One of the earliest Soviet cartoons, Ice rink tells a simple story about a trickster boy in his budyonovka hat (a high top wool hat, part of the Bolshevik uniform during the Civil war) who sneaks into an ice rink and later has to flee from a fat NEPman. NEPman was a businessman during limited freedom of enterprise in the Soviet Union of the 1920s; the NEPmen were a popular target of Communist satire. His top hat and obesity are signs of a capitalist in Soviet iconography. Ice rink is one of the first cartoons featuring work of Ivan Ivanov-Vano, the patriarch of Soviet animation
Poster of agitprop (1921) featuring an evil capitalist in a high hat by one of the leading futurist poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky
About halfway between Western and Orthodox Christmas (January 7), it is worth to remember some of the Christmas-themed cartoons. The very first Christmas animated short was made by the stop-motion pioneer Wladyslaw Starewicz back in 1913. The Insects’ Christmas (Рождество обитателей леса) tells a dreamy story about a toy Father Christmas (Jack Frost, Дед Мороз) who leaves his Christmas tree and visits a frozen forest to bring the holiday spirit to creatures who live there. A frog, a ladybug, a dragonfly, and other insects join the party, get presents, skate, and have fun.
Soviet animation was closely connected with folklore themes in the post Second World War years. However, it was not always the case. Early Soviet cartoons such as Soviet Toys were mostly propaganda pieces aimed at both adults and children. In the 1920s folklore themes were not considered appealing for future-oriented avant-garde Soviet culture. Things started to change in the 1930s when Stalin came to power. With rise of nationalism Soviet ideology changed to national roots and history. Interest in folklore was revived. One of the early folklore cartoons for children was produced by the newly-established major Soviet studio, Soyuzmultfilm. Black and white Ivashko and Baba-Yaga was filmed by the Brumberg sisters, Zinaida and Valentina. It is based on the folktale of the same name. Baba-Yaga, an evil witch, kidnaps a peasant boy, Ivashko (Ivan), and tries to eat him, but he is able to outsmart her and escapes home to his parents.
Nikolai Khodataev (born 120 years ago on May 9, 1892) presumably started shooting this avant-garde piece to be included in Aelita, another innovative film by Yakov Protazanov (1924) based on Alexei Tolstoy’s novel.
However, later it was completed as an independent piece. The early 1920s was the time of booming avant-garde art in the Soviet Union, not only in the film (Eisenstein’s The Strike an Battleship Potemkin, Dziga Vertov’s Kinoeye), but also visual art (Vladimir Tatlin, Lazar (El) Lissitzky), photography and design (Alexander Rodchenko). Many constructivist and futurist artists strongly supported the Bolsheviks considering themselves artistic revolutionaries. The plot reflects expectations of the unavoidable revolutions around the world. Having overcome class enemies on Earth, the Soviet champion flies to Mars to spark an interplanetary revolution.
No capitalist could survive the Bolshevik warrior springing out of his mirror.
Khodataev employed cutout stop motion technique combining photographic and hand drawn backgrounds. He was one of the first Soviet animation directors who helped to establish this industry and produced over a dozen animated propaganda films until the mid-1930s when he switched to painting and sculpting.
Cinema and animation were important propaganda tools of the war. The patriotic, Russophilic theme dominated the Soviet cinema of decade. The films about the Russian military leaders shot during the 1940s include Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Suvorov (1940), Igor Savchenko’s Bogdan Khmel’nitsky (1941), Vladimir Petrov’s Kutuzov (1943), Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Admiral Nakhimov (1946), and of course Sergei Eisenstein’s chef d’oeuvre Ivan the Terrible (1943-1946).
During four years of the Second World War Soyuzmultfilm produced about 20 cartoons. Most of them are short political satire aimed at the Nazis. While this number appears to be low when compared with the US film industries, however, one should remember about the extreme hardships the Soviet Russia faced during the war. In 1941-1943 Soyuzmultfilm was evacuated to Samarkand (Uzbekistan).
Кино-цирк (Kino-Circus), 1942 is one of the few cartoons made in the darkest time of the war by Leonid Amalrik, Olga Khodatayeva, and her brother Nikolai Khodatayev – a short piece with three “attractions” aimed at Hitler. The first episode is about dogs representing the German allies (Italy, Hungary, and Romania), second compares Hitler with Napoleon and recalls his unsuccessful war with Russia in 1812, and third depicts Hitler as a clumsy juggler playing with fire.
Parallel with Napoleon was often used to remind about the defeat of Napoleon’s armies in Russia. World War II is often referred as the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная война), just like the war of 1812 was called the Patriotic War (Отечественная война). The motif of the powerful, but unsuccessful invasion is reflected not only in cinema (Kutuzov, 1943) and animation, but also in books, and even propaganda leaflets
Soviet poster (in German), 1942 “Napoleon: This dwarf would be a great commander”
Кино-цирк (Kino-Circus), 1942 Russian, with English subtitles
One of the US cartoons of the wartime somewhat dedicated to the Soviet allies was Russian Rhapsody where Hitler meets his archenemy, mustached Gremlin from the Kremlin.
Russian Rhapsody, 1944
Friendly handshake of the Soviet and British soldiers that crushes the Nazi dwarf is shown in another Olga Khodatayeva’s short, Newsreel of Politsatire №2 (Журнал политсатиры №2), 1941
Russian, with English subtitles
This attitude did not last for long after the end of the war. Soon, as a part of the propaganda machine, Soviet cartoons would depict ex-allies in a completely different, negative way.
Dziga Vertov (David Kaufman, 1896 – 1954) is famous for his radical fresh approach to the documentary cinema. His Man with a Movie Camera and Kino Eye became true classic of the Soviet avant-garde era of the 1920s. However, he managed to try himself as an animator, too.
Soviet Toys (Советские игрушки), 1924
silent, with English subtitles
In 1924 he directed one of the earliest Soviet animation Soviet Toys. Like many works of Vertov, this animation short is a propaganda piece aimed at NEPman, a member of a new wealthy social class of the 1920s. NEP (New Economic Policy) was born in the result of the temporary liberalization of the Soviet economy in the 1920s. This animated film also aims at the Russian Orthodox Church that was suppressed during the 1920s-1930s particularly harshly although a caricature depiction of the fat corrupt priest was not atypical even for the pre-revolutionary Russia. The other priest is a satirical representation of the so-called Living Church (обновленцы) that was established in 1922 during the schism within the Orthodox church.
NEP helped to recover post-Civil War Russia, but was often criticized as a return of the capitalist past particularly by the left-wing activists and avant-garde artists like Vertov who promoted building of the new Communist society. NEP lasted for less than a decade, until Stalin became an ultimate Soviet leader in 1928. Vertov rather accurately predicted the decline of NEP: after the worker and peasant (literally) unite they manage to crush NEPman and take all his money.
Soviet toys ends with the scene of the Christmas tree composed of the Red Army soldiers who literally hang fat NEPman, his girlfriend, both priest, and the worker and peasant climb to the top of the new social order.
As Lenin stated, the capitalist will sell us rope with which we will hang them. After NEP helped to recover the state of economy, it was prohibited and private entrepreneurs were forced to close their businesses.
Vertov was interested in exploring various media and employed animation technique in some of his documentaries, including stop motion sequence in his famous Man with a Movie Camera(Человек с киноаппаратом), 1929. Though roughly made, Soviet Toys is one of the important artifacts of the dawn of the Soviet animation.
Soviet propaganda of the 1930s was depicting the mighty Red Army that would win any war “with a little blood and on the enemy’s territory”. March of the Soviet Tankmen, a popular song composed in 1939 proclaimed:
The armor is hard and our tanks are fast
And our men are full of courage
The Soviet tankmen are ready for action—
Sons of their Great Motherland.
Thundering with fire, glinting with steel,
The tanks will begin a harsh campaign
When we’re called to battle by Comrade Stalin
And the First Marshal [K. Voroshilov] will lead us in this battle!
This song was also used in the Ivanov-Vano’s Не топтать фашисткому сапогу нашей Родины (Fascist Boots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland), 1941. Like some other propaganda cartoons, it emphasizes the beastly nature of the German invaders and portrays an overwhelming military response by the Red Army forces, including both brave cavalry, the iconography of the Russian Civil War, and modern tanks and aircraft. It also features notion of the unexpected nature German invasion that would be later extensively used to explain heavy losses during the early stages of the Great Patriotic War.
Хищники (Vultures), 1941 by Panteleimon Sazonov is a short propaganda cartoon about “Stalin’s falcons” – inculcated term for the Soviet aviation. Propaganda of aviation as the most modern and advanced mean of warfare was extremely popular during the 1930-1940s.
Hail to Stalin’s Falcons, 1941 – one of many aviation-themed Soviet posters
The Nazi vulture-looking bombers are being destroyed by the Soviet planes (inspired by famous I-16). In reality, during the early stages of the war, the losses of the Red Army and Soviet Air Force were extremely heavy.
Black and White (Черное и белое) is a 1932 cartoon based on the poem of Vladimir Mayakovsky. It is one of the propaganda pieces Mayakovsky wrote during his trip to the US and Cuba about poor black Willie who’s daring to confront a rich white sugar plantation tycoon. America and especially such topics as racial tensions and the Vietnam war would become a popular subject of the Soviet animation satire during 1950-1970s. This is one of the earliest films aimed at the US. It was also one of the first works of Ivan Ivanov-Vano and Leonid Amalrik. Both became prolific and influential film directors.
It’s interesting to notice that minimalistic approach to some scenes reminds avant-garde spirit of a graphic artist Vladimir Lebedev popular illustrator and poster maker who started his career in ROSTA Windows.