What is the first thing you would notice if you ran into a crocodile? Would it be his size, his speed, perhaps the uneven rows of long tearing teeth?
Surely you’d flee if he emerged running, bright red, with not only those gnashers but also wielding a pitchfork in one of his claws!
Such was the imagery of the Soviet satirical magazine Crocodile, a publication that functioned as state-sanctioned propaganda for the many years the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics held sway.
While political satire was dangerous during much of the Soviet period, the Communist Party understood how to use satire and caricature as means for social control. Because Crocodile was representative of official Soviet leadership opinion and ideology, its creatives were allowed far more leeway to ridicule political figures and events.
The magazine began its run in June 1922, first as a humorous supplement to Moscow magazine Rabochaya Gazeta. The supplement was first known as Rabochii (The Worker), renamed Rabochaya Gazeta after its parent publication and then finally, in August 1922, was issued as Crocodile.
The magazine’s editors chose to title the rebranded publication after Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s satirical short story of the same name. The magazine adopted a red crocodile as its mascot, which was sometimes depicted with a pitchfork in claw and a pipe in the mouth.
The goal of this imagery was to suggest what the editors “hoped would be the pointedness of their comment and the idea of tossing out all the dregs and refuse at which their satire was aimed.” Writer Demian Bedny also composed a poem to articulate the publication’s mission:
NEPmen were entrepreneurs, small businessmen and managers who appeared during a period of the early years of the Soviet Union when the Party implemented a temporary program called the New Economic Policy (NEP). The initiative, which ran from 1921 to 1928, eased policies of strict socialism and centralization.
The economy had progressed to a breaking point following the 1917 revolution, and the Soviet government addressed the crash by allowing private lands for the peasantry, who would pay taxes. This also left room for the NEPmen to flourish. This changed in 1928-29, after the economy had stabilized and Stalin chose to reverse the NEP and form collective agriculture.
Within this context, Crocodile provided a platform for criticizing the elements of Soviet society that flourished under these economic policies. However, the NEPmen were by no means the magazine’s only target.
Crocodile’s humorous stories, clever turns of phrase and beautiful illustrations were sharp, cutting to the heart of social issues and global events deemed threatening and undesirable to the Soviet regime. Over the many years of the magazine’s run, there were a multitude of subjects the publication’s creatives could use for fodder.
The magazine’s cartoonists, humorists and writers criticized petty criminals and troublemakers, intelligentsia and emigrees. They negatively portrayed bourgeois ideology, Western foreign policy and capitalist countries, and many political, ethnic, and religious groups that the Soviet government deemed threatening to their system.
However, despite government influence and ideological dictate, Crocodile was also a publication where creatives could engage in real social critique. Domestic issues covered included laziness in Soviet middle-ranking bureaucrats, alcoholism and drinking at work. Essentially, the illustrators and writers of Crocodile were commissioned to call out the most undesirable, destabilizing and threatening elements of society both inside and out of the Soviet system.
The Soviet leadership did not always, however, appreciate the efforts of the Crocodile staff. In a 1948 issue of the Soviet publication Kultura i Zhizn called "On the Magazine Crocodile," the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union censured Crocodile: “The Central Committee…. Notes that the magazine Crocodile is conducted in a quite unsatisfactory manner and is not a fighting organ of Soviet satire and humor.”
Crocodile’s editorial board was apparently also “out of touch with life.” In the same letter, the CPSU released the names of the magazine's new editorial board – shortly after announcing the name of editor-in-chief Ryklin’s replacement, D.G. Belyayev.
The Central Committee instructed the editorial board to “get rid of the shortcomings” of the publication and reminded its members to remain committed to the Party’s mission. They outlined what kinds of work would be permissible, assigned the publication certain tasks and required that the staff diversify the types of creative genres – verse, humorous, stories, fables and more – they would employ.
“The C.C.’s resolution states that the main task of the magazine is to fight against remnants of capitalism in the consciousness of the people. With the weapon of satire, the magazine is to fight against the remnant of capitalism in the consciousness of the people. With the weapon of satire the magazine must unmask embezzlers of Socialist property, grafters, bureaucrats, and any instances of bragging, sycophancy, or banality; it must respond promptly to controversial international events, must criticize the bourgeois culture of the West, showing up the insignificance and degeneracy of its ideas.”
This was not the only instance that the Soviet government mandated a change in editorial staff or policy for the magazine. Over the years, the government continued to intervene in order to ensure that Crocodile's messaging supported the ideals of the Communist regime.
The following images represent the range of social issues the Soviet government required artists to target during the 1960s and 1970s. The artists depicted a wide array of domestic social questions, and other common themes included a critique of US foreign policy and military initiatives as well as the abuse of alcohol.
The comics depicting international relations, global politics, and Western foreign policy were some of the most heavy-handed. The following are examples of the harsh criticism the Soviet government would heap on ideals and initiatives deemed threatening to their system.
Alcoholism and its dangers was a common target for official Soviet criticism throughout the years of the U.S.S.R. and continues to be a project for domestic reform under Putin's leadership. The following cartoons demonstrate themes of violence, social rejection, laziness, corruption, and the potential to experience social shame when alcohol is abused.
The following cartoons focus on domestic and social issues of the 1960s and 1970s.
Crocodile also commonly featured characters from fantasy, fables, folk tales and associated with Russian folklore and paganism.
The satirical magazine continued publishing continuously after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The title was changed to Noviy Krokodil (New Crocodile) briefly between 2001 and 2004, then returned to its original title until ceasing publication in 2008.
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