(The following post is by Matt Young, Reference Librarian for Russia, European Division and Christopher Moldes, Library Technician in the Russia Section of the Germanic & Slavic Division)
How do you say “Pow!” in Russian? The answer to this question awaits discovery among the Library’s growing collection of Russian-language comic books and graphic novels. Complementing the Library’s vast holdings of American comic books (the largest of its kind in the world), the Library’s Russian collection represents an emerging cultural phenomenon that is attempting to find its own “homegrown” style. Alongside native versions of superhero adventure stories, Russian comic books and graphic novels address a wide variety of topics and issues, ranging from dark episodes of the Soviet past to contemporary themes of identity and community. Although in many ways the comic book scene in Russia is undoubtedly influenced by the American and European traditions, visual storytelling has a long and rich history in the country that can also serve as a source of inspiration.
One of the most significant art mediums in Russian culture is the Orthodox Church’s icon. Soon after Kievan Rus’ (a loose medieval political federation of Eastern Slavic peoples, a cultural predecessor of Russia) adopted Christianity in 988 AD, artists began to create icons based on Byzantine designs and methods. Revered as sacred objects of prayer and meditation, icons often depict important religious figures such as saints. During the medieval period, when literacy was limited to a small elite, icons also served an important educational role by conveying information about Church teachings. A type of icon, called “zhitiinyi” visually represented the major events in a saint’s life, as well as the miracles he performed in his lifetime. In a zhitiinyi icon, a saint is displayed in the center and is surrounded by panels that feature various scenes from his life. The scenes can either stand alone to tell individual stories or unite to form a larger narrative. Like the later comic books, the zhitiinyi icon is an early example of separate panels coming together to create a story.
Another significant predecessor to comic books in Russia is the popular folk tradition of the “lubok.” They began in the 17th century as woodcuts of icons, and evolved over centuries to include many different styles and mediums, including copper engravings, lithographic prints, and hand-drawn images. As a result of Peter the Great’s (1672-1725) secularizing reforms, lubok prints began to take up new themes and genres, such as fairy tales, political satire, and scenes from daily life. Cheap and relatively easy to reproduce, lubok images became an ideal way to spread information. Their most striking resemblance to comic books is their frequent mix of image and text, often presenting a story in sequential panels. Some lubok prints were even loosely bound together to form a rudimentary kind of book.
Although the lubok faded in popularity in the 20th century due to the rise of other forms of mass media (radio, television, etc.), it did not disappear without influencing the revolutionary poster. In the years after 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian government, the revolutionary poster served the dual purpose of rallying the masses to the Bolsheviks’ cause and reinforcing the new symbols of the communist state. The communist propaganda (agitprop) posters of the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) during the Russian civil war (1917-22) perfectly demonstrate these two goals. Designed as a crude yet efficient way to spread information quickly, ROSTA posters were colorful stencil drawings displayed prominently in windows throughout cities. They not only kept citizens up to date on breaking developments on the war front, but also functioned as public service announcements on topics ranging from hygiene to communist doctrine. The talented Futurist poet (and early advocate of the revolution) Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) sketched and created many ROSTA posters, and is credited with developing their particular style. Combining the new visual language of the Soviet state (the much-used heavyset capitalist wearing a black top hat and monocle, for example) with his own aggressive style of poetry, Mayakovsky created messages often conveyed in sequential panels. In this rough-and-ready style reminiscent of comic books, the message of each ROSTA poster was both clear and memorable.
Although the immediate post-revolutionary period proved to be a boon for many forms of graphic art, comics were not among them in the newly-formed Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (and the Soviet Union it would later found). In a way, though, these events did spur the development of Russian language comics elsewhere. As Soviet rule took hold, quite a few people emigrated to neighboring countries. Many Russian graphic artists settled in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (where comics gained in popularity throughout the 1920s and 1930s), and began to adapt Russian fairy tales and literary classics to comic book form.
Fifteen of these comics have been reprinted in a large collection recently acquired by the Library of Congress, titled “Russkii komiks, 1935-1945: Korolevstvo Iugoslaviia” (Russian comics, 1935-1945: Kingdom of Yugoslavia). If you have been putting off reading some of Pushkin’s fairy tales, these illustrated adaptations are the perfect way to finally do so. The collection also includes a new biographical comics treatment of one of the medium’s main proponents in Yugoslavia, Konstantin Kuznetsov. He, along with several other prominent comics authors and artists of the time, formed the basis of the “Belgrade Circle,” responsible for most of the content published in this new collection.
Another “Belgrade Circle” member would prove instrumental in developing the comic book tradition within the Soviet Union. Yuri (Iurii) Lobachev, born to a Russian emigre family, eventually returned to the Soviet Union and set about working for various publications, including the children’s monthly, “Koster.” It was here that Lobachev tried to introduce Soviet audiences to comic books, and in January 1966 began publishing one-page installments of his new series “Hurricane to the rescue.” What begins with the kidnapping of two Soviet children by foreign spies turns into a globetrotting rescue attempt by the titular Soviet agent, codenamed Hurricane. Throughout its initial four months, Lobachev introduced the audience to these conniving foreign agents in Europe and colonial exploiters in Africa. The installments were in black-and-white penciling, with only the second entry in February fully colorized.
As he later recounted, Lobachev anticipated having 12 issues in which to flesh out a full narrative with a large cast of sympathetic characters. However, no continuation of the story was published in May 1966. The authorities in the Communist Party had noticed Lobachev’s attempts to bring comic book art to the Soviet mainstream, and forbade him to publish the story any further. Socialist realism, the Soviet government-promoted art style, placed a premium on “realistic” artistic depictions, a policy which would severely inhibit artistic development from the 1930s on. Comics, with their grandiose and often heroic escapades, were therefore viewed with suspicion, all the more so because of their popularity in the West, which during the Cold War all but assured that the Communist Party would disapprove of the medium.
Despite this, Lobachev pleaded with the authorities to allow for a speedy resolution to his story, to which they agreed. June saw the return of Hurricane, with the story ending in a two-page denouement in July. Storylines and characters rapidly came together, and Hurricane was able to rescue not only the two young Soviet citizens, but also what had been a burgeoning secondary character from colonial Africa. With this last issue, Soviet comics art would not see a resurgence until the late 1980s, during General Secretary Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) era, when press controls were relaxed.
Although this brief blossoming period was cut short by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the financial difficulties that plagued many publications and artists throughout the 1990s, some great forays into comic book art were made. One particularly popular and successful endeavor was “Mukha” (The Fly), a monthly publication showcasing the latest from up-and-coming Russian comic book artists and authors. If you do not know Russian but would love to see what the Russian comic book scene was all about in the 1990s, look no further than a special, bilingual edition of “Mukha” from 1991: “The First Attempt to Cross the Ocean.” With speech bubbles in both English and Russian, this issue contains many exciting tales, such as one where unscrupulous black marketeers, trafficking in irradiated relics from the Chernobyl power plant accident, have unleashed a zombie-like mutation across Russia. Another more humorous story involves the crew of a time-travelling Soviet nuclear submarine who continuously and fumblingly interfere in historical events with their advanced nuclear technology. Not all of these stories are kid friendly (in addition to some depictions of violence, sexual themes are present in several stories), which should help put an end to the perennial debate over whether comic books are simply for children’s consumption.
The Russian comics industry has found new vigor in the 21st century. Many publishing houses have sprung up, and numerous comics festivals take place every year across Russia. The Library of Congress has been acquiring many titles from publishers big and small, and below you can find some titles to keep your eyes on as they get added to our collection.
“Shuv,” written and penned by Olga Lavrenteva, is a ten-part story of two young Russians trying to make sense of a neighbor’s suicide. As the years pass and they age, Lavrenteva shows us how their grasp of this traumatic event becomes more complex, yet ultimately understandable as they, too, face life’s challenges. The artwork is both haunting and austere, which helps ground the story in its desolate setting.
For more light-hearted and fantastical fare, “Ekslibrium,” written by Natalia Devova, tells a story that is at once familiar and unique: a college student discovers a secret society of “bookworms” who battle to prevent fictional characters and monstrosities from crossing over into our world from their respective books. Natalia herself joins the ranks of these bookworms and discovers her own hidden powers. With eye-popping, colorful visuals, “Ekslibrium” is a great introduction to one of Russia’s largest comics publishers, Bubl.
Also popular from Bubl, the “Major Thunder” (Maior Grom) book series, which follows the exploits of a talented detective who uses his quick wit and bravado to bring down Russia’s fiercest criminals. Every hero needs a villain, and for Major Thunder that role is played with gleeful wickedness by the Plague Doctor, a ruthless millionaire who relishes sowing chaos in the name of rebuilding society. A more restrained Mike Hammer-type and placed against the backdrop of modern Russia, Major Thunder has proven popular enough to inspire a major film adaption scheduled for release next year.
Lena Uzhinova’s “I am an Elephant!” (Ia—slon!) is a frank coming-of-age story of a young man with a physical disability, searching for his place in society. The story’s protagonist directly addresses the reader under the guise of his alter ego, a circus elephant performing on stage, in front of a live audience. Deftly balancing dark humor and raw emotion, “I am an Elephant!” brings to light a perspective not often represented in Russian popular culture.
The Library hopes to make these Russian comic book titles and many more available soon through its online catalog. To get an idea of what Russian comic books and graphic novels have been added to the catalog, you can search by subject, using the following terms: “Comic books, strips, etc.–Russia (Federation)” or “Graphic novels–Russia (Federation) –Comic books, strips, etc.” Whether you are a comic book lover or simply want to improve your Russian, these titles will provide an exciting glimpse into a rapidly growing creative industry.