The Nation in Russian Animated Films

This is the first draft of a chapter I am working on examining contemporary animated Russian films. I have not added the literature review as my goal was to put down my initial ideas. It is a work in progress and I will continue working on this in the coming weeks.


[Lit review on animation, children’s television and nationalism]

[Lit review on the bogatyrya or warrior heroes of Russian history and folklore]

The Double Audience and the Rebirth of Russian Animated Films

In Russia, children’s animation had a slow start and it was at an animation festival held in Moscow in 1934 and Walt Disney sent to Moscow some short films features Mickey Mouse. Impressed by Disney animations, Soviet officials decided that the Soviet Union must have its Mickey Mouse, though naturally stripped of his Bourgeois trappings [must add sources]. In 1935 the Soviet Union established the Union of Children Animated Films (Soyuzdetmultfilm then Soyuzmultfilm) and this institution would reign until the collapse of the Soviet Union. The early years of children’s animation were marked by the Socialist realism whereby animation was used as a dry teaching tool to properly teach children the essential of socialist life or depicted folk tales using animation. The real break from Socialist realism would come in the 1950s with the production of The Snow Queen or Snezhnaya koroleva a 1957 Soviet animated film directed by Lev Atamanov. A global classic, based on the work of Hans Christian Andersen, the film was dubbed into English and enjoyed considerable success in the West. With the clear parallels to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Snow Queen was destined for both children and adults, a drama meant to be viewed by the entire family.

As was the case in the West, the animated classic films invariably were written for a uniform audience. As noted, The Snow Queen was a dramatic animated film that could appeal to both children and adults, as was the case with the Walt Disney animations that were popular in the United States in the 1950s. Family films either were dramas, mixing in some comedy, that could appeal to all ages, animated slapstick comedies that were also easily understood by all or animated films that were meant solely for children. In the Soviet Union, we see a variety of films that could appeal to different ages. As noted, films such as The Snow Queen were meant for all and were film classics in their own right. Then, there were the animated series such as Nu, pogodi, a slapstick, animated comedy featuring a wolf and a hare. Then, there was the children’s programming involving stop motion animated figures including a crocodile and a mysterious creature, Сheburashka. The latter was clearly intended for children, though being popular with contemporary adults as it satisfies nostalgic yearnings for their childhood.

The significant change in animated films in recent years is the shift from a single audience animated film, to a double audience film with humor that is aimed at distinct audiences. Such films are now standard fare to North American moviegoers. Films such as Shrek draw large audiences of children and adults as the humor includes veiled sexual innuendo that will titillate adult audiences, while going unnoticed and not understood by the children in attendance. Such films target a dual audience providing content that will appeal to adults and be understood solely by them and humor that will be understood by adults but will appeal to children. After a somewhat fitful start, Russian animated movies are adopting these practices and with computer-generated animation, Russian animated films are making a comeback in Russian movie theaters a bit more than a decade after the collapse of the industry in the 1990s. The film that served as a transition was Knyaz Vladimir or Prince Vladimir, the first truly successful mass audience Russian film of the new millennium. Not only would it speak to both adult and children, it would also herald a revival of the historical animated film as a venue for promoting a reinvigorated Russian patriotism.

The film Prince Vladimir was release in 2006 and was a box office success in Russian grossing over 150 million rubles (approximately $5 million). Though a paltry sum by Disney standards, it was a princely sum for a Russian domestic film. What is striking about the film is the apparent mixing of genres to appeal to both older audiences as well as children. The protagonist of the film, though animated, is depicted as a very lifelike, though larger than life human. He participates in animated battle scenes that feature realist depictions of warriors being maimed and killed and one of his warriors kills his brother as the sorcerer tricked Vladimir. Such scenes are clearly not destined for children, as well as those scenes that refer to the Perun’s sorcerer and allude to the ancient Slavic gods using images and vocabulary that would certainly be understood with great difficulty by children. However, interspersed between the moments of high drama are scenes that could best be described as comic relief destined for children. This involves, for example, two brothers who play the role of buffoons. They are animated in classic cartoonish style, and they are capable of fighting off hundreds of Pechenegs each grabbing a tree trunk. The violence in these scenes is not real, and these scenes would be much better suited to young children. Thus, the film is a double audience film, but the animation shifts between animated realism and cartoon surrealism. In the later series that we shall examine, that of the three warrior heroes, Tri Bogatyrya, the realism has been largely jettisoned and instead the humor and dialogue is directed at a dual audience, with some of the humor clearly intended for a much older audience, while other puns and slapstick comedic elements are destined to appeal to children. Though the films do not rely on overt sentimentalism of the history of Kievan Rus, the films featuring the three warrior heroes nonetheless have an underlying discourse that affirms Russian national ideals as well as national gender ideals.

In the film The Three Warrior Heroes and the Shamanic Czarina, there are two telling scene that demonstrates the ways in which the film is targeting and adult audience, and even an adult and relatively well-educated audience. In one scene, we see one of the warrior-heroes wearing his reading glasses sitting at a desk surrounded by piles of papers and typing away as his wife dictates an account that could easily have been taken from The Primary Chronicle, one of the foundational documents of Kievan Rus. To fully understand the humor it is necessary to understand a bit of the history of Kievan Rus but also to understand the true nature of the anachronism being presented. The typewriter will be known by adults, yet children watching the film may never have seen one, as Russia like North America has been using computers for word processing this past decade. The adult viewing this scene will also understand that as the typewriter would be an anachronism in the present, it would also have been an anachronism in the medieval Rus. The humor thus rests on understanding the doubly anachronism. In another scene, the Prince beset by boredom decides to go inspect Kiev’s library, and the crow sent by the Shamanic czarina drops a feather that magically transforms into a book that is titled Generation “X” [Pokoleniye “Kh”]. The Prince asks why Generation “Kh” naturally pronouncing the “X” as the equivalent Russian letter. His talking horse, also librarian, answers that it is because they live in the tenth century. The humor of the scene is quite multilayered and to fully understand the joke it would be necessary for a Russian-speaker to have heard of the book Generation X, requiring a relatively high level of literacy and knowledge of foreign literature, something that a child would not be expected to know and understand. Then, a photo drops out of the book, with a short note on the back that mocks what would normally be found on a dating site or the older classified sites. Once again, the humor is clearly not aimed at children, rather adults who alone will have the knowledge to be able to fully understand all of the nuances of the intended humor.

Where the dual audience is most evident concerns the humor that deals with issues of gender and nationality. Here, the humor is subtly making light of entrenched Russian expectations and ideals regarding gender and gender roles, while still entrenching those same gendered divisions of labor while highlighting that defending the homeland is the true nature of men. It thus uses existing gender inequalities to appeal to adult audiences without challenging per set the legitimacy of those inequalities. Likewise, the films also present highly stereotyped images of other peoples (Africans and Asians notably) while subtly poking fun of the contemporary Russian tendency to blindly and slavishly follow European and American trends. Quite often, this humor relies upon a subtle understanding of history and language, an understanding that would be beyond the normal comprehension of children, thus clearly targeting the adult viewers. The lesson that the makers of the Tri Bogatyrya films have clearly learned is that it is best to appeal to a dual audience to ensure profitability, while not openly challenging cultural expectations when it comes to issues of gender and nation.

Gender and Nation

The series of films the Tri Bogatyrya is clearly seeking to define the nation and this nationalism is being propagated in what Michael Billig would qualify as “banal nationalism” or the articulation of nation and the shaping of allegiance to the nation though the mundane events of everyday life. The bogatyr warrior heroes are by definition the idealized personification of the masculine ethos in society. Their role is to defend the motherland and they are revered for their bravery and their sacrifice to the nation. These warrior heroes are not gender neutral and they are, we will argue, a symbol of the masculine ideal and the contemporary children’s films both poke fun at the ways in which gender is articulated, while affirming that men and women must occupy different stations in society and if anything the male warrior-hero must be wary of women who through deceit or witchery can emasculate the hero, even having him do housework.

One of the telling scenes from the latest installment of the Tri Bogatyrya films, Tri Bogatyrya na dalnikh berega [Three Warrior Heroes on a Distant Shore], through magic the warrior heroes are trapped in a massive barrel and set afloat on the ocean where they end up in a distant land, presumably on the African continent. In their stead, the villains a man pretending to be a German merchant and his sorceress mother, replace the warrior heroes with copies of our heroes as they then drive a wedge between the populace and the prince who then goes into hiding in Kiev. The turning point in the epic is when one of the wives orders her husband to help out with the housework, to mop the floor. To her surprise, then clumsily runs off to get a bucket and he begins mopping the floor. At this moment, the gender roles having been transgressed, the wife is clearly distressed: though she may ask him to help her, never does she expect him to actually do any housework, work that is clearly defined as women’s work. Nonetheless, it is his failure to refuse to do housework that clues her in to the fact that he is not her husband, and shining a light on him, showing that he casts no shadow, confirms that he is a false copy created by unclean forces. She then runs to find the other wives, who have clearly understood in turn that their husbands are not the real warrior heroes, as real warrior heroes do not follow the commands of their wives and they certainly do not do work defined as women’s work.

The implicit division of all work in either women’s work or men’s work is also evident in the earlier film Tri Bogatyrya i Shamanskaya Tsaritza [Three Warrior Heroes and the Shamanic Czarina] when at the beginning of the scene the same warrior hero is training for warfare, while his wife is busily doing household chores. The scenes humorously jump between the husband and the wife, he is practicing to strike blows with his sword, while she beats the carpet clean using the same strokes, he practices to bring down a fatal sword blow with is stick and wooden dummy, while she chops wood in parallel fashion, and yet when she asks his help, he refuses as this would be women’s work, using the less respectful term “babskaya,” derived from the Russian word baba for woman which would be comparable to the term “broad” in English, and he then confirms that he is tired of sitting at home. He like the other warrior-heroes yearn for battle, as denoted in another scene where another is putting up wallpaper with battle scenes until his wife threatens to leave him to go live with her mother if he doesn’t put up the wallpaper with flowers. Clearly, the scene has two parallel narratives, one for the adult viewers and one for the children with each seeing different humor in the scene, but both will understand the cultural value being articulated that true men do not let themselves be polluted by tasks allocated to women as the only true calling for men is to prepare for war as required to defend the homeland. To do otherwise is a form of emasculation and warrior heroes must be very wary, as women will manipulate the weak, the foolish or the bewitched.

The films thus reaffirm the social divisions between men and women in Russian society, while using them as a source of comedy. One underlying theme is the danger of feminine sorcery. In the film the Three Warrior Heroes and the Shamanic Czarina, the plot is built upon the premise that brown-eyed witches can use their powers to bewitch and once that is one they can then bring about ruin. In this film, the Czarina bewitches the prince and under her spell, he is ready to give her his lands and seeks to marry her. As must the case, she is the old hag of folklore, who uses magic to create a dark-haired, dark-eyed lustrous beauty, and she must flee when her true image is revealed. Even the warrior heroes are powerless against her magic, and her downfall is ultimately her own greed as she turns into a blue-eyed baby having eaten too many of the magic fruit that she produces using the tears of blue-eyed Russian damsels to fertilize her tree of youth. In the film The Warrior Heroes on a Distant Shore, the male villain is a pitiable sort as he is under the heel of his sorceress mother. He is short, and squat, and otherwise a derisory fellow, following the orders of his mother. He is thus, the polar opposite of the idealized male warrior hero; he is the anti-hero par excellence, the emasculated male, who is easily defeated once his mother’s powers have been neutralized.

While the bogatyrya are thus the ideal male, their wives can be seen as ideal women. They do vary of course, in height and looks, and unlike the shamanic Czarina, they cannot be qualified as sultry or even seductresses. They are certainly not depicted as unattractive, but their beauty is wholesome, that of the blue-eyed pure beauty as opposed to the seductive, Orientalized, czarina. The wives proudly stand in the shadows of their warrior husbands. At times they must prod them, even manipulate them, occasionally come to their succor, but the women are not warrior heroes, they are faithful wives, prone to emotion. At times, they are willing to fight, at other times they will cry a deluge of tears, but their task is to support the glory of their husbands. As the ideal women, they are certainly not spoiled czarinas, they cook, they wash, they beat rugs, and the wives even chop wood and do other domestic tasks that require strength and power. But, they never touch a sword and when do battle they pick up the tools of women, notably rolling pins or pots and pans. The wives are often depicted as wily, certainly one of the wives is clearly smarter than her warrior-husband, but together their true role is to support their husband’s glory. This is evident in the first film that recounts the history of Alesha [Alexander] Popovich. In the film, it is not Alesha that defeats the enemy, the formidable Turagin warrior, rather it is his future wife, her grandmother, grandfather and their ass. Nonetheless, when Alesha comes to, Lyubava tells him that he defeated the enemy, thus saving his ego and putting him on the warrior –hero pedestal. The primary concern, thus, is to assuage the male ego, too easily bruised lest the warrior fail at his task and have to be saved by women and the elderly.

If anything, the underlying discourse of the film series is upholding existing male biases that are prevalent in Russian society. Though the inequalities are certainly used as a source of humor, notably in what is being directed to the adult audience as discussed previously, the films do not challenge existing inequalities. In the dual audience mode, as discussed, the films are addressing the issue of gendered roles and appealing to the humor of an adult audience in the ironic depiction of the highly arbitrary division of labor into women’s and men’s work, but it nonetheless serves to enculturate proper ideals of gendered work in the new generation, children. This is perhaps not surprising as the team responsible for creating the films is composed entirely of men. It does this while also affirming that the ideal male role is to be a warrior defending the nation.

From this perspective, the fate of the women of Pussy Riot, tried and convicted in Russia for staging a protest song in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, was certainly shaped by the larger cultural narrative whereby women must not seek leadership roles or defy male leadership and authority. If they were placed in the context of the children animated movies, they would invariably be cast as the “sorceress” as opposed to the idealized role of the wives of the warrior heroes. The Russian population’s lack of sympathy for the trio put on trial certainly attests to the antipathy they struck in the populace. They sought to defy the state, they took the lead in the protest and unlike the good wives of the warrior-heroes their first priority was not domestic tasks, women’s work, rather they left children behind to stage political protests. Viewed through the perspective of the Tri Bogatyrya films, whereby women sacrifice themselves for their husbands and their egos, the women of Pussy Riot are depicted in Russian media as being closer in spirit to the witches in the films. This is what the French newspaper Le Monde concluded, in its article entitled Tsar Putin and the witches of Pussy Riot . Not only were the women convicted as they were accused of being satanic, they also conformed to the underlying narrative that cuts across the films, they were an internal enemy, once financed by foreign forces intent on ravaging the country and stealing its wealth. The judge noted that one of the women had a husband who was a Canadian citizen, thus implying that Pussy Riot was really part of a global conspiracy. This follows the main narrative of contemporary Russian animated films whereby the greatest threat to Rus (by extension Russia) are foreign agents working with treacherous insiders to sow discord between the heroes, the prince and the people, thus enabling the conquest of the territory.

Kiev and the One Thousand Year History of Russia

Contemporary Russian children animated movies serve to enculturate children in a Russian nation, affirming a very nationalist vision of history, one whereby Kievan Rus was populated by Russians and is ancestral to Russia. This narrative is certainly not new; merely an extension of older Russian national narratives that affirm Russia’s one thousand year history and that affirms that Kievan Rus was the ancestral state to modern Russia. In the first film of the series, Alesha Popovich and the Turagin Snake [Alesha Popovich i Turagin Zmey], the film starts with the writing of a chronicle and in the film the existence of a Rusian land [Russkaya zemla] and a Russian people [Russkiy narod] are affirmed on a number of occasions and given that they all speak contemporary Russian, the lesson being taught to children is quite clear: the history of Kievan Rus belongs to Russia, the true heritors of the glory of Kievan Rus, and contemporary Russians are the legitimate descendants of the warrior heroes of Kievan Rus. Not only is there a Russian Land, it is also besieged from the very beginning, as the Alesha’s home city of Rostov is attacked by a horde of Muslims, they exact tribute, all the gold in the city down to the grandmother’s last gold tooth, and to prove his warrior mettle, Alesha must lead a plan to first safeguard the gold and when that fails to battle the horde and bring back the riches of the city. This must be done while outwitting the Prince of Kiev who is intent of keeping the gold that was left to his safekeeping.

The contours of Russian history are thus defined for a new generation in the Tri Bogatyrya films, a narrative that is quite common to the Russian national discourse. In a highly nationalistic and patriotic song entitled “We are Russians,” Zhanna Bichevskaya sings of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as the “tri bogatyrya” the warrior-heroes of the Slavic tribes and as she affirms that Russia will rise from its knees in spite of death, starvation and prison camps, horrors beset upon the nation by foreign enemies and concludes her song by stating that God will once again rise up Saintly Rus.

The films present the other peoples and nations using stereotyped representations of other peoples. There are of course the Muslims and Asians depicted as the enemies of Rus, but they are not match for the warrior heroes of Rus who stand tall above the enemy, capable of defeating hundreds, thousands in battle. The only challenge was the one monstrous Turagin who was ultimately defeated and put on display in Kiev. Then there are the “Tsygany” a term equivalent to the English “Gypsy” who are seen as capable dances, but even better at tricking the old grandfather out of a sword, money and clothes, leaving a somewhat scrawny, but talking, horse in exchange. The depiction plays upon the prevalent Russian stereotypes of the Roma as being exotic dancing beauties when young, somewhat repulsive when older, but all the time deceitful. Asian peoples are certainly depicted with exaggerated features, notably the eyes, while Africans are depicted in the final film with the extreme physiognomy of the stereotyped African with thick lips and a character that is close to childlike. Thus, the films do not rely on subtlety when it comes to generating humor relating to the “Other” rather it plays upon extremely stereotyped images of the sometimes exotic, occasionally dangerous, but always inferior to the Russians of Rus.

While stereotyping the “Other” the films at the same time appeal to the stereotypes that others have of Russians. In one scene, the shamanic Tsarina throws out that Rus is known for its balalaikas and nesting dolls, and this is an example of the dual audience discussed, as the humor was certainly aimed at adults and their perception of what it means to be Russian. Later, in the film, at his wedding, the Prince of Kiev throws out that it is not a true Russian wedding without a fight. The films are thus gently making light of the stereotypes of Russians, while also highlighting gingerly some of the contemporary traits that are associated with modern Russians. The films are thus helping to define the nation.

While Africans and Asians are depicted crudely using quite base stereotypes, the problematic other is the European. In the film Warrior Heroes on a Distant Shore, one of the antagonists, a man who presents himself as a German, the Prince of Kiev is presented as falling too easily to invented European traditions, a bucket of water dumped on the sleeping prince in the morning as a greeting, as a case in point. Here, the film is addressing the adult audience and is parodying the Russian propensity to slavishly follow the fashions of Europe and the West. The humor works well as the Prince of Kiev is depicted as having a childlike intellect, somewhat of a fool, too easily manipulated. Unlike the earlier film Prince Vladimir where the prince is noble, the prince of the Tri Bogatyrya films is depicted as a somewhat irrelevant fool that must be continually saved by the warrior heroes.

The subtle subtext that runs across the series is that foreigners are after the riches of the land of Rus, but they can only succeed if they divide the population. In one film, the witch, divides the prince from the people, and in another, the people are made to believe that the prince is crazy and a traitor. Redemption occurs when the population realizes that they have been duped and all work together against the foreigners who are trying to cheat from them. The same motif is also present in the earlier film Prince Vladimir. Here too the Pechenegs are not a true threat to the Rus, rather the threat is internal, Perun’s sorcerer using magic to turn Vladimir against his brother. The sorcerer is paid by the Pechenegs, but his true goal is the destruction of Rus. He intercepts a messenger, kills him, then changes the content of a letter from Vladimir’s brother, leading to Vladimir attacking Kiev and committing fratricide. In all the films, the threat is external, but the true danger is betrayal from the inside. Again, this is the narrative that is driving a revived contemporary Russian nationalism: the protestors and liberals are portrayed as having sold themselves to the West and in the case of Pussy Riot are even inferred to be satanic, attacking the very heart of the Russian nation, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, located a stone’s throw from the Kremlin.