Krokodil Smiles: Cartoons in the USSR

« Krokodil » («Крокодил» in Russian, a crocodile) was a Soviet satirical magazine founded in 1922 and that outlasted the Soviet Union by a number of years. In 2000, it was driven to its deathbed by a general lack of interest and failing finances – no longer being relevant to the modern age, alas! – and though weak attempts were made to breathe life into it in the 2000s, it finally croaked altogether, wheezing its very last in 2008.

Right from the beginning, The Crocodile (personified by a pipe-chomping red crocodile, holding a pitchfork) featured quite a lot of satirical drawings, which were basically panel cartoons, and sometimes even actual comics. The magazine’s modus operandi was to viciously skewer various enemies of the State and the People, such as bureaucrats, alcoholics, bribe-takers, church-goers, various delinquents, ne’er-do-wells and anti-Soviet villains. Institutions were also attacked, sometimes gleefully and sometimes sternly, and that list was long, too: American imperialism and capitalism, German Nazism, colonialism, and more other -isms that you could shake a stick at.

“There were pickpockets, dope peddlers, murderers and thieves
Card shark gamblers with aces up their sleeves
Bank robbers, burglars, boosters and pimps
Prostitutes and call girls and all kinds of nymphs
Loan sharks, swindlers, counterfeiters and fences
Crooked politicians spending campaign expenses
Hijackers, arsonists, bookies and the mob
And anybody else who ever killed, cheated or robbed”
Hustler Groove, Apollo 440

I would not like to leave you with the impression that Mr. Crocodile was an unsympathetic fellow, however; in its gentler moments, Krokodil’s tongue-in-cheek humour could be a delight, and its savage attacks sometimes masked a subversive anti-Soviet streak. Many prominent writers and artists worked for the magazine, and some of them started their careers within its pages. Aside from a plethora of cartoons, the magazine also featured news, stories, aphorisms, epigrams, and reviews of books, films and theatrical plays, etc.

June 1927, cover by Hrapkovskoy.

Mr. Crocodile came with an extensive family. He had a wife, the Big Krokodila, who lost her marbles in the 1930s, and two twin children, who acquired hilariously caricatural careers in 1990 – Totosha went into management and Kokosha moved to the U.S. to design men’s magazines. These (and other recurring) characters marked several generations of Soviet citizens, and many of their catchphrases have become an everyday part of the Russian language.

Without further ado, here’s a few Krokodil cartoons on very Slavic topics, like drunkenness, and general debauchery and bureaucracy, including the disappointing lack of goods (and poor quality control of actually available goods). In no particular order…

“Fritz in Hell”, 1942. Illustration by Y. Ganf. “Fritz” is used as a moniker for any of your average, humdrum Nazi.
“Tribe of wild ones at the seashore”, 1956. Illustration by I. Rotov.
“We made a big mistake when we brought them to the puppet show!” 1978.
“THE MAN WITH THE SUITCASE IS INDIGNANT: What the hell is happening!… There’s so many prostitutes… One doesn’t know… which one to pick!” Illustration by I. Yang, 1929.
1987. Illustration by L. Nasirov. Nearly 50 years later, prostitutes are still around, but their goods are a little more on show. You couldn’t really be an above-board pin-up artist in the USSR, but some people clearly had, shall we say, proclivities for depicting the female form.
The lion says in the first panel: “It’s disgusting! An elephantess in the role of a gazelle! I’ll go to the theatre manager and find out who gave her this role!” 1956, illustration by Y. Ganf.
A charming case of bribery: “And here, dearie, is some evidence for your examination!” Perhaps this requires some context: this charming granny makes moonshine at home, and she hopes to soothe off the irate-looking policeman with an offering of a glass of vodka and a pickle (traditional accompaniment to vodka – highly recommended, perhaps with some mushrooms. I’m getting distracted, sorry.) Illustration by G. Ogorodnikov.
“It’s a good omen: first let a cat walk into a new apartment!” 1975, cover by G. Andrianov.
“And where are the potatoes, the pepper, the salt?” Illustration by V. Shkarban, 1979.
1989, illustration by E. Bender. I think somebody wanted an excuse to draw voluptuous women!
“Dressed like that? To the cinema?’ “– I’m going over there to be filmed…” Illustration by V. Mochalov, idea by M. Vaisbord, 1989.
“Now just watch it: oink the way I taught you to!” Illustration by S. Kuzmin, 1963. What happened to the missing pigs? They were most likely sold off to finance the kolhoz foreman’s drinking and gluttony. A kolhoz was basically a sort of collective farm or production cooperative, but corruption and negligence ran rampant.
“Same thing as in the vegetable patch: old horseradish next to a young potato.” Illustration by I. Semenov, 1945.
“Where are all the Red Riding Hoods going?” “–To grandma’s. She decided to write a will for her country house.” Illustration by G. Yasinkiy, 1984.
“In honour of the International Women’s Day, the dance of the Little Swans will be performed by the stage crew workers!” The 8th of March was a big deal in the U.S.S.R., and not only for one’s mothers and grandmothers; if I recall correctly, even students were supposed to bring in flowers for their female teachers. Illustration by I. Sichev, 1975.

~ ds

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