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Some cartoons despite the limited artistic merit could serve as a perfect case study for the zeitgeist of a certain era. The Millionaire produced in 1963 is one of those rather crude propaganda pieces that involves the main subjects of the Soviet official satire of the 1960s: the American politics and society, capitalism, contemporary Western art, and pop-culture.

The Millionaire, 1963

Soyuzmultfilm

Aesthetically, the 1960s in the Soviet Union began soon after the death of Stalin, and Khrushchev’s rise to power. In a few years, totalitarian Soviet baroque was replaced by the modern minimalistic style in the architecture and visual arts. In the Soviet animation, this style was pioneered by Fyodor Khitruk. The Millionaire by Vitold Bordzilovsky is one of the examples of the new approach of the early 60s. This cell animated film is executed in the sharp contrast with the Disney-like Soviet animation of 1940-1950s. While the Stalinist aesthetics was replaced with more Western-like, Soviet art continued to be highly ideological. The Millionaire is a perfect example of the Sovie political animation of the 1960s.

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Example of the Soviet rotoscope technique from the 1950s – Kashtanka, 1952

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The minimalistic 1960s aesthetics – Story of a Crime, 1962

The base of this animation short is an ideologically correct doggerel by one of the most cynical Soviet authors, Sergey Mikhalkov. When it was necessary Mikhalkov condemned enemies of the people, Nazis, American imperialists, Zionists and cosmopolitans (a euphemism for Soviet Jews), Soviet intelligentsia “kowtowing to the rotten West”, and so on depending on the demands of the Communist Party. The Millionaire was part of the satirical newsreel Fitil’ (Fuse), an important element of the Soviet visual agitation machine. The cartoon’s plot tells a story that must have seemed hilarious to the Soviet audience: a rich lady bequeaths all her money to her beloved bulldog. The Bulldog is transformed into a rich and powerful capitalist who attends lavish parties and becomes a Member of Congress thanks to his riches.

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The Millionaire book cover

This animation should be discussed according to not only its technical and artistic qualities. In the totalitarian state, visual media played an essential role of a social engineer shaping the public opinion. The Millionaire conveys a certain social and cultural message presented by means of animation. Obviously, it’s not a purely entertaining piece. It criticizes American elite, the “cult of dollar”, and contemporary Western culture. Every small detail of the cartoon is used to enforce the message. Take for example interior backgrounds with abstract paintings and sculptures. Similarly to the Nazi Germany where modern art was labeled “degenerate”, in the USSR it was called “formalist art” and was sharply criticized by the Communist Party. Any work of art that did not fit into the rigid ideological system of the Social Realism was condemned, and independent artists were often persecuted.

Related imageA Soviet cartoon satirizing abstract art titled “Pure art”

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Khrushchev condemned abstract artists in 1962

The cartoon shows the combination of stereotypical images, such as big cars, skyscrapers, logos, and forbidden entertainment. Logotypes that frame the night club sequence at the beginning and the end play an especially important role in both cinema and animation. Logos play the same role as geographical landmarks helping viewers understand that this cartoon is about the US.

The nightclub sequence is of particular interest as it sarcastically portrays the American entertainment and popular culture. The Bulldog, as a stereotypical American nouveau riche, enjoys his status and indulges with good food, night bars, personal limo, and a luxurious household with a butler. The comical effect is achieved by the fact that such luxury, unthinkable in the Soviet Russia for anybody except the highest rank leaders, is inherited by the dog. In the 1950s, a significant part of the Soviet citizens lived in wretched conditions of communal apartments, dormitories, and temporary houses. The dancing scene was used not only to satirically depict the soulless American style of entertainment but also was aimed at the youth subculture of stilyagi, (the stylish ones) often considered a pro-Western “fifth column” within the Soviet society. Stilyagi were Soviet youngsters fascinated with American music, dance, and art. They listened to jazz and adopted Western fashion trends.

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Stilyagi were often ridiculed by the official Soviet media

The attitude towards jazz changed radically in the Soviet Russia since the 1920s when it used to be considered a folk music of the oppressed African-Americans. As jazz became a part of the mainstream American culture, the Soviet propaganda labeled it “music for the rich”. During the anti-Semitic anti-Western campaign of the 1940-1950s anyone listening jazz was proclaimed a potential traitor:

“Today he plays jazz, tomorrow he will betray his Motherland!”

In The Millionaire, jazz is treated according to this trend of the Soviet propaganda. The saxophone depicted in the first shot of the nightclub impersonates the evil of jazz for the Soviet leaders and the most wonderful music instrument for the Western-oriented youth of the 60s. Jazz is shown as an extremely vulgar type of music.

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Soviet anti-capitalist poster

Patrons of the night club continue a long line of the evil capitalists portrayed by the Soviet propaganda. The cigar smoking men are dressed in the black tuxedos with bow ties that looked extremely comical and outdated in the USSR. The frivolous women in bright, open dresses are eager to dance with anyone who is rich and famous, even if it’s a dog.

The rich Bulldog is chauffeured to the “luxury bar” with a jazz band and frivolous dancers. The anthropomorphic Bulldog joins the dance circling on all four paws like an actual dog. Excited patrons of the night club follow the example and adopt his dance manner loosing human appearance and literally transforming into beastly creatures participating in some kind of black sabbath. Even skyscrapers join the dance transforming into menacing giants with bright patches of logos and ads. The streams of bright artificial light create the atmosphere of anxiety. The idea of the “moral degradation” is visually represented by the transformation of the nightclub guests into the leaping four-legged animals. In the country where people dance like dogs, why shouldn’t dogs become rulers?

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Human turning into animals in The Millionaire 

Visual and audio sequence together with crude verses ridiculed American capitalism. This animated propaganda was supposed to enforce anti-Western sentiments in the minds of the audience. However an excessive anti-Western propaganda led to the opposite results by the late 1960s, and more and more Soviets became interested in American popular culture.

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.

Dziga Vertov (David Kaufman, 1896 – 1954) is  famous for his radical fresh approach to the documentary cinema.  His Man with a Movie Camera and Kino Eye became true classic of the Soviet silence avant-garde of 1920s. However, he managed to try himself as an animator, too.

Soviet Toys (Советские игрушки), 1924

silent, with English subtitles

In 1924 he directed one of the earliest Soviet animation Soviet Toys.  Like many works of Vertov, this animation short is a heavily propagandistic piece of art aimed at NEPman, a member of a new wealthy social class of the 1920s. NEP (New Economic Policy) was born in the result of the temporary liberalization of the Soviet economy in the 1920s. This cartoon also aims at the Russian Orthodox Church that was suppressed during the 1920s-1930s particularly harshly although a caricature depiction of the fat corrupt priest was not atypical even for the pre-revolutionary Russia. The other priest is a satirical representation of the so-called Living Church (обновленцы) that was established in 1922 during the schism within the Orthodox church.

NEP helped to recover post-Civil War Russia, but was often criticized as a return of the capitalist past particularly by the left-wing activists and avant-garde artists like Vertov who promoted building of the new Communist society. NEP lasted for less than a decade, until Stalin became an ultimate Soviet leader in 1928. Vertov rather accurately predicted the decline of NEP: after the worker and peasant (literally) unite they manage to crush NEPman and take all his money.

Soviet toys ends with the scene of the Christmas tree composed of the Red Army soldiers who literally hang fat NEPman, his girlfriend, both priest, and the worker and peasant climb to the top of the new social order.

As Lenin stated, the capitalist will sell us rope with which we will hang them.  After NEP helped to recover the state of economy, it was prohibited and private entrepreneurs were forced to close their businesses.

Vertov was interested in exploring various media and employed animation technique in some of his documentaries, including stop motion sequence in his famous Man with a Movie Camera (Человек с киноаппаратом), 1929. Though roughly made, Soviet Toys is one of the important artifacts of the dawn of the Soviet animation.

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.
Refrain:
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