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Soviet morning cartoons

For two months, at least, D has been trying in vain to corral his thoughts into a vaguely coherent blog post dedicated to old Soviet cartoons, which remain the brightest memory of his childhood. Not only have words failed him thus far, but also each attempt at penning his thoughts has ended with D spending an hour in front of his computer screen, watching classic multiki. They are that good!

1987 - cousins

In fact, if anything, the masterpieces of Soviet animation seem even better now that D is an adult and can read through the lines to understand their subtext. As one recent article on the topic posited, the totality of Soviet censorship had the curious effect of simultaneously making children’s cartoons an attractive medium for social commentary and ensuring that any potentially subversive critique was carefully concealed from the censors. This means that children loved these cartoons and, quite often, adults loved them even more.

Some of these animated films became so deeply ingrained in the national psyche that their mere mention triggers a flood of nostalgia for anyone who grew up during Soviet times. Serious adults who likely have not watched one of these cartoons since the collapse of the USSR will enthusiastically quote lines from them by heart, as D confirmed recently when he broached the subject with his Moldovan colleagues.

Thanks to the internet, not only are these cartoons a click away, but it’s even possible to find them with English subtitles, though sadly some of the nuance of the bittersweet Soviet humor winds up either getting lost in translation or fails to have the same effect. Take, for example, the opening scene of The Three from Prostokvashino, in which the cat tells the boy that he’s eating his sandwich wrong — “You should hold it with the meat side towards the tongue: it’ll taste better that way.” It’s a brilliant line that strikes a particular chord with those who lived through bread lines and the USSR’s food rationing.

Much like Prostokvashino, Junior and Karlson, which is based on books by Astrid Lindgren, is replete with brilliant, nuanced adult humor. With the possible exception of the Simpsons, nothing in the canon of American animation comes even close.

Even Cheburashka, which is about as silly and carefree as children’s cartoons come, is filled with songs that are positively dripping with melancholy. The same can be said for the Soviet version of Winnie the Pooh, which is a close second to Cheburashka in terms of being the most-beloved Russian cartoon of all time. Nu, Pogodi! — the Soviet rip-off of Tom & Jerry, which translates to, “Just you wait!” — is a distant third in this race.

There are many other great Soviet cartoons: The Bremen Town Musicians and The Mystery of the Third Planet to name but two more. And then there’s Hedgehog in Fog, which is widely considered to be the finest animated short ever produced — the Citizen Kane of animation. If you’ve never seen it, please watch it and remember as you do that it is a children’s cartoon. It will tell you everything you need to know about the state of Soviet animation.

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