Satirical Journals

Among the reforms and freedoms promised by the Tsar Nicholas II’s Manifesto of October 17, 1905, issued amidst nationwide unrest, was the freedom of speech. For fourteen chaotic months, between December 1905 and January 1907, the Russian press functioned de facto without preliminary censorship for the first time. As Vladimir Lenin later recalled, “No publisher dared to present the authorities with their obligatory copy, and the authorities didn’t dare to take any measures against this.” (V. I. Lenin, “Doklad o revoliutsii 1905 goda,” Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 30, p. 321.) This anarchic situation facilitated the rapid spread of a new type of satirical magazine, which skewered the government, including the Tsar himself, in word and image. Most of the magazines that emerged in this period were short-lived, many of them closed down by police order after publishing features deemed offensive to church, state or public morality. But they nonetheless laid a firm foundation for a popular satirical print culture in revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union.

In design and print technology such satirical magazines as Adskaia pochta (The Infernal Post) and Zhupel (Bogey) represent the cutting edge of early modernist culture in Russia. They numbered many elite writers and artists among their founding contributors, from “realist” novelist Maxim Gorky to symbolist poet Konstantin Bal’mont, and from modernist painter Valentin Serov to future socialist realist Isaak Brodskii. The third issue of Adskaia pochta for 1906 consisted wholly of a portrait gallery of the Tsar’s cabinet by Boris Kustodiev and Zinovii Grzhebin, titled “Olympus”; the front cover, displayed here, shows Count Aleksei Ignat’ev, who was assassinated soon thereafter, in December 1906. The cover of Zhupel (no. 2, 1906) features Ivan Bilibin’s updating of a Russian folk motif about the stupidly evil Tsar Dodon, who transparently represents Nicholas II. Mstislav Dobuzhinskii’s “October Idyll,” adorning the cover of the opening issue of Zhupel, captures the ambivalence of the intelligentsia to the revolutionary violence, a theme he picked up in “Reconciliation” (Zhupel no. 2) which shows a rainbow rising over the Kremlin; this seemingly affirmative message is compromised by the sea of blood that has drowned the rest of Moscow and which lines the rainbow itself.

The cheaper, more popular face of the satirical press is represented here by the magazines Iumoristicheskii al’manakh (Humor Almanac) and Maliar (Dauber), which adopted lower production values, scrappier humor and more decisively radical politics. The cover of Iumoristicheskii al’manakh (here represented by issue no. 50, subtitled The Political Humor Swamp) shows a drowning government minister over the caption “Every sandpiper praises his own swamp.” The cover of Maliar (no. 3, 1906) reproduces a photograph of victims of a pogrom. Frequently these popular magazines adapted caricatures from the foreign press, with captions translated into Russian.

As eyewitness to the 1905 revolution Samuel Harper avidly collected the satirical magazines published in St. Petersburg, with the result that the University of Chicago holds an unusually rich collection of these rare ephemera, which provide a sense of the visual language that rapidly developed for political satire in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Constitution, Revolution, Provocation

The three key words of 1905 were constitution, revolution and provocation. Constitution was the formal demand and, to a limited degree, the prize of the broad uprising. Revolution, advocated by relatively small radical parties, was widely feared as the unintended result of the uprising and the government’s truculence. Provocation arose as a name for the government’s bloody efforts to discredit the revolutionary parties, sometimes by initiating or allowing terrorist actions against itself.

The satirical journals that sprung up in 1905, with the temporary end of preliminary censorship, frequently addressed these three concepts, often with humor. A series of caricatures in Kliuv (The Beak) shows “revolution” hatching from out of the egg of “constitution,” nurtured by the government. Zinovii Grzhebin’s caricature “The Were-Eagle” shows the serpents of revolution as the flipside of the double-headed eagle, symbolizing the imperial government. In Mitiai’s caricature extends this gallows humor to the satirical journals themselves: each of the major journals is named on a window of the jail that stands as a monument to the brief window of freedom of speech in 1905.