Loneliness, Pursuit, and Journeys in Russian Animation / Dina Yakerson

translated by: Margalit Rodgers

As an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, I can safely say that very few external traits connect me to the country I left in the early 1990s. However, on an invisible level, the rich Russian visual culture left an immense mark on me, and in many ways helped shape my consciousness. One of the most dominant influences were the animation films made in Russia, especially between the 1960s and 80s. Characters who symbolized the experience of loneliness and being different, such as Cheburashka, or the smoking Wolf in the Nu Pogodi! series, and certainly the lost and pondering hedgehog in the masterpiece Hedgehog in the Fog – were all etched in my heart and mind at a very young age. So I thought it would be interesting to revisit them as an adult, and explore the secret of their charm.

These films were created after a long period in which Soviet art was in service of the state, but following Stalin’s demise there was sudden artistic freedom. In the early 1960s, it was precisely the medium of animation that many artists found to be the most open, uncensored creative space. Most of these films were made at Soyuzmultfilm Studios for children, but on a tacit level, they were also created by directors-artists for adults. Thus, the 1960s-1980s in Russia became the Renaissance of animation films, and a multitude of these films were technically and artistically virtuoso, innovative and thought-provoking. It was during this period that the Iron Curtain was lifted, and traveling to and from the Soviet Union was made possible, so there was also an awareness of what was being done in the West in terms of culture and entertainment. However, Russian television still did not broadcast American shows, and therefore Soyuzmultfilm became the local Disney. Children of my generation were familiar with the Russian version of Winnie the Pooh (Vinni Pukh), and Nu Pogodi!, the Russian answer to Tom and Jerry, and even Cheburashka came to be known as the “Russian Mickey Mouse”. As opposed to Walt Disney films that transformed every dark fairytale by the Brothers Grimm into a sugary “Hollywood” version with a happy ending, many of the Soviet films were subversive, free of the American political correctness, depicting profound-philosophical content, and in some cases even masking social criticism. There are innumerable fascinating examples of such films, but I shall focus on the three most familiar ones that influenced me deeply: Cheburashka, Nu Pogodi!, and Hedgehog in the Fog.

Cheburashka is a miniseries created by director Roman Kachanov in 1969 after a children’s story by Eduard Uspensky. The film tells the story of an undefined animal with large ears and brown fur, who falls asleep in a crate of oranges that is delivered to a toy shop in Russia, where he is given his nickname “Cheburashka”. For a while, no one pays him any attention, and no one wants him for a toy, until one day his life completely changes when he meets Gena the Crocodile, a kindhearted crocodile who works at the zoo (as a crocodile) and plays the accordion. Cheburashka’s bittersweet story is revealed in the opening song of the series: “I used to be an odd toy, a toy without a name, which no one approached in the store… / Even on my birthday no one came… / But now I’m Cheburashka, and every stray dog on the street holds out its paw to greet me…”

There is, of course, extensive children’s literature engaging with the experience of loneliness, being different, and not belonging. Common to all of the examples is that the protagonists are different, they are outcasts. It is usually a physical difference that sets them apart from others, as a result of which they remain alone and ostracized (Cheburashka, for example, is an “animal unknown to science”). But ultimately, the protagonists undergo a transformation – internal or external – after which they are accepted and loved by those who had rejected them in the first place. On a simple level, the vast popularity of the Cheburashka films can be explained by the fact that the point of departure, namely a sense of alienation and difference, strikes at the soft underbelly of children and adults alike. This is a universal experience, and, consequently, identification with Cheburashka, despite his animal features, is complete; with his somber gaze and gentle voice he brings to mind a (or every) sensitive, somewhat lost child. In Cheburashka’s case, his salvation is made possible due to the compassionate gaze of another, Gena the Crocodile, who sees and accepts him. As a result of this external approval, an internal change occurs in Cheburashka that enables him to be accepted by others and to be loved.

In one episode, Gena and Cheburashka encounter Young Pioneers, the Soviet equivalent of the Scouts. Seeing members of this youth movement for the first time, Cheburashka is filled with pride and yearning; they symbolize the longed-for Soviet ideal, the ultimate form of acceptance. Gena and Cheburashka really want to join the youth movement, but the Young Pioneers mock them and tell them they belong in a petting zoo instead. Later on, Cheburashka and Gena build a playground by themselves, and the Young Pioneers are forced to admit their mistake and agree to accept them into their ranks. The episode ends with Cheburashka and Gena learning the steps of the traditional march and marching side by side with the Young Pioneers. In other words, they finally belong to society, they become “normal”. The Young Pioneers possibly represent the Soviet regime and society, which had so many ideals yet failed to accept anyone who was different, suppressing those who dared to think creatively or critically. Returning to the previous point, this is further evidence of the strong human urge to belong, because although Cheburashka and Gena are much more talented than the Young Pioneers, and in fact do not need them at all, they still crave their approval – an external seal of approval – in order to feel worthy, to become “like everyone else”.

A fragment from Magia Russica – a documentary film about Russian Animation in Soviet times by Yonathan & Masha Zur

Unlike the Cheburashka films, the animation series Nu Pogodi! (Well, Just You Wait!) which aired from 1969 to 1993 – the Russian version of Tom and Jerry – was lighthearted and funny. Each episode’s nonlinear plot constitutes an ongoing slapstick comedy in which Wolf pursues the unattainable Rabbit, as a result of which he gets into all kinds of mischief and misadventure. The ultimate antihero, Wolf, is a kind of Russian working-class drunk loafer, he wears a colorful shirt, a hat, and bell-bottom trousers, he has a coarse voice, and a broken cigarette dangling between his lips. He is such a human character that he seems the ultimate archetype of the drunk Russian proletarian; a character you might almost encounter on the street and perhaps even join for a glass of vodka. In contrast, Rabbit is a gentle character, immaculately dressed, seemingly a member of the bourgeois elite. In my childhood, I admired the colorful mischievous Wolf who always failed, and I hated Rabbit, the goody two-shoes who frequently managed to avoid trouble. The creators of the series (Arkadi Khait, Felix Kandel, and Alexandr Kurlyandsky) were harshly criticized by the great animators of the time, who thought the series was too shallow. However, nuances can definitely be discerned in it, distinguishing it from its American counterparts in the genre, such as Tom and Jerry and Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner by Warner Brothers. The uniqueness of the characters, as well as amusing references to everyday life in Soviet Russia (for example, in one episode, Wolf gets angry and smashes a television set with a vobla – salted fish that is dried until it becomes rock hard), and content alluding to the social class hierarchy in the Soviet Union (the failing proletarian who pursues the elitist bourgeois), made Nu Pogodi! so special. Common to all the pursuit genre films is that on the most simplistic level they are funny and lighthearted, but in fact engage with an immortal and very human theme – pursuit of an unattainable object of desire. The chase becomes the essence itself, while actually attaining the object merely kills the desire and confuses the characters immersed in the endless game of pursuit. In the handful of episodes in which Wolf finally manages to catch Rabbit, the scenes become almost romantic: they figure-skate together, or find themselves on a romantic date in which Wolf pulls out a bouquet of red roses. Incidentally, the creators were criticized for these scenes, since they were perceived as alluding to a homoerotic relationship between the characters. In other words, in those moments when Rabbit is actually within Wolf’s reach, both of them seemingly forget their roles, until they suddenly come to their senses and remember the real motivation – namely, the pursuit itself. Rabbit hurries to resume his flight, and Wolf yells after him: “Nu, Zayats… Nu, pogodi!” which translates as “Well, Rabbit… Well, just you wait!” and life goes on. This is a rather obvious allegory of a universal human condition: creating an external object of desire, the absence of which motivates action. But attaining it is not the real objective, for that kills the passion of the chase – the true vital force, the goal itself.

The last film, which influenced me more than any other, is the 1975 cult classic Hedgehog in the Fog (Yozhik v tumane) by Yuri Norstein. It shifts between the realms of reality and fantasy. The voice of an omniscient narrator relates the story of Yozhik (lit. little hedgehog) whose life consists of regular routines: every evening he goes to visit his friend Bear Cub, and together they drink tea and count the stars. On this day, Yozhik sets off for his evening visit carrying a bag of jam, but then things start to go astray. When he sees a white horse emerging from the thick fog, he wonders: “If the horse lies down to sleep, will it choke in the fog?” Curious to find out, he enters the fog to explore “what it’s like inside there”. This is where Yozhik’s true journey begins; visions, perhaps real perhaps imagined, and encounters with a variety of different characters, leave a deep impression on him. At one point, Yozhik comes upon a tree with a bright, almost divine, light emanating from it, and then he realizes that he has lost the jam. He is suddenly overwhelmed, and feels he is losing his grip on reality. In the background we intermittently hear his friend Bear Cub’s voice calling out to him, but his voice, the voice of reality so it seems, is far away, detached from everything Yozhik is experiencing. He then falls into the river and resigns himself to let the river take him where it will, thinking that he will never be able to find his way home, that he will soon drown, when an unidentified aquatic creature rescues him and carries him safely to shore. He finally reaches his friend Bear Cub, who has been very worried about him. The two sit by the fire, Bear Cub is talking and talking, but Yozhik is silent; he is in a different dimension – he thinks about the horse, the fog, and the mystic experience he had, and which he cannot find the words to describe.

The film engages with a physical and spiritual journey, with the experience of being lost, with salvation, and transformation. The point of departure is embarking on a voyage to the unknown, for the fog is thick and obscures Yozhik’s path, and even parts of himself (he says he can no longer see his paws in the fog). There is an intentional choice here to get lost, a decision to walk along a perilous path that holds both excitement and great danger. The act of descending into the fog in the dense forest is reminiscent of numerous literary descents into the depths of the underworld, especially the protagonist’s journey in The Divine Comedy midway in his life, losing his way in the forest, from where, following a series of different encounters, he continues to Hell. The river motif, which is identified with death, appears here too, as well as the river of blood that Odysseus crosses when he descends to the underworld. Thus, the journey to the depths of the underworld undertaken by Yozhik and his predecessors is an adventure following which the protagonist experiences revelation, and, in a way, is reborn. This experience makes such a profound change in him that he will never be the same again. The journey of Dante’s protagonist begins in the middle of his life, as revealed in the first lines of the epos. This is no coincidence, for the most profound, mind-changing experiences often occur precisely in the middle of the road, when a courageous decision to change the familiar course is made. In the same way, Yozhik, who is accustomed to his routine, decides to deviate from the familiar path and walk into the depths of the fog in order to discover something new, perhaps something about himself. For enthusiasts of psychedelic journeys in the realms of consciousness, Yozhik’s journey might be reminiscent of the effects of psychoactive substances; a dynamic experience that can shift between nothing less than spiritual revelation to total oblivion, finally returning to reality with a sense of profound inner change. Yozhik returns from his journey and cannot find the words to describe what he saw to his friend, for this is an experience that transcends the verbal dimension. And thus, he continues to sit there, his eyes wide open, as Bear Cub talks and talks.

Another interesting angle of the film is its visual aspect. Hedgehog in the Fog is characterized by a dreamlike atmosphere in monochromatic colors. Yozhik, very much like Cheburashka, is a heartrending and very human character. In an interview with Norstein he said he used a famous Russian (religious) icon as a reference. This is hardly surprising since the film is shrouded in an aura of holiness, and Yozhik resembles a saint undergoing a kind of spiritual journey. The first time I saw the film, when I was about five years old, I remembered it ending with Yozhik being carried down the river, possibly about to drown. I don’t know if I simply didn’t watch the film to the end, or whether the primal-childish fear of getting completely lost and being carried away by the river penetrated my consciousness so deeply that I didn’t remember that ultimately Yozhik is saved and the film has a happy ending. When I saw it again as an adult, I was surprised to discover that he is rescued and reunited with his friend, that everything is alright, and that although his journey leaves a deep mark on him, it is as though he is reborn from it. I discovered that the film actually inspires faith in the world, and does not cut the ground from under one’s feet, as I remembered. And at that point, I was able to reconnect with it. Finally, anyone who likes to embark on journeys in the real world and in realms of consciousness, who is a “seeker” at heart, can definitely find themselves in the character of the straying hedgehog, who finally finds his way home and is forever changed.