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The sunflower has bloomed into a symbol of solidarity with Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion. Ukraine's national flower has been defiantly planted across from the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., been seen on the sleeve and face mask of First Lady Jill Biden, been held high in antiwar protests across Europe, and is often affixed to profile pictures on social media.
It's also prominently featured in a striking political cartoon by Valery Momot, whose work is among others in a new exhibit of Russian and Ukrainian cartoons at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis.
Momot, from Ukraine, depicts a sunflower on a cross, as if crucified — a poignant image anytime, but particularly as Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter this weekend.
Beyond the religious reference, Mark J. Meister, the museum's director and president, said it reminds him of the viral video of an elderly Ukrainian woman confronting Russian soldiers and intrepidly telling them to "Take these seeds so sunflowers will grow here when you die."
The exhibit, "Say No to War," is a collaboration of Maria Zavialova, the museum's curator, and cartoonist Andrey Feldshteyn who, like Zavialova, was born in the Soviet Union but now lives in Minnesota. And like Zavialova, Feldshteyn decries the war waged by his homeland, as his own work in the exhibit displays.
Trusted by a close community of Eastern European political cartoonists, Feldshteyn was able to convince some Russian cartoonists to take part, despite the risks. Some do so anonymously. "It's sort of like Russian roulette if some government agencies will find out" in Russia, Feldshteyn said. In fact, said Zavialova, some "continue to produce these antiwar cartoons exposing themselves to danger on a daily basis." Others, in contrast, "live in Ukraine in the situation of this horrible war."
The horrible war is depicted in many ways by Ukrainian cartoonists, including Oleksiy Kustovsky in a panel showing a terrified girl sheltering in a bombed-out building. She's being protected from an incoming Russian shell by three of her stuffed animals.
"It's about children in this war zone in Ukraine and how they suffer, how horrible it is to them," Zavialova said. "There is nothing to protect her other than her toys, which is probably in her own imagination, because children have to create their own world, right?"
And adults may revisit their childhood worlds in a cartoon by Yuriy Pogorelov that caricatures Russian President Vladimir Putin as a cockroach — a fitting image for Westerners appalled by atrocities committed in Ukraine — but one with deeper meaning. Zavialova said it was a reference to a very well-known Russian children's poem by Korney Chukovsky.
In the poem, she continued, "a cockroach comes to the animal kingdom and says, 'now I'm going to be your king and bring me your children, I'm going to eat them and oppress you'" — until it's eaten by a sparrow. It came to be considered an allegory, she said, about Josef Stalin (the cockroach) and Nikita Khrushchev (the sparrow — often depicted, ironically, in a Ukrainian shirt). The updated parable has Putin as the cockroach. Whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is ultimately the sparrow remains to be seen.
"It's a very complex comparison," Zavialova admitted. But most cartoons at the exhibit don't require an understanding of Russian or Ukrainian literature — or language, for that matter, because most are drawn without words in illustrations universally understood.
Like another using animal imagery by Ukrainian Victor Holub that shows a silhouette of the Russian bear — the metaphorical embodiment of Soviet/Russian military might (and menace). But casting the shadow is a less fearsome rat — a stand-in for Putin, Zavialova said, reflecting a common derogatory nickname for the Russian president who has cruelly ruled his own country, including banning antiwar activism. That stance is depicted in a cartoon from an anonymous Russian artist that shows police brusquely arresting the dove of peace who is protesting the war.
The theme of Putin ruining not just Ukraine, but Russia, is seen in several panels, including one from Ukrainian Sergey Sychenko with a different kind of avian imagery: Russia's two-headed eagle, featured in the country's coat of arms. In the cartoon the bird is on a hot skillet, heated by the fires of Russian bombardment. The frying pan is being held, however, by the eagle's talon, reflecting Russia's self-sabotage.
"People say that Putin is waging a war in Ukraine, but he's destroying his own country," Zavialova said. "He is fighting his own people, impoverishing them, and just repressing and creating no future for them."
Accentuating the point is an anonymous panel from Russia that shows an officer marching with the Russian flag aflame at the end. Fire's featured in another from Sergey Elkin, born in Russia but now in Bulgaria, that shows Putin running westward with a torch engulfing not what's ahead of him, but behind him.
Unceasing censorship means most Russians won't see the cartoons, and in fact most aren't seeing the truth from the war their country is waging. Opinions of Putin and the "special military operation" (as the Kremlin decrees it) are solidly on the side of the official narrative, according to a recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Most Russians strongly (53%) or somewhat (28%) support the conflict. The numbers are lower for those who get news from the internet, social media, or society — friends and relatives. But the support is strongest from those who get their news from state TV, which gives credence to a cartoon from Ukrainian Oleg Goutsol that shows citizens knocked senseless by falling TVs.
"People say, in this situation of sanctions in Russia, 'what will win? The television or the fridge?'" Zavialova said. "And they say no, at this point the television is winning, which means that propaganda is stronger than the deprivation and all the hardship that the Russian citizens are going through."
Zavialova and Meister both believe it's important that a museum celebrating Russian and Soviet art shows its heart lies with Ukraine in the war. So in a message some of the political cartoonists might appreciate, the museum painted over an entrance banner that read "The Museum of Russian Art" with a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.
"I don't know if cartoonists would say it's a form of cartooning," Meister said. "But yes, it's a visual image that certainly says something." (And said something reassuring to cartoonists considering contributing to the show, Feldshteyn said.) "And it very clearly says that the museum stood with Ukraine," Meister said, adding that immediately people posted pictures of it, including his daughter, who sent an image to a friend in Munich. But by then, the virtue had gone viral. "I've already seen it," the friend wrote back.
Meister, Feldshteyn and Zavialova will each briefly speak at an opening event at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The exhibit, Zavialova said, will start a "pop-up" show for two weeks and then rotate new cartoons in a more permanent exhibit.
Then, with words that seemed to reflect the resilience of the sunflower, she said that the exhibit's end date "will be the end of the war."