Beyond Regime: Soviet Cartoons

The Summer Institute on “Scenes from the History of the Image” has turned out to be more time-intensive (and reading-intensive) than most of us, including the organizing Center, had supposed. Previous seminars of this sort were conducted only in the mornings, 9 am to noon. Our sessions run all day. It is only logical that the notion of The Visual is often at the forefront of my mind lately. But as my well-read colleagues in North Carolina delved deeper and deeper into iconoclastic clashes of centuries long gone, I kept slipping, again and again, back to the twentieth century.

Those of us whose childhoods coincided (partially or fully) with Soviet times were shaped to various degrees by the little masterpieces that served as that country’s children’s cartoons. “If I didn’t know, I’d never say this came from the Soviet Union,” gasped a guest at our dinner table last month, and in a way, I know what he meant. These remarkable animations, it seems to me, absorbed much of the kindness and thoughtfulness of the people who lived in those times. (That’s why things are rarely black-and-white when it comes to human lives under all kinds of regimes, despite our tendency to label everything in order to render it comprehensible.)

It’s a shame these cartoons are barely known in the West, I thought recently; they’re such amazing little tales of life. And then I remembered this blog.

This post is to help an external viewer navigate the best of children’s animated films from a country no longer found on our maps. I’ve compared dozens of clips on Youtube for sound and quality. And for English subtitles, of course — though the actual number of spoken words varies from clip to clip. I’ve added some short descriptions, too.

These were my only reason to get out of bed for kindergarten at 6 am during the long winters of my childhood. A ten-minute fill of mul’tiki jump-started a child’s day. I know I’d want my own children to have access to what these tales explore and represent.

Thus this blog entry.

It is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg — a small selection out of hundreds. But it’s not a bad place to start. One could probably add that most Soviet children’s exposure to the West came in the form of “Tom and Jerry”. Imagine the shock (and the attraction).

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Part 1. Five-and-a-half shorter cartoons

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1. Hedgehog in the Fog (Ёжик в тумане) 1975

Awarded First place at Tokyo’s Laputa International Animation Festival in 2003 (“Best Animation of All Times and Peoples”). Winner of multiple other prizes. Authored by the legendary Yuri Norstein. Every day, little Hedgehog would walk over to the Bear Cub’s house to count stars together. Tonight, however, he sees something that makes him change his route and descend into heavy fog. Make sure your sound is on. (10 min 40 sec)

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2. There Once Was a Dog (Жил-был пёс) 1982

Chosen as #1 of the “Golden Hundred” of Russian cartoons during the XVII Open Festival of Animated Film in Suzdal in 2012. A loyal but old (and thus increasingly useless) dog is kicked out of his home. His only choice might be to end his life… But his eternal nemesis, the wolf — just as ageing and tired — happens to come his way. Based on a Ukrainian folk tale, this film quickly gave rise to a number of highly popular verbal expressions. Do smile. (10 min)

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3. The Mitten (Варежка) 1967

This little girl’s mother was very, very busy. So she dreamed herself a loyal, but fragile friend. No spoken words here. (10 min)

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4. Mommy for Little Mammoth (Мама для мамонтёнка) 1981

A tale of a little creature who miraculously survived the disappearance of all other animals of his kind. Now he just wants to find his mother. I cried my eyes out as a little girl at this one. ☺ (8 min)

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5. Umka / Умка 1969

I couldn’t find a high-quality version of Umka with English subtitles, so here’s one translated into Spanish instead. This is the first of two stories, set far in the North, about a little polar bear who befriends a human boy of the indigenous Chukchi people. A lower-quality version with English subtitles lives here(9 min 40 sec) 

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5½. Just Because / Просто так 1976

This sweet 6-minute creation features just one brief dialogue, repeated several times: “Is this for me?” — “For you.” — “But why?” — “Just because.”

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Part 2. Three longer cartoons

These longer series require a bigger time commitment. But they’re worth it.

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1. Tale of Tales / Сказка сказок 1979

If you had to choose one longer animation film to watch, make it this. In 2003, at the Laputa International Animation Festival in Tokyo, 140 directors and critics from all over the world called this wordless animation the second best film of all times and peoples, yielding the first place to Hedgehog in the Fog — made by the same artist, Yuri Norstein. Tale of Tales, like Hedgehog in the Fog, is not for the impatient. Click through to Parts 2, 3 and 4 at the end of this first clip; alternatively, find those parts here: 2 (which starts with my beloved World War II sequence) – 3 – 4.

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2. Cheburashka / Чебурашка 1969

No one knew who this small creature was, because he looked so different from everyone else. So Cheburashka (his name comes from a Russian word for falling over) gets hired by a local shop to attract people as a defective toy. Luckily, soon he meets a very green crocodile named Gena. Every day Gena works in a zoo (as a crocodile, mind you), but his evenings happen to be very, very lonely. A contemporary western viewer might describe this as a story of overcoming differences — in fact, a friend in Brussels keeps a small Gena & Cheburashka figurine precisely for this reason. … Here’s a 20-minute Part 1.

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3. Adventures of Mowgli / Маугли 1967-1971

This is a 15-minute Part 1. A Youtube commentator summarized things quite well when he or she observed: “Is it not ironic that the English speaking world, from which Rudyard Kipling originated, has so far failed to produce a single accurate adaptation of the original book, while Russia, a nation Kipling despised, has?”

… I don’t imagine the ‘Music’ tag on this post needs much justification, if one has seen these clips. I hope they brought some enjoyment. I wish I could include more — such as a fantastic animation about a tiger cub who lived in a sunflower — but, alas, English subtitles aren’t too common for children’s cartoons.

With iconodule greetings from The Research Triangle —

All links checked and updated: 9 March 2015.

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