Russian Animated Films and Nationalism of the New Millennium: The Russian Phoenix Rising from the Ashes

Russian Animated Films and Nationalism of the New Millennium:

The Russian Phoenix Rising from the Ashes

I continue working on the chapter and the end is in sight. I have analyzed the films and I have brought in the literature review. Now, I have a bit of history to add as well as a conclusion, but it is almost there. 

Awed by Mickey Mouse and the animation of Walt Disney in the 1930s, the Soviet Union quickly became a world leader in the field of animated films. At its apogee, thousands of illustrators toiled to produce a myriad of films, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the industry fell into disarray. In the 1990’s the animated film industry came close to extinction, as the market was flooded with pirated, usually poorly dubbed, films sold in corner kiosks, while Mexican and Brazilian soap operas became the staple of television. As oil prices soared and as a burgeoning petrostate Russia recovered from the chaotic 1990s, the Russian state encouraged and promoted the revival of an indigenous film industry. Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, a new generation of children’s animated films was produced drawing upon older themes while integrating new foreign influences, notably the dual voice whereby films had parallel narratives that appealed to adults as well as children. Too banal for most researchers, animated films are often ignored in the analysis of nationalism. Yet, animated films destined, partially or wholly, for children contribute to defining the nation as well as gendered roles and national ideals. This chapter will provide a short history of animated films in both the Soviet Union and Russia and will analyze the ways in which gender and nation are both caricatured and reaffirmed in the pseudo-history presented in contemporary Russian animated films that are set in ancient Rus. Noble men fight to defend the motherland from the enemies that surround the state, while the women look pretty and do the housework. In spite of the clichés that predominate, children films can occasionally cautiously and subtly parody contemporary Russian politics, promoting a potential rethinking of political norms among adults and providing new cultural and social models for the coming generation.

DVDs and the Russian Market

Unlike the Soviet Union which was closed off to the larger global marketplace, Russian films must compete with foreign, read American, productions, continually having to play catch-up, whether it is the shift to computer animation, blue-ray DVD and now 3-D animated films. All the while, Russian production companies could not generate revenues from the sale of DVDs comparable to foreign companies as lax copyright laws and the wide scale distribution of pirated films minimized the revenues that could be generated once the film was released and no longer being shown on screen in the dwindling number of movie theaters. Alternate sources of funding were necessary and in the case of Russia, this revenue came from the state directly or indirectly. With new funding, Russian animated children’s movies once again are being produced, but the DVD market remains shackled by the lax enforcement of copyright laws in Russia. Whereas Disney and other companies will pursue any violations of copyright laws to ensure that full-length feature films are not pirated and posted to YouTube, it is still relatively easy to watch online full-length Russian films released often within months and with new DVD players it is possible to watch these films directly from the internet to television as high-speed internet has become quite widespread across Russia. As such, existing Russian DVD’s are quite rudimentary, limited to the film and a few trailers to advertise upcoming films as market forces limit the profitability of investing in the production of DVDs. Nonetheless, for the state this is a moot point as it matters little if the film is watched in the theater, on DVD or online, as what matters is that there be an indigenous film industry, preferably one that will reinforce allegiance to the state through the promotion of a revived Russian patriotism.

Nationalism, Children and Popular Culture

In the 1980s, there was a shift in the study of nationalism, a domain that had traditionally been the preserve of political scientists and macro-sociologists and national historians (Stephens 1997:7) that focused on nationalism through the prism of the political, as anthropologists and others began to study nationalism as a social and symbolic phenomena that was rooted in cultural practices. The focus of the work that came out in the 1980s was on the constructed nature of the nation and national traditions, whether imagined (Anderson 1983) or invented (Hobsbawm 1983; Hobsbawm 1990; Hobsbawm et Ranger 1983) or otherwise constructed (Gellner 1983). The main preoccupation of research was demonstrating that nations were not “primordial,” that they were modern, and that quite often it was the state that was the agent that was constructing the nation (Brubaker 1996; Greenfeld 1992; Laitin 1998). The one author who provided a dissenting voice was Anthony D. Smith who examined the nation as developing out of existing communities, being perennial as opposed to either modern constructs or primordial unchanging artifacts, and quite often tied to larger cultural forces, notably religion (Smith 1986; Smith 1991; Smith 1999; Smith 2003; Smith 2008). Elsewhere, I have put forward the metaphor of nations being curated, that is to say that new narratives are created out of older discourses, and this will be applied to that analysis of Russian animated films as an act that is not pure invention, rather it is the reworking of older narratives that are then integrated into the worldview of both children and adults.

Though the interest in the study of nationalism quickly took off and numerous scholars have studied the phenomena, the study of children and nationalism has received little attention and the phenomena that will be examined in this chapter, nationalism and popular animated films, have received even less scholarly focus. One of the scholars who did guide the still developing field of children and nationalism is Sharon Stephens (1995; Stephens 1997) who edited Children and the Politics of Culture and the special issue “Children and nationalism” for the journal Childhood. These two publications initiated the study of how children negotiate questions of identity, ethnic and national, and quite often hinges on studying children as active social actors who actively participate in the negotiation of national identities in their daily lives (Cangià 2012; Christou et Spyrou 2012; Hart 2002; Hecht 2012; Huber et Spyrou 2012; Leonard 2012; Spyrou 2011; Waldron et Pike 2006). The research that is coming of age quite often uses ethnographic methods, both observing and interviewing children, to better understand how they understand their social universe and understand, negotiate, and integrate ethnic and national narratives in their daily lives.

Though the literature on children and nationalism is limited, the analysis of popular culture, animated films, children’s movies and nationalism is even more restrained. Tim Edensor (2002) builds upon the work of Michael Billig (1995) in his seminal work National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life to study the nexus of popular culture, national identity and everyday life. As he writes: “Curiously, despite the rise of Cultural Studies as an academic discipline, few have attempted to address the more dynamic, ephemeral and grounded ways in which nation is experienced and understood through popular culture” (Edensor 2002:vi). Yet, even in this groundbreaking work, Edensor (2002) ignores completed children’s movies and the popular culture. This is certainly a glaring oversight as popular children’s television and movies truly “constitute a shared referential resource, and shared discursive formations” defining a national community. A Canadian of a given generation can easily identify a fellow national by referring to a “tickle trunk” a prop that was central to one of Canada’s longest-running children’s television show, Mr. Dressup that ran from 1967 to 1996 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Though scholars have been slow to examine the relationship between children’s popular culture and nationalism, states have quickly understood the power of popular culture. Indonesia, used children’s literature to promote a national culture and language while buttressing the centralized and paternalistic and dictatorial power of president (Shiraishi 1995). In recent years, South Korea and China have sought to limit the diffusion of foreign animated films in their countries (Ishii 2013). China during the Cultural Revolution quickly understood the power of animated films as the children’s film Sparkling Red Star provides a telling example as to how the agency of children is linked to nationalism. Xu Xu (2011:403) describes the hero as the ideal child who “is neither a passive receptacle of adult indoctrination nor an exact copy of the adult” and how this film has become a classic now being shown by the parents who loved it as children to their offspring to inculcate national ideals to prepare them for the new post-Mao China. In this past decade, China has been investing heavily in forming a new generation of animators and has sought to block the importation of foreign animated films since 2006, notably the very popular Japanese anime, to the Chinese market. The goal remains the same, promoting a form of Chinese nationalism as the state seeks to satisfy notably the “spiritual and cultural requirements of the Chinese people, promoting the advanced culture of socialism, providing morality and ethics education for children” (Ishii 2013:227). These moral and cultural aims are tied to the economic ambitions of the state, promoting the development of local industry while striving to produce cultural content that could be exported globally. Given such considerations, it should not be a surprise that the Russian state would seek to promote the revival of its animated film industry following its virtual collapse in the 1990s.

Russian Nationalism and Animated Films

Natalie Kononenko (2011) builds upon the work of Henry Giroux (1994) to analyze the ideology that lay behind Soviet animated films, highlighting that too often researchers too easily overlooked the propaganda behind children’s films as these were cloaked under the soft covering of “innocence.” Giroux (1994:24) was critical of the works of Walt Disney and others, remarking that: “Under the rubric of fun, entertainment, and escape, massive public spheres are being produced which appear too ‘innocent’ to be worthy of analysis.” As Kononenko (2011:275-276) highlights, American animated films taught or teach children to disparage people of color, those whose English is not standard (Giroux 2002:120), while presenting the housewife-in-the-making role model to young girls (Giroux 2002:114). All the while, the Disney model encourages unbridled consumerism encouraging children and their parents to buy panoply of film-related goods including DVDs. Kononenko’s analysis covers the Soviet history of animated film and specifically the use of folklore in films and she also examines the transition of the industry in the contemporary Russian state. Her research largely ends, where this chapter begins with the first of the Tri Bogatyria films released in 2004.  Though there are some shifts that have occurred in the meantime, there is nonetheless continuity in the national discourse that is evident in the history of Russian and Soviet animated films.

One of the continuities that remain is the way in which animated films depict ideal femininity.  In Soviet animated films, the ideal was “passive, gentle, self-sacrificing femininity” and “cartoon heroines are passive and submissive—and very hardworking” (Kononenko 2011:277). As shall be discussed later in the chapter, the women depicted as the wives of the warrior-heroes are perhaps more active, but they nonetheless know their place in the gender hierarchy, active when necessary to save their husbands or future husbands, yet demure enough to ensure that it is their husbands who achieve glory. They are “broads” after all. Though post-Soviet Russian animated films have become more violent, the depiction of non-Russian nationalities follows the Soviet pattern of creating ethnic hierarchies. Kononenko examines how Ukrainians were invariably depicted as “quaint and folksy” (2011:289). She rightfully notes that the Asian-looking Tatars are depicted as “fat, buck-toothed, dark-skinned and greedy” in the first of the Tri Bogatyria films (Kononenko 2011:291). Finally, she remarks that Putin’s policies are reflected in Russian animated films, with the choice of heroic epic heroes tying Russia to the distant past makes Russia seem ancient, the heirs of a thousand-year history. Also, the idealization of the warrior-heroes emphasizes military prowess, while the new films are hip, the new films being Putin’s answer to Shrek exuding contemporary cool. The new films are nonetheless as ideological as what the Soviet Union produced. “Hidden behind the references to heroic epic, the bright colors, the modern music, and the wisecracking horse are cultural and political messages worthy of Soviet ideology” (Kononenko 2011:290-291). This ideology will be deconstructed to examine how banal children films are laying the foundation for a revived and invigorated Russian nationalism.

Stephen Norris documents the rise of the Russian blockbuster, which is tied to the creation and spread of the modern multiplex that relies on the best of technology to draw in viewers while producing Russian mass movies that fill the seat in the revived business of making and marketing movies. The rise of the Russian blockbuster is tied to Russian politics and ascending nationalism. “The birth of blockbuster history—or the way American cultural practices could be adapted to make Russian historical epics—parallels the rise of Putin and the resurgence of Russian political nationalism” (Norris 2012:5). The film Kniaz’ Vladimir or Prince Vladimir (Kulakov 2004) is emblematic of the marriage of nationalism and animation in Putin’s Russia: the project was blessed by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch in 1998, production was started at the end of 1999 and was funded by the Russian state in 2000 as the project was given the status of “national film” thus bringing together the Church and the State as Vladimir Putin rose to power as the new president of the Russian Federation (Norris 2012:220).  Russian animation truly rose as a Phoenix out of the ashes, as Stephen Norris chronicles, the Soviet Animated Film Studio lost 90 percent of its staff in the 1990s, and chaos reigned in the 1990s as the new director, who would eventually be arrested, pillaged the studios looting the studios and granting DVD rights to an American company in exchange for restoring the Soviet animated films, with none of the profits returning to the studio (Norris 2012:217-218). The Soviet tradition was effectively dead by the end of the 1990s and the surprising revival of the industry was tied to “new techniques and new heroes” (Norris 2012:219) as well as the rising prices in global oil and commodity prices which filled the Russian state’s coffers.

The Three Warrior-Heroes

[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. At an animation festival held in Moscow in 1934, Walt Disney sent some short films featuring Mickey Mouse. Impressed by Disney’s 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 the name was changed to Soyuzmultfilm), and this institution would reign until the collapse of the Soviet Union. The early years of children’s animation were marked by Socialist realism, whereby animation was used as a dry teaching tool to properly teach children the essentials of Socialist life or to depict folk tales. The real break from Socialist realism would come in the 1950s with the production of The Snow Queen (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 clear parallels to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Snow Queen was intended for both children and adults; at the surface, a drama meant to be viewed by the entire family.

As was the case in the West, the animated classic films were invariably written for a uniform audience. The Snow Queen was a dramatic animated film able to 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 were generally in the form of dramas mixed with some comedy, which 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, an animated slapstick comedy featuring a wolf and a hare. There was also children’s programming involving stop motion animated figures, including a crocodile and a mysterious creature, Сheburashka. The latter was clearly intended for children, though it became popular with contemporary adults as it satisfied nostalgic yearnings for a return to childhood.

The significant change in animated films in recent years is the shift from a single audience animated film to a double audience film, a film where humor is aimed at distinctly different audiences. Such films are now standard fare to North American moviegoers. Films such as Shrek draw large audiences of both children and adults. The humor includes veiled sexual innuendo that will titillate adult audiences while remaining unnoticed by the children in attendance. Such films target a dual audience by providing a level of content that will appeal to and be understood by only adults, while at the same time providing humor that can be understood and appreciated by both adults and children. After a somewhat fitful start, Russian animated movies are adopting these practices. The wholesale adoption of American practices signals both the resistance to American cultural hegemony while adopting the forms of the American consumer culture they resisted (Norris 2012:15)  In the current age of 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 marks the onset of the resurgence of Russian popular animated films destined for the mass market was Kniaz’ Vladimir or Prince Vladimir (Kulakov 2004), the first truly successful mass audience Russian animated film of the new millennium. Not only did it speak to both adult and children, it also heralded a revival of the historical animated film as a venue for promoting a reinvigorated Russian patriotism. Filmmakers would adopt styles that are reminiscent of Shrek, while still conforming to “the cultural obsessions with patriotism and the past” (Norris 2012:16).

The Russian film Prince Vladimir was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 and released in Russia in 2006 and became a box office success, grossing over 150 million rubles (approximately $5.3 million). Though a paltry revenue figure by Disney standards, it was a princely sum for a Russian domestic film, though the sums collected at the box office allowed the film to effectively break even as the film cost roughly $5 million to produce, leaving a profit of a few hundred thousand dollars. However, the production was financed by the Russian state. 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 realistic depictions of warriors being maimed and killed. Indeed, one of his warriors even kills Vladimir’s own brother before his eyes before he could stay his sword, betrayed by the trickery of a cunning sorcerer. Such scenes are clearly not intended 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 be understood only with great difficulty by children. Interspersed between the moments of high drama, however, are scenes that could best be described as comic relief aimed at a younger audience. Two brothers who play the role of buffoons, for example, are animated in classic cartoonish style, and are seen fighting off hundreds of Pechenegs each grabbing a tree trunk as a club against their enemy. The violence in these scenes is not realistic, and these scenes would be much better suited to young children. Thus, the film can be considered a double audience film, though the animation shifts between animated realism and cartoon surrealism. In the later series that we shall examine, that of the three warrior heroes, Tri Bogatyria, the realism has been largely eliminated in favor of humor and dialogue 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 they 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 not only Russian national ideals, but also—as we will examine more closely—national gender ideals.

In the film The Three Warrior Heroes and the Shamanic Czarina (Glezin 2010) there are two telling scene that demonstrates the ways in which the film is targeting an adult audience— and a relatively well-educated audience, at that. 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, a chronicler, dictates an account that could easily have been taken from The Primary Chronicle, one of the foundational documents of Kyivan[1] or Kievan Rus. To fully understand the humor, it is necessary to understand a bit of the history of Kievan Rus as well as the true nature of the anachronism being presented. Adults will know the typewriter as trope, yet children watching the film may have never seen one. Russia, like North America, has moved to the use of computers for word processing. 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 medieval Rus. The humor thus rests on understanding the double anachronism. In another scene, the Prince is beset by boredom and decides to go inspect Kiev’s library. A crow sent by the Shamanic czarina drops a feather that magically transforms into a book that entitled Generation “X” [Pokoleniie “Kh”]. The Prince asks why Generation “Kh,” naturally pronouncing the “X” as the equivalent Russian letter. His talking horse, who is also Kiev’s 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 a child would not be expected to know and understand. At this point in the film 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 ads that predated them. Once again, the humor is clearly not aimed at children, but rather at adults who will have the knowledge to be able to fully understand all its nuances.

Where the dual audience is most evident is when humor is presented that deals with issues of gender and nationality. Here, the humor subtly makes light of entrenched Russian expectations and ideals regarding gender and gender roles—while still cementing those same gendered divisions of labor, 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 se the legitimacy of those inequalities. Likewise, the films also present highly stereotyped images of other peoples (notably Africans and Asians) while subtly poking fun at 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 Bogatyria films have obviously learned is that it is best to appeal to a dual audience to ensure profitability while avoiding the appearance of openly challenging cultural expectations when it comes to issues of gender and nation.

Gender and Nation

The series of films the Tri Bogatyria seeks to define the nation, and thus nationalism, in a way Michael Billig would describe 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, but rather, we will argue, a symbol of the masculine ideal.  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—if anything, the male warrior-hero must be wary of women who, through deceit or witchery, can emasculate the hero (even to the point where he is made to perform housework).

One of the telling scenes from the latest installment of the Tri Bogatyria films, Tri Bogatyria na dalnikh berega [Three Warrior Heroes on a Distant Shore] (Feoktistov 2012), is one where the warrior heroes are trapped by magic in a massive barrel and set afloat on the ocean. 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.  These simulacra drive a wedge between the populace and the prince, who subsequently 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 by mopping 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. Shining a light on him, she sees that he casts no shadow, confirming that he is a false copy created by unclean forces. She then runs to find the other wives, who have discovered 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 most certainly do not do work defined as women’s work.

The implicit division of all work along gender lines is also evident in the earlier film Tri bogatyria i Shamanskaia tsaritsa [Three Warrior Heroes and the Shamanic Czarina] (Glezin 2010) 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 practicing to strike blows with his sword, she beating the carpet clean using the same strokes. As he practices a fatal sword blow with is stick and wooden dummy, she chops wood in parallel fashion.  When she asks for his help, however, he refuses, as this would be women’s work. He uses the less respectful term “babskaia,” derived from the Russian word baba for woman, a word comparable to the term “broad” in English, and adds that he is tired of sitting at home. He, like the other warrior-heroes, yearns for battle; we see evidence of this in a scene where another warrior-hero 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. Each audience sees 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 serve to reaffirm the social divisions between men and women in Russian society, while acting 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 (Glezin 2010), the plot is built upon the premise that brown-eyed witches can use their powers to bewitch. Once accomplished, they can then bring about ruin. In this film, the Czarina succeeds in bewitching the prince. Under her spell, he is ready to give her his lands and seeks to marry her. She is, of course, the old hag of folklore, who uses magic to project the illusion of a dark-haired, dark-eyed lustrous beauty. In the end, 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; 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, suffering 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 essentially the polar opposite of the idealized male warrior hero—the anti-hero par excellence, the emasculated male, who is easily defeated once his mother’s powers have been neutralized.

Just as the bogatyria are instances of the ideal male, their wives can be seen as ideal women. They vary, of course, in height and looks, and unlike the shamanic Czarina, they cannot be qualified as sultry or seen as seductresses. As Natalie Kononenko (2011:291) notes, the love interests of the warrior-heroes of the contemporary films under study here are “as modest as any of the heroines from the golden age of Russian [Soviet] animation” and though they are less passive, and did walk away from their heroes in some scenes, they always return as marriage is their path to happiness. The wives of the warrior-heroes and the good women of Kievan Rus are certainly not depicted as unattractive, but their beauty is wholesome, a blue-eyed pure beauty as opposed to the seductive and Orientalized foreign czarina. These wives proudly stand in the shadows of their warrior husbands. Sometimes they must prod them, manipulate them, even occasionally come to their succor, but the women are not warrior-heroes; indeed, they are faithful wives, prone to emotion. They are willing to fight, and at 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 they even chop wood and perform other domestic tasks requiring strength and power. Despite this strength, they never touch a sword. When do battle, they pick up the tools of women, notably rolling pins or pots and pans. The wives are often depicted as wily, and one of the wives is clearly depicted as smarter than her warrior-husband, but together their true role is to support their husbands’ glory. This is evident in the first film that recounts the history of Aliosha [Alexander] Popovich. In the film, it is not Aliosha who defeats the enemy, the formidable Turagin warrior, but rather his future wife, her grandmother, grandfather, and their ass. Nevertheless, when Aliosha regains consciousness Liubava tells him that he defeated the enemy, thus preserving his ego and putting him securely 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 upholds existing male biases prevalent in Russian society. Though the inequalities are certainly used as a source of humor—notably in that humor directed at the adult half of the dual audience—the films do not challenge the existing inequalities. In the dual audience mode, as discussed, the films address the issue of gendered roles in a manner appealing to the humor of an adult audience, using an ironic depiction of the highly arbitrary division of labor into women’s and men’s work. At the same time, this depiction serves to enculturate proper ideals of gendered work in the new generation, the children. It does this while also affirming that the ideal male role is to be a warrior defending the nation. This is perhaps not surprising, as the team responsible for creating the films is composed entirely of men.

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 encountered in the populace. They sought to defy the state, to take the lead in the protest; however, unlike the good wives of the warrior-heroes, their first priority was not domestic tasks—so-called ‘women’s work. Instead, 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 male 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.”[2] Not only were the women convicted, having been 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 (and by extension Russia) comes in the form of 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 (and certainly not Ukraine)

Contemporary Russian children’s animated movies serve to enculturate children into a Russian nation, affirming a very nationalist vision of history whereby Kievan Rus was populated by Russians and is considered ancestral to Russia. This narrative is certainly not new, being merely an extension of older Russian national narratives that affirm Russia’s one thousand year history, viewing Kievan Rus as the ancestral state to modern Russia. In the first film of the series, Aliosha Popovich and the Turagin Snake [Aliosha Popovich i Turagin Zmei], the film starts with the writing of a chronicle. In the film, the existence of a Russian land [Russkaia zemla] and a Russian people [Russkii narod] are affirmed on a number of occasions; it is even shown 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. We see a Russian Land, one besieged from the very beginning, as Aliosha’s home city of Rostov is attacked by a horde of Muslims. These invaders exact tribute, taking all the gold in the city down to the grandmother’s last gold tooth. To prove his warrior mettle, Aliosha must devise a plan to first safeguard the gold; when that fails, he must battle the horde and bring back the riches of the city. To do this, he must outwit the Prince of Kiev, who is intent on keeping the gold that was left in his safekeeping.

The contours of Russian history are thus defined for a new generation in the Tri Bogatyria films, using a narrative quite common to the Russian national discourse. In a highly nationalistic and patriotic song entitled “We are Russians,” Zhanna Bichevskaia sings of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as the “tri bogatyria,” the warrior-heroes of the Slavic tribes. 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, then concludes her song by stating that Saintly Rus will once again rise up with the grace of God.[3]

The films present stereotypical representations of other peoples and nations. Muslims and Asians are of course depicted as the enemies of Rus, but they are no match for the warrior-heroes of Rus who stand tall above the enemy, capable of defeating hundreds, even 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 “Tsygani”—a term equivalent to the English “Gypsy”—who are seen as capable dancers, but are even better at tricking the old grandfather out of his sword, money and clothes, leaving a somewhat scrawny talking horse in exchange. This depiction plays upon the prevalent Russian stereotypes of the Roma as exotic, dancing beauties when young, somewhat repulsive when older, but at all times deceitful. Asian peoples are depicted with exaggerated features, notably the eyes, while Africans are stereotypically depicted in the final film with thick lips and a character that is close to childlike. Indeed, the films do not rely on subtlety when it comes to generating humor relating to the “Other”; rather, they play upon extremely stereotypical images, which are 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 Czarina comments that Rus is known for its balalaikas and nesting dolls. This is a prime example of the dual audience discussed earlier, as the humor is 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 observes 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 gingerly highlighting some of the contemporary traits associated with modern Russians. In short, the films are 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, encounters the Prince of Kiev. The Prince is shown falling too easily for the man’s fabricated European traditions, a bucket of water dumped on the sleeping prince in the morning as a greeting being a case in point. Here, the film is addressing the adult audience by 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, a bit of a fool and too easily manipulated. Unlike the earlier film Prince Vladimir, where the prince is noble, the prince of the Tri Bogatyria films is seen as a somewhat irrelevant fool who must be continually saved by the warrior-heroes. This depiction of the Prince conforms to older Soviet standards. As Natalie Kononenko (2011:276) remarks, the tsar, a figure representing pre-revolutionary society and/or the capitalist threat was often depicted in animated folktales as “capricious, demanding, prone to poor judgment, and often diminutive in stature” which is precisely how the Prince of Kiev is portrayed in the Tri Bogatyria. Unlike the Soviet films, it is not clear who the Prince is meant to represent, the current President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, or Boris Yeltsin[4] who presided over the chaotic 1990s or someone else altogether.

The subtle subtext that runs across the films 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 separates the prince from the people; 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 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, with 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 but a stone’s throw from the Kremlin.

Enemy at the Gates

The series of films surrounding the Three Warrior Heroes of Ancient Rus serves to reinforce contemporary fears that are propagated by the Russian national discourse. The narrative is summarized in one telling scene in the 2006 film Dobrynya Nikitich and the Dragon (Dobrynya Nikitich i Zmeya Gorynych). In the early scenes of the animated film, a signpost is portrayed, to the left “Rus” to the right “Enemies.” This is the centerpiece of the films and the national narrative: the land is surrounded by enemies seeking to invade and plunder the wealth of Rus/Russia and that it is the duty of patriotic men to defend the land against all enemies, and any foreigner is by definition a potential foe. This is not necessarily a new narrative as it cuts across the Soviet period, notably the animated films that were created in the 1970s on the same topic as well as early Soviet films such as Alexander Nevsky from the 1930s. The contemporary films, as discussed, are quite normative in following the standard storyline that cuts across both Russian and Soviet cultural history. What is intriguing is the discussion of democracy that was evident in one, and only one, of the modern Three Warrior Hero animated movies, and the discussion was not directed at the children, but rather the adults in the audience using the dual audience approach as described a priori.

The 2007 film Ilya Muromets and the Nightingale Robber (Il’ya Muromets i Solovey Razboynik) unlike the other films in the series openly parodies Russian politics and the humor integrates into the narrative questions of freedom of the press, democracy and censorship under the guise of an animated children’s film. The release date of the film is perhaps telling: December 2007, when President Vladimir Putin first presidency was coming to an end and when in a few months Dmitri Medvedev would be inaugurated. It is telling that in this transition period that the filmmakers of the series presented a biting critique of power and freedom through allegory under the non-threatening auspices of children’s animated film.

One of the central characters of the film is the chronicler Alyoshka, the future wife of the warrior Ilya Muromets. The chrnonicler is presented as an investigative reporter and mention is made of freedom of the press. The Prince of Kiev often hampers her efforts and at the end her work is censored. When the new chronicler arrives, the Prince does not want to let her in. Before the chronicler arrives, the Prince rails that it has comes to this, that in the past they would not have been tolerated, but now “the people want to know the truth” [pause] “what they say in the West.” In other words, now he has to tolerate journalists, because he must grudgingly conform, at least superficially, to the opinions voiced in the West. The toady boyar agrees with the actions of the prince and says that it is better not to let the chronicler/journalist in as they will once again scribble some filth.

Old History, New Freedoms Transposed

When the chronicler arrives, the boyar throws out “baba” and she answers: “I am not a broad, but a chronicler.” She states that she is with the publication “New Birchbark” [Novaya Beresta] which is is an allusion to some contemporary newspapers that are relatively critical of the state, notably Novaya Gazeta. This is an interesting turn of events: she is a chronicler, but effectively a journalist. An artist who is the projected medieval equivalent of a photojournalist accompanies her. This is another clear example of the dual audience being used in the film to interest both adults: it is unlikely that young children will be fully capable of understanding the subtle references to freedom of the press, the need for a journalists and the ways in which the Russian state hinders the work of journalists, seeking to muzzle the truth.

As the power of journalists is limited, Alyoshka must convince the Prince to take her with him on the expedition. She explains that all the other chronicles will tell the story of the horse that was stolen and the treasury that was emptied and that Ilya will know the truth. The Prince cynically says “that is freedom of speech for you” and she tells him to take her with them as she will be able to fix things: “I will write about your bravery in the chronicle” she tells the Prince, explaining that she will get material [to write] and the Prince will get respect. Note that she mentions “and what will the people think.” The Prince likes the idea of his “bravery” being recorded. The Prince, hearing that that Nightingale Robber has sacked the land and stolen the gold, must convince Ilya to help him. Alyosha asks to join him as she is writing a chronicle of The Daily Life of Russian Heroes and shows him a manuscript with Ilya’s image on the cover. He then orders that Alyosha be thrown out. The Prince has no interest in having a journalist who will promote the work being done by the Warrior-Heroes. As she is being carried out, she yells out that it is the “This is an outrage, the suppression of the press” and she screams out that the Prince is not respecting her freedom of speech. The film is thus presenting a veiled critique of the policies of the contemporary Russian state, presented in the guise of an animated children’s film.

De-Mo-Cra-Cy: Political Parody and Pushing the Animation Envelope

Not only does this one animated film present issues of freedom versus the state, it also wrestles with the topic of democracy and the will of the people.  Central to the storyline is the Prince having to convince the warrior, Ilya, to help him regain the treasury’s gold. The one motif that cuts across all of the contemporary three bogatyrya films is the portrayal of the Prince of Kiev as a greedy, foolish, largely incompetent Prince who makes bad decisions and must continually be saved by the warrior-heroes. It is in the 2007 film that the Prince’s failings, and disdain for democracy, most evident, while it is the wisdom of the folk and the bravery of the warrior-heroes that saves Kievan Rus from destruction.

Absolute power is critiqued in the 2007 film and the humor is tied to the dual audience presentation of the film. Clearly, the subtle discussion of democracy is not intended for young children, as the humor is certainly destined for the adults. However it is extremely subtle and it can be aimed at contemporary politicians but if it is the allusion is so indirect that it is hidden deep without the narrative of the film. Given that the film is funded by the state, it would be foolhardy of the producers and creators of such films to overtly criticize the leadership of the Russian state. However, in this particular film, the envelope is clearly being pushed and the limits of parody being tested as contemporary politics are clearly being mocked.

One telling moment occurs in the first minutes of the Muromets and the Nightingale Robber film, as the Prince and his bookkeeper are counting pieces of gold and the Prince concludes that they do not have enough money to cover the expenses of the principality. The Prince suggests raising taxes while the bookkeeper replies that perhaps it would be better to cut expenses. The Prince then asks with condescension, whether the bookkeeper doesn’t happen to be a democrat. The old grizzled accountant answers “God help me!” with the epithet of democrat somehow being equivalent to being cursed. However, it is the Prince’s greed and obstinacy that is the cause of much grief. When Ilya goes to the Prince to complain that the Nightingale Robber was released for 100 coins, the Prince answers that he is the Prince, and he will run the show, act as he wants. Ilya then announces that he refuses to do the Prince’s bidding, and the Prince retaliates by taking away Ilya’s beloved and mighty horse. The robber the steals the gold and the horse and both the Prince and Ilya must set out to Constantinople to recover what they have lost. Alyoshka plays the part of the investigative reporter, secretly following both to get her scoop.

The Prince and Ilya share little in common in terms of their political beliefs.  The Prince mocks Ilya because of his proverbs. He answers that the proverbs are based the centuries that the people observed, that they always tell the truth. Also, Ilya seeks to impose a form of equality on their trip. When they are hiking through the forest, Ilya tells the Prince that he will have the first shift to keep watch. When the Prince objects, Ilya states: “Here, we are all equal. Understood.” He then sounds out the word democracy “De – mo – kra – ti – ya” The Prince answers: “Your democracy will bring turmoil!” Of course, after a few minutes, the Prince throws away the lance/spear and lies down to sleep, and Ilya grudgingly gets up to keep guard. In the morning the Prince is captured, but this was Ilya’s strategy: to observe and then arrive in the nick of time to save the Prince. He orders, nonetheless, the bandits to respect the Prince. Here again, we have the film wrestling with issues of equality and democracy, as Ilya seeks to gain a certain degree of respect and equality from the Prince, but nonetheless sides with the Prince when facing the foreigner, the Nightingale Robber and his clearly Asian forces. Loyalty to the Prince in the face of a foreign threat trumps individual grievances. Ilya also liberates Alyoshka who had been taken prisoner by the band, but he does not want to take her along. The Prince counsels Ilya that they should take her as he notes that it would be useful to bring a baba or “broad” along as she will be able to cook and wash their clothes. When Ilya discovers that the Prince had tricked him in order to recover the treasury’s gold, he sets off on his own and the Prince blurts out to Alyoshka “I am the Prince and it is his [Ilya’s] duty to serve me!” Again, the film is clearly mocking the authoritarian tendencies of the Prince, while highlighting that the Prince without his warrior-heroes is incapable of doing anything on his own. Yet, he vainly believes himself to be the true hero, frustrated when Alyoshka questions him about Ilya. He asks her about whom she is writing the Chronicle, and then tells her”You have a hero next to you and you have a deserter [Ilya] on your mind.”

Medieval Tourists, Contemporary Stereotypes

Once they all reach Constantinople, the film plays upon existing stereotypes of the foreign other. In Constantinople, Alyosha encounters in Constantinople a man who looks like Elvis who tries to recruit her to work in “show business” but it is clear that he wants her to work in a strip club. Again, this is the dual humor, as there is a fear/belief that women can fall into “sex slavery” if they venture overseas. Some of the happenings of the Prince in Constantinople are reminiscent of the tales told by Russian travellers: the Prince is told to sit in a chair and relax, and then he is obliged to pay. Likewise, the Arab-looking man that it is free to ride the elephant, but once he is up, he must pay to come down tells him. Alyoshka warns the Prince, but he refuses to listen to her, reinforcing once again his portrayal as a fool. “You are like a child, that is the honest truth” Alyosha tells the Prince when he gets on the elephant in spite of her admonitions. Such warnings are given to Russian tourists in contemporary Egypt or Turkey that in the former they must not get on a camel if told the ride is “free” as they will be invariably forced to pay an exorbitant price to be given the privilege of disembarking. Clearly, the film is playing upon the experience and fears of modern Russians traveling overseas, while mocking the pretensions of leaders past and possibly present. There is the slapstick humor to please the children, with adult humor interspersed along with the occasional dash of masked satire.

Nonetheless, the films requires Ilya, the warrior-hero, to defeat a band of villains that are portrayed as very “Arab” in clothing and look. They tie him up and throws him down a well throwing out that he is a “damn Rus.” The elephant that he had been kind to and he then discovers the horseshoe with traces of his native soil pulls out Ilya. As it is the soil of his homeland that he believes gives him strength, the now has the power to defeat the band of villains, throwing out that they are “girls” before heading off to defeat the entire Byzantine army.

Upon their return to Rus, Alyoshka completes her account of the bravery and heroic acts of Ilya, but the Prince orders that his name replace Ilya’s in the written account, as he censors her work for his glory. This is a very cynical ending, one where the Prince nonetheless does as he wishes, and the film concludes with a very jaded view of power, one whereby the powerful use the efforts of others for their ends.  As noted, this particular film is perhaps the one that features a number of satirical moments that seem to be making a political comment on contemporary politics in the Russian Federation. As the filmmakers are funded partially by the state, such parody is certainly very indirect, but it does indicate a contribution to the larger political and national discourse being communicated through the unlikely medium of a children’s animated movie. The film still promotes a national consciousness, still promotes a certain fear of dangerous foreign forces while affirming the power of the people and the real men, the Russian warrior-heroes to overcome them, but it is not presenting an uncritical view of the power of the Prince. It is offering a critique of the dangers of giving the Prince unfettered power, notably when the Prince is a fool.






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[1] Kiev is based on the Russian-language designation of the city, while Kyiv is the spelling that conforms to the transliteration of the Ukrainian name of the city. Rus is often written with an apostrophe that is used to designate the soft sign letter in Russian, but for the sake of simplicity, Kievan Rus will be used in this chapter instead of Kyivan Rus’ that could be used if following strict linguistic standards.


[4] Here, it would have been preferable to write Iel’tsin to conform to the transliteration being used in this chapter, however Yeltsin is the spelling best know in North America.