RD Exclusive: Cartoonists from the U.S. and Russia explain why political cartoons featuring stock images such as the Russian bear play an important role in defining U.S.-Russia relations.


Cartoon by Sergey Yolkin

“What’s a symbol of Russia?” “A bear.” “Great, let’s do a bear…”

This short dialogue tells you everything you need to know of how the cartoon of a Russian bear landed on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek’s recent issue featuring the Sochi Olympics. Despite the end of the Cold War, the image of Russia as a bear, lighting a cigar and holding a shield to defend itself continues to resonate with American political cartoonists and the American public. 

Although the profession of political cartoonist is perceived as a rarity, the political cartoon is actually used frequently in the so-called “information wars” between the U.S. and Russia. Ahead of the Sochi Olympics, the U.S. media appears willing to use cartoons to raise the problem of human rights in Russia and to depict Russia in the Cold War style. The recent cover of Bloomberg Businessweek was just the most visible example.

The bear as a common stereotype for Russia

“Americans, and especially American journalists, tend to view Russia as a place with fewer rights and freedoms than the U.S.,” Adam Zyglis, editorial cartoonist at The Buffalo News, told Russia Direct in an e-mail interview. “And since we are constantly battling for more freedoms in our own country, naturally, we are drawn to that distinction when depicting Russia.”

When asked what aspects of Russia he usually focuses on, he says that he is concerned when he witnesses the violations of the rights and freedoms of the Russian people. “More specifically, I find the Kremlin's efforts to persecute journalists and whistleblowers to be especially troubling,” he clarifies.

Zyglis sometimes expresses his opinion on Russia, especially when he sees an appropriate news peg. Like many American cartoonists, he uses an image of the bear, for example, to show his attitude toward Russia’s role during the Georgian-Ossetia conflict and Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

“Since my work is typically meant for an American audience, I often comment on the actions of the Russian government on a global stage, and how they in turn affect geopolitical relationships,” he told Russia Direct in an e-mail interview. 

He makes no bones about the fact that his ideas “are driven largely by the opinions behind my work” and he uses well-known stereotypes about Russia.

“Like many of the topics I comment on, I rely on the common images and notions related to the topic in order to express my opinion,” he said. “In the case of Russia, symbols such as a bear, an iron fist, and a set of nesting dolls, have all made their way into my work on several occasions.”

His favorite cartoon about Russia was inspired by the Russo-Georgian conflict in August 2008. “It was both a comment on Bush's Iraq War and Russia's actions,” he clarifies.

According to him, cartoons targeting Russia’s gay propaganda ban, mainly in the context of the upcoming Olympics, is one of the most popular topics among U.S. cartoonists.

The legacy of the bear dates back to the Soviet period

Kevin Kal Kallaugher, a prominent American cartoonist who draws for The Economist magazine, argues that Russia under Vladimir Putin asserts itself on the world stage. That’s why he finds it interesting “to see the increased use of the Russian bear in artwork.”

“[It’s] reminiscent of the times of the old Soviet Union,” he told Russia Direct in an e-mail message. “Throughout history visual symbols have been deployed by artists, cartoonists, and governments as a way to simply personify a country in picture form. While governments would want to use these symbols to bolster national pride, cartoonists normally would use the symbols in a more playful manner.”

Sometimes a bear is just a bear

Robert J. Matson, another well-known American cartoonist, whose cartoons and illustrations have appeared in many U.S. outlets including The New Yorker, The Nation and MAD magazine, argues that “Americans do not believe this myth that Russia is a big brown bear.”

His cartoon "The Bear" depicting Russia as a big bear eating a small and democratic Georgia is indicative. Yet, according to Matson, the fact that American cartoonists use frequently the image of the bear to describe Russia doesn’t necessarily mean that they are resuming the Cold War rhetoric. He believes such idea is a bit misleading.  


The Bear. Cartoon by Robert J. Matson / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The fact that the cartoon is titled ‘The Bear,’ and not ‘The Vicious Bear,’ or ‘The Selfish, Mean Bear,’ or ‘The Same Old Communist Bear,’ is also noteworthy,” he explains. “Twenty, thirty, or forty years earlier, when I was just a schoolboy, an editorial cartoon in a prominent U.S. newspaper most likely would have ascribed ideological, Cold War motives to the bear. Now that the Cold War no longer frames our perception, the bear is just a bear.”

“We know from observation that the Russian state is big and powerful and we know from history that it will act in its own interest, just like a big brown bear,” Matson clarifies. “Furthermore, we Americans know next to nothing about Georgia. We are not so smart when it comes to world geography. To us, Georgia is simply lines on a map. What this cartoon says to its American audience is, if you want to support some of the Georgians you will have to deal with the bear.”

Cartoons as a tool for information wars

According to Kallaugher, the cartoon versions of an animal act as convenient symbols of what is most familiar and pervasive in the public's view. When asked why cartoons are frequently used in the informational wars, he said that cartoons are usually consumed by the audience very quickly.

“The cartoon symbols act as a shorthand to make it easier for the readers to understand the cartoon,” Kallaugher explains.

His Russian counterparts echo his view. Russian cartoonist Viktor Bogorad argues that their informational conciseness and significance make cartoons very effective in information wars. He sees cartoons as both symbolic references to Russian folk culture and also as informational “fast food” to be widely consumed by the audience. 

“A cartoon symbol instantly creates the image of a country,” he said. “Based on it, one perceives and assesses the country’s policy.”

Sergey Tyunin, another well-known Russian cartoonist who draws illustrations for influential Russian media outlets such as Kommersant and sends his cartoons to the New York Times, La Monde and Courier International, agrees that cartoons should attract attention and be as expressive as possible to be understood instantly.

Despite the decreasing role of print media, the political cartoon is still alive as a genre and frequently used by new media in informational wars, argues Victoria I. Zhuravleva, the professor of American History and International Relations at the Russian State University for the Humanities and an expert in political cartoons.

“Cartoons moved to the Internet, which increased both the speed of their replication and the scale of their audience in terms of a global informational society,” she said. “Cartoonists are creating websites, online communities. There are many data bases that contain cartoons including editorial ones.”

David Foglesong, professor of History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and expert in U.S.-Russia reactions, agrees.

“Political cartoons have been important in shaping images of foreign nations because their often vivid, powerful images reflect, construct, and reinforce assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes,” he said.

All this indicates that cartoons are still an effective tool in conducting informational campaigns, Zhuravleva notes, pointing to previous examples: the U.S. information war against Iraq in 2003 and the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict.

During the information war against Iraq, the U.S. extensively used cartoons, “including in the leaflets dropped from American jets targeting ordinary Iraqis,” while the U.S. information war against Russia during the 2008 Georgia-Ossetia conflict saw “the Internet filled with [the cartoons depicting] the image of the Russian bear bullying small but more democratic countries,” Zhuravleva clarifies.   

Zhuravleva argues that cartoons are very convenient tools to orchestrate informational wars because of the nature of these “information campaigns,” which she views as “the wars of images.”

“They [information wars] are related to the formation of the images - the Self and the Others – through calling for one-dimensional stereotypes, dichotomy games,” she said pointing out the fact that idealizing the Self and demonizing the Others becomes commonplace during a war of images. Political cartoons that deal with international relations remain to be perceived as a tool of propaganda: The satire used by cartoonists creates stereotypes and oversimplified images of the country and determines its role among other nations.

The video contains cartoons from Boulder Camera (Jeff Sherffius /Creators News Service), Library of Congress (Jerry Costello), St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Robert J. Matson).Video by Pavel Gazdyuk

Andrei Richter, a professor of Media Law at Lomonosov Moscow State University, argues that satirical cartoons can lead to a great deal of exaggeration and provocation. In this context the Russian media law follows the recommendations of the Council of Europe's Declaration on political debate in the media that creates favourable conditions for cartoons and other satirical genres.

"The humorous and satirical genre, as protected by Article 10 of the Convention, allows for a wider degree of exaggeration and even provocation, as long as the public is not misled about facts," the Council of Europe's declaration reads.

Richter sees cartoons as artworks that don't correspond to reality, but, instead, purposely depict people in a very distorted way. "The main task of this genre is to draw attention to the peculiarities or weaknesses of a person [or a country - Editor's note] by exaggerating them or depicting this person in absurd and frequently unreal situations,” Richter said.

Dealing with the risk of oversimplification

Zhuravleva, as an expert in political cartoons and U.S.-Russia history, warns against the risk of oversimplifying the reality and creating a black-and-white picture of the world. 

“Instead of a smiling polar bear cub, the symbol of the Sochi Olympics, we see the Bear, defiantly smoking a cigar, with his fangs exposed and his eyes furiously screwed up,” she points out when asked to comment on Bloomberg Businessweek’s cover on the Sochi Olympics.

“The bear looks unfriendly, hostile, and menacing, but the image does not seem to me to convey a clear political message,” says Foglesong.

Bogorad echoes these opinions: “Yet in this context, the bear is furious, stupid, aggressive and militarized. Meanwhile, the 1980 Olympics in Moscow used a good-natured bear cub, a symbolic representation of the Soviet Union.”  

He argues that the risk of oversimplification comes when cartoonists try to overload an illustration with many unnecessary elements which make it much more difficult to read and understand the idea of the cartoon. According to him, a good cartoon creates an opportunity for a deeper understanding of its ideas and could be interpreted in different ways, while “the presence of irrelevant visual elements always complicates the understanding of the cartoon’s sense.”   

“In addition, the editors ask the cartoonist to convey several ideas in one illustration,” he said referring to Bloomberg Businessweek’s Sochi Olympics cartoon and its attempt to comprise several ideas, including the high cost of the Olympics, unprecedented security measures, the scale of alleged corruption and uncertainty in the event’s organization.

“It is impossible to [convey all these ideas at once] because understanding one theme is hampered by other ones,” he explains. “This requires from the audience more time to ‘decrypt’ the cartoon. If the cartoon is not clear, it is usually skipped and the attention is shifted to the text.”       

According to Bogorad, the problem of Western cartoons is its resemblance to comics and unnecessary visual elements and clarifying notes which overload the drawing.    

“Editors see the audience as narrow-minded people, so they chew over and clarify all the information,” he said. “I attended the exhibition and the workshop of the Economist’s cartoonist KAL (Kevin Kallaugher) and he complained that every time he had to make numerous clarifying notes.”

In this context, Sergey Tyunin’s cartoon on the “Innocence of Muslims” might be seen as a good example when cartoonists can avoid oversimplification and achieve their goals without insulting religious feelings, political convictions or national pride. The “Innocence of Muslim” movie was met with harsh criticism in the Muslim world and was seen as politically incorrect and anti-Islamic. So Tyunin drew a cartoon.


"Innocence of Myslims." Cartoon by Sergey Tyunin.

“I found the overreaction to this insignificant movie pretty funny,” he told Russia Direct. “Overreaction always brings about an ironic attitude. The illustration should contain humor, not a malicious attack.”  

The cartoon depicts a cobra shaped like a roll of film with Muslim people trying to kill it with sticks and stones. As Tyunin explains in an interview to Polit.ru, a Russian political media outlet, this cartoon was interpreted in two different ways: Some people in the West see religious obscurantism in it, while their counterparts in Syria and other Middle East countries understand the cartoon in the opposite way. “The film is poisonous,” they would say.     

Tyunin’s cartoon on the “Innocence of Muslims” didn’t result in any controversies in the world unlike the notorious cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten criticizing the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Instead, it got positive response both from the Middle East and the West, he said.

Tyunin warms against using cartoons in information wars that require “the placard and propagandistic style.” Instead, he offers other solutions and compares cartoons with paintings that have their own system of genres.

“There are political, philosophical, domestic or erotic cartoons,” he said. “And every genre has its own tasks. Placard and propagandistic cartoons are in demand for the information wars. Yet I am against any wars, including informational ones. I am for peace among nations.” 

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