University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Sinister Stalin, the Cold-War Octopus

The cartoonist David Low’s depiction of Stalin as an octopus, published in 1948, sits within a long-standing tradition of monstrous, dehumanised depictions of political enemies.  Octopi in particular have been used in the past to represent the sinister ambitions of Prussia, Britain, France, Nazi Germany, America and the oil industry, amongst others.  But as second-year UoP History student Georgia Hutton explains, Low’s octopus critiques both Soviet policy and contemporary Western-bloc attitudes towards it.  Georgia wrote this piece for the second-year module, Danger! Censorship, Power and the People.

A cartoon by David Low for the Evening Standard, on 15 April 1948, reveals a great deal about the British, contemporary Western, perspective of the USSR during the early development of the Cold War hostilities.[1] The “Grand Alliance” of 1945 had crumbled into a polarised Europe by 1948.[2] Whilst it is important to note that cartoons generally exaggerate the truth for comedic purposes, the image by Low provides insight into messages a contemporary audience was exposed to regarding the USSR: Britain’s fear of Soviet expansion; the USSR’s policy of isolationism and perceived ‘Social Utopia’ alongside the years of ‘anti-red hysteria’.[3]


Stalin in 1949

Stalin in 1949


Low’s decision to place Stalin’s facial features on a large cartoon ‘octopus’ statue is significant as it provides an acknowledgement that the USSR was pursuing a policy of expansionism, whilst illustrating a negative assessment of this. Low creates the metaphor of the Russian spread of communism across Europe by portraying Stalin as an octopus with a ‘tentacle like’ grip that he warns with text at the bottom of the statue is “REACHING ALL OVER THE WORLD [sic]”.[4] Stalin viewed “Eastern Europe as vital to Russia’s security” and consequently post-war focused on the creation of the Eastern Bloc to “prevent any nation in the region from developing close economic or military ties with the West”.[5] Longden stresses that Britain was inherently fearful of the prospect of Soviet expansion; foreign Secretary Ernst Bevin knew post-war Britain was too weak to protect Europe or themselves from the Soviet threat.[6] In addition, the timing of the cartoon is significant as it was published less than two months after the Prague Coup of 1948 which saw “Czechoslovakia’s slide into Communist rule”.[7] The Coup of February 1948 alongside the post-war swing towards the left in countries such as Italy and France persuaded the West that political change was “being orchestrated from Moscow”.[8] Schwartz notes that by January 1948 the Foreign Office had launched an anti-communist propaganda campaign to stop the USSR’s influence infiltrating Britain.[9] Although Low’s depiction of Stalin trying to extend its influence was not direct government propaganda, its view of the USSR was one shared with Whitehall.

Red octopus reaching over Iran

An octupus was again used an symbolic of Soviet aggression in 1980



Low highlights the idea throughout his cartoon that Russia was pursuing a policy of secretive and hostile post-war isolationism in the large wall that runs across the middle of the image separating the two sides of the cartoon. This draws parallels to the notorious speech by Winston Churchill in 1946 claiming “’an iron curtain’ had descended across the Continent”.[10] Robert Dallek highlights that “Stalin … couldn’t accept that his allies meant what they said about post-war goodwill”.[11] As a result, Russia fell into a policy of hostile isolationism and bitter distrust of the West. However, whilst the wall is blocking what Low labels “SIGHTSEERS [sic]” a figure with resemblance to Stalin is seen looking over the wall into the other side. [12] This suggests that the USSR, whilst isolating themselves from the rest of the world, were still interested in the politics of, and how they were perceived by, the West. Ian D. Thatcher states that “the world of Soviet politics was noted for hidden motivations” which links to Low’s depiction of the USSR hidden behind the wall.[13]   Low titles his piece, “PRETTY GOOD SOVIET PROPAGANDA, I SAY [sic]”.[14] The Soviet Union’s effort to maintain the illusory image of “Social Utopia” is referenced in Low’s cartoon on the entrance door of the wall.[15] Low makes reference to the Western view that there was instead “MUDDLE & MESS IN THE USSR [sic]”.[16] Levering suggests the USSR recognised their technological inferiority and would produce propaganda accordingly insisting “the West was preparing to attack the Soviets in order to destroy their way of life”.[17] Through Low’s imagery we are exposed to the contemporary views regarding Russia’s secrecy and policy of isolationism, which in turn are used to promote a negative suspicious view of the Soviets.

In his cartoon Low presents the ‘anti-red hysteria’ surrounding ideological differences in his descriptions of Stalin.  Although as Erik Goldstein states, “geo-politics even more than ideological rivalry have shaped British reactions to Russia”, there was an obvious stark contrast in ideology between the Communist “Soviet camp” and the Western “imperialist camp.[18] .[19]  Low plays on the differences between the two ideologies by his use of juxtaposing statements on the base of the statue. Underneath the statue starting with the title “SINISTER STALIN [sic]” follow three more statements: “FRIGHTFULLY CLEVER, DREADFULLY POWERFUL, AWFULLY EFFICIENT [sic]”.[20] The positive adjectives link back to the idea of ‘social utopia’ whilst the contrasting negative adverbs highlight the ‘anti-red hysteria’ created by the West. Despite this, However, Low also acknowledges the hysteria generated by expansionism and contrasting ideologies by the inclusion of a man labelled “ANTI-RED HYSTERIA [sic]” who is building the statue where both ideas were presented.[21] It is important to note that the Evening Standard was a staunchly conservative paper.  Mark Hampton argues that while Low, as he stressed in his autobiography, had “complete freedom in the selection and treatment of subject-matter”, his cartoons often met with a “hostile reception” from its readers,  reaction he was perhaps both evoking and provoking with his direct reference to the subject matter of hysteria[22]  Through Low’s descriptions of Stalin we are exposed to how he perceives the ‘anti-red hysteria’ is being created.

Low’s cartoon provides us with great insight into the British perspective of the USSR in the early years of the cold war through the use of imagery. Low highlights the British fear of Soviet expansion through the depiction of Stalin as an octopus following the creation of the Eastern Bloc including the recent Czechoslovakian Communist coup. In addition, Low highlights how the British perceived the Soviet policy of hostile isolationism through his imagery of the giant wall separating the cartoon despite Stalin being able to see over. This suggests that, whilst isolating themselves from the rest of the world, the USSR were still interested in  how they were perceived by the West. Finally, Low’s description of Stalin provides us insight into the ideological differences of the cold war suggesting ‘anti-red hysteria’ was created both by expansionism and differing ideology.

[1] David Low, ‘Pretty good Soviet propaganda, I say’, Evening Standard, 15 April 1948. DL2866, British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent.

[2] David Reynolds, From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 267.

[3] Lowell H. Schwartz, Political Warfare Against the Kremlin: US and British Propaganda Policy at the Beginning of the Cold War (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 209.

[4] David Low, ‘Pretty good Soviet propaganda, I say’

[5] Ralph B. Levering, The Cold War: A Post-Cold War History (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 21.

[6] Martin A.L. Longden, “From ‘Hot War’ to ‘Cold War’: Western Europe in British Grand Strategy, 1945-1948”, in Cold War Britain 1945-1964: New Perspectives ed. Michael F. Hopkins, Michael D. Kandiah and Gillian Staerck (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 116-117.

[7] Michael D. Kandiah, “The Conservative Party and the Early Cold War: The Construction of ‘New Conservatism’” in Cold War Britain 1945-1964: New Perspectives, ed. Michael F. Hopkins, Michael D. Kandiah and Gillian Staerck (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 33.

[8] Longden, “From ‘Hot War’ to ‘Cold War’”, 117.

[9] Schwartz, Political Warfare, 19.

[10] Reynolds, From World War, 249; Jenks, British Propaganda, 32.

[11] Robert Dallek, The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope (New York: Harper, 2010), 66.  Quoted in Levering, The Cold War, 20.

[12] David Low, ‘Pretty good Soviet propaganda, I say’

[13] Ian D. Thatcher, “From Stalin to Gorbachev: Reflections on the Personality of Leaders in Soviet History”, Contemporary European History 19, no.1 (2010): 96.

[14] David Low, ‘Pretty good Soviet propaganda, I say’

[15] Schwartz, Political Warfare, 209.

[16] David Low, ‘Pretty good Soviet propaganda, I say’

[17] Levering, The Cold War, 32.

[18] Erik Goldstein, “Britain and the Origins of the Cold War”, in Cold War Britain 1945-1964: New Perspectives ed. Michael F. Hopkins, Michael D. Kandiah and Gillian Staerck (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 7.

[19] Robert C. Tucker, The Psychological Factor in Soviet Foreign Policy (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, RM-1881,1957), Quoted in Schwartz, Political Warfare, 14.

[20] David Low, ‘Pretty good Soviet propaganda, I say’

[21] David Low, ‘Pretty good Soviet propaganda, I say’

[22] David Low, Low’s Autobiography (New York: 1957); Mark Hampton, “Inventing David Low: Self-Presentation, Caricature and the Culture of Journalism in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain”, Twentieth Century British History 20, no. 4 (2009): 494, 500.

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