Stalin era animation 1930s-50s

Russian folktales were often adapted for animated films, and for many Russians cartoons, together with folktales are the first introduction to folklore. The folklore characters went through several stages, from comparatively straightforward transformations in some early films to didactic Socialist Realist versions in the late Stalin era, to artistic masterpieces of the 1960-1970s, when folklore-based cartoons fused modernity and tradition and obtained “doublespeak” allusions. The trickster is one of the most appealing characters for animation. The trickster creates comic situations, brings innovation, and is often associated with satirizing norms and customs. The Russian trickster is the fool (durak). The fool in Russian medieval culture was a clever revealer of truth, eccentric in clothing, speech, and behavior. In Russian culture, the trickster figure blends several characters that were historically connected: the Holy fool (iurodivyi), the Harlequin/Wandering Minstrel (skomorokh), and the Outlaw (e.g. the thief, Cossack, or the peddler).

Emelya and the pike

The story about Emelya the fool and the magic pike is among the most well-known. In Russia, Emelya is depicted in figurines, paintings, illustrations, and sometimes is seen as a symbol of Russia, slow to saddle up, but rides fast. In the folktale, Emelya is the third son, unmarried, untidy, lazy, and his only motivation to do something is the promise of a red kaftan (overcoat). In the folktale, Emelya catches the magic pike and who gives him a magic ability to fulfill his wishes. Most famously, lazy Emelya who spends most of his time on a warm massive Russian stove, wishes for the stove to give him a ride.  In the folktale-based animated film In a Certain Kingdom (V nekotorom tzarstve), 1957 (directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano, screenplay by Nikolai Erdman) Emelya is significantly different. He is not a lazy lad, but he is shown quite capable of working. Emelya is also kinder: he lets the pike go without asking anything and the pike rewards him. He is quite peaceful until his motherland is threatened by foreigners.


Emelya on his self-propelled stove. The Tsar is hiding from invading foreigners

Figures of pretentious westerners are among the main contemporary features of the film. The generic foreign prince who courts the Russian princess is shown in 18th-19th-century European dress. Presumably, he is a French prince who barely speaks Russian and wants to marry Maria, the daughter of the tsar. The foreign prince is shown as a tall figure with unnaturally sharp features reminiscent of a rooster (possibly another hint at his French origin). He is extremely effeminate, constantly powdering his face, looking at a pocket mirror. Princesses Maria does not mind his courtship (approved by her father) until Emelya sees her portrait and wishes her to fall in love with him. When the foreign prince is rejected by Maria, he launches an invasion. The image of foreign grenadiers marching in the snow reminds us not only of Napoleon but also of the recent German invasion. The tsar’s troops are defeated despite their general’s comic appeal: “They [foreigners] gave our tsar the fig, let’s all die for him!”, and only the trickster, becoming patriotic when he sees the destruction the invaders are causing, is able to save his native land by making a magic broom to wipe out the enemy.

SoldiersForeign invaders

Emelya is depicted in a humane fashion, with normal physical appearances. In contrast, the Russian court is shown in a somewhat comical way: the tsar is short, bearded, and single toothed; his worthless general is shown with cartoonish whiskers. As a result of Emelya’s victory, the tsar loses his crown and flees abroad, while Emelya marries princess Maria and rides the stove home with her. Thus, in sharp contrast with the folktale, Emelya in this cartoon embodies the ideal of the Russian nation: he is witty and kind, able to work and play, he is not aggressive, but he can defend himself if bothered by foreigners or the tsar and his government. Foreign enemies are always ready to invade Russia, but they cannot defeat her people. The parts of the folktale that shows Emelya’s weakness and passivity are completely omitted. In the film, Emelya is a smart peasant, salt of the earth, and he does not need the pike’s magic to become a handsome and clever prince.

 princeClumsy and effeminate European prince

In a Certain Kingdom (V nekotorom tzarstve), 1957

Ivan Ivanov-Vano




Russian with English subtitles

Soviet animation was closely connected with folklore themes in the post Second World War years. However, it was not always the case. Early Soviet cartoons such as Soviet Toys were mostly propaganda pieces aimed at both adults and children. In the 1920s folklore themes were not considered appealing for future-oriented avant-garde Soviet culture. Things started to change in the 1930s when Stalin came to power. With rise of nationalism Soviet ideology changed to national roots and history. Interest in folklore was revived. One of the early folklore cartoons for children was produced by the newly-established major Soviet studio, Soyuzmultfilm. Black and white Ivashko and Baba-Yaga was filmed by the Brumberg sisters, Zinaida and Valentina. It is based on the folktale of the same name. Baba-Yaga, an evil witch, kidnaps a peasant boy, Ivashko (Ivan), and tries to eat him, but he is able to outsmart her and escapes home to his parents.


Ivashko and Baba-Yaga (Ивашка и Баба-Яга), 1938


Cinema and animation were important propaganda tools of the war. The patriotic, Russophilic theme dominated the Soviet cinema of decade. The films about the Russian military leaders shot during the 1940s include Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Suvorov (1940), Igor Savchenko’s Bogdan Khmel’nitsky (1941),  Vladimir Petrov’s Kutuzov (1943), Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Admiral Nakhimov (1946), and of course Sergei Eisenstein’s chef d’oeuvre Ivan the Terrible (1943-1946).

During four years of the Second World War Soyuzmultfilm produced about 20 cartoons. Most of them are short political satire aimed at the Nazis. While this number appears to be low when compared with the US film industries, however, one should remember about the extreme hardships the Soviet Russia faced during the war. In 1941-1943 Soyuzmultfilm was evacuated to Samarkand (Uzbekistan).

Кино-цирк (Kino-Circus), 1942 is one of the few cartoons made in the darkest time of the war by Leonid Amalrik, Olga Khodatayeva, and her brother Nikolai Khodatayev – a short piece with three “attractions” aimed at Hitler. The first episode is about dogs representing the German allies (Italy, Hungary, and Romania), second compares Hitler with Napoleon and recalls his unsuccessful war with Russia in 1812, and third depicts Hitler as a clumsy juggler playing with fire.

Parallel with Napoleon was often used to remind about the defeat of Napoleon’s armies in Russia. World War II is often referred as the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная война), just like the war of 1812  was called the Patriotic War (Отечественная война). The motif of the powerful, but unsuccessful invasion is reflected not only in cinema (Kutuzov, 1943) and animation, but also in books, and even propaganda leaflets

Soviet poster (in German), 1942 “Napoleon: This dwarf would be a great commander”

Кино-цирк (Kino-Circus), 1942  Russian, with English subtitles

One of the US cartoons of the wartime somewhat dedicated to the Soviet allies was Russian Rhapsody where Hitler meets his archenemy, mustached Gremlin from the Kremlin.

Russian Rhapsody, 1944

Friendly handshake of the Soviet and British soldiers that crushes the Nazi dwarf is shown in another Olga Khodatayeva’s short, Newsreel of Politsatire №2 (Журнал политсатиры №2), 1941

Russian, with English subtitles

This attitude did not last for long after the end of the war. Soon, as a part of the propaganda machine, Soviet cartoons would depict ex-allies in a completely different, negative way.

Soviet propaganda of the 1930s was depicting the mighty Red Army that would win any war “with a little blood and on the enemy’s territory”. March of the Soviet Tankmen, a popular song composed in 1939 proclaimed:

The armor is hard and our tanks are fast
And our men are full of courage
The Soviet tankmen are ready for action—
Sons of their Great Motherland.
Thundering with fire, glinting with steel,
The tanks will begin a harsh campaign
When we’re called to battle by Comrade Stalin
And the First Marshal [K. Voroshilov] will lead us in this battle!
                     Stalin and Voroshilov on the 1935 poster by Gustav Klutsis.

This song was also used in the Ivanov-Vano’s Не топтать фашисткому сапогу нашей Родины (Fascist Boots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland), 1941. Like some other propaganda cartoons, it emphasizes the beastly nature of the German invaders and portrays an overwhelming military response by the Red Army forces, including both brave cavalry, the iconography of the Russian Civil War, and modern tanks and aircraft. It also features notion of the unexpected nature German invasion that would be later extensively used to explain heavy losses during the early stages of the Great Patriotic War.

Russian, with English subtitles

Хищники (Vultures), 1941 by Panteleimon Sazonov is a short propaganda cartoon about “Stalin’s falcons” – inculcated term for the Soviet aviation. Propaganda of aviation as the most modern and advanced mean of warfare was extremely popular during the 1930-1940s.

Hail to Stalin’s Falcons, 1941 – one of many aviation-themed Soviet posters

The Nazi vulture-looking bombers are being destroyed by the Soviet planes (inspired by famous I-16). In reality, during the early stages of the war, the losses of the Red Army and Soviet Air Force were extremely heavy.

Russian, with English subtitles

Olga Khodatayeva (1894-1968) was one of the first women in Soviet animation. She mastered fine arts in Moscow, worked as an illustrator, and joined the industry in 1924. She worked in Sovkino (later Mosfilm) and since 1936 she was employed as an animation director by Soyuzmultfilm, the biggest Soviet animation studio established in the same year by Stalin.

In 1928 Olga Khodatayeva produced a silent animation short Samoyed Boy (Самоедский мальчик), an anti-religious propaganda aimed at shamans of Nenets people, natives of the north of Russia. Her background in painting helped her to create much more polished animation than Vertov’s.

During her career, she managed to produce over 20 animation films. Among them are Disney style Tom Thumb (black and white, sound, 1938)

and highly praised beautifully executed A Fire Glowing in Yaranga (color, sound, 1956) based on the folk tales of the native peoples of the Russian north.

Awards: Venice Film Festival, 1956.

Notice that both films the adaptations of folk tales, typical for the socialistic realism period of Soviet animation (1930s-1950s).