Soviet history told through the medium of cat paintings
So one of my favorite painters is Alexander Zavaly, why? Because in spite of the whimsical motif, his works are surprisingly historically accurate. So here’s a few interesting things about his great Soviet cats.
His works remind me a lot of Nikolai Gogol’s satire, in which a ridiculous subject is placed into a world that takes itself seriously. Wherein without just a single crucial detail, the work would capture perfect mundanity. It is a kind of comedy which takes careful attention to detail, as to provide a convincing and amusing result.
This is going to be a bit of a tangent, but I remember watching the American classic “Freddy Got Fingered” in which this comedy was present. Freddy in the film is a cartoonist who behaves like a cartoon character. The rules of the universe is simple: The world takes itself seriously, but Freddy is exempt from its rules and consequences. Anything Freddy interacts with becomes part of this strange pocket of cartoon logic, as he is randomly thrown into ordinary situations that envelop themselves into a kind of Ren and Stimpy styled bizarreness.
I see many critics from the US struggle to understand this comedy, and just presumes Freddy’s comedy and strange behavior is without consistency or meaning, but this is wrong. It’s very cleverly imitating cartoon programmes of the 90s, except with real people in a world where they do not belong. A metaphysical fish out of water story.
So, now that we’ve explored this comedic style, we are adequately prepared to be amused as I will show you extraordinary paintings of high whimsy, and explain the many things I know of its historical detail.
This one is of course quite clever, the Soviet cat captures two dogs, and on top of that: A Doberman and a Shepherd. It is a subtle as it is funny.
So what is this then? Where is it happening and why?
This is of course Stalingrad, as we can see from the snowy landscape. I am not 100% sure the tank looks right, it doesn’t seem particularly camouflaged. Since this battlefield was a big and very flat plane of endless snow and ice, tank commanders quickly figured out that unless you paint your tank to match the environment, then you’re going to get bombed by air patrols.
On the other hand, perhaps this is why these two dogs got captured.
One interesting thing is the feature of the shepherd’s belt. As you can see, he is wearing what appears to be a Soviet belt, or possibly a Russian civilian belt. This was very common, as the counteroffensive would encircle German forces and cut them off from supply lines, so that’s a very impressive detail. You can compare the belts by looking at Hauptsturmführer Doberman’s belt which of course has the rectangular buckle with the circular stamp on it, framed by the words “Gott Mit Uns.”
One other detail is of course how Doberman has a leash on him, and Commander Shepherd doesn’t. This is because Doberman is an SS Tank Commander from the looks of it, so they put him under more careful restraints.
The most famous SS soldiers were usually tankers, because the SS fought rather cowardly. They didn’t like being at the front lines unless they were surrounded by lots and lots of armour and air support. They were meant to secure cheap and symbolic victories for propaganda purposes which could maintain their reputation as crack elite units who were impossible to defeat in battle.
That’s why for the most part they preferred to fight partisans, who were often undersupplied and far away from any meaningful reinforcements, easy pickings for a cynical enemy who sought renown and notoriety.
This resulted in a strange paradox, because on one hand, they became famous for being ruthless and terrible opponents, but on the other, this is because they always rigged the battles so they would guarantee victories. This is how the weakest soldiers became treated as the strongest, although their tanks were obviously nothing to write off.
Truth is that the toughest soldiers on the Nazi side were for the most part in the Wehrmacht, they were the frontline troops who saw the heavy fighting, and had the aid of amphetamines and time tested military tradition going as far back as the Prussian empire. They were pretty hard fighters to say the least.
I have covered the terrible war crimes carried out both by the SS and Wehrmacht alike in my other article, Voices From Stalingrad, so don’t mistake my appreciation of their combat merit for any kind of praise or recognition of virtue, they were mean and rotten bastards.
Now, the tank cat is very obviously a tankist. This can be identified in several ways. For one, he has a banana magazine on his papisha; The Soviet submachinegun. PPSH-43 if memory serves. Entirely made out of what looks like pressed steel, without any wooden furniture. It also has a folding stock.
An easy way to identify weapons for vehicle crews is to look at the folding stock, because every little bit of saved space helps. The Soviets used this engineering principle in most of their vehicular weapons, usually classified as AKS. Pictured below, in order is the AKS-47, AKS-74u and AKS-74. And for our blind readers: Fear not, I will forego the alt-text here, because I will describe the guns in detail below so you don’t have to listen to me repeating myself twice.
As you can see, the gun evolves, but the principles remain the same. The 47 has the underfolding wire stock, which is a bit flimsy and uncomfortable compared to the 74 series side folding skeletal stock. With more firm and reinforced pieces, it won’t risk bending or breaking as easily, the sideways folding mechanism also means that you won’t accidentally bend it when you bump into things either, as compared to the underfold which would of course be rigid in a sideways direction.
The AKS-74u was hands down the most popular with mechanised infantry, whether air crews, tanks crews or APC crews. It was compact, sturdy and got the job done.
The longer variety, the AKS-74, we will discuss more in detail soon.
So that’s the first hint at how we are observing a tank cat. Second feature of the tank cat is of course the vatnik. You can tell it was cold in Stalingrad, because even the cats, with their naturally endowed fluff, had to put on a winter coat.
Vatnik is Russian for “Cotton”, and that about sums up what this device is. It is a cotton jacket, tailored to be comfortable, protective and not too cumbersome. Perfect for a tank crew member.
Sometimes you see depictions of soldiers wearing vatniks in summertime, and I find that unlikely. Their pattern and colour became very distinct to the Soviet uniform, and so popular culture embraced it, but if you wore a vatnik in the battle of Kursk, then chances are you were deployed to fight on the cover of a British modelling kit.
As we can see here with comrade illustration, on a patch of sunlit grass with dusty wind. The wide stance combined with his sloped soldiers suggests that he is currently in an intense confrontation with imaginary Germany’s worst weapon: Self-inflicted heatstroke.
Tank cat is also wearing green shoulder patches, which is common with tank insignia. I don’t know all the army insignia in detail, because there’s literally hundreds of them from various periods, revisions, ranks and branches of the military, but they all usually follow certain patterns.
It would seem that comrade illustration forgot to put his on, but that’s no big deal, people can just take his word for how he’s the personal staff representative of General Georgy Zhukov. Socialism is after all built on many honour systems.
So now we’ve met comrade tank cat, protecting world democracy from the forces of western European capitalism. Let’s move on.
Remember how I mentioned the AKS-74? Well, now we are going to discuss that some more, thanks to comrade sky cat; A venerated VDV Soviet paratrooper, likely serving in Afghanistan.
So, how do you identify the VDV? Two hints: First one is the beret. Paratroopers love berets because they’re not very noisy, so you can sneak around and still look officious. You can also tuck it under your shoulder patch on a hot day and look like Thomas Sankara, always an added bonus.
Moreover, notice the Telny, or Telnyashka. The blue striped shirt of sailors and paratroopers. While I believe regular infantry also adopted a version of the Telny, its primary tradition stems from the forces of sea and air.
What makes the VDV significant in this regard is how they got their own version of the Telnyashka, featuring long sleeves. Sailors usually wore one that looked like a tank top, or a short sleeved t-shirt.
I know this because one of the most comfortable shirts I regularly wear is a VDV-pattern telnyashka, and it’s the real deal too, produced by the glorious Soviet republics.
Because it’s no ordinary shirt, like the single layered t-shirts one might buy at a store. It is entirely woven from thread, and features double layers. It is considerably thicker and heavier than a t-shirt and serves well as a windbreaking piece of clothing. Often I would be able to wear it in winter, and hardly notice the snow, even if I kept my jacket open.
This is why it became so significant for air and sea, because it is primarily a piece of clothing which is good at combating wind conditions, and keep you warm and yet flexible enough to get on with your work.
And also when you’re doing manual labour, then you will of course sweat, so a second thick layer helps in keeping the clothes from becoming saturated, since that’s going to make you very cold.
On top of that, the thread weave assures that the fabric is constantly breathing, meaning that it ventilates away moisture. It is a very impressively engineered shirt, and if you can track one down at a military surplus store then I do recommend it for all fellow labourers.
On the side of his jacket you can also see the Soviet paratrooper badge, and on the lower part of it there’s even a little parachute. All Soviet insignia was colour coded based on what branch you served in, and the VDV was blue.
Here are some examples, and they’re very cleverly designed. The lower blue one is the one in the painting. The black ones are military, and the red ones are logistical or non-combatants. They also have clever illustrations to explain their purpose.
Paratroopers have a parachute, artillery have crossed cannon barrels, the red one on the left hand side is actually for Soviet military musicians, as signified by the harp. The upper blue one as a set of wings and a propeller, so you don’t need me to explain what that means.
Lightning bolts in military codification usually either means telecommunications and radio signals, or rapid deployment. IE: Intel or special operations, two very overlapping things in the military.
Our sky cat also has a special decoration, namely the order of the red banner. One of the oldest and most prestigious military honours dating back as far as the Bolshevik military in the civil war.
It is the Soviet equivalent of a medal of honour, and is only rewarded for efforts of bravery and heroism. It would seem our sky cat is the right man for the job.
(Also the order of the red banner is the medal with the… well, the red banner on it.)
The cord on his uniform is known as an aiguillette. Generally intended for parades, but he seems to be wearing it out in the field. This I think is the artist’s way of telling us that comrade sky cat is an officer.
I do not think this is intended to be a frontline depiction of our comrade, but rather a metaphysical portrait. IE: A military portrait in which he wears full decorations, with a backdrop representing his place of service. A lot of veterans get these done for historical purposes, as well as to be remembered.
So now we see how radical the Soviets were, since it’s not every day you encounter an Afghan that is actually a cat.
This one I like a lot. It’s very cleverly done. It’s tricky to figure out who this is, because identifying specific red army generals by uniforms alone is difficult. Since during the war they had considerably less decorations than they did after the war, so the medals can only give you so much insight.
Based on research however, and some clues in the map behind him, I believe this is General Gregory Zhukov. The map behind him looks a lot like the battle of the Dnieper. This as one of Zhukov’s victories, so it would be a fitting tribute in a picture.
I know it’s not Stalin, because a Stalin cat would have a pipe next to his papers, and there would also be strange scribbles all over the map behind him.
I know it’s not Vyacheslav Molotov because Molotov was a politician, even if he played a role in the military. He’d wear his Homburg hat and suit.
Zhukov is also the face of Soviet high command, so he’d be the perfect man for this kind of portrait.
Zhukov was an interesting officer, he started off as an imperial cavalryman, and then as the Soviets changed guards and the white army became the red army, he was more than happy to continue his career under new leadership.
His training and experience as a cavalryman proved invaluable, because there was a new toy in the store, and nobody was sure exactly how it worked. I am of course talking about tanks.
Turns out that tank tactics and horse tactics were surprisingly translatable. Horses, much like tanks, provide power, speed and elements of surprise, but they also have difficult maneuverability, and relies heavily on good formations.
As a result, tanks, much like horses, are good at sweeping attacks, and flanking, and of course carrying heavy guns that humans struggle to move. In the case of the horse this meant emplacements, in the case of the tank, this meant mobile cannons.
Zhukov learned a lot about tank warfare especially in Japan, where he fought the emperor’s troops. He became a very prestigious general due to his innovation and mastery of this new weapon. The Soviet tank was indeed the warhorse of Europe’s victory against fascism.
If you are curious what Zhukov would’ve looked like before his days as a general, then perhaps it would be a little something like this. This is a very clear depiction of the strange mutation of cavalrymen and tank men. The cap, the tunic, the British tank with the French flag covered in Russian script. And not just that but old Russian script. This was clearly a cat from the first world war, who likely started in the saddle of his loyal steed, and ended in the cockpit of a tank.
I don’t know a lot about WW1 I’m sad to say, but I recognise a few things. For one, the sabre. This is a cavalryman’s sword. I know this because my great grandfather was a Hussar, and my father would keep a sword much like it. Moreover you have the lovely long whiskers of a cavalryman. They would take great pride in looking like walruses.
Since younger recruits could not grow very long mustaches, the whiskers became a symbol of seniority. Only the best frontline soldiers could grow a long moustache, because it’s either that or you would’ve been dead a long time ago.
Also notice the black and orange ribbons on his medals, this is the victory ribbon. In modern day, the victory ribbon generally represents the biggest victory of them all: The victory against fascism. Every May 9th, people all over Europe celebrate with depictions of the victory ribbon. Even in Ukraine, where it is illegal to celebrate the victory against fascism, people are still willing to risk prison in order to honour their ancestors.
I have a few more paintings I want to write about, but today is my grandfather’s birthday, and I have been given the honoured task of preparing dinner for everyone. So you must excuse me, as this is all the writing I have time for today.
I can hear the sizzling of bread in my stone toaster, duty calls once more.