Caught between a global geopolitical conflict and an all-encompassing censorship machine, some of the most celebrated animators of the former Soviet Union chose to plough their own paths to critical acclaim. And what paths they were!
Soviet animation began developing rapidly in the 1930s after the government established the “Soyuzmultfilm” company as a de facto monopolist to grow the industry.
But it wasn't until after World War Two and the “Fight against Disney” (bor’ba s disneevshinoi) that artists began to turn their back on the content and techniques of the capitalist West and truly jump in at the deep end.
Initially Soviet artists, scriptwriters, and directors adhered almost universally to Uncle Walt's animation repertoire, with a focus on animal cartoons that bore human characteristics such as the ability to speak.
Those characters often also bore a suspicious resemblance to their Western counterparts.
As the Cold War kicked in, that blueprint was subjected to major modification, however.
The 1960s and 1980s in particular were associated with a creative leap on the part of Union animators.
Seemingly in order to bypass the Soviet censor — always ready to label a piece of art ideologically unprincipled — artists ventured further and further into the safety of abstraction.
Below are some of the eyebrow-raising results of that process. Don't look now kids!
Plasticine Crow (Пластилиновая ворона), 1981.
Here the storyteller appears to be singing a song based on Ivan Krylov’s poetic adaptation of Aesop's ‘The Crow and the Fox’, but cannot remember the words.
The original moral of the story — “it is dangerous to trust flattery” — has been warped and reduced to safety instructions at certain points in the film. Characters metamorphose into one another from scene to scene.
Some of them seem to be heroes from Aleksandr Pushkin’s fantastic “By Lukomor'ya” (У лукоморья) poem, while other characters appear to be there simply to contribute to the general chaos.
Hedgehog in the Fog (Ёжик в тумане), 1975.
This legendary animated film by Yuri Norstein received top honours in the Soviet Union and acclaim from international critics.
Norstein himself said: “There is no intrigue in the action, there are no dynamics in the action. It seems that Hedgehog in the Fog was a happy occasion where all the elements simply fell into place.”
Agreeing and disagreeing with that statement appear equally impossible.
Under Last Year's Snow (Падал прошлогодний снег), 1983.
This cartoon (see here for part two) is about a silly, lazy, and greedy man, who went to the forest to find a New Year Tree but on the way falls into a well of his own fantasies about endless wealth.
By the time he emerges with the tree it is already spring and he has to bring it back to the forest.
Legendary director Alexander Tatarsky said the animation had given him “something approaching a heart attack”, due to the attentions of the censor.
“They said I had a disrespectful attitude to the Russian people. They said: ‘You only have one character — a Russian man — and he is an idiot,'” Tatarsky recalled.
Nevertheless, it made the cut.
Who Will Tell a Fable? (Кто расскажет небылицу?), 1982.
‘Who Will Tell a Fable’ is one of a number of Armenian cartoons popular for their surrealist style. The story is about a tsar who got bored and asked his adviser to come up with ideas to entertain him.
The adviser announced a contest, where people were to tell fables to the tsar. If the tsar said, “I don’t believe it, it’s not true!” he would have to give that person half of his kingdom.
If, however, he were to say he did believe the story, then the tsar would become the recipient of that citizen's wealth.
The fables themselves are strange and vivid, while the character of the tsar remains eerily familiar to citizens living in many former Soviet countries.
Wow! A Talking Fish! (Ух ты говорящая рыба!), 1983.
Last up is another masterpiece by “Armenfilm” that would surely not have been out of place if screened at Woodstock in 1969.
The script is similar to Pushkin’s famous ‘The Fisherman and the Golden Fish’, and promotes the message that kindness always comes back to where it came from, although any feel good factor in the animation is more or less obliterated by a cameo courtesy of a two-mouthed, pipe-smoking monster called Ekh. Ekh!