Progressive Political Pornography: Octobriana and the Russian Underground Turn 40 by Kevin Kinsella

Octobriana2Cstar Body

The Komarovskiy Incident: Two from Shadamachaeon’s The Kmorovskiy Incident, a 3-D reimagining of the Octobriana character, 2009.

In 1970, Petr Sadecký slipped across the border of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia with a cache of illegal comic books and the fantastic story of the dissident Russian artists who risked everything to create them. A year later, the publication of Octobriana and the Russian Underground, with its lurid illustrations and the suggestion of secret organizations staging drug-fueled orgies behind the Iron Curtain, was just the thing to send the anxious Western imagination over the edge.

Something must have been in the air. In a Cold War waged to this point through the calculated machinations of diplomats and trade organizations, suddenly there was a ratcheting up of tensions. The British government announced the drunk-driving arrest of a Soviet agent posing as a member of the USSR trade delegation in London. In exchange for asylum in the UK, Oleg Lyalin gave up the names of other spies working in Britain, leading to the high-profile expulsion of 105 Soviet officials from the country. Now, throw into the mix a book full of illustrations of an absurdly buxom and near-naked Amazon with a forward penned by the novelist Anatoli Kuznetsov—himself a prominent defector from the Soviet Union—to lend it credibility and the media quite literally has a bombshell on its hands. A bombshell so explosive that the story of Octobriana still enjoys cult status here among comic book artists and enthusiasts a full 40 years after it was published. One need only read David Bowie’s diaries from the 1980s or see the tattoo of the Soviet superwoman on Billy Idol’s arm to feel the far-reaching effects of Petr Sadecký’s story. Problem is, it doesn’t hold up.

Behind Closed Curtains?

When Octobriana and the Russian Underground was published in 1971, it garnered remarkable media attention for a book ostensibly about a Comic book movement—remarkable in the sense that it attracted the attention of not only comic book enthusiasts but also that of a general Western public enthralled by the Spy vs. Spy atmosphere of the early 1970s. On the occasion of its publication, articles sprang up in newspapers and magazines across Europe, including London’s Daily Telegraph, which gave it front page coverage.

In the book’s opening pages, Sadecký describes his first visit to Kiev in 1961. At just 18 years old, he claims that he was invited by the Kiev Academy of Arts to deliver a two-part lecture: first, an exposition of the national cultures of the USSR; second, on Western entertainment literature. The first part of Sadecký’s talk, which was heavily redacted by Soviet censors—was met with yawns. But thanks to an unexpected, not to mention convenient, power failure that made it impossible to make out the also censored second part of the presentation, he said that he was able to launch into an originally unintended and entirely improvised exposition of the history of Western comics.

Much to the unease of his Soviet hosts, Sadecký did not view the genre of illustrated comics as being wholly decadent—as it was considered behind the Iron Curtain. He described the comic strip as a natural product of modern civilization. “Our technological civilization is often too much for us; the romance of comic strips and Westerns gives us a means of temporary psychological escape. It is a kind of drug, a drug to combat the world of Kafka’s alienation … .” He was, nonetheless, allowed to complete his presentation, no matter how at odds it was with the approved position.

Following that lecture, Sadecký reports that he was approached by a shadowy figure calling himself only “Gerasimov” who invited him to go with him right then to meet with some friends so that they might talk with “no restrictions.” Sadecký agreed and Gerasimov led him by a deliberately circuitous route through the streets of the Ukrainian capital to a secret gathering of young people. The basement clubroom was decorated with some posters of Lenin and piles of porn magazines. Dismayed to have been lured into the midst of some dissident cabal, Sadecký, a self-described “Communist idealist, a devotee of Soviet art and Soviet cinema,” found himself at a meeting of a clandestine organization called Progressive Political Pornography (PPP). He soon discovered that the group members indulged in orgies and the production of strange, illegal comics starring the ferocious Ur-woman Octobriana.

During introductions, Sadecký was shocked to be greeted by a woman wearing only boots and a “very white pair of panties, with upstanding breasts, her hair knotted Greek-style on top of her head. A delightful little animal.” The room was dark and reeked of booze and cigarette smoke because all of the windows had been blackened and sealed shut. The walls were plastered with portraits of Lenin, pin-up girls, and sketches of an Amazon astride a pterodactyl. Several members were even watching two of their own making love—dissident style—on the carpet.

According to Sadecký, the PPP had reached out to him because they hoped that with his help—by smuggling in information, books, magazines, and new ideas (“not what Pravda chews over everyday” for them) the group would bring an end to its seclusion from the outside world. So taken by the group’s earnestness, Sadecký said that he did not hesitate to “betray the ideals” of his father and became a PPP member on the spot, taking part in wild alcohol-and-sex-inspired meetings, documented in the book by dark black and white photographs. Six years later when he was sure that the members of the Kiev cell had disbanded and scattered across Russia, Sadecký showed up at the offices of the London-based anti-Communist publishing house Tom Stacey Ltd ready to show Western readers what was really going on behind closed curtains.

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Panel from How to Fly a Pterodactyl.

Progressive Political Pornography

In Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Sadecký provides some information on the PPP’s historical background. The organization was established in 1957 following when Khrushchev’s Thaw briefly eased the political and artistic situation in the country. The youth, who originally believed in the ideals of communism, were politically disillusioned and became cynical dissidents. (In an interview with the Washington Post at the time of the book’s publication, Sadecký said that as the members turned away from politics, they “discovered sex” as an expression of political nihilism; the more cynical the PPP member, the more deviant his sexual “experiments.”)

Sadecký reported that PPP’s membership numbered 125 in the 1960s with local cells in USSR’s individual federal republics. Despite its progressive nature, the organization had a strict code of conduct. While PPP members of each cell were aware that other cells existed, they were never allowed to meet with them. Even if a member from Kiev went to Moscow to study, he remained a member of the Kiev organization and made no attempt to contact his colleagues in Moscow. Even if that same member found himself in a darkened and boozy room watching a couple have sex on the carpet, he would never learn if that couple were PPP comrades in arms. However, members of individual cells were able to share their ideas and exchange opinions through the group’s journals, which were published in a number of centers where PPP operated.

In Octobriana, Sadecký introduces us to some of the Kiev cell’s key members. There’s Igor, a 28-year-old Jew who “hides the subtlety of his personality under a thick veneer of profanity.” Then there’s Ivas, a truck driver and amateur Orientalist who lives off the grid to avoid arrest on charges of being a “lurking class enemy.” We’re told that his marriage fell apart after he started making long drives to the Black Sea to pick up lonely women. Next up is Bullfrog, a nihilist who lives with a “sex-hungry widow.” And finally, there is Lydia Borisovna Gal, the adopted daughter of prominent Soviet statesman and Khrushchev’s ambassador to the United States Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan, and the only member referred to by her real name because she had been committed to a mental institution since 1965, and so considered safe from prosecution.

According to Sadecký, Gal, who was purported to show up to PPP meetings wearing nothing but a pair of boots, was involved in what he calls the first illegal experimental film in Soviet Russia. The short film is said to show a girl performing a rough striptease to strains of the “Internationale” and the “March of the Amur Partisans” and finally peeing beneath a portrait of Lenin. By way of physical description, Sadecký provides Gal’s measurements—39-26-33—adding that the “ugly” girl had a “beautiful face,” a “lithe” body that was “suntanned down to the last square centimeter like a Red Indian,” and that her “bust was over-developed and her hips unnaturally narrow.” We’re also informed that she is a “lesbian who sometimes sleeps with men,” and that at PPP parties she would often splay herself naked on the floor while male members masturbated over her. Sadecký credits Gal as the “biggest single influence on PPP” and a “pretty considerable influence” on himself. The inspiration behind the Octobriana character, according to Sadecký, it was Gal who organized the orgies that later served as material for her fantastic stories, some of which describe driving a stake through a person, torturing pregnant women, having sex with a tiger, and masturbating with the horns of dinosaurs.

Sadecký claimed that he often visited the Soviet Union and kept in regular contact with PPP. In the mid-1960s, the group asked him to take selected Octobriana stories to the West and publish them. In 1967, he escaped to Germany with a trunk full of comics, eventually winding up at the offices of Tom Stacey Ltd.

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An illustration to one of the first of the Octobriana stories, devoted to Lenin’s last days.

A Comic Book in the Form of a Document

To underscore the authenticity of the Octobriana story to the West, the publisher solicited a forward to be written by acclaimed Soviet novelist and high-profile defector Anatoli Kuznetsov whose recently released Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel about Soviet atrocities in Ukraine was claiming its own share of the media landscape. Who better to verify the facts than a famous Soviet writer and recent defector from Kiev himself?

While Kuznetsov’s foreword did not concern Octobriana directly, it described the situation in Soviet culture and politics at the end of the 1960s, adding that such conditions certainly could have given rise to such a mysterious movement as the PPP. According to Kuznetsov, the existence of similar kinds of publications and groups producing nonintellectual and apolitical samizdat is a natural product of a country whose cities are full of prostitutes and homosexuals. Additionally, Kuznetsov verifies that the photographs of PPP members and meetings published within Octobriana and the Russian Underground “could only be Russian … with those same drawings of Octobriana on the walls interspersed with scraps of Soviet newspapers, portraits of Stalin and mocking slogans. The authenticity of the photographs is beyond any doubt.”

Despite the authority of Kuznetsov’s foreword, doubts about Octobriana’s authenticity came rather quickly—within a week of publication, to be exact. A detailed look by someone with even minimal knowledge of conditions in the USSR revealed a number of facts that could hardly pass serious muster. According to Kuznetsov, the photographs of PPP meetings could only have been taken in a Moscow apartment. But closer observation revealed that these pictures could have been taken anywhere.

The fragmentary character of the Octobriana comics is also peculiar. The book presents two Octobriana stories: “The Living Sphinx from the Radioactive Kamchatka Volcano 1934” and “Octobriana and the Atomic Sons of Chairman Mao.” But both of them are incomplete. Of course, this could be ascribed to the fact that Sadecký says that he had to smuggle the comics to the West. Still, the published parts are in strange contrast to the main political and sexual characteristics of Octobriana as Sadecký presents them in his commentary. And any reader couldn’t help but notice that in one of the stories the heroine is addressed as “Amazona,” not “Octobriana.” Aside from the comics themselves, it seems rather unlikely that in 1961, an 18-year-old Sadecký, who was still a student at the time, would be invited to a Soviet arts academy to give a lecture on something called “Western popular culture.”

Additionally, Sadecký’s claims that the Octobriana stories are of a political nature are a bit of a stretch. The first story, “The Living Sphinx of the Kamchatka Radioactive Volcano 1934,” comprises images of Octobriana’s fight with a strange creature somewhere near Kamchatka, where a magic flying ball has taken her and her friends. The second fragment depicts a battle with a huge radioactive walrus and a rollicking ride on a herd of wild yaks. All the political allusions and the alleged sexual escapades of the heroine are found only in Sadecký’s commentaries outside of the comic story. Short of escaping the grim reality of the Brezhnev years, it is hard to believe there is any political message to be gleaned from gigantic turtles portrayed as living tanks, or from Octobriana leading an army of Yettis. And where’s the sex? Again, only in Sadecký’s commentary.

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Cover for Tough Boomeranging for the Kremlin.

Nick Barkow of the West German magazine Stern was the first to react in his article “Political Porn: A Naked Woman Storms the Kremlin.” According to Barkow, he was contacted by Czech illustrator Bohumil Konený, who branded the book a forgery, claiming that he and illustrator Zdenk Burian had made the drawings published in it. According to Konený, Sadecký had asked for thousands of his and Burian’s drawings while living in Prague. Then he jumped ship with them for Germany. When the two artists, who had illustrated more than five hundred adventure stories and book covers, wanted their drawings back, they were told that it was too dangerous because the original illustrations had been done over with a political context. Additionally, in an article by William Shaw-Cross for the Sunday Times, the two illustrators claimed to have developed Octobriana originally as an entirely apolitical heroine of adventure stories named “Amazona.”

Sadecký responded in a series of unlikely explanations that advocated for his story of Octobriana as a creation of Russian dissidents. For security reasons, he claimed, his friends in Prague had taken out the political symbols so that it was possible to take the images across the border. Once in Germany he redrew the missing parts himself. Problem solved.

Sadecký managed to convince Konený and Burian that to make it in the Western comics market, they would have to work with an expensive mediating agency, which would require an advance fee for its services, and they could pay the fee by making some work for free. According to Sadecký’s instructions, Konený made about eighty various covers and other illustrations not connected to “Amazona.” He gave them to Sadecký, then regularly traveling abroad, who allegedly used them to pay for the related agency fees. In January, 1967, Sadecký emigrated to West Germany under the guise of an extended journey for educational purposes. By his own account, Sadecký spent the following months traveling around Europe. He sent letters to Konený from Texas, Panama, and elsewhere, creating the impression that he was traveling the world and would be impossible to reach. In fact, he lived in Europe, mostly in Bamberg, selling Burian’s and Konený’s drawings as his own.

Despite success with the other illustrations, Sadecký couldn’t sell the Amazona comics. Compared with Western comics of the time, Amazona was a relic of the 1940s. Unable to pitch Amazona as an average super heroine, Sadecký came up with various ways to make her more attractive. The day he first drew the red star on Amazona’s forehead, Octobriana was born. He stuffed some of the altered drawings in an envelope and sent them to Konený sometime in the middle of 1968. Konený was terrified, and rightfully so. Adding political connotations to the story and publishing it in the West would mean professional death—if not prison—for him and Burian in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia.

In autumn of 1969, Konený managed to go to Bamberg to claim the drawings in person. The case went to court, which decided in February 1970 that Sadecký had turned Amazona into an anti-Soviet character. Konený and Burian received all the drawings the West German police were able to find in spring 1970. As it turned out, they missed quite a few; Sadecký had hidden dozens of drawings. With some extensive—and poorly written—narrative material, he was able to produce an entire book. But thanks to the court case, Sadecký had a hard time selling it—and his story—to British and American publishers—that is until the rabidly anti-Communist publisher Tom Stacey publishing house lapped it up.

With the subsequent media attention, the book also attracted attention in the Eastern Bloc, although no one was actually able to lay their hands on it. The Soviet magazine Literaturnaya Gazeta attacked Kuznetsov and Sadecký, accusing them of—among other things—homosexuality. Octobriana elicited an unusual response from Czechoslovak propaganda officials, who described Sadecký as a “scoundrel” and a “mobster” whose victims, Burian and Konený, were guilty of “naiveté and frivolity.”

For unauthorized emigration, Sadecký was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison. And it seems this wasn’t his first run in with the law. Several months before taking his manuscript to Tom Stacey in London, he was picked up by police on the outskirts of Paris. He was found handcuffed and appeared to have been violently attacked. Sadecký told the police that Czech counterintelligence had kidnapped and raped him. When investigators figured out that he had handcuffed himself, Sadecký confessed to the hoax, claiming that he made up the assault to warn pre-election France of the dangers of Communism. He received a three-month jail sentence and a fine, but was released after only three weeks.

Illustrated Sex Bomb?

Forty years later, Sadecký’s tale endures. Because Octobriana is supposed to have been developed by an illegal underground organization, it is widely believed that the character is in the public domain, though one might imagine that Burian and Konený might beg to differ. Nonetheless, many comics creators have used her image and name over the years, each putting their own spin on the so-called She Devil. The first to do so, according to Michael Kennally’s The Many Faces of Octobriana Web site, was British underground cartoonist Bryan Talbot. Octobriana appeared in the first volume of Talbot’s Adventures of Luther Arkwrighttrilogy, a graphic novel series published in the 1980s. Apparently, seduced by Sadecký’s story and drawn to the character by the publicity surrounding the publication of Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Talbot included her in Arkwright as “a tribute to the bravery of her creators.”

Octobriana was next reprised in the pages of American Larry Weltz’s erotic comic Cherry’s Jubilee. British comic creators Revolution Comics came up with the next incarnation in 1996, creating a five-issue miniseries re-imagining the story of the PPP. After Revolution disbanded, Stuart Taylor—Octobriana’s co-writer at Revolution—continued the series under the name Artful Salamander, and has since produced another Octobriana miniseries, Filling in the Blanks. The next episode in the Octobriana saga is courtesy of the long-running British comic 2000AD. Then comes Bombdolphin’s Andy Nixon and Shaun Bryan’s interpretation from a script written by John A. Short. The latest Octobriana comic, according to Kennally’s Web site, is by Czech cartoonist Karel Jerie, though I don’t doubt that there will be more to come, whether drawing inspiration from the sexy Amazon Octobriana or her originators’ sketchy back story.

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Billy Idol and his Octobriana tattoo.

The shrouded truth and varying accounts of the story has also generated its own share of Octobriana ephemera, including a Finnish independent film—The Finger of Lenin, directed by Jyrki Pitka and Risto L. J. Tuominen—and an Octobriana-inspired guitar designed by Mike Lavoie. David Bowie even considered producing a film based on the character; while Billy Idol went ahead and commissioned a tattoo of Octobriana on his arm.

Meanwhile, the fabulist Petr Sadecký disappeared to obscurity even while Octobriana lives on.

Kevin Kinsella is a writer and translator (from Russian) living in Brooklyn. His latest book, a translation of Sasha Chernyi’s Poems from Children’s Island, is now available through Lightful Press.

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