By Philip Shishkin
In the crazy days of January when Arabs surprised the world, and probably themselves, by rebelling against their aging dictators, my two-year-old son and I read a Russian children's classic called The Giant Cockroach.
In the poem, a happy, pastry-munching life of the animal kingdom is broken by the appearance of "a terrible giant: the red-haired, big-whiskered cockroach." The roach proceeds to bully and harass far bigger animals, demanding they surrender their cubs so that he can eat them for dinner. The dictatorship of the cockroach reduces the animals to a sobbing, quivering, pathetic bunch. Wolves devour each other out of fear. An elephant shivers so much she stumbles and sits on a hedgehog. A hippo calls on the bulls and the rhinos to spear the enemy with their horns, and offers two frogs and a pinecone as a reward. The bulls and the rhinos say they’d be happy to oblige but the horns are not cheap these days.
And so the cockroach rules unchallenged. Until a laughing kangaroo points out that the cockroach is no giant, but merely a cockroach. The hippos tell the insolent marsupial to shut up—"you'll make things worse for us"—but then a sparrow comes along and swallows the bug, whiskers and all. The animals rejoice.
It is hard not to read the poem as an allegory for a rise and fall of a dictatorship. Despots tend to appear invincible while they rule, and then laughably weak when they teeter and fall. Once their subjects refuse to obey them and call them out on their farce, dictators look ridiculous. Often, they react by killing and jailing people, which buys them more time in power (Iran, Belarus, and Uzbekistan come to mind). But just as often, when faced with a truly popular challenge, dictators shrink to the size of their inner cockroach as erstwhile layers of support, like the police, the military, and the civil service, begin to peel away. Tunisia is merely the latest example. The so-called color revolutions in the former Soviet Union fall into this category too. As of this writing, Egypt's seemingly perpetual ruler faced mass protests demanding his resignation.
The Giant Cockroach was written in the early 1920s by a wonderful children’s poet named Kornei Chukovsky, author of such other mirthful classics as Doctor Ouch, The Crocodile, and Wash'em Clean, which features a walking and talking washstand with no discernible political ambitions. Ever since its publication in 1923, The Giant Cockroach has supplied not only entertainment to generations of Russian toddlers but also food for thought for adults. Did Chukovsky really have Stalin in mind when he wrote it? It is tempting to think that he did. For some readers, the roach's whiskers evoke Stalin’s signature mustache with painful clarity. The simile may have been picked up and developed by Osip Mandelshtam, the Russian poet imprisoned and hounded to death in Stalin's purges. "The cockroach’s mustache is laughing, and his jackboots are shining," Mandelshtam wrote in 1934, leaving little doubt as to whom he meant.
Next: "When you read it to your own kids, you hear something else."