“They Are Not Monsters. Just Murderers”: Oleksandr Grekhov on Cartoonism in the Time of War, Limitations as Style, and Having His Works Destroyed by Conservatives

Photo by Andrii Kuzmin.

The dramatic escalation of Russo-Ukrainian conflict after February 24th, 2022, has elicited a range of responses from Ukrainian cartoonists, illustrators, and comic book creators. A collection of non-fiction graphic stories from the now-occupied city of Mariupol has been recently published online by Ukrainian Assembly Comix. Back in May, French periodical Charlie Hebdo dedicated a section of its weekly issue to the works of Ukrainian satirists measuring up to the publication’s trademark irreverent style. On the more personal end of the spectrum, Ukrainian artist Yulia Tveritina, for three months, drew the events of the war from the recollections of her friends and incidental media reports in a daily visual diary discontinued by the author at the beginning of June. Not to mention a panoply of artworks coming from all quarters of the Ukrainian graphic arts community.

One of the country’s most paradoxical wartime visual chroniclers is Oleksandr Grekhov, who continuously reflects–and deflects–the realities of Russian invasion in his sunny, primitivist, take-and-run-with-it style. Oleksandr has become a mainstay of the national illustration scene throughout the years pre-dating the full-scale invasion and allied himself with a number of political causes, even though his most controversial outing resulted from a featherweight, flirtatious engagement with the image of one of the country’s Founding Father figures. I imposed on the artist’s self-inflicted under-the-radar existence and drew him into the scorching Kyivian sun at a café in mid-June to talk about Oleksandr’s artistic practice; its limits; war. And then, suddenly, happiness.

-Evheny Osievsky

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EVHENY OSIEVSKY: I know many Ukrainians who quit careers in academia or the arts for the IT sector, but you are one of the very few who made the reverse crossover. Not educated in fine arts, you were not afraid to change your occupation so dramatically. Did you have so much faith in your works?

OLEKSANDR GREKHOV: When I was starting out as an illustrator, IT was not such a big deal as it is now, so the choice came more easily. Maybe today I wouldn’t have chosen art, I don’t know.

No, I did not have a lot of faith - I was drawing something for social networks, Twitter or Instagram, posting pictures once a week or so. Somebody liked them, occasionally. So I printed postcards from those early works, and people started buying them. I contacted a few shops, began collaborating with them on a regular basis. Realized that it can be a way to make a living, not simply a hobby. From then on I just went with the flow.

But even financially, the careers of an IT specialist and an illustrator are almost incomparable in Ukraine.

Of course they are. What I am earning now is, maybe, five times less than what I could have earned in IT or thereabouts. It is also very irregular, dependent on the specific project. If you have one, you have money, if you don’t - you are eating through your stash.

I became an illustrator because of passion, not because of financial incentives. Wanted to be happy, really.

It’s great to hear but also surprising, in a way. I read in one of your interviews that your main source of inspiration is the need to pay the bills. And now, it turns out, you’re almost a romantic.

Almost. [Laughs]

What I meant by that remark is that everything in life is connected, the way I see it. That’s the way life works.

Illustration for a Gender in Detail article, June 2020. The caption: “Halloween’s scariest costumes.” 2019 saw the official inauguration of new grammar rules of the Ukrainian language including, among other provisions, the prescription to use feminine forms of nouns (previously an optional choice) which in Ukrainian are most frequently created through the addition of a “ка” ending to the “standard” (i.e. masculine) forms: a female doctor is doktorka. This innovation caused something of an outrage among the “political correctness has gone mad” camp. Hence the winner of the imaginary contest in the cartoon. The entity occupying the second place is, of course, a coronavirus particle.

You also do a lot of projects for social and political campaigns of various kinds. You regularly contribute illustrations to Gender in Detail [a Ukrainian feminist website], UAnimals [an NGO campaigning against animal cruelty], and pro-recycling initiatives. How important for you is the need to work towards something you believe in?

Really important. Actually, my first “client” was Sirius, a local animal shelter. I drew postcards for them, for free. My first exhibition was also a charity project - I sold my posters for the benefit of Tabletochki [a fund that provides medicine for children]. Projects that can make a difference.... That’s what I missed while working in IT - the presence of community, the possibility to find myself and to help. That sort of thing.

Poster for a campaign promoting the adoption of shelter animals for UAnimals, November 2020. Caption (in white font): “Your star is waiting for you at the shelter.” The caption in black font echoes the lyrics of one of the iconic songs of Okean Elzy (Elza’s Ocean), one of Ukraine’s most influential and beloved rock bands. The dog in the picture bears a distinctly non-accidental resemblance to the group’s frontman.

You are very cryptic about your artistic influences. I read somewhere that there are many, but you refuse to name anyone in particular.

There are dozens. They change constantly. As my style changes, so do the artists I look at. In the beginning it was all obvious banal stuff - Van Gogh, Picasso. Nowadays there are more contemporary creators, some of them Ukrainians. [Sergiy] Maidukov, for instance.

Conversely, you are very straightforward about the origins of your aesthetics. You draw on your phone, using Paper and CorelDRAW, employing about three dozen colors in total. All relatively simple tools. That is what makes your visual identity recognizable. These are the limitations you set for yourself in the very beginning and the ones you continue to operate within. Yet now, after five years of work as a cartoonist, don’t you feel stifled? Is there a temptation to reinvent yourself?

It comes, from time to time. I have recently started changing gears a bit, trying my hand at ceramics, silkprinting. Doing things with my hands, not simply with a stylus. But for about 80% I stay within the boundaries I created for myself. I try not to cross them.

Illustration, 2022. Caption on the box: “EUROPE’S GREENEST CITY.” In a smaller font below: “Virtual reality club.” The (likely self-awarded) title of the greenest city in Europe has for decades remained a part of Kyiv’s myth and is tirelessly reiterated by Kyivian authorities. In reality, the capital’s green spaces are constantly shrinking because of developers and the atrocious “gardening” practices of the municipal services, typified by the stalks of the trees “pruned” out of existence (in the background).

I thought about the way to fit your practice in the history of Ukrainian visuality. There is something very Maria Prymachenko about your approach: this is what I have, this is a part of my life, so I am going to use it to express myself. The way she used to paint the stoves of her neighbors and all the similar stories.

Yeah, that’s also the way I see myself. As a kind of naïve artist. I have never studied art. When I started drawing I hadn't even watched YouTube tutorials or anything. Just drew the way it felt. The most important thing was that I liked it. Only if I like it, I am ready to put it up somewhere for other people to observe.

Does it stay that way? For many creators, painting is a very tortured, laborious experience. For many, the enchantment disappears with time.

Not in my case, not yet. I like what I do. That is why I am not planning to change my profession. If it goes away, I might well transition into something else.

“Shevchenko’s Quantum Jump” was the turning point of your career, but before getting into it we should provide some background for our English-speaking readers. So there is this person, Taras Shevchenko, a 19th century polymath and national luminary. He is a kind of Ukrainian Shakespeare and Ukrainian George Washington at the same time. His anniversaries are celebrated as a national holiday every year. Take it from here.

It started in 2018. Prior to this I have been painting some generic stuff - animals, flowers, whatever people usually draw in the beginning of their careers. And then I decided to make this small humorous series about Shevchenko. In the first picture he was holding a little unicorn in his lap. Then there was the one where he is in Ziggy Stardust’s makeup. I wrote to Shevchenko’s Museum [i.e. the National Museum Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv] that I have a couple of works of this kind. They took a look and we decided to make a small exhibition. I created more drawings and in a couple of weeks we presented them to the public in the museum.

The funny thing is, it did not cause any controversy or a splash in the media at the time. There were some publications [covering the exhibition], of course, but nothing major. A bit of coverage in museum periodicals. So I continued to expand the series, up to Shevchenko’s next birthday [in 2019]. I contacted the PR person of the Kyiv subway and told her [about an idea to exhibit the posters of the series in a subway station named after Shevchenko]. We discussed it briefly, they said they would be interested and greenlit it. What happened next did not depend on my actions.

The dramatic second act.

Yes. There was this man, let’s call him a radical right-wing activist, from the city of Vinnytsia [about 125 miles from Kyiv]. So he saw some kind of report about “Shevchenko’s Quantum Jump” in a Kyiv subway station, came to the capital--

Let me get this straight, he was in Vinnytsia at the time and he came to Kyiv specifically to vandalize your work?

Right. That’s the way I understood it.

It’s also a kind of recognition, you know.

Sure. So he came, and damaged all the posters with a knife.

The story exploded, of course. The Streisand effect. There was a wave of publications, news items, all sorts of reactions. At one point even the then-Minister of Culture of Ukraine made a public appearance with a Quantum Shevchenko pin. My prints ended up on t-shirts, social networks, even a series of socks. Everywhere, really.

Were you more surprised by this extreme negative reaction or by the sheer number of people who came forward to support you publicly?

Yeah, nearly all the cultural community [тусівка] took my side. Very few people were against it. Almost all of them some kind of freaks. A couple of Oppositional Platform deputies. The same kind of individuals who are in the news right now. [Some members of the political party Oppositional Platform “For Life”, ОПЗЖ, openly endorsed the Russian invasion or assisted the occupiers in 2022.]

I was very surprised by this sort of attention. Surprised that art can have such influence, shift the entire focus of public attention, raise the profile of a topic nobody paid attention to throughout the 30 years of independence.

Would you say “Shevchenko’s Quantum Jump” proved to be some kind of watershed? People started recognizing you more?

I guess. More subscribers, more information on the web. Though I am trying to keep a low profile anyway, as far as possible.

Not only in Kyiv, by the way. I have had a number of exhibitions outside of [the capital], in the regional centers. And people there know even more about my work and pay more attention. Though this may be connected with the fact that there is not so much to see in places like Lviv or Kharkiv.

What was your experience of the war in its present phase?

I was in Kyiv when the invasion started, at my house. Got woken up by an SMS, about 7:00 A.M. Slept through the beginning, you might say. [Smiles] Then I opened the news and saw everything. Afterwards me and my family moved to Chernivtsi [a regional center in the westernmost part of the country], though we did not plan this initially. Stayed there until recently.

How much time did it take to be able to draw again for you?

Not much. I drew from the very first day, really. A few hours after the beginning of the Russian invasion I was already drawing something. By 9:00 A.M., if I recall correctly. The illustration got banned because of hate speech standards, of course. [Laughs]

On that very day I completed two or three more cartoons. I work well under stressful conditions. Stress stimulates me to do something creatively rather than to panic or run.

Illustration for the Orthodox Easter celebration in 2022. Caption above: “End of the air raid alarm.” Writing on the wall, in red: “Shelter.” Throughout the Spring of 2022, daily air raid sirens had become a constant of Ukrainian life. Upon hearing the signal, citizens are strongly advised to take cover in bomb shelters, basements, and other safe spaces, and not to leave them until further notice from authorities.

Such an immediate, visceral mode of work, does it cancel the possibility of having something stored in a table drawer?

Yes, I don’t have anything “in store”. Do not have time to draw “for myself”. [Laughs] Some projects lie around for years, but usually that is not the case at all. Everything I post online is everything I’ve got. No “in process” drawers. The first version is also the only one.

On the other hand, occasionally, you do experiment with the emotional tone. The series “Hi, I like you but we are not going to happen” [a series of fictional dating app profiles] is quite personal.

Yes, it is about me. I drew something that personal for the first time.

Was the fact that the Ukrainian public sees you only as a satirical illustrator an obstacle?

No, not really. Again, first and foremost I draw for myself. The public… if it wouldn’t have accepted, I would be fine. Not going to make it into some kind of tragedy. But the public responded quite well, actually. There was an exhibition in Lviv. There were supposed to be more, but the coronavirus put an end to that prospect.

It is no more difficult for me to make projects about myself than about some larger issues. I do not separate the two.

I am also puzzled by another practice of yours. The way you’d sometimes redraw some of the photographs of war in your own style, just redraw them with minimal, if any, creative input, and the tremendous response such illustrations find with the Ukrainian public. All the shares, likes and appropriations… how do you explain this? Why in a world that overflows with photo and video footage do people still need cartooning?

They need these images in the format they can share, show to their friends, their family.

I do not have an explanation. I just do it. [Smiles] There is a need on the part of the society and I am one of the few people in the country who can satisfy it. Why not?

I started working in this idiom a long time ago, after the “Quantum Jump”. Painting some real-world events. It was the summer of 2019, we had parliamentary elections. Since then I started drawing events from the news cycle.

People fleeing from war or living in areas of heavy fighting write the names and basic contact info of their children in ballpoint pen or marker on their bodies so that if one or both parents get killed the child can be identified and, perhaps, delivered to remaining relatives. Compare this photograph with Grekhov’s rendition.

You are becoming one of the war’s official visual chroniclers, so to say. Does it feel like it?

Yeah, kind of. I don’t think I am on the top of the list, but yes. This kind of documentation through illustrations. One of the publishers is already preparing an album that will contain about 40 or 50 cartoons of mine interlaced with the events they portray. I hope to see it in print soon.

Is this dangerous? I am thinking about Louis Raemaekers, the Dutch cartoonist who satirized Germans in WWI. Germany reportedly put a price on his head and ultimately forced him to leave his country for Britain. Do you consider yourself an important target on Russia’s kill list?

Not terribly important. [Smiles] Don’t think there is a lot of overlap between our social bubbles. Sometimes bots would wander in and out of my social network pages, but that’s about it. No close calls yet.

Let’s talk about a highly polarizing topic in present day Ukraine. The dehumanization of the enemy. I can’t say it is a frequent motif in your works, but it still resurfaces, occasionally. Do you see this as a moral problem? Are there images which you would like to put out there but which you prohibit yourself to?

Yes, it happens. How shall I put it? [Pause] I don’t want to portray [Russians] as monsters. They are just people. Some of them are even my relatives. I have relatives in Russia.

Earth Day 2022 postcard. A slight adjustment is made to the continent of Eurasia. See if you can spot it.

Me too. All of us do.

90% of my relatives are from Russia. After the start of the invasion they just fell silent. As if disappeared. That’s their business, anyway.

I don’t want to paint them as orcs. They are just murderers, or maniacs, or rapists. Yet they are not monsters, they are people. Average people with bones, with blood, with their thoughts. Just bad [поганці].

You also mentioned, in a recent interview, that there are things which you are not ready to draw. Things you are leaving for after the victory. What sort of things? They are emotionally difficult, I presume.

Yeah. More about the way I experience this war, I don’t have any illustrations about that. Almost. There was one, on the first day. But I find it difficult to put such images together.

I guess it will be a very emotional and personal project. If I will ever get to actually drawing it.

Did you ever have a temptation to expand, narrative-wise? To create an entire series or a graphic novel?

Yes, this is one of the projects that I have lying around. I had an idea to adapt Ivan Bahrianyi’s Tiger Catchers [Тигролови, a 1944 novel, aka “The Hunters and the Hunted” in English translation] as a comic book story. Thought about it ever since 2019, but never got to actually doing it. The idea was to transport the events of the plot into the Eastern Ukraine. I still have this in my plans. I would just have to change my usual work methods, because it is not handy to draw comic stories on the phone. That is what is holding me back.

But I think you can expect comics from me. I like the format and I read a lot of comics as a child. I guess it influenced my decision to become a cartoonist years later.

What exactly?

Batman, Superman, basic stuff. Whatever I was able to find in translation.

Well, during our next interview we will be discussing your Tiger Catchers adaptation, then?

Sure. Hopefully. [Laughs]

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This interview was conducted in Ukrainian; English translation by Evheny Osievsky.