A World Turned Upside Down

Shout to the People: The mice are burying the cat. It’s Russia circa 1725, and Peter the Great has died. According to the National Library of Russia the scene in this lubok, or hand-colored woodcut print, was once said to have been a political cartoon of the funeral of the czar. Inasmuch as Peter the Great picked up the wand and turned Russia into a modern “European” nation, he wasn’t a compassionate ruler; he was considered by the people he taxed to the rafters to be quite cruel and despotic. To put it another way, the cat versus the mice.

But alas—as with so many good narratives—the story of the print was fiction. Researchers have recently established the mice were carrying no deep message, no comment about Peter, instead they were carrying only the cat. The print was a simple depiction of a puckish moment from a Russian folktale.

The National Library also notes that Mice Burying the Cat was a hugely popular subject and was rendered in a myriad ways over two hundred years, from woodcuts to metal engravings to chromolithographs. Today a quick search on the internet suggests the illustration hasn’t lost a single fan. It’s mentioned over and over, and it’s been reproduced on everything, including the seemingly apt mousepad.

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