Witnesses Against War #15: Cock-the-Roach – the story of the monstrous nonentity, the petty, insecure, evil and vengeful dictator

24 June 2022

Source: Witnesses Against War

Witnesses Against War is an anonymous international group of journalists, writers, historians and translators, who live in Moscow and London. For reasons of security, their project is anonymous. In addition to the above websiste, you can also find them on Instagram / Инстаграм  and Telegram / Телеграм.

Illustration by Yuri Pogorelov


In 1923, the great Russian writer Kornei Chukovsky, who began his career in the “Silver Age” of Russian poetry, published a children’s fairy tale-parable in verse called “Cock-the-Roach”. It is about human nature, fear, strength and powerlessness, the petty personalities of tyrants and the victory of good over evil.

Associations with a literary hero in Russia became part of general gossip soon after the election of Putin as president in 2000. People referred to Little Zaches, of Hoffmann’s grotesque fairytale novel. The wits did not even think to make any comparisons with Chukovsky’s Cock-the-Roach.

The alignment of forces in the fairy tale – i.e. an evil anthropomorphic nonentity who scares away strong animals – was very different from the situation in Russia in the 2000s. But in the current situation, it is worth looking at the tale anew. The caricature depicts animals that were frightened and ran away – in real life these are Russian intellectuals and representatives of the economic elite, who either fled the country out of fear or fell silent out of fear, and Putin’s “retinue”: faithful servants, that is, those who surrounded the Moustachioed One [both Cock-the-Roach and Stalin], grovelling before members of the security council, ministers and others. Many think that the brave little sparrow – who could peck away at the Cock-the-Roach, as in the finale of the story, is, in Russia today, behind bars, maybe fighting with actual cockroaches – Aleksei Navalny … So the only possible comparison with the caricature bestiary is in fact with the main character himself – the Cock-the-Roach, who threatens to swallow everyone, who has become “both the forests and the fields.” In Chukovsky’s fairy tale, he “became the winner”, he managed to intimidate everyone, but only for a period. In life, the story of the monstrous nonentity, the petty, insecure, evil and vengeful dictator who gained the obeisance of strong animals, is not yet over.

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