Keeping sketches: a chronology of cartoons that characterised the cold war

A new book sets Soviet popular art by ‘court’ cartoonists and their western counterparts in historical context rather than viewing…

A new book sets Soviet popular art by 'court' cartoonists and their western counterparts in historical context rather than viewing them as charming icons of retro chic, writes JOHN BYRNE

THE POLITICAL ENTITY that was the USSR dissolved more than two decades ago, but its visual culture continues to enjoy a robust, albeit curious, afterlife. So thoroughly have fields such as advertising, graphic design and fashion appropriated and assimilated Soviet iconography that imagery once seen as bullishly propagandist has been reconfigured as charming and kitsch. The square-jawed workers of Soviet poster art, who gazed with defiant and upturned faces towards a utopian future, have long since been stripped of their revolutionary potency. They are now part of a consumerist culture that cannily repackages them as “retro” icons of “revolutionary chic”.

In Drawing the Curtain: The Cold War in Cartoons, a new collection of Soviet popular art, the emphasis is, refreshingly and appropriately, on viewing this material in its historical context. By juxtaposing the work of Soviet "court" cartoonists such as Boris Efimov and Yuly Ganf with that of feted western counterparts, including Herbert Block (Herblock) and David Low, the volume charts a chronology of the cold war that attempts to reinvest these images with their original meanings.

As striking as many of the included images are, the collection is haunted by a sense of what is missing. One of the editors, Frank Althaus, and a contributor, Timothy Benson, discovered after trawling through archives that many of the big moments of the cold war, such as the Cuban missile crisis, or the establishment of the Berlin Wall, simply weren’t tackled at all. Given that the raison d’être of Soviet cartooning was primarily the satirical vilification of the West and the celebration of the moral and ideological superiority of the Soviet Union, this absence is not altogether surprising.


What the cartoons produced in newspapers and magazines such as Pravdaand Krokodilconveyed, the book suggests, was a tightly controlled and "predetermined, state-sanctioned point of view".

Depictions of problematic events that had potential to cast the Soviet Union in a bad light were forbidden. In addition, in contrast to western political cartoons, where the focus was generally on quick visual responses to newsworthy events, Soviet cartoonists were expected to take a broader view. What mattered most was not topicality but the reiteration of key themes and messages.

The chief target of Soviet satire was, of course, the US, and cartoonists quickly developed, as Benson says, “a recognisable array of quasi-formulaic images and characters” to help communicate the perceived aggressivenesses and regressiveness of the US. A recurring image, particularly during periods of conflict such as the Korean and Vietnam wars, was of a compromised Statue of Liberty. As another contributor, Polly Jones, suggests, “Lady Liberty” herself was frequently portrayed “submerged in the mire of a ‘dirty war’ ” or “demonic atop a tank, weeping for lost innocence . . . with missiles radiating from her crown”.

What Soviet cartoons consistently articulated was a sense of American capitalism and democracy as little more than a hypocritical facade. Images of grotesque fat cat industrialists and weapons manufacturers growing rich at the expense of the neglected American working class were common. More interestingly, critical depictions of American backwardness often focused on the issue of race and racism. In Boris Efimov’s work, for example, corpulent, cigar-chomping, affluent-looking white male racists recur: they are taking pleasure in police mistreatment of civil-rights protesters or encouraging the segregation of transport and public spaces.

Though Soviet cartoonists were licensed to satirically torpedo the perceived failings of western capitalism and democracy, opportunities for reflection on internal affairs were extremely limited. The first Soviet cartoon to depict a Soviet leader did not, Benson explains, appear until 1960 – and even then the portrait, of Khruschev, was inevitably sympathetic and flattering.

Caricatures of Stalin, even completely benign and inoffensive ones, were so actively discouraged that none ever appeared in the Soviet press during his lifetime.

The relentlessly propagandist nature of Soviet cartoons ultimately meant, Benson suggests, that the “material became very repetitive, very predictable, and as a result pretty dull” in satirical terms. The frequent use of explanatory text to hammer home the message also tended to dilute the visual potency of the cartoons.

But viewed purely in aesthetic and graphical terms, and divorced from the banal textual repetition of the party line, some of the images are extraordinary. For example, Yuly Ganf’s provocative image of an ape showing a grisly picture of Heinrich Himmler to a wild-eyed and blood-caked American soldier may be somewhat muddled, as satire, but it packs a thrillingly visceral wallop.

The real success of Drawing a Curtainis that, unlike the kitsch products of Soviet chic, it never allows these dazzling visuals to become detached from the historical and ideological circumstances that produced them.

Drawing the Curtain: The Cold War in Cartoons,edited by Frank Althaus and Mark Sutcliffe, is published by Fontanka