The USSR State Prize
The Lenin Prize
Samuil Marshak on a 1987 Soviet post stamp
(A poor girl was given an impossible task by her stepmothe...)
A poor girl was given an impossible task by her stepmother: to gather snowdrops in a winter forest. Suddenly she stumbled across twelve brothers who happened to be the twelve months.
Samuil had a good home education and later studied at the gymnasium (secondary school) of Ostrogozhsk, a suburb of Voronezh. He started to write poetry during his childhood years in Voronezh. In 1902, the Marshak family moved to Saint Petersburg. There was a complication: as a Jew, Marshak could not legally live outside the Pale of Settlement, thus he could not attend school while living in the city. Philanthropist and scholar Baron David Gunzburg took an interest in Marshak and introduced him to the influential critic Vladimir Stasov. Stasov was so impressed by the schoolboy's literary talent that he arranged an exception from the Pale laws for Samuil and his family. He also introduced Marshak to Maxim Gorky and Feodor Chaliapin.
In 1899-1902 he studied at a local gymnasium. Here he started to write poetry. Afterward, Samuil Marshak described his childhood and adolescence in his autobiographical novel "At life’s beginning" (1961). In 1904, Samuil was diagnosed with tuberculosis and could no longer continue to live in the cold climate of Saint Petersburg. Maxim Gorky arranged for Samuil to live with his family in the Black Sea resort town of Yalta (1904-1907). Gorky and Chaliapin also paid for his education and therapy. However, he spent much of this period in Kerch, living with the Fremerman family.
In 1904, Samuil Yakovlevich published his first works in the magazine Jewish Life and in the mid- to late 1900s, Marshak created a body of Zionist verse, some of which appeared in such periodicals as Young Judea. In 1907 he returned to Saint Petersburg and subsequently published numerous works in the popular magazine Satyricon.
In 1912 he moved to England and studied philosophy at the University of London. He fell in love with English culture and with poetry written in English. In his senior year at the University he published his translations of the poems written by William Blake, Robert Burns and William Wordsworth, published in Russia. His 1913 visit to an experimental "free" school in Wales (led by the Tolstoyan Philip Oyler) is noted as the event that sparked his professional interest in children. Shortly before World War I, in 1914, he returned to Russia and devoted himself to translation.
In 1914 Marshak and his wife worked with children of Jewish refugees in Voronezh. The death of Marshak's young daughter in 1915 directed him toward children's literature. In 1920 he moved to Ekaterinodar (now Krasnodar) to head the province's orphanages and it was there that he and a group of enthusiasts, including Elena Vasilieva, organized Children's town that included a children's theater, library, and studios. For this theater, he co-wrote plays that later became the book Theater for Children.
In 1922, Marshak moved back to what was then Petrograd to become the head of the Children's Literature Studio. He published the following works at the publishing house "Радуга" ("Rainbow"): Детки в клетке (Kids in a cage), Пожар (Fire) 1923, Сказка о глупом мышонке (The Tale of a Silly Mouse), Синяя птица (Blue bird), Цирк (Circus), Мороженое (Ice Cream), Вчера и сегодня» (Yesterday and today) 1925, Багаж (Luggage) 1926, Пудель (Poodle), Почта (Post Office) 1927, and Вот какой рассеянный (What an absent-minded guy) 1930.
Marshak had a prolific career in children's literature. Marshak's contributions to the field of children's literature was not just limited to his own writings. In 1924, he became the head of the children's branch of the state publishing house Gosizdat (GIZ), a position he held for over a decade. Through his role as editor, Marshak attracted some of Russia's best writers to try their hand at writing for children, including Evgeniy Shvarts and OBERIU member Daniil Kharms.
In 1937 Marshak moved to Moscow, where he worked on children's books and translations. During World War II, he published satires against the Nazis. After the war he continued to publish children's books including: Разноцветная книга (Multicolored book) 1948, Круглый год (All year round) 1948, Тихая сказка (A Quiet tale) 1956, etc.
In the last years of his life, he wrote aphoristic verses that he named lyrical epigrams. They were published in his last book, Selected Lyrics (Избранная Лирика) in 1963. He also published three tale plays: The Twelve Months 1943, Afraid of Troubles - Cannot Have Luck 1962, and Smart Things 1964.
Although not widely known, in the Soviet era, Marshak was on a (political) razor's edge and barely escaped death in 1937. His name was often mentioned in the documents of the eliminated Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. However, the process of the committee ended in August 1952 (12 executed and 98 subjected to repression) and Marshak was not accused. In 1953 with the death of Josef Stalin and the onset of Khrushchev Thaw Marshak was out of danger. There is an opinion that Stalin's death saved Marshak from inevitable death in the period of the fight against cosmopolitism.
Samuil Marshak died on 4 July 1964 and was buried in Moscow.
Quotes from others about the person
Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote that "Samuil Marshak understood that many new writers would appear in the new Soviet republic. He stood at the door of literature, a benevolent angel, armed not with a sword or with a pencil, but with words on work and inspiration."