Michael Perekrestov, Anastasia Shteinert 

The devil nurturing his son, a crowned donkey, a sinister cat— these farcical characters live on pages of a colorful collection of prints in the Russian History Museum’s collection. Whom are these caricatures mocking?  

The prints were produced in 1914, when the Russian Empire entered World War I. The illustrations in the album are wartime propaganda designed to glorify the Russian Empire’s army and its allies, and to lampoon its opponents in the Great War.

Context Matters

On August 1, 1914, the Russian Empire led by tsar Nicholas II declared war on Germany and entered World War I. Russia aimed to support its ally, Serbia, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo on June 28 of the same year. Germany declared war on Russia in response to the mobilization of the Russian army.

Russia was drawn into a conflict that rapidly escalated into a global war. The Russian Empire, along with France and Britain (the Triple Entente) and their allies confronted the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and, later, Bulgaria.

Russian 1914 poster depicting the female personifications of France, Russia, and Britain, the Triple Entente allies. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Russia, patriotic and anti-German sentiment intensified from the early days of the war. Wartime propaganda played a significant role in demonizing the enemy (at times quite literally, as seen in an illustration below). An album of caricatures from our collection titled Pictures: Russians’ War Against Germans is a telling example of the creative use of imagery in propaganda during World War I. 

The album was printed by F.G. Shilov in 1914–15, who published several other collections of caricatures in the early years of the war. The illustrations were created by artist N.P. Shakhovsky in imitation of 18th-century lubok prints. Lubok (plural lubki) is a traditional Russian popular print with simple graphics and narratives often taken from folk tales or religious stories. The vivid, expressive art of the lubok was accessible and understandable to the population, even those with minimal or no education. 

The prints were inexpensive to produce; initially as woodcuts, later as engravings and etchings. Once printed, lubki were hand-colored with eye-catching paints.

Wilhelm the “Bloodsucker”

A frequently recurring character in the album is Wilhelm II (1859–1941), the last Emperor (Kaiser) of the German Empire. Wilhelm appears in the album in many incarnations, serving to dehumanize and deride the enemy’s leader. On one of the first pages, Kaiser appears as a sullen cat.

"The cat Vaska the Prussian is the enemy of Russia"

The cat sports the Kaiser’s distinctive upturned mustache. The illustration is captioned with the following unflattering moniker: “The cat Vaska the Prussian is the enemy of Russia.” Vaska is a commonly used name for cats in Russia. 

Another caricature depicts Wilhelm holding a glass of blood, with the image labeled “World’s Bloodsucker” [“Всемирный кровопийца”], underscoring the Kaiser’s cruelty and disregard for human life.

"World’s Bloodsucker"

A particularly demonizing image portrays Wilhelm as a baby in swaddling clothes, being rocked by a large green devil with horns and hooves. The caption reads: “The devil nursing his son from Berlin.”

"The devil nursing his son from Berlin"

Taking aim at the emperor’s level of intelligence and competence as a ruler, another print renders the Kaiser  as a crowned donkey, dressed in imperial regalia and seated on a golden throne under the German Empire’s coat of arms. To the right, a crowd looks through an open door in surprise at the “emperor.” The caption reads: “At last, the Germans see who sits on their throne.” 

"At last, the Germans see who sits on their throne"

Our “Heroes” against Their “Villains” 

While the majority of the lubki mock the Kaiser and his allies, a number of illustrations portray Russian commanders and the coats of arms of allied states. They are meant to contrast “good” Russia and its allies with “evil” and “ridiculous” Germany and its supporters. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich the Younger, the Supreme Commander of Russian forces in 1914–1915, is given prominence. He is shown wearing numerous medals and orders, against a bright background of banners and military paraphernalia.

"Supreme Commander His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich"

Subsequent illustrations portray Russian generals on horseback, including N.I. Ivanov, N.V. Ruzsky, and M.V. Alekseev. The names would have been familiar to anyone following the triumphs and reverses of the Imperial Russian Army during this bloody conflict. 

It is evident that the artist drew inspiration from Russia’s military past and attempted to engender feelings of national pride in the viewer. The generals are illustrated in a style reminiscent of the depictions of heroic figures, bogatyrs, from the epic poems of Medieval Russia, known as bylinas.

V. Vasnetsov, "Bogatyrs," 1881-98. Source: The State Tretyakov Gallery

While the generals are specified by name, other illustrations honor the common soldier. One print representing an infantryman is labeled “Russian Miracle-Bogatyr,” a reference to soldiers serving under the most celebrated of Russian generals, Alexander Vasilevich Suvorov (1730—1800), who performed feats such as marching across the Alps in the face of fierce resistance from Napoleon’s armies. Another illustration shows a cossack on a rearing steed, calling to mind the important role of these bold mounted fighters in defeating Napoleon in 1812. In fact, the overall character of the lubki contained in this album hearken back to similar illustrations lampooning the French and glorifying Russian soldiers and partisans created during the period of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

The emphasis on past military feats is also apparent in the inclusion of a likeness of Prince Alexander Nevsky, inscribed “Saint Alexander Nevsky in 1242 defeated the Germans on the ice of Lake Peipus.”

Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Vladimir and Kiev, is best known for his defeat of the knights of the Livonian Order at the Battle on the Ice, which took place on Lake Peipus on April 5, 1242.

In collective memory, Nevsky is celebrated as the defender of Russia against Western invaders, and the album portrays him as a symbol of victory over the Germans. The image in the album is based on his portrait from the Tsar’s Titulary, a 1672 manuscript detailing Russian monarchs and coats of arms.

The Sultan and His Harem

Another set of illustrations in the album satirize Mehmed V’s (1844–1918) Ottoman Empire during World War I, which fought on the side of the Central Powers against the Entente, thus pitting it directly against the Russian Empire. Several caricatures are based on the fact that most of Constantinople (often referred to in Russian as Tsargrad, i.e. the imperial city) is situated in Europe, with a smaller part in Asia, separated from one another by the Bosphorus Strait. 

One caricature humorously portrays Sultan Mehmed V as a goose wearing a fez with the caption: “A goose of the Tsargrad breed struggles with the European climate (close to extinction in Europe).” The illustration thus forecasts the imminent capture of Constantinople by Entente forces, forcing the Sultan to flee to Asia just across the strait.

"A goose of the Tsargrad breed struggles with the European climate (close to extinction in Europe)"

In a similar vein, two other lubki show the sultan “moving” to Asia. In one, the dejected Ottoman ruler rides a mangy donkey, surrounded by despairing courtiers; in the other, the sultan evacuates his harem to Asia on thirteen ships.

These illustrations reflect widespread societal sentiment. During patriotic rallies in August 1914 in Saint Petersburg, slogans like “Long Live England and France,” were accompanied by chants of “Cross on Sophia:” the expulsion of Muslim Turks from Constantinople (the capital of the former Christian Byzantium) and the raising of the Orthodox cross over Hagia Sophia were seen by many as Russia’s historical mission.

Demonstration in Saint Petersburg, 1914. The banner says: "Cross on Sofia." Source: livejournal.com

More images from the album