In some kingdom, in some land, beyond seven mountains, beyond seven rivers, beyond the hills, beyond the valleys, as every good Slavic folktale ought to begin, there lay a country where all the animals of field and forest lived in perfect harmony, at least until the day a monstrous, ginger-whiskered cockroach appeared. The hideous insect, emerging from his tunnel, moved quickly to seize power, devouring anyone brave or foolhardy enough to stand in opposition. Some of the surviving creatures fainted away, others fell into frantic fits, and still more took flight, while the wolves and lobsters turned their fangs and pincers upon each other in a maddened frenzy. A committee of concerned hippos, crocodiles, and whales offered a prize of two fat frogs — or a fresh pine cone for the herbivores — to any soul brave enough to slay the cockroach, but the rhinos and bulls demurred, since “horns are dear, like hide and hair / And who will pay for wear and tear?”
Facing no challenge to his sovereignty, the self-styled “King of Field and Forest, Lord of All the Land” grew ever more callous, demanding tribute in the form of plump children, whom he took with his tea or gobbled up at suppertime. The gaunt forms of famine, terror, and despair stalked the once-verdant countryside, but then a stouthearted little sparrow flitted down, “as fast as any arrow,” and
How he nips! Oh, what cheek!
For the cockroach in his beak
Dies without a single squeak.
His long ginger whiskers are hidden from view.
That giant, the tyrant has now got his due!
The animals rejoiced in their liberation, “congratulating / Both themselves and that small bird,” and we are left with the impression that they all lived long and happily ever after and that all died on the same day, as every good Slavic folktale ought to end.
So goes the cherished Russian fairy tale “Tarakanishche,” or “The Monster Cockroach,” written by Korney Chukovsky in 1921 and published two years later. It is unclear whether Chukovsky had the decidedly monstrous Joseph Stalin in mind when he composed his masterpiece. Although the cockroach’s trademark whiskers and homicidal caprice are certainly suggestive, Stalin was still only the people’s commissar of nationalities at the time of the poem’s composition. Could “Tarakanishche” have been an eerily prophetic inculpation of the Georgian revolutionary and future dictator? As Evgenia Ginzburg, a Soviet writer sentenced to eighteen years in the Gulag after a seven-minute show trial, wrote in her memoir: “I don’t know if Chukovsky intended it or not. Probably not. But objectively, it’s the only way to read it.” Chukovsky’s granddaughter, Elena Chukovskaya, felt that “the future casts its shadow on the present. And art can discern that shadow before the appearance of the one who casts it … the Monster Cockroach is as much Stalin as any other dictator in the world.”
“The Monster Cockroach” was not the only anti-authoritarian fable produced during the Soviet era — Evgeny Schwartz’s play The Dragon and Fazil Iskander’s allegory Rabbits and Boa Constrictors explored similar themes — but it was Chukovsky’s poem that most fully entered into the realm of Soviet and post-Soviet public consciousness, continuing to make its presence felt into the present day. On January 12, 2016, the choreographer Vika Narakhsa’s hip-hop musical adaptation of “Tarakanishche” premiered at Moscow’s Vsevolod Meyerhold Center, only to be shut down after one performance on the grounds that the work was “too political” and that the cockroach obviously resembled Vladimir Putin. And when Belarusian protests against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime broke out in August 2020, the movement led by democracy activist Sergei Tikhanovsky was at various times dubbed the “Anti-Cockroach Revolution” and the “Slipper Revolution” and featured chants of “Stop the Cockroach!,” all in reference to Chukovsky’s immortal creation.
But no sparrow swooped down to save the day; instead, thousands of protesters were arrested, hundreds of detainees were tortured, Tikhanovsky still languishes in jail, and Lukashenko remains in power (for now). Life does not always play out like a fairy tale, though the political phenomenon of the Tarakanishche is very real indeed.
The English naturalist Edward Pett Thompson, in his perceptive 1848 travelogue Life in Russia: Or, the Discipline of Despotism, described the “reserve habitually inculcated by despotism, and the discipline to which the tongue has been brought by the terrors of a most subtle and ubiquitous system of espionage.” Truth telling is largely impossible under such repressive circumstances, except in the cases of the bravest dissidents. But seemingly simple allegories like those of Chukovsky, Schwartz, and Iskander managed to lay bare the realities of life lived under tyranny while steering clear of topical, censorship-inducing content. Such fables have thereby retained their relevance, particularly in a post-Soviet world still characterized by atavistic fears and truly monstrous brutality.
In a September 2022 interview with the Ukrainian intelligence officer and blogger Oleksii Arestovych, the preternaturally eloquent Russian nationalist-turned-dissident Alexander Nevzorov attempted to account for the “century-long ability for the Russian people to be humiliated and to endure this humiliation.” Rejecting Arestovych’s approach, which is based on a sophisticated “culture of psychology,” Nevzorov maintained that Russia’s ongoing degradation “has a purely zoological explanation.” There is something profoundly inhuman about Putin’s regime. The director general of the Estonian Internal Security Service, Arnold Sinisalu, recently told the weekly magazine Eesti Ekspress that “obviously, you can’t abstractly accuse an entire nation, but a society and a nation constitute a whole. The state may brainwash, but the germ of chauvinism still springs from the people itself.… Violence is a historical pattern in Russia, and that will not change…. Human life has no value there.”
Where human life loses its value, animalistic violence invariably becomes the norm. The Russian military is notorious for its practice of dedovshchina, or the “reign of the grandfathers,” an institution of ritualized abuse that entails not just psychological but also physical torture, and, not infrequently, acts of sexual violence and anal rape. It is little wonder that the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine has found “patterns of summary executions, unlawful confinement, torture, ill-treatment, rape and other sexual violence committed in areas occupied by Russian armed forces.”
Human rights experts have likewise noted the penchant of the Belarusian security forces, as part of their crackdown against pro-democracy protesters, to resort to sexual abuse and penetration with rubber batons. The day after the September 25, 2022, poetry reading and anti-mobilization protest at the memorial to Vladimir Mayakovsky, one of the participants, Artem Kamardin, was followed home by riot policemen, beaten to a pulp, sodomized with a set of dumbbells, refused medical treatment, and sent to a detention facility. Two years earlier, a Chechen activist and opposition Telegram channel moderator by the name of Salman Tepsurkayev had run afoul of the regional strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and was abducted, was forced to sit on a glass bottle while a forced apology video was filmed, and, finally, had a grenade detonated in his mouth at a military training facility in the village of Dzhalka. His relatives were told to “bury him like a dog.”
Chukovsky’s cockroach stood alone, whereas Putin’s power is buttressed by all those willing executioners.
Russian propagandists positively exult in this squalid violence. The RT television presenter Anton Krasovsky recently made international headlines with his call for Ukrainian children to be “thrown straight into a river with a strong current” or “burned in a hut” and his suggestion that Ukrainian “grannies would spend their burial savings to get raped by Russian soldiers.” (The reader is probably beginning to sense something of a theme here.) Krasovsky has been rightly castigated for his clearly genocidal rhetoric, but he is far from unique in this regard. It has become perfectly normal for figures such as Pavel Gubarev to declare that Ukrainians have become “possessed by demons” and that “if you don’t want to change your minds, we will kill you,” by the millions if necessary.
“Russia’s history,” as Nevzorov sadly observes, “is sinking deeper and deeper into the slop-bucket,” and nothing demonstrates this better than the devolution on display in the Tolstoy family. Count Leo Tolstoy once criticized “savage patriotism and ferocity,” preferring the “brotherly life which has been taught to us by Christ,” while postulating that “the law of violence is not a law, but a simple fact which can only be a law when it does not meet with protest and opposition. It is like the cold, darkness and weight, which people had to put up with until recently when warmth, illumination and leverage were discovered.” Now his descendant, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Pyotr Tolstoy, declares that “our national ideology is war” and makes disturbingly anti-Semitic statements about how the “grandchildren of those who sprang … across the Pale of Settlement with Nagants [pistols] in 1917 and were destroying our churches” are today “working in revered places like radio stations and legislative assemblies and are continuing that work.”
The spirit of the Tarakanishche is evidently alive and well in Putin’s Russia, but the legacy of Chukovsky’s fable must be considered somewhat mixed. A poet of profoundly humane sensibilities, Chukovsky stood up for authors such as Anna Akhmatova, Alexander Galich, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who were being persecuted by the Stalinist regime, and himself withstood withering criticism from the authorities and some of his more conformist fellow writers. He produced a memorable and universally accessible portrayal of the horrors of state tyranny, which also served as a satire of that uniquely Russian art of pokazukha, or self-serving delusion, which has allowed the Russian people to survive the extended humiliation ritual of the preceding centuries but has also served, in the words of the Soviet-era dissident journalist Vitali Vitaliev, as “one of the major causes of stagnation and social injustice.”
Yet Chukovsky’s “The Monster Cockroach,” being a fairy tale for children, understandably simplifies the complex realities of despotism. While Lenin or Stalin may have served as models for the ginger-whiskered tarakanishche, it was the Gulag administrators, secret police, and party apparatchiks who enabled the massacres, terror famines, and forced population transfers that made Soviet life a living hell. And while Putin may be a latter-day Tarakanishche, he is not the unit commander identified in the aforementioned United Nations report who, in the Chernihiv region, “repeatedly sexually abused a 16-year-old girl during that time and threatened to kill other family members who tried to protect her.” Putin does not personally program the cruise missiles that are being launched at Ukrainian thermal power plants, apartment blocks, and playgrounds. Putin did not shoot Ukrainian conductor Yuriy Kerpatenko dead when he refused to participate in a propaganda concert about Russia’s “improvement of peaceful life.” Putin did not post online a video of himself killing and eating a puppy and then form the neo-Nazi Rusich battalion to fight in Ukraine’s Donbas — no, that was the infamous war criminal Alexey Milchakov.
Chukovsky’s cockroach stood alone, whereas Putin’s power is buttressed by all those willing executioners, the senior siloviki security state officials and their millions of subordinates in the armed forces, the national police, the Federal Security Service, the Federal Protective Service, and various other private and mercenary organizations. Even if Nevzorov is correct in his assessment that “the chair in the Kremlin will soon be vacant” as a result of Putin’s botched invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s perverse addiction to despotism, revanchism, and ressentiment will no doubt persist, and its ailing body politic will only be purged through the most exhaustive lustration, assuming there are even enough clean hands to carry out such an ambitious program.
Korney Chukovsky conjured up a fairy-tale world in which dictators could “die without a single squeak” in the mandible of a humble sparrow, albeit not without a great deal of hand-wringing and prevarication. Before the songbird arrives deus ex machina to save the day in Chukovsky’s telling, an astute kangaroo berates his fellow animals:
He’s nothing but a brown cockroach!
That’s the horrid midget’s name —
If you obey him you’re to blame!
Haven’t you got claw and paw,
Fangs to tear and bite?
How could you bow down before
Such a tiny mite?”
But the Hippos now felt bad,
So they whispered:
“Are you mad?
Go away! Don’t make a fuss.
You will make things worse for us!”
Chukovsky, whose timorous creatures of field and forest were bailed out only by an external force, was in the end something of a fatalist, but his fellow Soviet writer Iskander, another ardent critic of the “twin follies of cruelty and stupidity,” was even more of one. Iskander knew that the monster Lenin died in bed, in his opulent neoclassical Gorki mansion, and that the even more monstrous Stalin died amidst the comfortable surroundings of his forested Kuntsevo Dacha; and, in his epic novel Sandro of Chegem, he concluded that “the very fact that [Stalin] died of natural causes, if in fact he died of natural causes, inclines me personally to the religious thought that God demanded to see his file with all his deeds, in order to Himself judge him with the supreme judgement and Himself to punish him with the highest punishment.”
A worthy sentiment, but one sincerely hopes that the Russian people can someday, somehow learn something from their Ukrainian neighbors, whose deep history of egalitarianism and sheer love of freedom have enabled them to defy dictators like Viktor Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin, fighting with conspicuous bravery both in the Maidan Square and in the trenches, and sustaining unfathomable losses in the process, instead of merely relying on reassuring fables and the distant prospect of divine retribution.