In January of 1992, my parents fled from the imminently collapsing Soviet Union to sunny, sexy Los Angeles, carrying a one-and-a-half-year-old baby boy—me. In our new home, the box of VHS tapes that would end up shaping my adult life was piled high with a cross-cultural mixture of Russian and American children's cartoons: Rugrats, Ну погоди, Talespin, Тайна третьей планеты, Winnie-the-Pooh, Винни-Пух, Darkwing Duck, Приключения капитана Врунгеля—you get the point.
Children's cartoons are an invaluable source of cultural analysis. Everything is simplified, distilled for the lowest common denominator. The messages therein represent the hopes and dreams of the previous generation. What do we expect from our children? Who do we want them to be? What is sociologically important?
The distinction between American and Russian cartoons is temporal as much as it is geographic. Soyuzmultfilm, the production studio responsible nearly all Soviet-era animation, was state sponsored, meaning that between 1936 and 1989, nobody else was making cartoons, and what comparatively little was being produced was immediately lionized and replayed for decades. I grew up on the same cartoons that my parent's generation watched as children on their sputtering 70s-era Zennith CRT TVs through an attached magnifying glass.
One of my favorite cartoons of all time was Тайна третьей планеты, or Secret of the Third Planet. It spoke directly to the hopes and dreams of a future space-age generation. The show was sci-fi at its most optimistic, though it featured a ton of grotesque, disturbing characters that will haunt your dreams. The same director also made another beloved film, Чебурашка or Cheburashka, about a made-up monkey-like animal with huge ears and big eyes, based on an eponymous children's book from 1965. Cheburashka is a cherished household name, and the film was a great bit of detailed stop-motion. Plus there's a crocodile that smokes a pipe and works at a zoo. As a crocodile. It's silly.
Probably the most famous Russian cartoon ever made was Ну, погоди! which translates to roughly Well, Just You Wait! It is essentially a Tom and Jerry rip-off, but with a chain-smoking wolf and child-like rabbit instead of a cat and mouse. More importantly, the series drips with a heavy cultural subtext, none of which I ever understood.
At a recent dinner party my parents had thrown, I spoke to some older Russians about their memories of Soviet cartoons. One explained it thusly (and I'm translating pretty directly here): "In the context of a rather limited and generally featureless media space, Soviet cartoons had an indescribable brightness. Within the context of art and humor, maybe as a metaphor, what is attractive to children [in these cartoons] would also attract adults."
Another woman was more specific: "The difference between Tom and Jerry and Ну, погоди! can probably be best seen in the antagonist wolf. In the American cartoon, Tom chases Jerry around for a while. It is aggressive, it is fun, but it is meaningless. This is not a bad thing, but beyond a psychological examination of 'wants and needs,' Tom doesn't stand for anything, he does not represent anything cultural. The wolf, on the other hand, is a reflection of the rebellious Russian youth. He is a hooligan, quite literally. He smokes, wears bell-bottom jeans (very Western), is uneducated, and clever but stupid."
My mom explained it further: "On the other hand, the rabbit is a good boy. He eats his vegetables, he goes to school."
Another guest spoke up: "The wolf represents the working class, and the rabbit is supposed to be the intelligentsia."
My mother has always had strong political opinions. "Why do you think so?" she asked.
"Because the theme is: When the working class tries to outwit the intelligent, they'll get burned."
The other guests seemed to disagree with him. They explained that, in no uncertain terms, all of these cartoons were distinctly apolitical. The man who disagreed with my mom nodded his head, saying "Yes, everything was subject to censorship, so you learn to read between the lines." My mom nodded.
Another cartoon was the Russian version of Winnie-the-Pooh. It took me until I was in my late teens, rifling through that old box of tapes, to realize that Winnie-the-Pooh and Винни-Пух were of the same source material. They could not be more dissimilar. Winnie-the-Pooh is a lackadaisical tale about a honey-hungry stuffed teddy bear and his companion, Christopher Robin. Винни-Пух is about a chronically depressed selfish bear, who can find neither happiness nor honey. When Winnie says "Oh bother!" it's funny. When Пух says it, it's soul-crushing.
A guest at the party directed me to a scene wherein Piglet shows up for dinner at Пух's house. Пух washes Piglet, dresses him, and then ties a napkin around his mouth, preventing him from speaking. Without anyone saying it out loud, the low-key comparison to nanny-state communism was impossible to ignore.
But these weren't just sideline glances for beleaguered parents forced to watch cartoons with their kids, like when Spongebob makes a prison rape joke, or Rocco works as a phone sex operator. Everything released by the Soviet Union went through multiple layers of state censorship, with no room at all for overt politics. Russians, in general, are masters of plausible deniability for this exact reason. When you can't talk about how bad things are, you get great at talking about how good things aren't. Russians are also, and for the same reason, painfully sarcastic.
Maybe the best intersection of art, state funding, and folklore is a ten minute short widely considered to be the best animated film ever made, called "Ёжик в тумане" or Hedgehog in the Fog. The plot of this 1965 masterpiece, which Hayao Miyazaki called one of his favorite films, goes like this: A hedgehog is walking through the woods to his friend bear's house. Along the way, he gets lost in the thick fog, is stalked by a creepy owl, and runs into a white horse standing motionless and alone. After going through an uncomfortably realistic sequence of terrifying events, he falls into a river and resigns himself to his death. Then, an unidentified something politely asks what he is doing in the river, and pushes him to shore, where his friend bear finds him. The film ends with the hedgehog wondering if the white horse will die, all alone out there.
Remember, this is a children's cartoon about a woodland creature. It is easily the most existentially depressing, and softly uneasy ten-minute short I've ever seen. I voiced this to the dinner guests, and they looked at me like I was fucking stupid.
"Depressing?" my mom asked me incredulously. "It is uplifting! This is the very essence of Soviet culture. Our history is marked with a total lack of control, and very hard conditions. You couldn't buy food, no luxuries, constant fear of police, and everything was censored in line with state propaganda. [This cartoon] is about relying on friends and family, and strangers who would help you. It is a hallmark of all Russian books and films from our era. It is very uplifting, and very deeply beautiful. Everybody who survived the USSR did it through the help of their friends and loved ones. It's something you'll never understand."
The rest of the table silently nodded in agreement.
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