Recently I had the pleasure of viewing a Soviet era cartoon, recommended by a Ukrainian friend. It piqued my curiosity and gave me some motivation to investigate the genre further. Soviet (or even Russian) animation is something that just isn’t on our radar, not having made the international transition in the same way the Japanese Anime has.
Perhaps it’s due to the nature of the material itself? Anime possess a technological and fantastical exuberance that matches the remit and style of Hollywood’s big-budget SFX productions. So it follows that it will capture at least some of the western audience who relate to such spectacles as entertainment.
In addition, there are the gentle, stylised fantasies produced by Studio Ghibli that also make the transition as perhaps: a more ‘out-there’ alternative to Disney. Again, an existing audience awaits. And yes, there are Japanese productions that we don’t get to see as westerners, but I digress.
Soviet animation, in contrast, seems considerably more grounded and perhaps smaller in scale than Japanese flights of fancy, trading on understated charm and the notion of familiar reality with a twist. Okay, that’s me trying to generalise, broadly. Strangely enough, it reminds me most of some of our native British productions by the likes of Small Films or Film Fair. So, why is there no Soviet small-screen presence here in the UK? Well, to be flippant: before 1990 they were the enemy, we always had cosy product relations with the US, and now we have computer graphics. The truth has to be in there somewhere.
Dyadya Fyodor was my first official introduction to the genre, proper. That’s “Uncle Theodore” to you and me, or more precisely “Uncle Theodore, His Dog and His Cat”, originally created in 1978, still deep within the Cold War era. The eponymous central character is actually no one’s uncle, but rather a boy of six who leaves home when his newly adopted cat, Matroskin, is rejected by the boy’s mother. They move out of the city and set up home in a neighbouring village along with Sharik, a dog encountered – and similarly adopted – on the way. Initial concerns and dialogue centre around establishing the new place (yes, the animals talk) with much sweeping up, maintenance and even obtaining a cow in order to sell milk to the locals. It’s pretty pragmatic stuff with the Soviet work-ethic, a nod to family (they rescue Theodore when he is ill) and even some basic business essentials thrown in! (See a brief intro to the cartoon on youtube.)
Yes, all very down to Earth, though not as staid as the above description sounds. It’s an interesting, allegorical window on an era, mindset and even domestic/sartorial style, magnified and warped as only animation can. Incidentally, Uncle Theodore’s influence persists even today, with Matroskin’s quote about the correct way to eat a sausage sandwich having slipped into the language in much the same way as extended tracts of Monty Python slipped into ours. You had to be there.
Next week, you will be there when I reveal other titles from the Soviet past. A look at the history of Soviet animation is on the cards too. Surely, many different ways of getting to know the culture and history of Russia, especially if you are planning a visit there. Until next time.