The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley
-Robert Burns, To a Mouse
People who “make” history are generally thought of as kings, warriors, and leaders in religion, business and the sciences. Every day output of television and publishing media underpin this opinion by spotlighting the notorious and the sensational. Whether its the six wives of Henry VIII or the “most evil men in history” like Stalin, Hitler, or Pol Pot. However history is also made from the lower classes that at first glimpse appear meager and unimportant. Under Peter the Great, Russia became transformed into an empire to be reckoned with in European affairs. In part it was because of his introduction of several Western scientific, technological, cultural and political conceptions and practices. His police state philosophy was based on the conviction that, just as he spent his life unceasingly in service for the state, so should his subjects discharge their duties to the state. Both his reforms and his quick and frequently cruel retaliations for infractions left their indelible impressions upon Russia.
The Russian peasants’ self-sufficient rural existence may have seemed barren and harsh but in the last two decades historians have begun to study how peasants organized their lives, work and families and how they responded to economic and political events. One method they have used is to study the art from the era and local. In Russia the lubok is the name of a specific kind of folk art. They are vibrant prints made from a woodcut or a copper engraving. Generally prepared with three or four contrasting colors they are vivid, cheery, and animate. As a hybrid art form they usually contain pictures and words, narrative and imagery. All classes in Russian society, even the leaders, loved lubki (the plural form) and became popular in Russia at the onset of the sixteenth century during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. It has even been discovered that a set of lubki were purchased by the Tsar Michael Romanov in 1635 for his seven-year-old son, Alexis.
During Peter the Great’s reign the nobility took up west European art and lubki were left to the lesser nobility and merchants. By the end of the seventeenth century Russian lubki had become tightly connected with the Moscow marketplace. Found in both fresco and woodcarvings the first prints were vigilantly carved religious woodcuts in a native style, an economical substitute for an icon. They were created by a small number of Moscow artisans form the middle of the 18th century. Peddlers bought the lubki by the hundreds to trade at regional fairs and market and were typically used as cheap wall decorations in homes and taverns. By the end of the century the themed lubki art form became a part of the peasantry and the most popular themes were rural depicting a variety of characters and activities from views from theatricals and feasts, parodies of assorted rites demonstrate the humor that thrived during this time. Lubki remained popular throughout the first half of the 18th century and frequently provides a peek into the past of how the peasant culture observed the less understood conduct of the tsars. Both Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great shared the crude parodying antics typical of the Old Russian popular culture.
Researchers note that by the late 1760’s lubki began to take on satire on local customs and themes as central subjects when the artists integrated the clown and folly acts of the fairs into their work. These worldly themes were a reaction to the secularizing principles of Peter the Great and his agenda of reform that changed all facets of Russian life. The forcible Europeanization sweeping the land had found many adversaries and the satirical prints eventually reflected the popular anti-Petrine atmosphere. Most traditionalists found the tsar's reforms controversial and difficult to accept. One investigator of the folk art notes:
Non-religious content began to appear in the first quarter of the eighteenth century during modernization of Russia by Peter the Great. For the first time, images of peasants were created. For example, holiday celebrations were depicted, as were typical events in the lives of peasantry, such as courting. Matchmaking became a very popular subject of the folk print. At the same time, humor became a central characteristic of the lubok; prints with dwarfs, clowns, and jesters became very popular. Lubki also began to contain sharp political and social commentary; for this reason, artists often encountered difficulties with church and government censors. In Peter the Great’s time, lubki satirized his attempts at Westernization by depicting men getting their beards chopped off or by portraying Peter himself as the Anti-Christ.
The most renowned lubok of all is probably How the Mice Bury the Cat which collector Dmitrii Rovinskii (1824-1895) identified as a satire on Peter the Great. One the finest lubok design is its mate The Cat of Kazan which makes fun of Peter’s moustache and his many titles. Both were created in multiple versions in the wake of Peter's unpopular secularizing reforms. How the Mice Bury the Cat with its jaunty rendering became the perennial favorite of the lubok buyers. It includes several key elements that identify the cat as Peter the Great and the mice as the Russian people. The print depicts a group of mice pulling a funeral sled containing The Cat of Kazzan. Two of the eight mice are playing musical instruments. This is significant because it wasn’t until 1697 that the tsar allowed music and it was during the funeral of a personal friend. Additionally an orchestra was also present during Peter's burial and eight horses drew his funeral sled. One of the mice smokes a pipe that sets up an insinuation of the tsar-reformer's introduction of tobacco sales. In the upper right corner, two mice are riding in a one-axle cabriolet. Alexis Mikhailovich, Peter’s father, had banned the gigs only to turn around and allow them during Peter's reign becoming one the tsar's favorite means of transportation.
There are several versions of the print including more anti-Petrine allusions and it seems as if they were created to represent a kind of collective dream of the peasant class; a telling commentary from the peasants as the "mice" who were unable to change and significantly rid themselves of the tsarist "cats". With the power to bury the cats the depiction provided the peasantry the opportunity to settle old scores and assign blame for the consequences of forced reform. Yet despite the mice's ability to bury the cats it was only a symbolic victory for the peasantry. They still had to live with the hated Westernization and were unable to bury the next top cat – Catherine I.
Because Peter the Great died in Saint Petersburg on February 8th 1725 there is some debate over some of these interpretations. In 1983 M.A. Alekseeva discovered that the earliest woodcuts of How the Mice Bury the Cat dated from the late 17th century and notes that they could not have originally referred to Peter’s funeral. Alekseeva suggests that the concrete details like the number of horses for the funeral cortege were added after his death to create a new version of the print. Even so, what began as an inoffensive tradition of clowning around has since been reinterpreted as a parody of the titles of the tsar. Some experts say that perhaps it was the subtle influence of the Enlightenment period and what started as old humor highlighting the local comedy became internalized, trivialized and finally escapist.
Folk Art: The Lubok:
Accessed May 5, 2005
Healy, Dan. Russian Peasants & Russian History 1861-1941:
Accessed May 5, 2005
Accessed May 5, 2005
Medieval Popular Humor in Russian Eighteenth Century Lubki
Dianne Ecklund Farrell Slavic Review Vol. 50, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 551-565.
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Peter the Great.," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.