Tintin in the Land of the Soviets
|Tintin in the Land of the Soviets
(Tintin au pays des Soviets)
Cover of the English edition
|Series||The Adventures of Tintin|
|Publisher||Le Petit Vingtième|
|Published in||Le Petit Vingtième|
|Date of publication||10 January 1929 – 8 May 1930|
|Followed by||Tintin in the Congo (1931)|
Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (French: Tintin au pays des Soviets) is the first volume of The Adventures of Tintin, the comics series by Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Commissioned by the conservative Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle as anti-communist propaganda for its children's supplement Le Petit Vingtième, it was serialised weekly from January 1929 to May 1930. The story tells of young Belgian reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy, who are sent to the Soviet Union to report on the policies of Joseph Stalin's Bolshevik government. Tintin's intent to expose the regime's secrets prompts agents from the Soviet secret police, the OGPU, to hunt him down with the intent to kill.
Bolstered by publicity stunts, Land of the Soviets was a commercial success, and appeared in book form shortly after its conclusion. Hergé continued The Adventures of Tintin with Tintin in the Congo, and the series became a defining part of the Franco-Belgian comics tradition. He later came to regret the poorly researched, propagandist debut story, and prevented its republication until 1973; it is the only completed Tintin story not to have appeared in colour.
Tintin, a reporter for Le Petit Vingtième, is sent with his dog Snowy on an assignment to the Soviet Union, departing from Brussels. En route to Moscow, an agent of the OGPU (Soviet secret police) sabotages the train and declares the reporter to be a "dirty little bourgeois". The Berlin police blame Tintin for the bombing but he escapes to the border of the Soviet Union. Following closely, the OGPU agent finds Tintin and brings him before the local Commissar's office, instructing the Commissar to make the reporter "disappear ... accidentally". Escaping again, Tintin finds "how the Soviets fool the poor idiots who still believe in a Red Paradise" by burning bundles of straw and clanging metal in order to trick visiting English Marxists into believing that non-operational Soviet factories are productive.
Tintin witnesses a local election, where the Bolsheviks threaten the voters to ensure their own victory; when they try to arrest him, he dresses as a ghost to scare them away. Tintin attempts to make his way out of the Soviet Union, but the Bolsheviks pursue and arrest him, then threaten him with torture. Escaping his captors, Tintin reaches Moscow, remarking that the Bolsheviks have turned it into "a stinking slum". He and Snowy observe a government official handing out bread to homeless Marxists but denying it to their opponents; Snowy steals a loaf and gives it to a starving boy. Spying on a secret Bolshevik meeting, Tintin learns that all the Soviet grain is being exported abroad for propaganda purposes, leaving the people starving, and that the government plans to "organise an expedition against the kulaks, the rich peasants, and force them at gunpoint to give us their corn."
Tintin infiltrates the Soviet army and warns some of the kulaks to hide their grain, but the army catches him and sentences him to death by firing squad. By planting blanks in the soldiers' rifles, Tintin fakes his death and is able to make his way into the snowy wilderness, where he discovers an underground Bolshevik hideaway in a haunted house. A Bolshevik then captures him and informs him, "You're in the hideout where Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin have collected together wealth stolen from the people!" With Snowy's help, Tintin escapes, commandeers a plane, and flies into the night. The plane crashes, but Tintin fashions a new propeller from a tree using a penknife, and continues to Berlin. The OGPU agents appear and lock Tintin in a dungeon, but he escapes with the aid of Snowy, who has dressed himself in a tiger costume. The last OGPU agent attempts to kidnap Tintin, but this attempt is foiled, leaving the agent threatening, "We'll blow up all the capitals of Europe with dynamite!" Tintin returns to Brussels amidst a huge popular reception.
Georges Remi—best known under the pen name Hergé—had been employed as an illustrator at Le Vingtième Siècle ("The Twentieth Century"), a staunchly Roman Catholic and conservative Belgian newspaper based in Hergé's native Brussels. Run by the Abbé Norbert Wallez, the paper described itself as a "Catholic Newspaper for Doctrine and Information" and disseminated a far-right and fascist viewpoint; Wallez was an admirer of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and kept a signed picture of him on his desktop, while Léon Degrelle, who later became the leader of the fascist Rexists, worked as a foreign correspondent for the paper. According to Harry Thompson, such political ideas were common in Belgium at the time, and Hergé's milieu was permeated with conservative ideas revolving around "patriotism, Catholicism, strict morality, discipline, and naivety". Anti-communist sentiment was strong, and a Soviet exhibition held in Brussels in January 1928 was vandalised amid demonstrations by the fascist National Youth Movement, in which Degrelle took part.
Wallez appointed Hergé editor of a children's supplement for the Thursday issues of Le Vingtième Siècle, titled Le Petit Vingtième ("The Little Twentieth"). Propagating Wallez's socio-political views to its young readership, it contained explicitly pro-fascist and anti-Semitic sentiment. In addition to editing the supplement, Hergé illustrated L'extraordinaire aventure de Flup, Nénesse, Poussette et Cochonnet ("The Extraordinary Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonnet"), a comic strip authored by a member of the newspaper's sport staff, which told the adventures of two boys, one of their little sisters, and her inflatable rubber pig. Hergé became dissatisfied with mere illustration work, and wanted to write and draw his own cartoon strip.
Hergé already had experience creating comic strips. From July 1926 he had written a strip about a boy scout patrol leader titled Les Aventures de Totor C.P. des Hannetons ("The Adventures of Totor, Scout Leader of the Cockchafers") for the Scouting newspaper Le Boy Scout Belge ("The Belgian Boy Scout"). The character of Totor was a strong influence on Tintin; Hergé described the latter as being like Totor's younger brother. Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier stated that graphically, Totor and Tintin were "virtually identical" except for the scout uniform, also noting many similarities between their respective adventures, particularly in the illustration style, the fast pace of the story, and the use of humour. Hergé also had experience creating anti-communist propaganda, having produced a number of satirical sketches for Le Sifflet in October 1928 titled "70 percent of Communist chefs are odd ducks."
Hergé wanted to set Tintin's first adventure in the United States in order to involve Native Americans—a people who had fascinated him since boyhood—in the story. Wallez rejected this idea, which later saw realisation as the series' third instalment, Tintin in America (1932). Instead, Wallez wanted Hergé to send Tintin to the Soviet Union, founded in 1922 by the Marxist–Leninist Bolshevik Party after seizing power in the Russian Empire during the 1917 October Revolution. The Bolsheviks greatly altered the country's society by nationalising industry and replacing a capitalist economy with a state socialist one. By the late 1920s, the Soviet Union's first leader, Vladimir Lenin, had died and been replaced by Joseph Stalin. Being both Roman Catholic and politically right-wing, Wallez was opposed to the atheist, anti-Christian, and extreme left-wing Soviet government, and wanted Tintin's first adventure to reflect this, indoctrinating its young readers with anti-Marxist and anti-communist ideas. Later commenting on why he produced a work of propaganda, Hergé said that he had been "inspired by the atmosphere of the paper", which taught him that being a Catholic meant being anti-Marxist, and since childhood he had been horrified by the Bolshevik shooting of the Romanov family in July 1918.
Hergé did not have the time to visit the Soviet Union or to analyse any available published information about it. Instead, he obtained an overview from a single pamphlet, Moscou sans voiles ("Moscow Unveiled") by Joseph Douillet (1878–1954), a former Belgian consul to Rostov-on-Don who had spent nine years in Russia following the 1917 revolution. Published in both Belgium and France in 1928, Moscou sans voiles sold well to a public eager to believe Douillet's anti-Bolshevik claims, many of which were of doubtful accuracy. As Michael Farr noted, "Hergé freely, though selectively, lifted whole scenes from Douillet's account", including "the chilling election episode", which was "almost identical" to Douillet's description in Moscou sans voiles. Hergé's lack of knowledge about the Soviet Union led to many factual errors; the story contains references to bananas, Shell petrol and Huntley & Palmers biscuits, none of which existed in the Soviet Union at the time. He also made errors in Russian names, typically adding the Polish ending "-ski" to them, rather than the Russian equivalent "-vitch".
In creating Land of the Soviets, Hergé was influenced by innovations within the comic strip medium. He claimed a strong influence from French cartoonist Alain Saint-Ogan, producer of the Zig et Puce series. The two met the following year, becoming lifelong friends. He was also influenced by the contemporary American comics that reporter Léon Degrelle had sent back to Belgium from Mexico, where he was stationed to report on the Cristero War. These American comics included George McManus's Bringing Up Father, George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Rudolph Dirks's Katzenjammer Kids. Farr believed that contemporary cinema influenced Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, indicating similarities between scenes in the book with the police chases of the Keystone Cops films, the train chase in Buster Keaton's The General and with the expressionist images found in the works of directors such as Fritz Lang. Farr summarised this influence by commenting, "As a pioneer of the strip cartoon, Hergé was not afraid to draw on one modern medium to develop another".
Prior to serialisation, an announcement ran in the 4 January 1929 edition of Le Petit Vingtième, proclaiming, "[W]e are always eager to satisfy our readers and keep them up to date on foreign affairs. We have therefore sent Tintin, one of our top reporters, to Soviet Russia." The illusion of Tintin as a real reporter for the paper, and not a fictional character, was emphasised by the claim that the comic strip was not a series of drawings, but composed of photographs taken of Tintin's adventure. Biographer Benoît Peeters thought this a private joke between staff at Le Petit Vingtième; alluding to the fact that Hergé had originally been employed as a reporter-photographer, a job that he never fulfilled. Literary critic Tom McCarthy later compared this approach to that of 18th-century European literature, which often presented fictional narratives as non-fiction.
The first instalment of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in the 10 January 1929 edition of Le Petit Vingtième, and ran weekly until 8 May 1930. Hergé did not plot out the storyline in advance; he improvised new situations on a weekly basis, leaving Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier to observe that both "Story-wise and graphically, Hergé was learning his craft before our eyes." Hergé admitted that the work was rushed, saying, "The Petit Vingtième came out on Wednesday evening, and I often didn't have a clue on Wednesday morning how I was going to get Tintin out of the predicament I had put him in the previous week." Michael Farr considered this evident, remarking that many drawings were "crude, rudimentary, [and] rushed", lacking the "polish and refinement" that Hergé would later develop. Contrastingly, he thought that certain plates were of the "highest quality" and exhibited Hergé's "outstanding ability as a draughtsman".
The story was an immediate success among its young readers. As Harry Thompson remarked, the plotline would have been popular with the average Belgian parent, exploiting their anti-communist sentiment and feeding their fears regarding the Russians. The series' popularity led Wallez to organise publicity stunts to boost interest. The first of these was the April Fools' Day publication of a faked letter purporting to be from the OGPU (Soviet secret police) confirming Tintin's existence, and warning that if the paper did not cease publication of "these attacks against the Soviets and the revolutionary proletariat of Russia, you will meet death very shortly."
The second was a staged publicity event, suggested by the reporter Charles Lesne, which took place on Thursday 8 May 1930. During the stunt, the 15-year-old Lucien Pepermans, a friend of Hergé's who had Tintin's features, arrived at Brussels' Gare du Nord railway station aboard the incoming Liège express from Moscow, dressed in Russian garb as Tintin and accompanied by a white dog; in later life Hergé erroneously claimed that he had accompanied Pepermans. They were greeted by a crowd of fans, who mobbed Pepermans and pulled him into their midst. Proceeding by limousine to the offices of Le Vingtième Siècle, they were greeted by further crowds, largely of Catholic Boy Scouts; Pepermans gave a speech on the building's balcony, before gifts were distributed to fans.
From 26 October 1930, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was syndicated to French Catholic magazine Cœurs Vaillants ("Brave Hearts"), recently founded by the Abbé Gaston Courtois. Courtois had travelled to Brussels to meet Wallez and Hergé, but upon publication thought that his readers would not understand the speech bubble system, adding explanatory sentences below each image. This angered Hergé, who unsuccessfully "intervened passionately" to stop the additions. The publication was highly significant for initiating Hergé's international career. The story was also reprinted in its original form in L'écho illustré, a Swiss weekly magazine, from 1932 onward. Recognising the continued commercial viability of the story, Wallez published it in book form in September 1930 through the Brussels-based Éditions du Petit Vingtième at a print run of 10,000, each sold at twenty francs. The first 500 copies were numbered and signed by Hergé using Tintin's signature, with Snowy's paw print drawn on by Wallez's secretary, Germaine Kieckens, who later became Hergé's first wife.
From 1942 onwards, Hergé began redrawing and colouring his earlier Tintin adventures for Casterman, but chose not to do so for Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, considering its story too crude. Embarrassed by it, he labeled it a "transgression of [his] youth". Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier believed that another factor in his decision might have been the story's virulently anti-Marxist theme, which would have been unpopular amidst growing West European sympathies for Marxism following the Second World War.
As The Adventures of Tintin became more popular in Western Europe, and some of the rarer books became collectors' items, the original printed edition of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets became highly valued. As a result, Studios Hergé published 500 numbered copies to mark the series' 40th birthday in 1969. This encouraged further demand, leading to the production of "mediocre-quality" pirated editions, which were sold at "very high prices". To stem this illegal trade, Hergé agreed to a 1973 republication as part of the Archives Hergé collection, where it appeared in a collected volume alongside Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in America. With pirates continuing to be sold, Casterman produced a facsimile edition of the original in 1981. Over the next decade, it was translated into nine languages with an English-language edition translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner published by Sundancer in 1989. This edition was republished in 1999 for the 70th anniversary of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets.
Sociologist John Theobald noted that by the 1980s, the book's plot had become "socially and politically acceptable" in the western world as part of the Reaganite intensification of the Cold War and increased hostility towards Marxism and socialism. This cultural climate allowed it to appear "on hypermarket shelves as suitable children's literature for the new millennium". That same theme prevented its publication in Communist Party-governed China, where it was the only completed adventure not translated by Wang Bingdong and officially published in the early 21st century.
In his study of the cultural and literary legacy of Brussels, André De Vries remarked that Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was "crude by Hergé's later standards, in every sense of the word". Simon Kuper of the Financial Times criticised both Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo as the "worst" of the Adventures, being "poorly drawn" and "largely plot-free". Sociologist John Theobald of the Southampton Institute argued that Hergé had no interest in providing factual information about the Soviet Union, but only wanted to indoctrinate his readers against Marxism, hence depicting the Bolsheviks rigging elections, killing opponents and stealing the grain from the people. According to literary critic Jean-Marie Apostolidès of Stanford University, Hergé cast the Bolsheviks as "absolute evil" but was unable to understand how they had risen to power, or what their political views were. This meant that Tintin did not know this either, thereby observing the Soviet "world of misery" and fighting Bolsheviks without being able to foment an effective counter-revolution. Literary critic Tom McCarthy described the plot as "fairly straightforward" and criticised the depiction of Bolsheviks as "pantomime cut-outs".
Hergé biographer Benoît Peeters was critical of the opening pages to the story, believing that the illustrations in it were among Hergé's worst and stating, "One couldn't have imagined a less remarkable debut for a work destined for such greatness". He believed that Tintin was an existentialist "Sartre-esque character" who existed only through his actions, operating simply as a narrative vehicle throughout the book. Where Hergé showed his talent, Peeters thought, was in conveying movement, and in utilising language in a "constantly imaginative" way. He considered the story's "absurdity" to be its best feature, rejecting plausible scenarios in favour of the "joyously bizarre", such as Tintin being frozen solid and then thawing, or Snowy dressing in a tiger skin to scare away a real tiger. Hergé biographer Pierre Assouline described the comic writer's image of the Soviet Union as being "a Dantesque vision of poverty, famine, terror, and repression".
Marking the release of Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn film in 2011, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) commissioned a documentary devoted to Tintin in the Land of the Soviets in which journalist Frank Gardner—who considered Tintin to be his boyhood hero—visited Russia, defending the accuracy of Hergé's account regarding Soviet human rights abuses. First airing on Sunday 30 October 2011 on BBC Two, it was produced by Graham Strong, with Luned Tonderai as producer and Tim Green as executive producer. Gardner discussed the experience of filming in an article for conservative newspaper the Daily Mail, in which he stated that upon first reading the comic, he thought the drawings crude and the plot improbable. David Butcher reviewed the documentary for the Radio Times, opining that Gardner's trip was dull compared to the comic's adventure, but praising a few "great moments", such as the scene in which Gardner tested an open-topped 1929 Amilcar, just as Tintin did in the adventure.
- Hergé 1999, pp. 4–30.
- Hergé 1999, pp. 31–75.
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- BBC News 24 October 2011; Butcher 2011.
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- Tintin in the Land of the Soviets at the Official Tintin Website
- Tintin in the Land of the Soviets at Tintinologist.org