Let’s not mess around with this. Basically animation rocks, and that, dear reader is a fact. I am almost always excited beyond recognition when introduced to any animation I have never seen or heard of before. Thanks to a friend who was born the year the iron curtain flew open in a town close to the capital of Kazakhstan, my eyes have been opened to Soviet Animation.
I would hesitate very much before giving Stalin credit for anything, and perhaps so would Russian animators, at least initially. What little animation was available, for those were early days for film, practically disappeared after the 1917 Revolution. Ladislas Starevich (Wladyslaw Starewicz), a Polish biologist made stop-motion films from embalmed insects. His dark comedy about the family lives of cockroaches earned him recognition with the Tsar. He went on to become one of the pioneers of stop-motion animation. He left Russia after the October Revolution.
Nearly 10 years later the Bolsheviks discovered the usefulness of animation as the chisel and hammer for communist views on the minds of the Soviet Union. Propagandist animation heavily attacking the dauphin of capitalism, the USA, began to play across a largely illiterate Russia. Films such as Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s Ave Maria(1972) depicted how American soldiers destroy Vietnam in the name of Capitalism while widows mourn the loss of life back home. One famous image from this film is of a young Vietnamese girl holding out a doll to an American soldier moments before he kills her.
Ironically, black people were depicted as the victim of the capitalist beast, whilst Jazz music, which finds its origins in an expression of that struggle amongst those same black people was condemned as evil in films such as Someone else’s Voice by Ivan Ivanov-Vano in 1949. A jazz singing Magpie is driven from the forest by the other Soviet birds who cannot stand the sound of the evil foreign music. This is particularly interesting when one takes North Korea, one of the remaining communist states, into consideration. According to North Korean law and propaganda all genre of foreign music is lumped together as Jazz and ultimately forbidden.
America was not the only nation to play the antagonist in these films. Once Nazi Germany broke their non-aggression pact with Russia by flooding across the border, animators had a new super-villain to complete their narratives with. While the Americans were imperialists, the fascists were barbarians. While the American capitalists were depicted as film noiresque mobsters, the fascists were depicted as animals such as vultures or pigs adorned with Hitler’s signiature moustache. Do not think for one moment the Americans didn’t employ propaganda to help fuel the support of their nation. Red Scare Filmography has a whole list of anti-communist films. (Count how many times you can spot the word “red” on that page.) Of course this fear was fueled by senator McCarthey’s campaign. Check out Red Planet Mars as an example of American anti-comunist propaganda.
Why did the Soviet Union rely so much on animation? Most of the animators had never left the country before. They had no first hand knowledge nor did they have actual footage of America or the outside world to manipulate, so they relied on Life magazine and the old American classics to draw inspiration from. Animation was a cost-effective solution, and if anyone knew a little something about what Bertolt Brecht had to say on theatre and education, it was the Bolsheviks. This was not an invention of Communism. Theatre and story-telling had been used as a means to relay news to Russia’s illiterate working class long before Lenin waved any red flags.
Puppet theatre, animation’s older sister, already discovered and penned the theories of the audience’s impressionable mind back before the restoration. Animation became the soap best suited to the fibre of socialist brainwashing. In this medium non-realism sets the rules for reality. It creates a new world in the mind of the audience which cannot easily be challenged but conveniently built upon. It is the perfect stage for minds willing to suspend disbelief. So now, the Bolsheviks discovered animation, and people like Ivan Ivanov-Vano with his beautifully layered ever changing style thrived.
Russian animation entered a period of avante garde. This period hosted rich soil for the early animators to experiment with equipment and aesthetics. High on enthusiasm, the way was paved for Aleksandr Ptushko to create the first animated feature, The New Gulliver in 1935. Of course the new Gulliver was a reformed communist. Ptushko, a trained architect with a flair for engineering mixed puppet animation and live acting to create a ideological masterpiece.
Yet, this robust period of growth would not last. Thanks to an American. Walt Disney sent Mickey to the Moscow Film festival and his fluid cel technique so impressed the Russians that they abandoned all ideas of experimentation, and ironically ‘Westernised’ and ‘Socialised’ the industry in one go. A uniformed style was established and from then until the Perestroika all would bow to Éclair (Rotoscoping). Those who wouldn’t, moved on to other media such as illustration.
Russia turned red, three years before my grandfather’s birth and 1 year before my mother took her first breath Stalin dies of a cerebral hemorrhage. Nikita Krushchev takes over and three years later in 1956 axes Stalin’s personality cult. With World War Two in the rear view mirror Russia and the West could get on with waging the Cold War.
The sixties saw the inauguration of many new things. British girls had Mary Quant’s mini skirt, Martin Luther Jr. dreamt, The Beatles exploded, the Soviets sent a man into space, smoking became dangerous and the first heart transplant was performed in our very own South Africa. Change was in the air and once Éclair was shaken off with Fyodor Khitruk’s The Story of a Crime in 1962 the way was paved for a change in style and subject. This is probably my favourite era in Soviet animation, the kind I fell in love with first. It is by no means rid of communist ideology, but with Stalin’s heavy hand lifted, animators were free to explore the humanity of contemporary Russian culture. An era of celebration, rather than fear began to bloom in the projects that would follow. Especially considering those beautiful puppets, which lives practically came to a halt during Stalin’s most glorious scenes, were dusted off with the reinstatement of Soyuzmultfilm, and aren’t we glad, for how else would Russian children know the tales of the adorable Cheburaska.
This stop animation was directed by Roman Kachanov and produced in the Soyuzmultfilm studios. It depicts a lost little animal of unknown identity or origin which accidentally gets shipped to Russia in a crate of oranges. He receives his name from the grocer that finds him, which translates from a dialect of Russian as “Tumble”. Like any good comrade Cheburashka receives a job at a toy shop and lives alone in a phone booth. In his loneliness he befriends the African Crocodile that works at the City Zoo and together they dream of becoming Pioneers.
Another notable animation is Vinni the Puh, which is based on A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. and the ever popular Nu Pogodi (Just you Wait!) by Vyacheslav Kotyonochkin. As I mentioned earlier, far be it from me to give Stalin credit for anything, but even if his hand rested heavily on Soviet animators, it rested there none-the-less and those who were compliant enough had the security to contribute to a legacy Russia may not have had. Now after the Cold War has thawed and Lenin’s statue rests horisontally, it seems the industry suddenly found itself without funding or wrought with corruption. Had it not been for this era, would animation in Russia still have been isolated to one or two ambitious hobbyists such as Aleksandr Shiryayev or would they still have been some of the most influential artists, creative pioneers and inventors in the area of animation?
This article is based mostly on Timo Linsenmaier article, History of Russian Animation.
Cut Out Classics (blog)
Soviet Movies (blog)