From 1936 until the early 1970s, there was only one film studio making animations in the Soviet Union. Though there may have been some small studios in other regional capitals, Soyuzmultfilm in Moscow easily dwarfed them all. In the first thirty years of its existence, the studio produced 401 animations, and by 1989, when it was refounded as a private corporation, the total number of animations had reached 1227 and Soyuzmultfilm was an important component of Soviet popular culture.
Only nine years after Walt Disney's famous 1929 animation Steamboat Willie appeared on the other side of the Atlantic, featuring a by now well-known whistling mouse, Ivan Ivanov-Vano, Vera Suteev, the Brumberg sisters, and others were working in what was at the time a brand new field of art. Hot on the heels of the nineteen-twenties' avant-garde Soviet art movements, Soyuzmultfilm began to create a diverse collection of works. The first year saw only six multfilms, but the studio's output grew steadily, reaching a peak of fifty in 1973. In 1974, approximately two thirds of Soviet families had televisions; the state had reduced the prices of television sets by twenty percent in 1973, thus providing an easy audience.
The ten years from the late 1960s through the 1970s saw the production of the majority of multfilms considered classics today. As the redoubtable Ivanov-Vano wrote, "In the sixties we were finally able to free ourselves completely from the shackles of the Disney aesthetic, which had for so long confined our pursuits, especially in the area of graphic forms." Earlier works had featured Disney-like line drawings filled with solid color; now the studio began to produce more artistically diverse works.
In 1967 the first episode of Mowgli (The Jungle Book) appeared, and Roman Kachanov produced Varezhka (The Mitten), a doll animation about a little girl, wishing for a pet, who pretends her mitten is a puppy. The year 1968 marked the first of the animations based on Astrid Lindgren's stories about Karlson-on-the-roof, as well as Krokodil Gena (Gena the Crocodile), the first animation featuring Cheburashka, and the first episode of Nu Pogodi, not to mention Bremenskie muzikanty (The Musicians of Bremen).
Around 1970 another film studio began releasing animations. Tvorcheskoe obedinenie "Ekran" produced live-action films, such as the comedy 12 Stul'ev (12 Chairs), as well as animations. Ekran's multiks included a doll animation series about a little boy called "Neznaika" (Know-Nothing) in the early seventies. TO Ekran, though it has successfully survived the transition to capitalism, was not a serious competitor to Soyuzmultfilm in the seventies and eighties, producing only a few well known animations during this period. Soyuzmultfilm, however, was at the peak of its production levels, in terms of both quantity and quality.
Mowgli episodes came out annually until 1971; the further episodes of Vinni Pukh (Winnie the Pooh), Nu Pogodi, and Cheburashka continued throughout this period, and 1976 saw the introduction of 38 Popugaev (38 Parrots), another popular doll animation. In 1978 the first of three episodes making up Troe iz Prostokvashino (The Trio from Prostokvashino) was released, and 1979 brought renditions of the fairy tales Volshebnoe koltso (The Magic Ring) and Letuchii korabl' (The Flying Ship). The year 1984 produced thirty-five multiks, including the fourteenth Nu Pogodi, and the third and final episode of Troe iz Prostokvashino.
From the propaganda multfilms of the Great Patriotic War (during which the studio was evacuated in its entirety to Samarqand), to the carefully drawn fairytales of the fifties, to the stop-motion work and the wide variety of other animations produced during the golden age of the sixties, seventies and early eighties, Soyuzmultfilm and the multfilms it created were an important part of Russian and Soviet life and remain so to this day. The popular ska band Leningrad makes reference to Soyuzmultfilm's legacy by entitling a song "Nu pogodi;" Cheburashka has been not only the official mascot of the 2004 Russian Olympic team, but is an always recognizable character featured in televised comedy skits; and internet forum users reminisce about their favorite multiki.
Nor is the cultural influence due only to the older generations remembering the multfilms of their youth; many of the multiks are shown on television today, to fill gaps in the programming, and the fifteen-minute show Spokoinoi nochi, malyshi (Good night, children), which shows multfilms a few minutes at a time, airs nightly, as it has since September 1, 1964. In the numerous kiosks selling videos of the newest Western releases and the Soviet classics there is always a large selection of multfilm sborniki - video collections of both Soyuzmultfilm animations and those made by newer studios such as Ekran.
The Soyuzmultfilm multiks may not have much affected generations who reached adulthood before the sixties, when televisions became more widely distributed amongst Soviet households. For those whose formative years took place during the seventies and eighties, however, the Soviet multik holds a special significance, which that generation is now passing on to their own offspring.
This nostalgia for the multiks of their youth on the part of the generation now rising into professional positions has not gone unnoticed. As one internet forum user remarked, "on the MUZ-TV channel they've begun airing children's multiks. They understand what the thirty-something managers of the middle class need. Nolstalgie!!! (Sic)"
The large volume of animations that came out of Soyuzmultfilm in the sixties and seventies was not only light-hearted productions for children. Many directors produced highly crafted works which were sent to international film festivals, winning numerous awards. In the United States a series called "Masters of Russian Animation" was released by a California-based company called Films by Jove, which managed to buy the global rights to Soyuzmultfilm's works during the confusion of the early nineties. Jove returned many titles to Soyuzmultfilm in 1994, but holds a lease on the remainder, which it says expires in 2023. Jove has released subtitled versions of many multfilms as well as a collection which was dubbed over using the voices of various celebrities such as Charlton Heston, Bill Murray, Timothy Dalton, and Kathleen Turner; this series of fairy tales, called "Mikhail Baryshnikov's Stories From My Childhood," aired on PBS and the Bravo Channel. The Films by Jove company, which was founded by ex-Soviet actor Oleg Vidov and his wife, is involved in ongoing legal battles over the validity of their lease. Jove's legality is supported by American courts; Soyuzmultfilm's rights to the films, many of which Jove has restored at considerable expense, are asserted by Russian courts.
Capitalism has led to issues which animation never faced during the Soviet period. Cheburashka, a well known character featured in four episodes of doll animation, became the mascot for the 2004 Russian Olympic team in Athens. A spat ensued when only Eduard Uspenskii, the creator of the character, was paid royalties for the image's use. Leonid Shvartsman, the artist who first sketched the big-eyed, big-eared little animal was not even informed and only found out after the fact from an acquaintance who had read online that the character Shvartsman had helped to create was representing the country at the Olympic Games. Prominent members of the animation community, including Fedor Khitruk, Yuri Norstein, and Eduard Nazarov sent a letter to the Russian Olympic Committee opposing the use of Cheburashka's image and protesting the disrespect shown the artist; he gave his blessing to Cheburashka's use anyway.
In December of 2004, the widow of Leonid Belorukov, the man who wrote the screenplay for the Soyuzmultfilm production of Kipling's The Jungle Book, called Mowgli, brought suit in Moscow's Tverskoi Court against the film studio for 1.5 million rubles. She wants the court to stop the studio from distributing the film and to grant her exclusive authorship rights. Belorukov himself had previously appeared in court with the same requests; he died in December 2003. Soyuzmultfilm's defense rests on the fact that all agreements had been made in Soviet times, before the 1993 law on authorship rights.
The studio itself has been in a constant state of flux since Perestroika. In 1989, the Kinostudiia Soyuzmultfilm was founded on the base of the pre-existing state institution and was given the distribution rights to all works of its predecessor, including Mowgli. In 1999, it became OAO Kinostudiia Soyuzmultfilm, also with exclusive rights to the audiovisual works created by the preceding incarnations of Soyuzmultfilm. However, in 2001, its OAO registration was declared invalid by a court order and the OAO was liquidated. It is hard to say what the studio's current legal status is, but the website www.soyuzmultfilm.ru maintains a database of works produced under the Soyuzmultfilm name from 1936 to the present, and lists the studio's current projects, as well as biographies of some of the long-standing figures within the studio, such as director Ivan Ivanov-Vano.
Further note: www.soyuzmultfilm.ru occasionally disappears from existence, but should you be in Moscow, the studio is reportedly located at 23A Dolgorukouvskaya Ulitca.
This node adapted from my undergraduate thesis: Reflections of Russian Culture:
Soyuzmultfilm and the works of Yuri Norstein
Norstein, Yuri. Sneg na trave. (2001). Retrieved 27 Mar 2005 from Iskusstvo Kino. URL: http://old.kinoart.ru/2001/9/20.html
Nadezhdin, Denis. "Cheburashka stal geroyem krupnogo skandala." (5 August 2004). Utro. Retrieved 6 April 2005. URL: http://www.utro.ru/articles/2004/08/05/337175.shtml
Naslednitsa odnogo iz avtorov mul'tfil'ma 'Maugli' podala isk na 1,5 mln rublei." NEWSru.com. (2 December 2004). Retrieved 6 April 2005. URL: http://www.newsru.com/arch/cinema/02dec2004/mau.html
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Demourova, Dasha. "Good Night! Sleep Well! Taking comfort in a Soviet holdout." (Sept-Oct 2004 v47 i5). Russian Life. p. 16.
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