War and Laughter:
Political Cartoons in Russia’s Liberal Press, 1914-1918

While much political satire is funny, war is never a joke. Nevertheless, satire occupied a prominent role in the pages of Russia’s liberal press during the Great War and Revolution. Political Cartoons from two liberal papers that catered to different readerships, the Penny Paper (Gazeta Kopeika) and The New Satyricon (Novyi Satirikon), demonstrate how differing sections of Russia’s liberal press used satire at key moments in the unfolding conflict to drive home larger points about the nature and direction of life during wartime. Social satire at a given historical moment provides a snapshot of the unique chemistry between criticism and patriotism that seems to be heightened in wartime. It reveals important class distinctions in how different groups of people think about their nation and government.

Satire has a long history in Russian culture, with roots in Antiokh Kantemir’s eighteenth-century satirical verse and the satirical journals in which Catherine II participated as a contributor, editor, and censor. Nineteenth-century Russian belles-lettres also boasted notable satirical works, and satirical journals surged in popularity after the Revolution of 1905. In the aftermath of that uprising, frustration and despair spread among many layers of Russian society, and the millennia-old corrective of ridicule provided an important outlet for critical sentiment.

At the outbreak of the Great War, the focus of satirical content in the nation’s press shifted abruptly from topics focusing on domestic reform to the promotion of patriotic unity. Newspapers and journals with contrasting ideological platforms and readerships briefly reconciled their differences in the face of a common enemy. Although Penny Paper and The New Satyricon shared a similar politically liberal bent, they catered to economically and socially different audiences. The New Satyricon's contributors included some of the most important writers of the time like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandel’shtam, and Aleksei Tolstoy. Its more educated and prosperous readers were exposed to cartoons that took for granted a detailed knowledge of culture and current events. By comparison, the editors of Penny Paper were slow to introduce wartime cartoons. They provided their generally lower-class audience a more narrow range of images, restricted mostly to the caricature of enemies.

Boasting an urban readership of several hundred thousands, the Penny Paper represents a sort of baseline for urban popular opinion at the time. Before the war, the Penny Paper focused on publishing serial novels, most notably the adventures of the bandit Anton Krechet. With the outbreak of war, the frequency of news stories increased significantly. The cartoons that begin to appear in the paper several months after the war began would eventually be accompanied by realistic sketches from the front, a tendency that demonstrates the paper’s non-satirical tone. Images and cartooning were never a strong focus, although with the appearance of enemies as a safe target for satire, cartoons quickly found a place. The images in The New Satyricon, a weekly journal that emphasized both satirical writing and cartooning, are understandably more complex and interesting, drawn by leading artists of that generation like “Re-mi” (N. V. Remizov-Vasil’ev), V. V. Lebedev, “Miss” (A. V. Remizova), and others.

The satirical focus of both publications changed as the war progressed. At the outbreak of the war, the temporary surge of patriotic fervor was evident in cartoonish images of enemy leaders: Germany’s Wilhelm II, Austria-Hungary’s Franz-Josef, and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V. The cartoons below reflect the nature of this satire: Wilhelm II appears self-contradictory and hypocritical, Franz-Josef is depicted as the hapless plaything of his German neighbor, and Mehmed V is ridiculous, frequently disappointing German expectations. In this regard, the cartoons in both the Penny Paper and The New Satyricon remain strikingly consistent in their characterizations. Wilhelm II is marked by his upturned mustaches and pointed helmet, Mehmed V by his eastern slippers that turn up at the toe, a fez, and the fig tree, Franz-Josef by his military cap. Similarly, on the eve of American entry into the war, both papers would find plenty to criticize in America’s hesitation to commit troops.

Once the initial excitement of the war had worn off, the papers’ focus shifted away from ridiculing enemy leaders to more pressing concerns at home. By 1916, as the home front experienced growing hardship and declining morale, and with little progress evident on the front lines, the discrepancy between Russia’s wealthy elite and impoverished citizens became an increasingly prominent topic of satire. Common manifestations of this theme included the hypocritical Society for the Fight against Luxury and the “feasting” of the wealthy and while the poor “fast.”

The Revolution in 1917 brought still other topics into the satirical cross-hairs of these periodicals. The Penny Paper abandoned the usual funny sketches of the enemy to begin poking fun at social issues and corruption at home. The editorial board of The New Satyricon, meanwhile, ruthlessly parodie the Bolshevik take-over. Eventually both publications would be shut down as the Bolsheviks pursued their policy of controlling the press. The cover of The New Satyricon’s last issue featured a caricature of Karl Marx and the caption, “Karl Marx, born in Germany 1818, buried in Russia 1918.” Soon thereafter most of the editorial board emigrated. Despite an attempt to renew the journal in Paris in 1931, its voice had been effectively silenced in Russia, foreshadowing Soviet intolerance of satire not sanctioned by the state.

The political cartoons in Penny Paper and The New Satyricon reveal some of the Russian press’s most pointed criticism of its enemies, society, and the Bolshevik Revolution. Throughout this tragic era, satire served to unify readers in a spirit of patriotism by criticizing Russia’s enemies, ridiculing hypocrisy, poor governance, and injustice at home, and resisting the Bolshevik’s single-minded pursuit of revolution. The Bolsheviks themselves employed satire very little during the Great War, but they would find the tool of ridiculing one’s opponents immensely effective in the years after 1918, and the NEP period witnessed a blossoming of satirical literature, many consumers of which had once been avid readers of The New Satyricon.

Sidney Eric Dement, Binghamton University (USA)

Page design by Keah Cunningham, University of Kansas (USA)



Special thanks are due to the staff of KU's Center for Digital Scholarship for their work in producing high-quality scans of the cartoons in this module. The images provided here include modifications designed to improve aesthetics and readability on the web. The original, full quality scans will be made available via KU ScholarWorks, along with additional cartoons and commentary provided by Dr. Dement.

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