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Seriously funny

A political cartoon exhibition in London offers history at all levels, says Tanmoy Biswas.

All pupils, including those with language and literacy difficulties, should have the opportunity to learn about the suffering, drama and heroics of the Second World War. A new exhibition of war cartoons at Vinopolis in London offers this.

The exhibition marks the 60th anniversary of Hitler's Operation Barbarossa and features the Soviet viewpoint of the war through cartoons. The organiser, Tim Benson of the Political Cartoon Society, believes cartoons should play a bigger role in motivating and teaching history in schools.

The exhibition focuses on three Russian cartoonists, made famous by their work before and during the Second World War. They met in Moscow and formed a collective with the acronym "Kukryniksy" based on their names: Mikhail Kupriyanov, Porfiry Krylov and Nikolay Sokolov.

What is it that makes cartoons effective in capturing pupils' imagination? The most obvious answer is that they can be funny, even today. We can imagine SS officers hiding a Kukryniksy of Goebbels painting the Fuehrer whenever Hitler walked into the room. Dave Low of the Evening Standard frequently drew Hitler as an ass or a fool. Hitler was not amused by these representations, though many others were.

The best cartoons capture the "mood" of an event and are easily understood by anyone. In Russia, cartoons were often the only newspaper section accessible to the millions of near-illiterate peasants. In a classroom setting this should make it easier to differentiate tasks.

Dr Benson, a history teacher, says: "For pupils with reading difficulties, text-based sources with dated language may only confuse. A cartoon can help pupils picture a sequence of events with all the protagonists brought to life."

But can we rely on cartoons for data? They can be primary historical sources, though cartoonists themselves are rarely at "the scene" of events. David Low would avoid Germany for vacations: his presence on Hitler's death list no doubt influenced this decision. The Kukryniksy collective were, however, eyewitnesses at the Nuremberg trials, when they had the privilege of reporting for Pravda, though instances like these were rare. Even allowing for cartoons as secondary historical sources, government censorship, the need to put on a brave face for the nation or national security could all play a part in damaging their historical significance.

Few cartoonists were not aware of what was expected, and were quickly reminded when they forgot. Kukryniksy came up with their own ideas for cartoons, though when approached by Stalin's aides with an idea, they knew not to refuse. Similarly, David Low was prevented from mocking Hitler during Chamberlain's policy of appeasement.

Where external controls were not applied, national pride often prevailed. Nikolay Sokolov commented on how the former United States president Ronald Reagan "called our country (the USSR) the Evil Empire". Sokolov asked: "How could we react calmly when we lived in an Evil Empire? So we helped our country. What's wrong with that?" If there is a way for teachers to lead pupils through the myriad biases, it is by providing them with a balanced range of sources. Tim Benson says:

"When you provide pupils with an opportunity to examine all the angles on a subject, including the cartoonist's views, they learn to empathise with other cultures and to recognise bias. " Achieving this balance had been difficult, because cartoons from across the iron curtain were always hard to find. After the end of the cold war that situation began to change, especially with collectors working with organisations such as the Political Cartoon Society. The exhibition at Vinopolis even features some artwork presented by Khrushchev on his visit to Britain in 1956.

The Political Cartoon Society produces a quarterly newsletter (tel: 0208 446 5102 or e-mail The University of Kent at Canterbury also has a considerable archive of cartoons.

Websites - the Political Cartoon Society - the University of Kent at Canterbury's website has a growing archive of cartoons.

* The Kukryniksy exhibition runs until August 31 at Vinopolis, 1 Bank End, London SE1 9BU. Entrance: pound;2, children free. Tel: 0870 241 4040.

Tanmoy Biswas teaches in north London

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