by Vladimir KAZANEVSKY / Ukraine

Vladimir Kazanevsky

Propaganda, agitation, advertising have always accompanied civilization. Manifestations of propaganda are already found in the cuneiform laws of the Babylonian king Hammurabi of the 18th century BC, in which the poor are allegedly protected, but in fact the rights of the rich are affirmed. The main carriers of propaganda are verbal messages that use humor and satire. Cartoons also often served as propaganda tools.

The use of cartoons in propaganda was particularly evident in the 16th century. A real war between cartoonists arose during the confrontation of Catholics with Protestants. On the one hand, an army of cartoonists began to criticize Catholics and the papal clergy. Martin Luther welcomed the distribution among the people of leaflets with engravings, which depicted cardinals, bishops, monks, and other priests. Lucas Cranach’s cartoons were popular. His series of cartoons “The Passion of Christ and the Antichrist” and “The Papacy” were scathing satires on the higher clergy.

Other cartoonists attracted out at the Reformers. These artists were widely encouraged by the papal clergy. Engravings and coins with caricatures of Luther and Calvin began to appear. The religious war in Europe continued. The struggle between the Catholics and the Huguenots was also accompanied by the confrontation of cartoonists in France. Huguenot cartoonists attacked Catherine de’ Medici and the Holy League in their engravings. The League’s supporters were sharply critical of the Huguenots. Parisian printing houses of that time switched completely to printing leaflets with cartoons. Moreover, they printed cartoons of both Protestants and League followers.

A fierce propaganda confrontation between cartoonists arose in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars. Artists began to ridicule Napoleon Bonaparte, who wanted to create a new empire. Napoleon was ridiculed by cartoonists in Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Holland, Britain, Austria, Germany, Prussia and Russia. Napoleon was depicted as a dog running away from the terrible Russian bears. Artists turned him into a miserable chicken, into a tame tiger, into a Harlequin. Napoleon became a dwarf; he was compared with the devil and a terrible monster. For example, the English cartoonist James Gillray created about a hundred cartoons, the main character of which was Napoleon, personifying the world’s evil.


Napoleon reacted painfully to such cartoons. He especially disliked British artists. He demanded that a clause be included in the Treaty of Amiens so that the cartoonists would be equated with murderers and counterfeiters, and also deported to France for trial [1].

For their part, the French cartoonists of that time created satirical sheets in which they criticized the enemies of the Napoleonic Empire. When Napoleon was removed from power, French artists began to denounce the atrocities that the former emperor had committed.

Another surge of informational confrontation between cartoonists arose during the First World War. Propaganda cartoons depicted satirical images of enemies and praised their own troops and rulers. The themes of cartoons meant to boost the morale of soldiers in warring countries were often created in government offices and communicated to artists. The journalists said that “… They laugh not only in the rear, but they also laugh even in the trenches” [2].

The methods and techniques of creativity of the opposing cartoonists were similar. Russian cartoonists created negative images of enemy soldiers. Often, they were shown as arrogant pedants, stupid and cowardly. Russian artists embellished their own soldiers, trying to present them as valiant, brave, savvy warriors.

Russian soldiers in German cartoons appeared in the form of uncultured drunkards or insidious and ferocious Cossacks. Russian officers were often depicted with a whip to drive soldiers into battle. The image of the Russian Empire was presented as a huge bear. However, such a cliche appeared long before the First World War. Russia was often portrayed as an angry and aggressive bear during the Napoleonic Wars.

German cartoonists also ridiculed the rulers of enemy states. Nicholas II was considered a traitor to the Holy Alliance in Germany. So, in the cartoon “The Kiss of Judas” he appeared in the image of Judas Iscariot. Wilhelm II at the same time appeared in the image of Christ [3].

On the other hand, Wilhelm II became the satirical hero of Russian cartoons. Cartoonists depicted him as a spider, a dog, a fox, a butcher, Satan, the Antichrist, and usually wearing his famous helmet.

New waves of propaganda campaigns swept the world on the eve of World War II. Themes of anticipation of war increasingly appeared in cartoons. After the coming to power of A. Hitler, fascist aggression becomes relevant. Cartoons, in which the main theme was the possibility of a new war, began to appear in the mass media of the USSR. Germany was depicted as a terrible boar or a huge wolf, which is ready to swallow the neighboring countries.

After the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the subject of propaganda changed dramatically. Germany was forbidden to criticize in the USSR. Soviet cartoonists dutifully began to portray the German military as loyal allies of the Red Army. This time can be called the union of a red star with a swastika.

Already in the first weeks of the war, Soviet artists began to quickly respond with caricatures of current events at the front. Their creations were printed in millions of copies in the central press and in front-line newspapers. This activity was carried out by the Propaganda and Agitation Department, as well as the Department for Work with Enemy Troops. Soviet soldiers were portrayed in caricatures as mighty heroes, military successes on the fronts were extolled. One of the leading official cartoonists of the USSR during the war was the Kukryniksy. Their cartoons regularly appeared on posters, in the Pravda newspaper and other publications. The main character of the cartoons was Hitler.

His manic desire for world domination was often highlighted in cartoons. Sometimes the companion of the bloody dictator was an old woman with a scythe. The theme of the cartoons was also the court that awaits the Fuhrer after the end of the war.

Another hero of the cartoons of that time was the Minister of Propaganda and Education of the Third Reich, Dr. Goebbels. The creator of German propaganda was presented as a small, skinny man with a huge head, a high open forehead. Soviet cartoonists did not forget the Italian dictator Mussolini. He was seen by artists as a huge fat man in a black cap, with a bulldog face. The main audience for Soviet propaganda cartoons were citizens of the USSR.

German cartoonists were also active in military propaganda. On the eve of the war, one of the main propaganda topics in Nazi Germany was anti-Semism. Cartoons on this topic appeared in many Nazi publications, such as the newspaper Der Stürmer, in the humorous magazine Lustige Blätter (published until 1944), the satirical magazine Simplicissimus and others. The heroes of the cartoons of these publications were the leaders of the countries of the Anti-Hitler coalition, as well as all those images that corresponded to the ideals of Hitler. Such ideals were National Socialism, racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Bolshevism. Nazi propaganda had to be accessible to a large mass of the most backward individuals. The Goebbels Propaganda Ministry became a generator of false information that was picked up and disseminated by the media. Often such information was used by artists when creating propaganda cartoons [4].

During the war, two Russian-language newspapers, Novoye Slovo and Klich, were published in Berlin. Wehrmacht propaganda structures were engaged in its release. The main target of the cartoons published in these newspapers was Stalin.

He was represented in the form of a snake, a bull, a tank, an Indian, a devil, a monster with a pistol mustache … Stalin often appeared in the company of Churchill and Roosevelt in cartoons. They looked like comic characters [5].

During the Second World War, cartoons were actively used for propaganda purposes in all warring countries. Artists from the countries of the Anti-Hitler coalition created cartoons that could contribute to the victory over the Hitler bloc.

The world community did not calm down after the Second World War. The wars continued. Civil and hybrid wars in Korea, China, Angola, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Colombia… And they were also accompanied by propaganda and counterpropaganda, in which cartoonists took an active part. It was already well known that propaganda cartoons have great manipulation potential and are an effective tool for influencing public consciousness.

The Soviet Union was isolated during the Cold War. Information about the wars in which Soviet troops took an active part was suppressed inside the country. Soviet military censors acted according to the “List of information prohibited for publication in the open press, radio and television broadcasts.” The first paragraph of this document read: “It is forbidden to show the participation of any military units of the USSR Armed Forces in military operations to protect the USSR and other states after 1945, as well as the provision of assistance to foreign states” [6]. The participation of Soviet military personnel in combat operations in Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia fell under the information taboo. At the time, the Western media widely circulated propaganda about these wars, including cartoons. The USSR preferred to remain silent about its participation in wars. There was only criticism of the influence of Western countries on these wars. For example, cartoons about the war in Afghanistan occasionally appeared in the central press of the USSR. However, almost all of them were aimed at exposing US and UK sponsorship of the Afghan Mujahideen [7].

Wars have also continued into the 21st century. Suffice it to recall the civil wars in Colombia, Libya, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Syria, as well as the wars between Iran and Iraq, then in Iraq … There were some propaganda cartoons here too.

The local war of Russia against Ukraine began in 2014. Russia annexed Crimea and moved its troops into eastern Ukraine. It should be noted that Russia secretly planned to occupy Ukraine long before the start of the war. The propaganda campaign against Ukraine, with a long and elaborate strategy, has been systematically carried out by Russia around the world since the end of the twentieth century. Analysts at the American research center RAND called Russian propaganda a “fire hose of lies” in 2016 [8].

The large-scale invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine began on February 24, 2022. The main goal of the war was the complete integration of the entire territory of Ukraine into the Russian Empire. According to Putin’s doctrine, Ukraine had to be occupied, all opposition Ukrainians to be destroyed, and the rest to be enslaved. However, Ukrainian troops put up fierce resistance to the enemy. Democratic countries provided military and financial assistance to Ukraine. An anti-Putin coalition was created.

Severe censorship has been established in the Russian media. Many opposition publications were closed. The war against Ukraine was not officially declared; in Russia it was called a special military operation. However, a full-scale military propaganda campaign was launched inside the country. Russian propagandists adopted the methods and techniques of Goebbels’ false propaganda during the Second World War. Not all Russian political cartoonists have supported Putin’s military doctrines. Some of the Russian artists emigrated from the country for political protest reasons at the very beginning of the war. Others have stopped creating cartoons for the opposition authorities for fear of reprisals. Cartoonists who supported the Putin regime began to create cartoons criticizing the Ukrainian army, Bandera nationalists, the Azov regiment, and the Kyiv junta. Ukrainian President Zelensky has often been portrayed as a jester.

The cartoons criticized Western arms supplies to Ukraine and mocked the leaders of countries from the Anti-Putin Coalition. However, such cartoons were not widely disseminated in the Russian mass media. Russians have significantly limited access to many social networks. It turned out that this time official Russia did not consider the cartoons to be a sufficiently effective propaganda tool, unlike during the Napoleonic, First and Second World Wars. Russian pro-Putin artists have begun to arrange exhibitions of political cartoons, for example, under the names “Maidan of the brain”, “Cannon fodder” and others. However, only a limited part of the public could attend such exhibitions. Pro-Putin cartoonists began to demand that they receive a political order from the state, so that their propaganda cartoons would be massively replicated. They cited the international anti-Russian exhibition “Devil’s Gas Station” held in Ukraine in 2014 as an example of a successful propaganda cartoon campaign. This exhibition was widely covered in the Ukrainian media and was a success abroad [9].

Political cartoon propaganda in Ukraine followed all the rules of military propaganda from the very beginning of the full-scale war in 2022. The methods and techniques of such propaganda were well developed during the wars. Propagandists should widely publicize the military successes of their troops, inspire the enemy with fear of defeat, ridicule enemy commanders and leaders, and encourage the enemy to surrender. Captivity propaganda is one of the effective areas of psychological warfare. For example, during the period of hostilities in Vietnam, approximately 250,000 soldiers of the communist forces voluntarily defected to the side of the enemy under the influence of propaganda [10]. Russian dictator Putin became the main target of Ukrainian cartoonists. He was often compared to the bloody dictators Hitler and Stalin in cartoons.

An old woman with a scythe usually loomed next to these characters. Putin also appeared in the form of various animals and insects, some of which were bloodthirsty, others amusing. Russian soldiers were portrayed by artists as murderers and marauders. The military symbol in the form of the letter Z was compared with the Nazi swastika. The image of Russia was presented in cartoons as a stereotypical huge bear. The cartoonists did not forget to depict another terrible side of the war of refugees. There were also cartoons about false Russian propaganda, Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons in the war. And finally, Putin ended up in the dock in The Hague at the behest of cartoonists.

The patriotic caricature is also an obligatory part of military propaganda and is meant to strengthen national pride. Such cartoons were widely distributed in the virtual space, published in the press, on billboards. Also, exhibitions of military propaganda cartoons were held, for example, in Odessa. 20 drawings from this exhibition were published in the infamous French publication Charlie Hebdo. An exhibition of Ukrainian cartoonists called “Say no to war” was held in Minnesota (USA) [11].

Ambiguous attitude to the war in Ukraine was shown by cartoonists from different countries. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine was officially condemned in most countries of the world. Numerous cartoons were published in the world media, especially in the US, condemning Russia’s aggressive policy in Ukraine. However, there were also cartoons by artists from different countries in which Putin’s policies were supported. For example, Belarusian cartoonists published frankly anti-Ukrainian cartoons in the newspaper Minskaya Pravda [12].

The official representative of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, presented a cartoon on the events taking place in Ukraine on his Twitter account. The cartoon shows how Uncle Sam pours fuel over the sign “Ukraine”. At the same time, Uncle Sam says, “Why can’t China do more to help put out this fire?” [13]. In general, Ukrainian refugees in Europe and other countries were treated kindly. However, some cartoons reflected a dismissive attitude towards them. For example, the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine shows a car with people running under its hood. The inscription on the picture reads: “A liter of fuel is two euros. Ride Ukrainians – it’s free” [14].

The war in Ukraine continues. Along with the military operations at the front, the informational cartoon war continues.

Thus, propaganda cartoons have always served and continue to serve as an effective psychological weapon in defeating enemies in times of war. In times of war in democracies where free speech is the norm, political cartoonists can express themselves freely. Their propaganda cartoons are widely circulated at home and abroad. During wars in countries with totalitarian regimes, severe censorship is established, propaganda cartoons is based on fake messages that are distributed by the authorities of these countries.


(author is a top Ukrainian cartoonist, theorist of Cartoon Art and renowned lecturer, giving lectures around the world)


















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