Krokodil digital archive

The University of Cambridge has trial access to the Krokodil digital archive until 15 May 2015.

Access the trial of Krokodil via this link

The essay below by John Etty of the University of Leeds describes the history and importance of the Krokodil magazine.

Visit also the Krokodil magazine blog here.

‘Red Crocodile: the Bravest of the Brave!’

On 27 August 1922, Krokodil (the Crocodile) magazine was published as an independent publication for the first time. Bursting from its front cover was a snarling red crocodile, an avatar that has symbolised the magazine and its brand of political satire ever since. Over the years, Krokodil’s list of editors and contributors included many of the Soviet Union’s literary luminaries and esteemed artists. Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mikail Kol’tsov, Ilf and Petrov, Samuil Marshak, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Sergei Mikhalkov and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya all wrote for Krokodil; Dmitri Moor, Mikhail Cheremnykh, Boris Efimov, the Kukrynisksy trio, and Ivan Semenov all created cartoons. In the first issue Demyan Bednyi defined the magazine’s aims: ‘To reach any rottenness/And to stir rot without any mercy,/So that the NEP sludge does not flower,/And is not rotten./Here is the task of the Red Crocodile!’ (‘Dobirat’sia do vsiakoi gnilosti/I voroshit’ gnil’ bez vsiakoi milosti,/Chtob NEPovskaya mut’ ne tsvela,/I ne gnila./Vot kakova zadacha Krasnovo Krokodila!)

Krokodil was not unique in the 1920s—numerous satirical publications existed in the USSR at this time—but by the end of the 1920s, practical difficulties (including paper shortages), party efforts to reduce ‘parallelism’ (the existence of multiple publications with identical aims and methods) and ideological attacks combined to force all other union-wide satirical journals to close down. Before 1941, circulation remained around 300,000, but in the post-war period it peaked at around 5.8 million (in 1980) and was firmly established as one of the leading publications in the Soviet Union. In form, apart from variations in publication dates, issue numbers and length, Krokodil remained essentially unaltered until its final issue in 1991. Admonished in 1948 by a Central Committee decree, the Editorial Board regularized production so that for the majority of the postwar period, the magazine was a sixteen-page, four-color journal, published thirty-six times annually (on the 10th, 20th and 30th of each month), on newsprint paper. Satirical content was mainly found in political cartoons and poems, but also in articles, letters, feuilletons and other genres.

Its status, as the only satirical journal published in the USSR, under direct Party control after 1932, leads to fundamental but as yet unexplored questions about the function of state-sponsored visual satire, official humor and popular responses to it, about artistic independence and working practices, and about the real extent of Krokodil’s popularity. Readers’ contributions, in the form of letters, cartoons and competition entries, and subscription numbers, but in the absence of empirical audience research and an accessible archive, the text itself remains the best source on the magazine.

Krokodil emerged in the USSR at the moment of the creation of a national Soviet mass media, broadcast and communications systems, and its demise coincided with the expansion of the internet. Between these dates, Krokodil provided a mediated documentation of life in the USSR. The magazine often engaged with topics relating to the media and a fascination with the nature of the Soviet media system is evident in Krokodil’s texts and cartoons. Krokodil in fact represents an important and double-voiced discursive investigation of Soviet media and power: if it was not overtly critical of government policy or personalities, it was profoundly skeptical in its attitudes to the manifestations of Soviet modernism, despite being a product of Soviet modernity. It was critical of technology and over-mechanization, it ridiculed bureaucracy and excessive centralized control, and it was dubious about urbanization and collectivism. Perhaps more effectively than any other publication in the USSR, Krokodil fulfilled the social role of Soviet media imagined by Lenin when he outlined the newspaper’s importance in On Party Organisation and Party Literature (1905). In the 1960s, the magazine routinely received around five hundred letters per day, and some of this correspondence was published in the magazine. Since Krokodil was a publication that was co-constructed by professional and amateur producers, and the magazine may be understood as a mode of communication between government and populace. In a sense, since it was the result of collaboration between joint stakeholders, Krokodil may be understood as a kind of merged official-popular discourse.

Krokodil was an important creative force in the visual language of Soviet graphic satire. Each issue contained an average of twenty-five cartoons, and the magazine’s prolificacy, as well as its numerous similarities with poster art, ensured that its contributions to visual communication were significant. Krokodil is considered by some to represent a type of ‘proto-comic’, and indeed its reliance upon word-image constructions to communicate meaning is an important part of its exploration of semiosis. Krokodil is much less studied than other Soviet visual media but no less central or influential. The magazine’s ephemerality and its tendency towards repetitiousness have perhaps devalued it in the eyes of some scholars, but Krokodil provides an important perspective on the cultural shift away from logocentrism, a trajectory more commonly analyzed through literature and film.

In authoritarian regimes such as the USSR, humor is vitally important, and Krokodil’s humor is central to understanding the laughter in the Soviet Union. Soviet satire’s methods were mocking and ridiculing, and its targets were identified using Party ideology. The tone of its high profile, anti-western cartoons was didactic and aggressive, but a close study of Krokodil’s humor reveals a surprisingly playful approach that allowed for more interpretive freedom. A large and significant group of cartoon images satirized domestic topics, and it is important to acknowledge the range of political opinions embedded in them. Excavating dissident opinions and assuming perpetually faithful support would be two equally erroneous approaches to Soviet humor in Krokodil, since the magazine was always more complex. The function of affirmative official-popular satire, whether as a political weapon or as a social pressure valve, may be productively explored through Krokodil.

Krokodil had, and indeed it continues to have, a loyal following. Satirists and cartoonists of various political persuasions cite its influence. Fan sites on social media websites, repeated attempts to revive the magazine, media interest in the magazine, its anniversaries and individuals connected with it, and the ongoing publication of a 12-volume history of the twentieth century told through extracts, all testify to the ongoing interest in and nostalgia for the publication. The publication of this digital resource brings the magazine closer to a scholarly audience and offers the opportunity to fill in the gaps in our understanding, some of which are identified above, and to gain a better understanding of the intersection of media power, politics and humorous popular engagement in the Soviet context.

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