Soviet propaganda poster by Mikhail Cheremnykh against capitalism.

Mikhail Cheremnykh was a Russian caricaturist, political cartoonist, oil painter, stage designer, book illustrator and propaganda poster designer. Between 1919 and 1922 he worked for the news agency ROSTA, providing about 500 posters and cartoons which glorified the new Communist regime, but also educated people on basic health care. He was co-founder of the satirical magazine Krokodil. Many of his propaganda cartoons and posters make use of sequential illustrated narratives and/or the text comics format.

Early life
Mikhail Cheremnykh was born in 1890 in Tomsk, Siberia. In 1911 he moved to Moscow to study under the guidance of avantgarde painter Ilya Mashkov. Between 1911 and 1917, he took courses at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Moscow, where K.A. Korovin and S.V. Maliutin were among his classmates. He graduated in 1916. A year later the Russian Revolution broke out and - like many other artists - he became part of the Soviet propaganda system.

'Once Upon a Time the Bourgeoisie Lived Well...' (1919)

In 1918 the Soviet Union established the Russian Telegraph Agency, often shorted to "ROSTA". It was part state news agency, part propaganda production. Cheremenykh was one of its prime artists, and the originator of the so-called "Okna Rosta" ("Rosta Windows"). These stenciled pamphlets often featured propaganda drawings, cartoons and comics with text in captions. Most focused on topical events, unavoidably promoting the Communist regime. A typical example was a cartoon Cheremenkyh made in November 1918, which depicts Lenin brushing away his enemies. Two years later his colleague Viktor Deni used the same idea and worked it out into the nowadays far more famous cartoon: 'Comrade Lenin Cleans the Earth from Scum' (1920).

Many of these propaganda drawings make use of the text comics format, with explanations written underneath the sequential images. 'Once Upon a Time the Bourgeoisie Lived Well...' (1919), for example, depicts how the Russian Revolution ended the corruption and decadence of the bourgeoisie. Despite foreign aid, the bourgeoisie fails to bring back their "good old days", because the Red Army and the working man both strike back. The story is told as a fairy tale (which, ironically, much of what the Soviet regime promised turned out to be as well). 'Once Upon a Time the Bourgeoisie Lived Well...' is additionally notable for being the first time Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin was depicted in a comic strip. Cheremnykh was somewhat concerned about turning the beloved leader into a cartoon character, but Lenin personally assured him that it was no problem. Another text comic from the same year, 'The Worker Kicked the Capitalist...' (1919) also depicts Lenin as part of a narrative. In 'This Will Not Happen Again' (1919) the time when capitalism ruled the country is depicted as a series of nightmarish images, while the accompanying text reminds people how horrible it all was, but assures them it "will not happen again" (they were kind of right, well, until 1991...).

However, these early "comics" by Cheremenkyh are still mostly a bunch of sequential images placed next to a long-winded text. Some of his later works are closer to traditional text comics, in the sense that the text is not only short and to the point, but also appears directly underneath the images. Examples are: 'How Deserters Helped Capitalists' (1919), 'The Capitalists Are Screaming' (1919), 'The Front and Rear: A Family Need the Front to Give Clothes' (1920) and 'The Story of the Bread Ringers and a Woman Who Refused To Recognize The Republic' (1920). In 1934, Cheremnykh illustrated a speech by Stalin held at the First All-Union Congress of Shock-Worker members of Collective Farms into 19 consecutive drawings.

'The Story of a Woman', 1920. 

Since the Soviet Union was an atheist state, many propaganda cartoons also criticized organized religion. Cheremenkyh's 'Ne Ostavaite!' ("Do Not Fall Behind!", 1930), features a story written by Demyan Bednyi. The tale is so long that Cheremenkyh doesn't even illustrate it in full. Instead he focuses on two scenes. One features a priest telling peasants that the animals who eat and destroy their fields are "God's creatures" and shouldn't be harmed. However, the farmers soon realize that this costs them their harvest. They confiscate the church building and transform it into a school, while they use a pesticide plane to kill off all the vermin on their fields. In 1932 Cheremenkyh illustrated 'Antireligioznaia azbuka' ('Antireligious alphabet'), a satirical look on religion told in 28 color lithographs with captions lettered by his wife Nina. The text itself was written by Yemelyan Yaroslavsky, editor of Bezbozhnik.

While most of the stencils released by ROSTA were propaganda, some were actually apolitical and offering reliable educational information too. At the time, large parts of Russia weren't industrialized yet. Many civilians were uneducated illiterates, vastly unaware of modern-day developments. Easy to comprehend drawings were therefore a useful way to reach the masses and inform them about the benefits of modern equipment, basic hygiene, vaccination, health care and learning how to read and write. Apart from Cheremenkyh, ROSTA and Okna Rosta also ranked artists like Viktor Deni, Yuliy GanfAlexey Komarov, Ivan Maliutin, Vladimir Lebedev, Nikolai Kogout, Vladimir Mayakovsky (who often wrote the texts), Dmitry Moor, Amshey Nurenberg, Alexander Rodchenko, Mikhail Volpin and others among their contributors.

Cover drawing for Krokodil of 15 July 1923 ("Krokodil for the Air Fleet!")

In 1922 Cheremenkyh was one of the co-founders of the satirical magazine Krokodil, where he would work until his death. He also contributed to other magazines, such as Bezbozhnik u stanka and Smekhach.

World War II
In 1938 Russia and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which ensured that both countries would stay neutral in each other's affairs and wouldn't attack each other during a military conflict. However, in 1941 Hitler broke his promise and invaded Russia. Joseph Stalin was completely caught by surprise, as he was badly prepared for such an attack. But the Russian army instantly fought back. The ROSTA news agency quickly established a special unit to produce motivational posters and propaganda cartoons. Cheremnykh was one of many artists who supported their motherland. He worked from the TASS studio in Moscow. One of his posters makes use of sequential images: 'What Hitler Wants - And What He Will Get' (1941), where Hitler announces his demands in the first panel, only to be beaten up by the Russian army in the next.

'The American Lifestyle' (1949).

Post-war career
Between 1949 and 1962, Cheremnykh was a teacher at the V.I. Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, becoming a professor in 1950. In 1949 he made 'The American Lifestyle', a cartoon depicting gangsterism and crime in the United States in five sequential images. The work has no clear narrative, but the watch in the center satirizes the American motto "time is money", while the bandits rush victims and each other into an early grave.

Illustration and design
As a book illustrator, Cheremnykh livened up stories by M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin and between 1939 and 1941 he worked as a stage artist for A.F. Pashchenko's 'Madame de Pompadour', produced by the Malyi Opera Theater in Leningrad. He also designed sets for the Ballet of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in Minsk.

In 1942, Cheremnykh received the USSR State Prize and Stalin Prize and in 1952 he was named People's Artist of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, as well as a member of the Russian Academy of Arts. Later he received the Order of the Badger of Honor too.

Mikhail Cheremnykh passed away in 1962 in Moscow.

'How Deserters Helped Capitalists' (1919).

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