Here’s something that has always puzzled me, growing up in the US as a child of Russian parents. Whenever I or my friends were having our photos taken, we were told to say “cheese” and smile. But if my parents also happened to be in the photo, they were stone-faced. So were my Russian relatives, in their vacation photos. My parents’ high-school graduation pictures show them frolicking about in bellbottoms with their young classmates, looking absolutely crestfallen.

So writes Olga Khazan at The Atlantic, in response to a new paper on intercultural smiling, further explaining that:

Russians’ fondness for the gentle scowl seems even more unusual to expats than its actual, climatic cold. And the cultural difference cuts both ways: Newcomers to America often remark on the novelty of being smiled at by strangers.

In Russian cultures, smiling is not a sign of friendliness; it is a sign of a ‘tricky fool’.

I can see a feminist benefit to that — according to Khazan, at least women in Russian cultures aren’t instructed to smile by random men on the street! American women, on the other hand, were required to look calm and reassuring even in time of war.

Russian propaganda poster

Russian propaganda poster

Another female frown line from the Motherland

Another female frown line from the Motherland

And another frownline for The Victory, 1942

And another frownline for The Victory, 1942

American propaganda poster

American propaganda poster

This got me wondering about how this might have impacted children’s book covers. There are plenty of smiling children on the front of Western picture books — but what about Russian picture books?

Well, not all Russian children’s books follow the rule, but I am slightly concerned about why this boy is smiling…

published 1935

published 1935

The thing about cats is, they always look like they're frowning from the front.

The thing about cats is, they always look like they’re frowning from the front.

another frowny Russian cat

another frowny Russian cat

For sure, Russia had Grumpy Cat before Grumpy Cat turned up.

For sure, Russia had Grumpy Cat before Grumpy Cat turned up.

and it's not like we don't have Grumpy Cats in the West

and it’s not like we don’t have Grumpy Cats in the West

But it's also very common to see cats grinning from the front.

But it’s also very common to see cats grinning from the front.

This is from the Ukraine and the children look happy to be at the beach.

This is from the Ukraine and the children look happy to be at the beach.

In this book from 1984, not so much.

In this book from 1984, not so much.

This is from a book called For Our Children, dating from the 1960s

This is from a book called For Our Children, dating from the 1960s

I'm honestly not sure what's going on here but it doesn't look like fun.

I’m honestly not sure what’s going on here but it doesn’t look like fun.

If Matroyshka dolls were an American invention, would they be smiling?

If Matroyshka dolls were an American invention, would they be smiling?

That said, you can find smiling ones. Perhaps for the tourist market?

That said, you can find smiling ones. Perhaps for the tourist market?

This picture by children's illustrator Mikhail Belomlinsky depicts smiling characters, though only the woman is showing any teeth.

This picture by children’s illustrator Mikhail Belomlinsky depicts smiling characters, though only the woman is showing any teeth.

Perhaps this girl, by illustrator by Sergey Mikhalkov, is smiling beneath her hand?

Perhaps this girl, by illustrator by Sergey Mikhalkov, is smiling beneath her hand?

Apparently this is a book for children.

Apparently this is a book for children.

Here's another frowny pipe lovin Russian

Here’s another frowny pipe lovin Russian

The mouths often look like dots on the covers of Russian kidlit.

The mouths, as well as the eyes, often look like dots on the covers of Russian kidlit.

another example of dot mouths

another example of dot mouths

So I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions regarding the history of smiling in the former Soviet Union’s children’s literature.

And here is a collection of Russian themed children’s books for English speaking readers.