The Devil and the Mullah: Satirical Personae in the Pre-Revolutionary Press of the South Caucasus

In: Experiment
Naomi Caffee Assistant Professor of Russian and Humanities, Reed College Portland, OR USA

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Robert Denis Independent Scholar Tbilisi Georgia

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Oskar Schmerling (1863–1938) was a Tbilisi-based artist best known for his illustrations and caricatures in Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, and Russian-language satirical periodicals during the Russian Empire’s post-1905 “press boom.” His work provided a powerful visual component to hotly debated issues of the day, including language policy, ethnic conflict, educational reform, religious practices, Russian cultural and political hegemony, and more. In this article we analyze Schmerling’s use of two satirical personae—the titular devil from the Georgian journal eshmakis matrakhi (Devil’s Whip) and the mullah from the Azeri journal Molla Näsräddin—in light of the diverse cultural and religious communities that comprised his readership and intellectual milieu. Drawing from scholarship on trickster figures in oral, print, and performative genres around the world, we investigate the ways Schmerling used the personae of the devil and the mullah to simultaneously represent the world from more than one perspective, and to speak to communities with varying political agendas in the midst of a collapsing empire. We argue that Schmerling’s work reveals cross-cultural artistic and intellectual connections that contributed to significant political and cultural change in the South Caucasus, culminating in revolutionary activity and the rise of nationalist movements.

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