The Apartment: A Century of Russian History by Alexandra Litvina, illustrated by Anna Desnitskaya

the apartmentNot all good books have to be new ideas. Sometimes the brilliance is in the execution. When I first started working at Dorling Kindersley publishers, one of the big titles was A Street Through Time by Steve Noon, which time travels a street to the Roman times, through history to the industrial revolution and Victorian England. Recently a documentary series on the BBC showed a similar concept – A House Through Time – with historian David Olusoga painstakingly researching a single house through different eras.

So The Apartment is not unusual. Except that this oversize piece of non-fiction for children is exquisitely presented, with so much information and curiosity within its pages that it feels as if it were recreating the concept afresh.

The illustrations and text follow the story of a six-bedroom apartment in Moscow from 1902 to 2002, showing the reader not only who lives there and why, but also their personal stories, political changes and upheavals, and the cultural choices and developments that then rippled from Russia across the world. Events in Russia are documented and remarked upon first and foremost according to their impact on the inhabitants of this apartment, but there is also a wealth of extra material.

A double-page family tree opens the story. This large extended family features the inhabitants of the apartment, and also indicates which pages of the book each person appears on. This handy tool helps the reader to navigate, particularly when some of the names may be tricky for an English readership.

The book opens with Irina Muromtseva in 1902, a young child moving into the apartment with her family and their dog. The cutaway apartment shows the different rooms and belongings, with annotations to characters and objects. There’s a fictional feel to the narrative, a first person introduction citing smells and emotions, but there’s a non-fiction feel to the rest, documenting the type of belongings the family had, the technologies of the time, including here a hot tap, and the inhabitants’ professions and general way of life.

Interspersed between the generational page cutaways – in which the current child of the family gives their impression of what is happening – there are double pages that explain the historical and political landscape, and show the reader smaller illustrations of particular objects and scenarios – from speech bubble vignettes of political or philosophical conversations, to types of pens for letter-writing, tree ornaments for Christmas celebrations, types of money and even recipes. This broad spectrum highlights a whole life – the feelings about war and revolutions, about communism and leadership, but also about the day-to-day: from embroidered school collars to samovars and newspaper articles.

Further on, the apartment is split as more families move in and share the space. Then more lives are documented, and the apartment sees arrests, deaths, a wedding, the advent of a telephone and television, men in space. The text introduces terms such as glasnost and perestroika, documents Stalinism and the Thaw, right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

There are so many features in the book. There is of course an extensive glossary, timeline, bibliography and more. There’s a search and find game to see which objects survived how many years of change. But my favourite is the Afterword, explaining how much history and social history we glean from mere objects in everyday homes. And how for some of Russia’s history, there were things that could not be talked about. Could not be mentioned. And how books such as this can open these conversations.

We often say that to know who we are, we have to know where we came from. Our personal histories can provide a focus and explanation for how we see the outside world. And this book is a perfect example of how fiction and nonfiction can mesh and explore, can explain and provoke understanding. The text is dense, the pictures intricate, but it is a world waiting to be explored. All within one apartment.

With huge thanks to fellow children’s book blogger ReadItDaddy, without whom I would never have discovered this scintillating book. And proof therefore of the power of the children’s book blogger.

Translated from the Russian by Antonina W Bouis. For curious children aged 9+ and curious adults. You can buy it here.