Of Dictators and Terrible Cockroaches: A Russian children’s story…from 1925!

Tarankanische (The Terrible Cockroach) original book cover, 1925


Sometime ago, when I gave a talk at the Sri Lanka Rationnalists’ Association, a member of my audience asked if parents should be banned from reading fairy tales to their children. His argued that children should be raised on reality and not fantasy. I was talking about science fiction and their social relevance, and I answered: there is absolutely no harm in fairy tales as they nurture in our young minds those vital qualities of imagination and sense of wonder. I quoted C S Lewis as saying that the only people really against escapism were…jailers!

These days, not all children’s stories are fairy tales and some of them actually carry very down-to-earth messages either overtly or covertly. Members of that largest club in the world – Parenthood – keep discovering new depths and insights in some children’s stories.

On 30 January, as people power struggles were unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt, I wrote a blog post titled Wanted: More courageous little ‘Mack’s to unsettle Yertle Kings of our times!. I related how, while following the developments on the web, I have been re-reading my Dr Seuss. In particular, the delightfully inspiring tale of Yertle the Turtle King. To me, that is the perfect example of People Power in action — cleverly disguised as children’s verse!

Turns out another parent on the opposite side of the planet had a similar insight, but from an even older children’s story written in Russia! Philip Shishkin has shared his experience in the latest issue of Newsweek.

Tarankanische, or ‘The Terrible Cockroach’ (also translated as ‘The Giant Cockroach’) is a children’s story written by the Russian author Kornei Chukovsky (1882-1969). The first edition, with illustrations by Sergeii Chekhonin, was published in (then) Leningrad 1925.

I was raised on translated Russian children’s stories (the only books of that genre we could access in the closed-economy, socialist misadventures of Sri Lanka during the early 1970s). Whatever economic realities that thrust those books on my childhood, many of them were very fine stories, always well illustrated. But I had somehow missed out on this one — so I quickly did some web searching for this story. And what a fantastic fable it is!

Tarankanische tells the nonsense tale of a threatening cockroach who is so fierce that he terrifies all the animals who are out to enjoy a picnic. Even the mighty elephants are helpless in his presence. The cockroach bullies and scares animals much larger than itself, and demands they surrender their cubs so he can eat them. He is seen as “a terrible giant: the red-haired, big-whiskered cockroach.”

Tarankanische, or The Terrible Cockroach, Sergeii Chekhonin, illustrator, 1925

The little tyrant rules the whole jungle on a mix of fear, submission and misery. A laughing kangaroo points out that it’s no giant, but merely a cockroach. The hippos tell him to shut up: “You’ll make things worse for us”. Then, one day, Nature finally restores balance (as it always does): a sparrow comes along and gobbles up the Terrible Cockroach.

In his essay titled Watching the Mighty Cockroach Fall, Philip Shishkin writes: “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.”

Shishkin then raises an interesting question: Did Kornei Chukovsky have Joseph Stalin in mind when he wrote it? Was Stalin prominent enough when the story was first published in 1925? To find out, read the full essay.

According to his mini-bio on IMDB, Chukovsky was a praised Russian translator of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and other English and American authors. His writings for children are regarded as classics of the form. His best-known poems for children are “Krokodil”, “Moydodyr”, “Tarakanische”, and “Doctor Aybolit” (Doctor Ouch).

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Wanted: More courageous little ‘Mack’s to unsettle Yertle Kings of our times!

Yertle the Turtle King: My mental image of a despotic ruler!

Related blog post on 7 Feb 2011: Of Dictators and Terrible Cockroaches: A Russian children’s story…from 1925!

January 2011 has been an eventful month for democratic reform in the Middle East. As People Power successfully toppled the deeply entrenched dictator Ben Ali in Tunisia, and the ordinary Egyptians intensified their pressure on own 30-year-long regime of Hosni Mubarak, commentators around the world have been trying to make sense of the rapidly unfolding developments. One of them, David Kravets, writing in Wired linked to a blog post of mine that talked about the experience of one of the earliest successful demonstrations of people power — in the Philippines, when they toppled a long-misruling dictator in 1986.

Amidst all this, and while following the developments on the web, I have been re-reading my Dr Seuss. In particular, the delightfully inspiring tale of Yertle the Turtle King. To me, that is the perfect example of People Power in action — cleverly disguised as children’s verse!

The story was first published in April 1958, in a picture book collection by Theodor Geisel, published under his more commonly-known pseudonym, Dr. Seuss. In 2001, Publishers Weekly listed it at No 125 on a list of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

For those poor Seuss-deprived readers, here’s a helpful summary I have adapted from Wikipedia:

The story is about Yertle the Turtle, the king of the pond in the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond. Unsatisfied with the stone that serves as his throne, he commands the other turtles to stack themselves beneath him so that he can see further and expand his kingdom (he considers himself the master of all he can see). However, the stacked turtles are in pain. Mack, a very ordinary little turtle at the very bottom of the pile, asks Yertle for a respite, but Yertle just tells him to shut up. Dissent is suppressed.

King Yertle is still not happy: he wants ‘to expand his kingdom’. So he commands more and more turtles to add to his throne. Mack again asks for a respite because the increased weight is now causing extreme pain to the turtles at the bottom. Again Yertle yells at Mack to shut up. At this point, little Mack decides he has had enough and decides to do something to vent his anger and frustration: he just burps. That simple action shakes up the entire stack of turtles, and the mighty king comes crashing down into the pond — and all turtles are freed at last!

Required reading for all despots?Years ago, when I first read the story to my then very young daughter, I could immediately see strong parallels between the vain, merciless Yertle the turtle king and the equally egotistic megalomaniacs in the world of human politics and governance. I would later learn that Dr Seuss meant Yertle to be Adolf Hitler: the turtle’s rule of the pond and takeover of the surrounding areas signified Hitler’s regime in Germany and invasion of surrounding Europe.

The ordinary but courageous Mack epitomises long-suffering Everyman and Everywoman in all countries where autocratic or dictatorial regimes rule, piling ever more burdens on their people. Like the turtles in the stack, the people can go on for years taking a great deal of suffering and sacrifice while the despots plunder and make merry. But there comes a day when a ‘Mack’ says enough is enough…and emits a humble ‘burp’ that shakes up everyone.

As Dr Seuss wrote (and this is my favourite part!):

But, as Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand
And started to order and give the command,
That plain little turtle below in the stack,
That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
Decided he’d taken enough. And he had.
And that plain little lad got a bit mad.
And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.
He burped!
And his burp shook the throne of the king!

And Yertle the Turtle, the king of the trees,
The king of the air and the birds and the bees,
The king of a house and a cow and a mule…
Well, that was the end of the Turtle King’s rule!
For Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond,
Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!

And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

Read the text of Yertle the Turtle King

I don’t mean to oversimplify or belittle the enormous courage and resolve it takes for ordinary people to take on a brutal regime, but as pop-culture metaphors go, it’s hard to find a better one than Mack and his defiant burp. That little burp by a tiny turtle brought a vain king down, and its real-world equivalent is called people power: when long-oppressed ordinary people take to the streets to protest against the accumulated excesses of their rulers, demanding reform or regime change.

Not all such ‘burps’ bring all ‘Yertles’ down in the real world. The mighty Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s thanks to the courage and persistence of ordinary people who stood up and stepped out. It also worked twice in the Philippines: first against an outright dictator (Marcos) in 1986, and then against a renegade elected president (Estrada) in 2001. A variation of it happened in Nepal against the brutal King Gyanendra, who was dumped into the dustbin of history with the entire monarchy in 2006. Each case had its own history, dynamics and outcomes but shared the common feat of people power.

Sounds familiar? That's because it's all too common!

But elsewhere, as in Tiananmen Square of China (1989) Burma (2007) and Thailand (2010), people power failed to change regimes and led to much violence and bloodshed. What particular combination of social, political and technological factors make people power work is currently the subject of intense study and debate among scholars, diplomats and activists.

But there’s no doubt that recent history has been shaped and made by Macks who broke the silence and, figuratively speaking, burped. Some such burps were heard around the world, and some Macks went on to lead prolonged revolutions that ended with them becoming rulers themselves: Lech Walesa, Cory Aquino and Valclav Havel come to mind.

For every ‘Mack’ who succeeds, though, there are many who go unsung —or much worse. We still have no idea what happened to that much photographed and celebrated ‘Tank Man’ who stood up against the Red Army’s tanks on Tiananman Square one fateful day in June 1989. We don’t even know his name, but his defiance against such enormous odds still inspires assorted Macks all over the world.

For sure, our world is a tiny bit larger — and more complex — than that muddy pond in far away Sala-ma-Sond. And we have an abundance of Yertles, of various colours and hues, riding literally on the backs of their fellow people.

At least some of these tyrants must be following the recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt with growing anxiety. We can only hope that there will be a steady stream of courageous little ‘Macks’ in all such countries who will finally speak up and say: ‘Oi, Enough is enough!’

And then…BURP!

PS: Interesting footnote: Dr Seuss was the first to use the word “burp” in print. That apparently was cause for some concern before publication. According to him, the publishers at Random House, including the president, had to meet to decide whether or not they could use “burp” because “nobody had ever burped before on the pages of a children’s book”.


See also this interesting poem The Vain King, by American poet Henry Van Dyke (1852 – 1933)