Of Ducks, Russian Folklore, and the Mysterious Gamayun

Today’s post started out as an introduction to Moscow-born Russian cartoonist and illustrator Alexander Utkin, whose family name translates to something duck-related (‘utka’ means ‘duck’)… a few other topics may have crept in on soft paws, but sticking to one thing was never my forte.

I came across Utkin’s work in a comic book store. The volume attracted me with its stylish cover and vivid colours, standing out among its shelf companions despite the fact that they were also quite vibrant, this being the children’s corner (thankfully a reliable refuge for colour that’s often shunned in modern comics – if you haven’t noticed the absence of colour in the modern aesthetic, see this documentary about Chromophobia, or Colors: Where did they go? An investigation for a discussion).

The book that introduced me to Utkin, although what I had first seen was the French edition (Le roi des oiseaux, 2020); this edition is from 2018 and published by Nobrow.

I like cases where one doesn’t have to choose between art and storytelling, when the former is lovely and the latter, substandard (or vice versa). Utkin’s illustrations are beautiful, and he coherently and engagingly tackles a topic that’s dear to my heart – namely Russian fairy tales. Remember I mentioned Baba Yaga (see Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 28) a few weeks ago? We will meet her again today (hide your children). We also encounter the legendary Gamayun, a prophet-bird (strangely, as a child I learned its name from the song Sirin, Alkonost, Gamayun* and not from reading folk tales) with no legs or wings, who propelled itself with its tail, and whose interrupted flight signalled death or misery. In a more modern interpretation, she morphed into a sort of bird of paradise with a woman’s face. Read about her and her ‘sisters’ Sirin and Alkonost here.

Published by Nobrow in 2020. Here’s a review of this collection.

Utkin’s Gamayun is a strange, vaguely female creature with huge eyes who narrates the stories (thus ‘Gamayun Tales’). There seems to be a resurgence of interest in all things folky** in many parts of the world, perhaps a desire to preserve some cultural heritage when faced with globalisation – in that sense, one can say that this series is part of that pattern. These revivals don’t often reach a Western audience, however, so it’s especially cool that Utkin’s forays into Slavic myths have been well received and enthusiastically lauded by French and English speakers as well.

Here are a few pages from Roi des oiseaux or The King of Birds, which are, respectively, the French and English versions of the same story… except that the French edition also contains La dispute (The Quarrel), which in English was plunked into Gamayun Tales I. It’s a bit confusing.

In case you were wondering, Utkin’s Gamayun series is technically intended for children. I’m in the habit of regularly raiding the children’s section for interesting stuff, but I can call it mother’s interest (never-you-mind that I am the mother of cats and plants, not little humans). Here are several pages from Gamayun Tales II – this story is called The Quarrel (and, as mentioned earlier, was part of the French edition of The King of Birds):

The following page are from Vasilisa and the Doll, which in English was published in Gamayun Tales II, and in French, as part of the La princesse guerrière (‘the warrior princess’) collection:

I promised you Baba Yaga, didn’t I? The way Utkin draws her predatory teeth reminded me of Canadian artist Emily Carroll, whose creepy stories often mention teeth (one might say it’s a leitmoteeth of hers – sorry for the terrible pun). Her work deserves a post of its own, but for now I restrain myself to mentioning that Carroll, clearly also a fan of traditional folklore, illustrated a graphic novel (written by Marika McCoola) about you-know-who, Baba Yaga’s Assistant (2015, Candlewick). Here is a tooth and style demonstration:

A few stylized pages tell the traditional story of Baba Yaga and the girl with the kind heart – you can read the tale (in English) here.
And here is what the slightly re-upholstered, modernized tale looks like.
Classic chicken legs!

To get back to our main topic, I’ll leave you with this glorious poster Utkin illustrated for a French bédé (comics) festival in 2020:

Visit Utkin’s IG account.

~ ds

*I highly recommend the whole album for those who like folk rock – it’s by the Russian band Akvarium.

**This includes the bevy of young woman trios and quartets (from Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, Finland, Germany…) popping up seemingly all over the place, singing traditional folk songs whilst walking around. Here is a charming example from Russia.

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 28

Most readers will be familiar with the East European witch Baba Yaga, she of the giant mortar, pestle, and chicken-legged-house. The Slavic tradition is rich in heroes and villains, but Baba Yaga is my definite favourite. Perhaps it’s because of her dichotomous nature – undeniably evil, kidnapping children to eat them and such, she also lends a very helpful hand to those she likes… depending on the vintage of the tale and who’s the narrator, and sometimes within the same story. Potato, pota-toh, right? She’s the kind of hag that cool women aspire to become when they’re old: a cantankerous, wise beldam who does whatever she pleases, lives alone in the middle of a forest with her cat, and tells anybody she doesn’t like to fuck off (or transforms them into something nasty to teach them a lesson).

Introduction to Vasilissa the Beautiful, illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, 1931. That’s Baba Yaga flying on top.

Interpretations of what she actually stands for abound, but to be honest I am not interested in her narrative origins, just the storytelling. She is a character who lives and breathes; it rather seems impolite to ask too many questions, lest one ends up in her oven, on the way to becoming dinner.

Folklorist Vladimir Propp‘s theory is probably the best regarded, and argues that she’s the guardian of the kingdom of the dead, with her house representing a grave (people of yore were buried in special houses built on top of tree trunks, with roots resembling chicken legs). She might have once been a deity of hills and forests, kind protector of villagers; or perhaps a goddess of harvest, punished by other gods who removed her beauty and left her a crone. Viy (yes, that Viy) is her father, and Koschei the Immortal (sometimes pictured as riding naked on his favourite horse) is either her son or her nephew. The fence around her house is built from human bones. I think she deserves her place in this year’s Halloween pantheon.

Anyway, here are a few of my favourite visual renditions of her…

Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), co-founder of the Union of Russian Artists, is mostly remembered for his illustrations to Russian folk tales. His was the first version of Baba Yaga I was introduced to a a small child (as a matter of fact, I still have a collection of tales illustrated by him lying around somewhere). His style is easy to recognize, and full of details – while tsars and beautiful maidens get clothed in robes painstakingly adorned with golden filigree, forest scenes are crowded with branches, leaves, and mushrooms, giving the slightly claustrophobic impression of the trees closing in on the viewer. This is no civilised forest. This is a wild, slightly malicious entity that does not take kindly to strangers.

Baba Yaga in her natural habitat, the flying pestle. Ivan Bilibin, 1900.

The following book from 1915 does not credit its illustrator, and I’m not knowledgeable enough to interpret their memorable signature (seen in the inside illustrations, bottom left).

Baba Yaga (this book was originally published in 1908, using the same painting, but with fewer background details; this edition is from 1915, illustrator still unknown).

Two illustrations from the inside, showing off Baba Yaga’s frequently present black cat, and her fence of human bones and skulls. Admire the decorative ‘devils dancing’ panel inside her hut. The cat can be easily bribed, and in one of the classic tales helps out the would-be victim get the best of Baba Yaga, after the young girl gives him some ham out of the kindness of her heart.

In the Western world, illustrator Nicolai Kochergin (1897-1974) is famous for his Soviet propaganda posters, but he is beloved by Russians who grew up around the so-called ‘golden age’ (1950s-1960s) of children’s book illustrations in the USSR. See a selection of the latter over at Tom Cochien’s Monster Brains Blog. WOT habitué Barney might be interested in his first-ever illustrated book, a Soviet translation of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in instalments in a magazine in 1928.

Although I technically grew up much after these illustrations were published, I think I can count myself lucky that my parents mostly surrounded me with old books.

~ ds

Milutka’s Furry Flying Elephants

An elephant pink crawled outta the sink
and snuggled up in my bed
A purple mole’s in the goldfish bowl,
he’s trying to steal a drink
*

Today’s post was originally planned as a panegyric to Larry Marder’s Beanworld, but I quickly realized that attempting to write about it was a bit like trying to dissect a joke. Here I am, then, doing a 180 degree turn to talk about a Soviet cartoonist.

Evgeniy Milutka (Евгений Милутка, b. 1946) was a teacher of Russian literature by profession, but his proclivities clearly lay elsewhere. After teaching in middle school for a few years, he officially switched to the career of a cartoonist in the early 1970s, and quickly rose to the ranks of the best known caricaturists in the USSR, in part thanks to his long-lasting (from mid seventies to mid eighties) collaboration with satirical magazine Krokodil (see Krokodil Smiles: Cartoons in the USSR).

I am most interested, however, in the new, kid-oriented direction his work took in the 1980s, namely the cartoons/comics published within the pages of Веселые Картинки (something like ‘funny pictures’ in translation), a literature-bent humour magazine for kids. Founded in 1956, it was still sort-of around (with some financial issues) when I was a child, and my grandfather, who was always very preoccupied with making sure I grew up knowledgeable and smart (sorry, grandpa?), was kind enough to buy me a subscription.

An issue from October 1986, with a cover by Milutka. It features the 8 ‘merry little people’ that were the mascots of this journal and whose adventures Milutka illustrated. This included Karandash (which in Russian means ‘pencil‘), the boy with the pencil nose; Cipollino (little onion), the boy with an onion head, from Gianni Rodari’s Cipollino, a tale that was so popular in the Soviet Union that we even have a Cipollino stamp; Buratino, the Russian Pinocchio; Neznayka, literally translated to ‘don’t know’, a favourite character from Nikolai Nosov‘s merry trilogy of fairy-tales; Petrushka, a character from Slav folk puppetry; Samodelkin, the boy robot whose name translates to something like ‘do-it-yourselfer’; Hurvínek, a character from a Czech puppet duo; and the only girl, Thumbelina.

The first thing that jumps out is that Milutka’s strips are really weird. Green elephants, watermelon men, mosquitoes capable of lifting a person, bats in a cavern made out of teeth, a giant spider wearing running shoes… a lot of it is most delirious delirium tremens. Milutka could aptly handle a variety of styles, but his basic, more recognizable modus operandi is extremely Slavic. The other interesting thing about his work, though you have to take my word for this, is how he squeezed in some distinctly unchildlike content into his strips. He was, after all, a caricaturist, with a keen eye honed by the sometimes subversive Krokodil.

Here is a selection from within the pages of Веселые Картинки from 1991 to 1996, which is pretty much the period I was able to follow in person.

The sorceress gets accused of being evil by Thumbelina, ‘since you crash ships and airplanes‘. ‘I am nor evil nor good,‘ she responds, ‘I just take everything that barges into my kingdom.‘ Nezknayka gets turned into a mer-cat. (1991)
More metamorphosis! The kids keep asking the green elephant ‘what are you? Are you an ungulate? A mammal? Are you an insect? He’s probably an amphibian…‘ but to all their questions, he answers “I dunno…“, which is how they guess that it’s Neznayka in disguise. (1991)
A sword-hog is turned back into a normal hedgehog once he’s fed an apple, and Neznayka, who’s named head advisor to the bad guys (everybody has untranslatable funny names), advises them to tie themselves together with a rope… (1994)
… after which the merry little people escape on a flying pig with a propeller in its ass (1994).
Watermelon man! “Kids, do you know what watermelons are good for?” “It’s an interesting question, of course” (1994).
This is spider named Filia, shod in very nice shoes. Isn’t he cute? (1994)
A splash page featuring a prototypical Babushka (actually a Baba Yaga in a good mood!) and an assortment of flora and fauna (1994)
After a lot of untranslatable puns on the word ‘vitamins’, the cat (who’s, once again, Nezknayka, having a pronounced tendency to transform into other creatures) is told to ‘eat the magic balls!‘ to turn back into himself. Thumbelina is also rescued from being… err, whatever that furry thing with the rolled-up nose is. (1995)
Neznayka invents a robot to do the ironing for him, but the robot is hungry for metal ‘macaroni’ (which we call anything pasta, usually some form of spaghetti) (1996).
A poster advertising the journal (1996), with mushrooms, a Pushkin reference, singing cats, some sort of flying elephant (?) with an accordion, a little furry bee-cat, and so on and so forth.

I hope you enjoyed these despite the language barrier! I’ll wrap this up with two fun illustrations from the early 90s:

‘The flight of a bumblebee’
The title is a pun on fish biting and the summer being a neat one.

~ ds

*I See Them Everywhere!

Herluf Bidstrup: The Goal of Satire Is to Speak the Truth

I’d like to talk about Danish Herluf Bidstrup (1912 – 1988), yet another talented artist of some renown during his lifespan, but who soon sank into the oblivion of time. His wild popularity in the Soviet Union at the height of his artistic prowess not only resulted in honourable mentions in various works of Russian literature, but also in the printing of a bevy of collections both old and new. He has also received numerous awards from the USSR (most notably, the Lenin Peace Prize – a bit of a contradiction in terms – and the Order of the Red Banner of Labour). Now he’s forgotten by most everyone… except by Russians, who still carry a torch for his cartoons, and publish new collections of his work to this day. He produced around five thousand cartoons during his lifetime, so there’s certainly plenty of material to collect!

In Moscow, circa 1953.

The openly anti-fascist Bidstrup had been contributing humorous drawings to various publications since 1935, but he truly found his voice in the underground (and illegal) newspaper, Land og folk, the offshoot of Denmark’s (also illegal) Communist party, which Bidstrup joined in 1943. While his work was also appreciated and published in East Germany, his obvious political stance significantly limited the scope of what could be printed. It even affected his career in his home country, as Denmark was economically dependent on then-Fascist Germany. Bidstrup himself considered that he was most accurately represented in the Soviet press, not only before and during WWII, but also after the war. In 1953, in a letter to his friend Soviet journalist Mikhail Kosov, translator of his work and main enthusiast, he wrote that « all Soviet anthologies which we have prepared together are a hundred times better than collections published in other countries… in the German version, I become more and more of a harmless humourist, and a completely toothless satirist. »

Bidstrup’s sketch of the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed.

In a sense, Bidstrup can be compared to his contemporary, French artist Jean Effel (also a favourite of Soviet citizens): both were openly communists whose work confronted social injustice and inequality. But at the end of the day, artists aren’t much remembered for their ‘social conscience’: it’s their keen eye for everyday detail and sense of humour that allows cartoons to pass unscathed through decades, to touch and amuse us some seventy years on. In that sense, Bidstrup’s cartoons are arguably more ‘dated’, more tied to his politics than Effel’s, which perhaps explains why one encounters mentions of the latter a little more often. Still, there’s plenty there to admire and chuckle at.

Bidstrup Herluf: Drawings (2017, Mesheriakov Publishing House); such a nice shade of green.

The following images have been selected from the collection seen above and kindly scanned and framed by co-admin RG.

«The circle closes.»
« On the wings of Pegasus. »
« Amateur photographer »
« Self-criticism »
« Direct hit »
« Life’s journey »
« Wife of a jazzman »
« Solitude »
« Fished out »
«The mirror of the soul »
« An extended game »
« A perfect example »

Finally, here is a charming cartoon that Soviet animation director Lev Atamanov produced in collaboration with Bidstrup during one of his many visits to the USSR.

I hope your enjoyed this walk down history’s lane. And if you’d like to see more, while Herluf Bidstrup may be relatively obscure, you can still see a nice collection of his cartoons here and here.

~ ds

Tentacle Tuesday: Geopolitacles

Many years after the fact, political caricatures are hard to appreciate properly, generally speaking – politicians’ names get forgotten, events become blurry in the collective memory, and what was surely witty and acerbic just seems incomprehensible.  They’re of great historical interest, and often of considerable artistic merit, too, but it’s not something I’m particularly interested in. That being said, nothing rekindles my enthusiasm like an octopus, especially if he’s sprawled all over the map of Europe, or, heck, the whole world. Power is an aphrodisiac!

People far more erudite than myself have written about political cartooning and its historical usage of octopuses. For a good overview of the subject, head over to an article published in Never Was Magazine. If you just like looking at pretty pictures, for a more comprehensive gallery of images I recommend The image of the OCTOPUS: six cartoons, 1882-1909, which breaks down components of six historical political caricatures of the tentacled kind, and Cartography’s Favourite Map Monster: the Land Octopus, superbly informative and thoroughly illustrated. There’s a also this fascinating article, but alas, in French, so only our French-speaking readers (of which we have quite a few) will be able to partake.

I have no system – I tried including images that aren’t seen too often in articles of this kind, or ones that are stylistically striking.

Squid-RussianPropaganda
Does this look like an American tycoon to you? Nah, I didn’t think so. His name is Wall-Squid (some pun on Wall Street, I think), and he was published in a Russian magazine in the 80’s. The quatrain underneath doesn’t really rhyme, so it won’t lose much in translation: « Everywhere he goes, this squid strangles Freedom, poisons and recklessly pokes into people’s lives. But those who do not heed the People’s anger risk losing their tentacles! » Subtle.

But let’s go back to the 19th century, seemingly the golden age of tentacled propaganda. The line between propaganda and social criticism is blurry, of course – with my environmentalist tendencies, I think of the following trio, all condemning stabs at Standard Oil, attacked for being an unlawful monopoly, as perfectly justified attacks drawing attention to a serious problem.

A-horrible-monster-1880
This one is from 1880, published in Daily Graphic. Standard Oil, “whose tentacles spread poverty, disease and death, and which is the primal cause of the nuisances at Hunter’s point“, is portrayed as an octopus with a somewhat vacant stare, as if it had no awareness of the havoc it’s wreaking.

TheMonsterMonopoly-1884A
The Monster Monopoly by Frank Beard, a cartoonist who helped usher in the American Prohibition. This was published in Judge in 1884.

Joseph Ferdinand Keppler-1904-Next
And again in 1904. Next! was published in Puck Magazine. This octopus is considerably meaner – its intent is to destroy.

Another monopoly that was detrimental enough to warrant an octopus caricature was the Railroad Monopoly:

The_Curse_of_California-G.F.Keller
The Curse of California (I believe it has many more, now) by George Frederick Keller, “its many tentacles controlling such financial interests as the elite of Nob Hill, farmers, lumber interests, shipping, fruit growers, stage lines, mining, and the wine industry“.

The following trio take on the same map, making for interesting compare-and-contrast material. The years may go by, but Russia continues to be grabby… Incidentally, as I am Russian, apparently these Tentacle Tuesdays of mine were pre-ordained by Fate.

Serio-ComicWarMap-1877

Serio-Comica-Carta-1878

Serio-ComicMapJapanese
The Japanese answer to the serio-comic octopus map of some decades past. created during the Russo-Japanese conflict of 1905.

Speaking of Russia…

HowCommunismWorks
Entertainingly, these days, one can purchase this image as a poster on Amazon or at Walmart.

And speaking of communism…

Pieuvre-france
« All European countries have vanquished communism – only France remains under threat. »

Lest I be accused of all this having no relevance whatsoever to today’s political climate… well, fortunately some traditions die hard, and tentacles as a representation of an all-encroaching evil are here to stay!

The-Nightmare-Mark-Bryan
Illustration by Mark Bryan. Painted in 2016, this is the artist’s vision of what a Trump presidency would be like.

I wasn’t going to let the other party off the hook… Or is it one and the same?

Putin-tentacles
Cartoon by Graeme Mackay.

≈ ds

Jean Effel’s Gentle Blasphemy

Despite his father’s insistence on a commercial career, French illustrator Jean Effel (1908-1982) pursued studies in music, art and philosophy. When his attempts to become a theatrical writer failed, he switched gears and started working as a caricaturist for newspapers in the 1930s. By the 1940s, his work was widely known and widely published, mostly in socialist/communist newspapers sponsored by the French Communist Party. After the second World War, he also branched out into book illustration (his work on Fables de la Fontaine is quite charming). Today, he’s mostly remembered (if barely) for his La création du monde (The Creation of the World).

I learned about Jean Effel (a nom de plume; François Lejeune was his true name) from a couple of books my parents had lying around when I was growing up. He was, I believe, my first exposure to cartoons, and the warm place his work holds in my heart is partly dictated by nostalgia. Only in part, however; few would deny that Effel’s animals and humans, his God, his Devil and his various angels are charming in that plump, childlike way that young animals are irresistibly cute. Some grouchy contrarians might get annoyed by that cuteness; the rest of us will enjoy his kind world. Oh, vexations and sarcasm are part of its tapestry, but nobody stays angry for long, pranks are witty but inoffensive, and problems are creatively resolved. Effel was an atheist, but his God was so kind and paternal that even priests didn’t object to their parishioners reading his work.

JeanEffel-divine
“How was it?” “Divine!” Even Effel’s handwriting/lettering is adorably rounded, childlike.

JeanEffel-Adam-and-Eve
“Leave my tools alone! It’s a sacred thing…” Note Adam’s scar, mute testimony to his missing rib.

To come back to my childhood, the twist in the story is that the books were in Russian: Soviet translations from French. The main collection of Jean Effel’s work was published in 1963 by the Hermitage Museum’s publishing press. The introduction calls him a « sincere friend of the Soviet Union », pointing out that Effel even learned to use Russian letters. In 1967, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, which was mostly reserved for non-Soviets, foreign prominent Communists and supporters of the Soviet Union. (Nelson Mandela also had one, as did Linus Pauling and Pablo Picasso.

JeanEffelAmisA
Jean Effel’s present to the U.S.S.R.: a detailed map of France, with a hand-lettered dedication – “to my Soviet friends, with all my heart”.

It’s odd, but I can’t give you the exact date of the conception or publication of The Creation of the World: the Soviet book mentions that it was begun in 1950, English Wiki gives the date as 1945, French Wiki says 1953, Encyclopaedia Universalis (a French site) posits 1937, etc. Rather absurdly, there are a lot more detailed articles about Effel in Russian than in French, so for once I actually tend to trust the Russian side of things. It was clear that Effel genuinely liked Russians, and admired what he saw on his many visits to the U.S.S.R. I assume he only saw what he wanted to see (or what he was shown by his tour guides); still, he was clearly an idealist, a kind and gentle man by all accounts who believed in pacifism and loved animals.

A few pages from my 1963 Soviet edition:

EffelChiensA
Dog meteorology: “He’s raising his paw: now water will pour down…”

JeanEffelLoupsA
To each his own fairy tale: “But the poor wolf was so stuffed after eating grandmother that he had no appetite left for Red Riding Hood!”

EffelAnge01A

EffelAnge02A
The desk caption says “found objects”.

EffelAdamEveA
141: “He’s making projects for something…” 143: “How hilarious! If this keeps up, I’ll lose a rib from laughing too hard…” 144: “This is but a sketch. Just wait ’til you see the 3D version…”

A few years ago, I found another Russian edition in some Canadian (how books travel..) second hand bookstore, a collection in four volumes:

JeanEffel-CreationduMonde
Clockwise, left to right: Adam and Eve, Sky and Earth, Plants and Animals, and People.

The back covers are also worth a look:

JeanEffel-2

Oddly, Animals and Plants is marked as costing 75 kopecks, and the other three are 80 kopecks each, though this was clearly sold as a set with a slipcase.

JeanEffel-1

JeanEffel-3

JeanEffel-Devil
There can be no god without a devil! The charming Lucifer is probably my favourite character. This is a page from the Russian-Estonian edition. 173: “He likes us: he’s wagging his tail!” 174: “My name is Lucifer, but you can simply call me Lulu!” 175: “Oh, Mister Lucifer! You’re just the devil!” 176: “Perhaps I can tempt you with an apple?”

JeanEffel-CreationduMonde1997
The most recent edition of La création de l’homme, published in 1997.

A few other odds and ends from Effel’s multi-faceted career…

JeanEffel-Sylvain
Sylvain is inviting you… to visit the PROTECTION OF NATURE exhibit at the Paris Fair.

JeanEffel-egyptien

The French Postal Service issued a stamp in 1983 to celebrate Jean Effel and his sweet version of Marianne, a cheerful young woman with a red cap who symbolized the new French Republic.

Timbre-JeanEffel

~ ds

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.

vyistavka-jurnal-krokodil-2-1
“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.

Krodil1927
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…

KrokodilFritz1942
“Fritz in Hell”, 1942. Illustration by Y. Ganf. “Fritz” is used as a moniker for any of your average, humdrum Nazi.

KrokodilVacation1956
“Tribe of wild ones at the seashore”, 1956. Illustration by I. Rotov.

Krokodil051978
“We made a big mistake when we brought them to the puppet show!” 1978.

KrokodilProstitues1929
“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.

KrokodilProstitutesNasirov
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.

KrokodilGazelle1956
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.

KrokodilGranny
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.

Крокодил1975
“It’s a good omen: first let a cat walk into a new apartment!” 1975, cover by G. Andrianov.

Krokodil1979Bouillon
“And where are the potatoes, the pepper, the salt?” Illustration by V. Shkarban, 1979.

Krokodil251989
1989, illustration by E. Bender. I think somebody wanted an excuse to draw voluptuous women!

Krokodil281989
“Dressed like that? To the cinema?’ “– I’m going over there to be filmed…” Illustration by V. Mochalov, idea by M. Vaisbord, 1989.

KrokodilPigs1963
“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.

KrokodilHorseradish1945
“Same thing as in the vegetable patch: old horseradish next to a young potato.” Illustration by I. Semenov, 1945.

KrodokilYasinkiyWolves
“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.

Krokodil1975
“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