The Rise and Fall of Dictators

PHOTOS: NEWSWEEK’s guide to 10 toppled strongmen and what followed. Marco Longari / AFP-Getty Images

In the crazy days of January, when Arabs surprised the world by rebelling against their aging dictators, my 2-year-old son and I read a Russian children's classic called The Giant Cockroach. In the poem, the 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 far bigger animals, demanding they surrender their cubs so that he can eat them for dinner. He reduces the animals to a sobbing, quivering bunch. Wolves devour each other out of fear. An elephant shivers so much, she stumbles and sits on a hedgehog.

The cockroach rules unchallenged—until a laughing kangaroo points out that it's 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. The animals rejoice.

It is hard not to read the poem as an allegory for the rise and fall of a dictatorship. Despots tend to appear invincible while they rule, and then laughably weak when they fall. Once their subjects 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 cockroaches. Tunisia is merely the latest example. At publication, Egypt's longtime ruler faced mass protests demanding his resignation.

The Giant Cockroach was written in the early 1920s by Kornei Chukovsky, author of such other mirthful children's classics as Doctor Ouch and The Crocodile. Did he have Stalin in mind when he wrote it? For some readers, the roach's whiskers evoke Stalin's signature mustache. Osip Mandelstam, a Russian poet imprisoned and hounded to death in Stalin's purges, propagated the metaphor: "The cockroach's mustache is laughing, and his jackboots are shining," he wrote in 1934.

But the author's intention is less clear. In 1921, when Chukovsky set out to write The Cockroach, Stalin was still a relatively obscure thug from Georgia about to start elbowing his way to the top of the Communist Party. He was years away from attaining the bloody renown that would merit a satire. Chukovsky himself denied the connection, even after it would have been safe to admit it. Then there's the very good question of how The Cockroach could have survived the Soviet censorship that found fault with far tamer works? One theory is that the satire—if it indeed existed—was so brazen that even to acknowledge it would have meant to be guilty of slander by association.

Stalin himself appears to have co-opted the cockroach for his own political ends. At a Communist Party congress in 1930, he railed against dissenting voices within the party. "A cockroach rustles somewhere, and even before he crawls out of his hiding place, they jump backwards, become terrified and start yelling … about the death of the Soviet power," Stalin told the assembled delegates. "We calm them down, try to convince them … that this is just a cockroach that you shouldn't be scared of." Years later, Chukovsky grumbled in his diary about getting "plagiarized" by Stalin: "He retold my entire fairy tale and didn't cite the author."

In the 1990s, as Russia began to excavate the relics of Stalinism, The Giant Cockroach drew so much reinterpretation that the author's granddaughter felt compelled to respond. In a newspaper column, she cited Chukovsky's lament about people "seeking out a secret political meaning" in his tales, and reminded readers that The Cockroach came along too early to be Stalin. But then Elena Chukovskaya continued, rather cryptically: "The future casts its shadow on the present. And art can discern that shadow before the appearance of the one who casts it." So was it Stalin or not? "The Cockroach is as much Stalin as any other dictator in the world," she wrote.

Shishkin is a Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society.