device. For instance, the theme of overcoming age is revealed in the story “How Seryozha Went to War” (1985) by Yuri Yakovlev, defined by the author as a “fairy-tale”. The story begins at the moment the grandfather comes to his grandson Seryozha, who has been “waiting for him for a long time” (Âkovlev, 1985: 3). The grandfather, whose tunic “has completely faded, has become almost white, and the heels of his dusty boots are knocked off” (Âkovlev, 1985: 3), reluctantly agrees to “return to the war” to show it to his grandson. Seryozha slips back in time and becomes an eyewitness to his grandfather’s wartime exploits. Vision and observation let Seryozha acquire knowledge about events that are not represented in any way in family memory. The literary representation of post-memory (Marianne Hirsch) turns out to be linked to movement in time. It is no coincidence that temporality occupies an important place in the structure of the narrative. In this story, time travel is associated with overcoming age. In the process of returning to the past, the grandfather becomes younger, and at the moment of death, which the grandson observes with his own eyes, he instantly ages 40 unlived years:

He lay on the ground, arms outstretched, and with motionless eyes looked at the sky. His face was calm, as if dying did not hurt him at all. Only from young did he turn into old again: a white beard appeared like a wedge, and in place of two red feathers there was a thick mustache propping up his nose. In this terrible short battle, the soldier lived his whole life and grew old. (Âkovlev, 1985: 3)

17“On the old military road” the grandfather and grandson meet his fellow soldiers:

And then Sergeant-Major Volchak asked Grandfather:

— How did you end up here? After all, you were killed…

— My grandson demanded that I take him to war. I had to get up. Meet him.

With these words, Grandfather pushed Seryozha forward.

— Well done, youngster! — sergeant Major Volchak praised Seryozha. — Look and remember what kind of war it is. Otherwise we will all die, there will be no one to tell about us. Right?! (Âkovlev, 1985: 21)

18The problem of oblivion is formulated by the dead soldiers, who “smelled of grass and earth” (Âkovlev, 1985: 20). They needed an eyewitness descendant to preserve themselves. The eyewitness model of memory employed in the time travel plot allows the author to overcome the aberrations of the autobiographical memory of the war generation and the unconsciousness of the post-war generation. It allows to turn to the direct participants in the events and adopt their emotional and physical experience of the war:

— You can watch the war in the movies. Here they don’t look, they experience everything for themselves.

Grandfather fell silent. And Seryozha stood nearby, looked at the wounded Grandfather and thought. Does this mean that the war will test him too? Does that mean it will hurt him too? How’s Grandpa? (Âkovlev, 1985: 25)

19Ultimately, at the moment of his grandfather’s death, the boy realizes that the heart of a dead soldier is beating in his chest. The motif of moving into the body of an ancestor will become characteristic of the subsequent development of the plot about the time travelers. In Yuri Yakovlev’s story it is solved in the opposite direction, by replacing the ancestor with a descendant:

Seryozha knelt down and pressed his ear to Grandfather’s chest in the hope of hearing at least a faint sound. But under the old soldier’s tunic it was quiet. And suddenly he felt barely noticeable beats—it was the beating of Seryozha’s heart that echoed in Grandfather’s chest. And the boy decided that he and Grandfather had one, a common heart. Seryozha rose from the ground. But he was no longer the same Seryozha, but turned into a fighter, persistent for life. (Âkovlev, 1985: 37–38)

20The grandson returns from the world of the dead, having gained experience of physical hardships and psychological shocks (death of comrades). Ultimately, he ceased to be himself, since his life is now the life of his grandfather:

From the past, Seryozha has returned to our day. And nothing seems to have changed around. Only in the boy’s chest the new heart was now beating, gaining strength and strengthening, capable of exploding at the right moment and stopping any enemy. Grandfather’s heart was beating! (Âkovlev, 1985: 40)

21The work is dedicated to the thin and permeable line between living and dead, old and young, grandfather and grandson. The bottom line is that the grandson’s life is devalued. He lives his life “for that guy”, not his own, but the one that his grandfather did not live. Marianne Hirsch writes about this kind of accession as the displacement of new generations:

The connection of post-memory with the past is thus carried out not through memory, but through need and desire, through the involvement of imagination, projective and creative mechanisms. Coexistence with such overwhelming inherited memories is always a risk that the events of one’s own life will be displaced, or even simply erased, by events from the lives of one’s ancestors. (Hirš, 2021: 8)

22Yuri Yakovlev, using the plot of a fallen victim, gives a voice to the dead. This refutes Nina Friess’s argument that modern children’s literature about the war does not provide such an opportunity, even when based on autobiographies and memoirs (Friess, 2022: 257). But the plot about the time travelers allows the author to overcome the boundary between living and dead eyewitnesses. The grandfather in Yakovlev’s story shows his grandson his tragic everyday life during the war introducing him to the traumatic experience of losing his comrades. Thereby he literally makes his grandson an eyewitness to what is happening at the front. However, the educational result for the grandson is not joining the pacifist position “never again”. On the contrary, he joins the militaristic one—“we can repeat it”—with the grandfather’s heart in his chest.

23Thus at the end of the Soviet era the plot about time travelers who find themselves in the Great Patriotic War came in two varieties. In accordance with one, the war was depicted as a space of adventure and individual voluntarism. In the other, the war turned into a space of individual involvement and empathy of descendants with their once-warring ancestors. The pragmatics of the first model was centered on expanding the horizon of the readers and ultimately boils down to educational function. While the second model employed emotional involvement as a tool of ideological indoctrination, encouraging readers to internalize and to join the heroic narrative of the war. In the prose of the 2000s, both of these functions will be combined.

4. Time traveler: between adventure and memory

24Historical fiction in Russia in the second half of the 1990s has undergone a profound transformation. A significant corpus of works about time travelers into the Great Patriotic War appeared (see: Lobin, 2020; Korolev, 2015). The rigid plot scheme of this literature is clearly visible in a large number of texts published in the 2000–2010s, However, the predecessors with an equally developed plot formula cannot be found in Soviet literature, both for adults and for children. Researchers pointed to the presence of individual works that laid the foundation for this plot variety (Čupasov, 2009). But eventually Chupasov came to the conclusion that the explosive growth of this plot was due to the socio-cultural circumstances of the 1990–2000s, and not to the evolution of Soviet literary forms.

25What is typical of this literature is that the age of the supposed reader is quite vague. It has some attributes of young adult fiction, but evidently the readership is much wider. In some works about time travelers protagonists are teenagers. That can be considered a distinctive feature of teenage reading. One example is “About Those on the Move” (2009) by Oleg Vereshchagin, the teenager Zhenya finds himself in 1942 to close the “black holes” that were opened by the Ahnenerbe at a German WWII airfield and for the 70 post‑war years continued to absorb Soviet and post-Soviet people. Another consistent motif is the entry of a modern adult or child into the body of a wartime teenager who manages to prevent the war or to accelerate the victory of the USSR. This plot turn is found in the Alexey Makhrov’s “Thanks to Grandfather for the Victory” (2012), Vasily Kononyuk’s “Olga” (2015), Sergey Arsenyev’s “Fräulein Stirlitz”.

26In “The Scout’s Oath” (2010), Oleg Vereshchagin moves a teenager from 2005 to 1942 to make him a participant in the guerilla movement in the Leningrad region. The protagonist fights along with a group of teenagers who participate in reconnaissance operations and sabotage attacks. The group was formed as part of a guerilla group based on the age of the participants—they are all teenagers. The characters of the teenage warriors were created according to patterns found in the military historical Soviet prose for children. These are children who lost their parents, became victims of fascist violence, miraculously escaped death at the hands of the invaders and joined the guerilla force to avenge their murdered relatives. Many characters in the works of the 1960s–1970s share these characteristics (Vyacheslav Morozov “Marat Kazei” (1980), Petro Runets “Little Agitator” (1972), Hristofor Pribyl “Grasshopper” (1972), Aelita Grebenina “Valya Zenkina” (1974) and many others). In general, Vereshchagin’s work borrows a lot from Soviet stories about pioneer heroes (Leont’eva, 2003). That subgenre was characterized by the portrayal of children as unyielding heroes sacrificing their lives for the victory of the Soviet country. The protagonist, Boris Shalygin, fights and dies in open battle with the Nazis, blowing up himself and his ally Yulka, with whom he is in love, with a grenade. The latter circumstance is atypical for Soviet military-historical prose for children, which was devoid of depictions of love relationships between teenagers who were participants in the guerilla movement. Oleg Vereshchagin introduces a lyrical element into the text written in the spirit of “trench truth”. Emotional content manifests itself not only in the depiction of the nascent feeling of first love, but also in the description of emotions teenagers experience when faced with the death of their comrades. When Boris receives a military award, he experiences a strong emotional shock caused by the memory of his fallen comrades:

Zhenya and Yulka also received orders. The rest of the guys received medals “For Military Merit”, including four—posthumously, when their last names, first names and patronymics were called out, I gritted my teeth and involuntarily looked around: Dimka, two Olegs, Ilya, where are you?! Come forward. Please… They didn’t come forward. And then, when we were dismissed, I cried for a long time in the hut, although all our people were nearby—I cried, lying on the mat, clutching my medal in my fist, not embarrassed by anyone. If it were up to me, I would have awarded everyone… but then there would have been nothing to make tanks, planes, machine guns from, because everyone I knew was worthy of the award. (Vereŝagin, 2010)

27Just as in the film “If This Happens to You”, Vereshchagin’s work has a commemorative frame. The narrator comes to the town of Bryadino, goes to the local history museum and discovers there an exhibition dedicated to the guerilla movement of the region. The guided tour is led by the former scout and the director of the exposition Boris Shalygin. He was the time traveler who arrived in 1942 and met the young pioneer hero Lenya Golikov at the front, as well as war correspondent and poet Konstantin Simonov. Returning from the past, Boris organizes a museum exhibition, replenishing it with pioneer ties of teenage guerilla warriors that he buried during his time travel and then retrieved upon return to his own time 40 years later. Boris produces a coherent narrative about his participation in the guerilla movement, very similar to the one a war veteran would produce about the long-gone events. In Boris’ case, the presentation of his testimony has been delayed for more than 60 years due to the time travel in the plot. But it is qualitatively different from the “veteran’s memory”. It is still “alive in memory”, because to the protagonist, very little time has passed since the participation in hostilities, many details are still vivid in the memory of the narrator. As a result, “the stylistic dominants of a fantastic text quite unexpectedly become an orientation towards documentary, naturalistic and realistic poetics, the desire to detail and create a reliable image of history, mastered by the heroes of a different time” (Tagil’cev, 2012: 96). The latter is evidenced by the language of the protagonist which replete with slang of the 2000s (screwed up, zhedeshniks, dumped, crazy, etc.).

28Boris is shown as a person with a distinct post-traumatic syndrome who cannot return to peaceful life: “Sometimes I want to go back” (Vereŝagin, 2010: 160). The young veteran, reflecting on the absolute value of heroic ethics and the impossibility of its application in the modern world, conveys the author’s position formulated in the afterword to the work: “I wanted to write about courage, loyalty and honor, which may not even have a goal, since they are valuable in themselves” (Vereŝagin, 2010: 162). For Vereshchagin, the plot about a time traveler reflecting on his return allows him to address not only and not so much the problems of commemoration (educational tasks of preserving the memory of the war in a local history museum), but rather the problems of modern society. Which, from his point of view, has betrayed “something great”. His hero put this sentiment into words in a longish monologue:

I’m really fucking unlucky. Scouts shouldn’t swear, but it’s true. If I was lucky, I’d be dead. Like guys. Like Lyonka Golikov. Like another quarter of a million of my peers who died, as it turned out in the light of the latest research, it is not clear why. They’re lucky they don’t know it. And they will never know. And they never stopped believing for a second that we would win. I bear witness to this. As well as the fact that no one forced them to believe. We lived in a place where any threat was an empty phrase. We fought where it was impossible to intimidate. We believed where we could not be ordered to believe. Then I learned that you only truly live by fighting for something great. So great that it is impossible to imagine. (Vereŝagin, 2010: 158)

29According to the fair remark of Leonid Fishman, Vereshchagin’s books and the work under review, in particular, can be classified as “revisionist-revanchist literature of an ‘imperial’ nature” (Fišman, 2013: 54). Their basis combines “heroic military values” (Fišman, 2013: 56) with disgust for the modern world. Boris Shalygin does not find himself a place in the modern time. He continues to love Yulka who died with him in 1942, but unlike him she did not make it to the modern times. “And I scanned Yulka’s portrait, cleaned it and printed it with enlargement… Mom continues to ask: ‘Who is this, I don’t know…’” (Vereŝagin, 2010: 159). Boris cannot share knowledge about the past with his contemporaries due to the extraordinary nature of the time travel experience itself. He tries to tell about his combat experience of participating in the Great Patriotic War, but no one believes him including the head of his scout squad, Anatoly Sergeevich Kuzmichev. Not to mention the fact that “the majority don’t care” (Vereŝagin, 2010: 5). Thus the “truth about the war” is inaccessible to people living in 2005. The narrator is the only museum visitor with whom Boris shared his veteran memories. Boris is a new eyewitness to the war who has fresh memories of the war that ended decades ago. But he bears a vow of silence just like elderly veterans who are silent about their combat past. It turns out that the experience of war is existentially connected with silence and is an exclusively internal experience, never transmitted to other generations. Ultimately, only the experience of war itself is valuable, and not the stories told about it.

30In any case, memory turns out to be discredited, deprived of reliable referentiality. The unreliability of memory is depicted in a similar way in Eduard Verkin’s story “The Cloud Regiment” (2012). In it, the great-grandfather tries to tell his great-grandson about his heroic guerilla experience as Leni Golikov’s squire. Memory aberrations are accompanied by conscious lies of an aged eyewitness. The lack of documents of the era makes the reconstruction of events extremely dependent on the rhetorical goal of the narrator (for details, see Maslinskaâ, 2023). The unspeakable war experience becomes key for realistic and historical fiction at the turn of the 2010s. Gaining access to the voices of the dead through time travel plot does not mean that these voices will be heard by descendants.

5. Conclusion

31Stories about time travelers who found themselves in the Great Patriotic War are an extremely rare phenomenon in Soviet and post-Soviet children’s literature. Against the background of hundreds of military historical works written in the wide style range from socialist realism to the “front-line lyrical story” (N. Leiderman) the time travelers in children’s literature about the war remain a marginal plot type. This can be explained by the writers’ commitment not to offer alternative versions of historical events to child readers. Despite the fact that in adult literature the time travelers subgenre has blossomed since the 1990s and alternative history versions multiplied exponentially, in children’s literature the educational task of giving children a consistent, unified historical narrative blocks writers’ initiatives.

32A fundamental property of children’s literature about time travelers who find themselves in the historical past is the limited scale of events and very constrained set of characters. Even if the authors choose large-scale disasters for a chronotope (like the Civil War or the Great Patriotic War), the protagonists themselves participate in “close‑in” events. It could be local guerilla movement or repair of the railway track in the rear. The plot is never set up against the backdrop of the Battle of Stalingrad or the crossing of the Dnieper river. For Soviet fiction of this subgenre the limited scale of events proportionately entails systems of characters representing the family or personal circle. For instance, in Lev Quin’s novella the protagonist meets his grandmother and parents in the past, in a fairy-tale by Yuri Yakovlev the protagonist meets his grandfather. Because of the limited scope of the events and the character system “the global scale of the war picture is reduced, a small space is mastered—one or several human destinies against the backdrop of military trials” (Tagil’cev, 2012: 95–96). Nevertheless, the focus on the individual emotional experience of the wartime events does not preclude the unfolding of the adventurous narrative. The characters, both time travelers and their comrades, deprived of family and friends are free in heroic self-realization, can be involved in mortally dangerous situations and risk their lives.

33All the reviewed works about the time travelers during the war follow the heroic narrative pattern. Nina Friess who analysed the contemporary children’s literature about the war concluded: “Today’s dominant narrative of the Great Patriotic War—that of ordinary citizens’ self-sacrifice as the central plank of victory—is projected onto children and into children’s literature” (Friess, 2022: 249). This generalization can be extended onto the Soviet children’s fiction about time sippers. There is an evident mobilization potential in this kind heroic discourse.

34Still, the representation of heroism in Soviet and post-Soviet time travel fiction are not the same. The mobilization pragmatics, epitomized by the motto “we can repeat (our victory — S. M.)”, is not predetermined by the use of the time slipping plot in the setting of the Great Patriotic War. For Soviet writers Naumov and Yakovlev time travel serves as a device to emphasize the preservation of family memory about the fallen ancestor heroes (1970–1980s). In contrast, for Vereshchagin, a post-Soviet writer of the 2000s, the war is not only the past, but continues in the present. To his protagonist, a 21st century teenager, wartime fight against the evil is the only legitimate way of self-realization in modernity. The time travel plot for Yakovlev means connection between generations based on the transfer or memory, but does not require any militaristic propaganda. Vereshchagin uses the same plot the other way round: generational continuity is irrelevant, and memory of war cannot be passed to descendants. Instead, a teenager lacking family ties strives for an extraordinary heroic act (Vereŝagin, 2009). Vereshchagin relies in his reflections on the Gaidar tradition of interpreting the meaning of life, according to which life without a war is meaningless (Litovskaâ, 2010). Hence the same literary device (time travel into the past) can be employed to deliver both anti‑war and pro‑war message. This consolidates the idea that the literary form itself is devoid of ideological meaning. Even heroic narrative can convey an anti‑war message.

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Svetlana Maslinskaia, « New Eyewitnesses to the War: Time Travel in Russian Children’s Literature about Word War II »ILCEA [En ligne], 53 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 février 2024, consulté le 26 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Svetlana Maslinskaia

Univ. Grenoble Alpes, ILCEA4, 38000 Grenoble, France

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