Friday, August 14, 2020

How the Soviet Union Turned a Plague into Propaganda

The fight against locust swarms allowed the Soviet Union to consolidate power over neighboring regions.
On May 25, 1924, the front page of the Soviet magazine Kommunist featured an illustration of a giant locust standing on its hind legs, threatening the reader with a scythe. The scythe is emblazoned with a skull and crossbones; vultures hover ominously in the background. A single exclamatory phrase tops this cartoon: “The locusts!”

Though this cartoon may look like something pulled from a Soviet remake of A Bug’s Life, desert locusts are no laughing matter. In the Middle East especially, swarms of locusts were known to descend in massive, droning clouds to ravage entire fields. A plague of locusts could last for years at a time, causing food shortages and widespread unrest.

In the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks were looking for a way to gain control over neighboring countries and foreign allies. They saw these swarms as an opportunity to capitalize on a biblical fear. “The subjugation of nature was a key feature of communism,” writes historian Etienne Forestier-Peyrat. “Agricultural pest control became a major priority for the new regime.” The Bolsheviks framed locusts as “foreign” intruders—and emphasized that the Soviet border needed to be defended against their attacks.

Locusts “know no political borders” and migrate according to the weather patterns in various arid climates. The promise to “suppress the locust threat” was a handy tool for forging stronger relationships with the Soviet Union’s border republics (like Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan). Internationally, the Soviets also used their anti-locust campaign “as an excuse to monitor other regions more closely,” writes Forestier-Peyrat....