A Short Guide to Russian and Soviet Cartoons By MARC BENNETTS

When most people think of Russian culture, the heavyweights of literature and classical music, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, usually spring to mind. But Russia can also boast some major achievements in the field of children’s cartoons. Read and click on for a short – and by no means exhaustive – guide.

The heyday of Soviet children’s cartoons was the late 1960s, when a host of warm and genuinely witty cartoons were produced by Soyuzmultfilm. Watching them before or after a Western-produced cartoon of the same period, Tom and Jerry for example, it’s striking and unarguable how much more manic and violent the “capitalist” cartoons are…

Troe iz Prostokvashino, or as some translations have it “Three from Buttermilk Village”, was the first cartoon I ever got into in Russia. Made in 1978 and based on a book by Soviet writer Eduard Uspensky, it tells the tale of a young lad who goes by the nickname of Uncle Fyodor. The ginger-haired kid leaves home with a vagrant cat, Matroskin, after his mother tells his father “It’s either me or that cat – choose!” His father replies “I choose you – I’ve known you for a long time and I’ve only just set eyes on that cat” Along with a friendly, if dim, dog called Sharik they end up living in the aforementioned Buttermilk Village. Much of the cartoon’s sharp dialogue appeals as much to adults as to children and many phrases have become everyday expressions. (Examples: “If I’d had a cat like that, I might not have got married.” “You go out of your mind alone. It’s only the flu you suffer together.”)

Cheburashka is another cartoon based on an Eduard Uspensky book. First released in 1969, it tells the story of the eponymous hero – a strange and exotic creature who ends up in Moscow after falling asleep in a crate of oranges due for shipment to Russia. Once there, he makes the acquaintance of a crocodile called Gena who has been searching for friends by sticking notes around town. “Young crocodile looking for friends.” They have many adventures, a lot of which involve battles of wits with one Old Lady Shapoklyak, whose motto is “you’ll never get famous by doing good.” Cheburashka is perhaps the most famous of all Soviet cartoons and enjoys cult status in Japan. He’s also been the symbol of the Russian Olympic team on three occasions.

Soviet cartoon makers were also keen on adapting foreign children’s tales, with A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book being turned into Vinni Pukh and Maugli (Mowgli).

The Soviet Vinni Pukh (again 1969) bears little resemblance to the Disney version much better known in the West, being a darkish little bear with an oddly strident tone. Of course, he also loves honey and has a number of animal friends. The Soviet version lacks a Christopher Robin, though. But then it was based on the books by Eduard Zakhoder, who insisted his Russian version of the Pooh stories were a retelling, rather than a mere translation. Check out the English language version in the above link.

Maugli (1967-1971 ) also differs wildly from the Disney animated musical and is by far a much darker affair, a lot closer to the original Kipling books. Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin recently showed a fondness for Kipling when he described protesters against his rule as “Bandar-log”. “Come to me Bander-log” he joked, taking on for a second the persona of the evil snake Kaa. Unlike in the West, no one in Russian needed an explanation of the origin of the phrase.

Karlson (1968 and 1970) was a cartoon adaptation of the books Swedish author Astrid Lindgren and told the story of a jam-loving chubby guy who lived on the roof and made friends with a thoughtful kid who really wanted a puppy. Again, the cartoon appealed as much to adults as children.

Modern-day Russia hasn’t seen quite the success of the 1960s and 1970s Soviet Union as far as cartoons go. But the recent Masha and the Bear series has proven popular with kids all across Russia and supplied perhaps the first genuinely strong cartoon character here for years. The cartoons tell the story of an incredibly mischievous little girl and her friend, the Bear.

Reprinted from RIA Novosti with Marc Bennetts’ permission.

From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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