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
Russian folktales were often adapted for animated films, and for many Russians cartoons, together with folktales are the first introduction to folklore. The folklore characters went through several stages, from comparatively straightforward transformations in some early films to didactic Socialist Realist versions in the late Stalin era, to artistic masterpieces of the 1960-1970s, when folklore-based cartoons fused modernity and tradition and obtained “doublespeak” allusions. The trickster is one of the most appealing characters for animation. The trickster creates comic situations, brings innovation, and is often associated with satirizing norms and customs. The Russian trickster is the fool (durak). The fool in Russian medieval culture was a clever revealer of truth, eccentric in clothing, speech, and behavior. In Russian culture, the trickster figure blends several characters that were historically connected: the Holy fool (iurodivyi), the Harlequin/Wandering Minstrel (skomorokh), and the Outlaw (e.g. the thief, Cossack, or the peddler).
Emelya and the pike
The story about Emelya the fool and the magic pike is among the most well-known. In Russia, Emelya is depicted in figurines, paintings, illustrations, and sometimes is seen as a symbol of Russia, slow to saddle up, but rides fast. In the folktale, Emelya is the third son, unmarried, untidy, lazy, and his only motivation to do something is the promise of a red kaftan (overcoat). In the folktale, Emelya catches the magic pike and who gives him a magic ability to fulfill his wishes. Most famously, lazy Emelya who spends most of his time on a warm massive Russian stove, wishes for the stove to give him a ride. In the folktale-based animated film In a Certain Kingdom (V nekotorom tzarstve), 1957 (directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano, screenplay by Nikolai Erdman) Emelya is significantly different. He is not a lazy lad, but he is shown quite capable of working. Emelya is also kinder: he lets the pike go without asking anything and the pike rewards him. He is quite peaceful until his motherland is threatened by foreigners.
Emelya on his self-propelled stove. The Tsar is hiding from invading foreigners
Figures of pretentious westerners are among the main contemporary features of the film. The generic foreign prince who courts the Russian princess is shown in 18th-19th-century European dress. Presumably, he is a French prince who barely speaks Russian and wants to marry Maria, the daughter of the tsar. The foreign prince is shown as a tall figure with unnaturally sharp features reminiscent of a rooster (possibly another hint at his French origin). He is extremely effeminate, constantly powdering his face, looking at a pocket mirror. Princesses Maria does not mind his courtship (approved by her father) until Emelya sees her portrait and wishes her to fall in love with him. When the foreign prince is rejected by Maria, he launches an invasion. The image of foreign grenadiers marching in the snow reminds us not only of Napoleon but also of the recent German invasion. The tsar’s troops are defeated despite their general’s comic appeal: “They [foreigners] gave our tsar the fig, let’s all die for him!”, and only the trickster, becoming patriotic when he sees the destruction the invaders are causing, is able to save his native land by making a magic broom to wipe out the enemy.
Emelya is depicted in a humane fashion, with normal physical appearances. In contrast, the Russian court is shown in a somewhat comical way: the tsar is short, bearded, and single toothed; his worthless general is shown with cartoonish whiskers. As a result of Emelya’s victory, the tsar loses his crown and flees abroad, while Emelya marries princess Maria and rides the stove home with her. Thus, in sharp contrast with the folktale, Emelya in this cartoon embodies the ideal of the Russian nation: he is witty and kind, able to work and play, he is not aggressive, but he can defend himself if bothered by foreigners or the tsar and his government. Foreign enemies are always ready to invade Russia, but they cannot defeat her people. The parts of the folktale that shows Emelya’s weakness and passivity are completely omitted. In the film, Emelya is a smart peasant, salt of the earth, and he does not need the pike’s magic to become a handsome and clever prince.
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.
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.
Китай в огне (China in Flames) is a significant effort of an early Soviet animation filmed in 1925. Apart from Olga Hodatayeva (mentioned in the previous post), the team included prominent animators like the Brumberg sisters and Ivan Ivanov-Vano. All of them had long and distinguished careers in the Soviet film-making.
China in Flames was shot using skillfully made paper cut outs. It’s a half hour long tour de force in the era most cartoons lasted 5-10 minutes. Like many pieces of the Soviet propagandist movies of the 1920s, it lacked Hollywood-style gags and looks more like a documentary about the evil Western capitalists and greedy Chinese landlords oppressing the Chinese peasants. However, the Communist Russia is ready to help the workers and peasants.
This piece lacks individual characters and represents the popular ideas of the 1920s when the whole nation, a human mass was considered the main character. Both Eisenstein (Strike, Potemkin) and Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera) despite different approaches promoted this view. It would be later abandoned in favor of portraying strong leaders (Alexander Nevsky is probably the best example) connecting the image of a single ruler with the figure of Stalin during 1930-1950s.