The library of my elementary school had an extensive collection of Tintin books. I managed to read them all in the three years I spent there. I haven’t picked up a Tintin since, even when the movie came out a few years ago. But I recently found a copy of “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets,” which I’d never heard of. And guess what? Tintin has serious anti-Soviet journalism cred I’d never noticed before. To be clear, this discovery doesn’t excuse the racist, colonial slant of the books, at all.
But I was excited, and especially to find out that this was the first ever Tintin serial, released in 1929/30 as a serial comic. Once Tintin took off as a character, his Soviet period disappeared into obscurity, as creator Hergé didn’t want the book version released for a long time. He felt it was too crude and simplistic a portrayal of the Soviets. Which, it kind of is. But it’s also surprisingly spot-on, considering it was released just a decade into the Soviet regime, when much of the world was still swooning over the brave, new utopia. It was finally re-released in 1973, and was translated into English in 1989.
Most of the book is somewhat infantile and junior (oh look, there’s Tintin pretending to be a ghost and scaring those silly Bolsheviks away!) featuring your standard issue good guys vs. bad guys. The secret police figure prominently as a series of cartoonish villains who keep bumbling attempts to off Tintin. His Soviet “bad guys” remind me of the Soviet caricatures of capitalists which appeared in propaganda in the early days of the USSR. Propaganda vs. propaganda — the strip was actually commissioned by a conservative, Catholic, and slightly fascist Belgian paper — Le XXe Siècle (The 20th Century) — as anti-Soviet propaganda.
That’s right – Tintin started life as anti-communist propaganda.
The insights into the Soviet system can be condensed into a couple pages, but they all ring true. Here’s what Hergé taught Belgians about the Soviets:
- The faked tours of functioning factories set up for communists from around the world
- The faked “elections” where the Bolsheviks/Communists always won by a landslide
- The theft of the country’s wealth by its leadership
- The emphasis on propaganda around the world, with food being rerouted to show how well things were going while the people starved
- The lines, the endless lines for bread
Most of this was taken from a book called “Moscow Without Veils,” published in 1928 by the former consul of Belgium in the USSR, Joseph Douillet. While Hergé may have gotten the details wrong — there’s a weird scene with a secret police agent slipping on a banana peel, not to mention the simple peasants — the overall trajectory of the Soviet system will look familiar. For many Europeans, this was one of their first glimpses of the newly minted country.
“…the spirit of the country, very ruthlessly oppressing its own citizens… who are more like slaves — the spirit is true.” -BBC
If you’re really keen, the BBC sent a reporter to Russia in 2011 to find out how accurate Tintin’s experiences in early Soviet Russia really were. Did I mention he jaunts around Moscow in a hand-powered bike? Yuh-huh.
If you google “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets,” a handful of posts pop up, mostly criticizing the book’s propaganda. But I kind of dig that Tintin started out as a stand against the Bolsheviks. Even if it was to further a conservative, fascist agenda. And he later faced accusations of racism and colonialism. And, oh wait, never mind.