Peasant culture and Russian folklore in Soviet animation.
May 4, 2012 2:15 PM   Subscribe

Peasant culture and Russian folklore in Soviet animation (~400 minutes whereof): Soviet animation abounds in fantasies about the natural, wholesome lives of honorable, strong-willed Russian peasants and folk heroes and their struggles against villainy and adversity. Decorated with splendid folk art motifs that verge on horror vacui, these cel-animated cartoons are excellent aids for learning about (popular conceptions of) Russian folk material culture: decoration, architecture, dress, weaponry, textiles, domestic culture, manners, and so on.

Most have lush orchestral soundtracks, which — along with the resplendent costumery and theatrical vocal delivery — create the impression of animated stage drama or early cinema. Together, they compose a body of Slavic folklore and folk myth that has been refracted through the Romantic leanings of nineteenth-century anthologists and the later Soviet populist-proletarian program, emerging as a fundamental text of nativist beliefs and cultural values.

[The animation is long-form and some of it is without subtitles. The slow pace, formulaic structure, and grand theatricality of the stories make the plots easy to discern and appreciate. Short synopses are provided for ease of understanding.]


Breaking with the tradition of Max Fleischer-esque animation of the 1930s and 40s, Soyuzmultfilm produced a number of folk epics and shorter animated films that used detailed rotoscoping and brilliant, dazzling colors and film effects under the direction of figures like animator Lev Atamanov.

Гуси-лебеди | Geese-swans (1949, 19 min.)
In a peasant village, Masha forgets to mind little Vanya. He is spirited away by magical birds to become Baba Yaga's next meal. On the journey to rescue her little brother, Masha helps three magical creatures, who in turn repay her for the kindness she showed them.
† The "geese-swans" of the title are an example of a verbal formula resembling the pillow words of Japanese poetry. Russian folktales abound in this kind of fixed expression.
Аленький цветочек | The Little Scarlet Flower (1952, 40 min.)
(Horrible English dub with wretched video quality: 1 | 2 | 3)
Perhaps the crowning achievement of this era of Soviet animation; a version of the tale of the Beauty and the Beast retold by memoirist and slavophile Sergey Aksakov.
Сестрица Аленушка и братец Иванушка | Sister Alena and Brother Vanya (1953, 11 min.)
Two children lived in a hut at the edge of the woods: Alena and little Vanya. While Alena is raking hay, Vanya insensibly drinks from a magic puddle and turns into a little goat. Alena is espied by a handsome rider who asks for her hand come autumn. In the meantime, Vanya is lured away from home by a witch in the guise of a crow. The witch also drowns Alena when she comes in search of her brother. The hero returns to defeat the witch and save the siblings.
† Dang those Russian hypocoristics and the difficulty in rendering them adequately in English!
Царевна-лягушка | The Frog Princess (1954, 39 min.)
A tale of a well-known type: Vasilisa the Beautiful is abducted by the sorceror Kaschei the Deathless. Spurned by Vasilisa, Kaschei turns her into a frog for three years and three days. Meanwhile, a king dispatches his three sons to find bride by loosing an arrow each. The arrow of Prince Ivan, the youngest, lands in Vasilisa's swamp. Keeping his word, the prince marries the frog. Erewhile, the king demands to see a display of the craft and grace of his sons' wives, whereupon the transfigured Vasilisa stuns the court. But the prince foolishly destroys the frog skin before Vasilisa's term of punishment is up, forcing him to confront Kaschei himself to rescue his beloved. Ivan encounters a wizard, finds several animal allies, and learns the secret of Kaschei's weakness from Baba Yaga.
Соломенный бычок | The Straw Calf (1954, 10 min.)
(Based on a Ukrainian folktale. Note the Ukrainian-style peasant huts, Ukrainian instrumental accents, and clothing.)
An old peasant makes a straw calf with tarred sides to entertain his granddaughter. A variety of forest animals get stuck to it. The peasant realeases the animals on condition that they stop making trouble.
В некотором царстве | Once Upon a Time (1957, 28 min.)
(English captions: 1 | 2 | 3)
Scruffy Emile captures and releases a magical talking pike that grants him magical powers. Meanwhile, princess Marya is resisting her father's efforts to marry her off to a foreign fop. When Emile collides with the foreign prince on his horseless carriage and magically wishes the princess to fall in love with him, her father, the king, locks her up in a tower and demands that his top general bring the offender to justice. War breaks out, and Emile wins handily using his magic powers. The king abandons his throne.
† This is not a literal translation of the title, which is an example of a formulaic opening phrase common in Russian folklore: «В некотором царстве, в тридесятом государстве…», or "In a certain kingdom, in the one-score-and-tenth principality…"

Alexander Pushkin (PDF bio, also previously) occupies a special place in the pantheon of Russian poetry. Folktales in verse are among his best-known works, having contributed many passages and phrases to the range of Russian expression. Though based on the European tales of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, these stories have firmly entered Russian culture in Pushkin's renditions.

Сказка о рыбаке и рыбке | The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish (1950, 30 min.)
(English verse translation presented in captions | English translation with parallel Russian here)
A verse tale about greed and just deserts, following the outlines of the similar Brothers Grimm story. Includes an animated rendition of the well-known prologue from Ruslan & Ludmila.
Сказка о мертвой царевне и о семи богатырях | The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Warriors (1951, 30 min.)
(English verse translation presented in captions | text of English translation here)
A Snow White tale, minus the dwarfs. Pushkin's verse follows the Brothers Grimm version of the story.
† The actual word is богатырь, a kind of archetypal warrior-hero.
Сказка о золотом петушке | The Tale of the Golden Cockerel (1967, 30 min.)
A tale of hubris, supernatural peril, and magical retribution (complete English translation of the poem here). Scholars identify in it clear influences of Washington Irving's "Legend of the Arabian Astrologer" (from his The Alhambra), Friedrich Klinger's Die Geschichte vom Goldenen Hahn, and other literary contemporaries.
The animation is notable for its unusual, starkly stylized appearance.
Конёк-Горбунок | The Humpbacked Foal (1975, 71 min., remake of 1947 version)
(English translation of the poem; English captions, blurry video: playlist missing part 1 of 8. If you like, a dubbed, edited version is available as Mikhail Barushnikov's Stories From My Childhood: Ivan and His Magic Pony.)
Possibly of interest to fans of My Little Pony. A tale in verse by a contemporary of Pushkin's, it combines the motifs of the third son, who is an idiot, a magical animal servant, and tasks of supernatural difficulty. There is a long-standing controversy regarding the poem's authorship, attributed by some in whole or in part to Pushkin himself.
(Bonus: the 1947 version of same — compare the style of the animation.)
† The difficult-to-translate word is the diminutive of "horse," best rendered by the Spanish caballito.
Сказка о царе Салтане | The Tale of King Saltan (1984, 53 min., remake of B&W 1943 version)
(Blurrier video with simultaneous English subtitles: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | playlist)
This cartoon has everything: betrayal, wicked sisters, magical heroes, island fortresses, enchanted princesses in animal guises, insects, magic squirrels that gnaw on golden nuts with emerald kernels, merknights… no Hoombas.
The animation of this late effort doesn't have the same striking, gemlike quality. However, it does include the entire verse — all 900-odd lines (Russian with lovely illustrations, rather loose English translation).

As any living tradition, Russian folktales have been subject to humorous reinterpretations and revisions, deriving comedy from the clash of contemporary values and temperaments with historical archetypes and plot devices.

Вовка в тридевятом царстве | Bobby in the Kingdom of Faraway (1965, 19 min.)
(With surprisingly good English captions: 1 | 2)
Bobby is lazy and would rather read wish-fulfillment fantasies than more practical books. He is transported by his school librarian to the magical land of folktales where he is berated by a king who paints fences around his own court. He escapes and meets the old woman with her broken basin from The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish and is ridiculed by the magic fish for his arrogance. Next, he is bored by a lecture on differential equations at a conference for magical princesses. Finally, he finds a pair of magical servants who will do everything for him — they will even enjoy the fruits of his wishes for him. Sick of being a failure, Bobby takes matters into his own hands and learns how to do stuff on his own.
Летучий корабль | The Flying Ship (1979, 19 min.)
The old king wants his daughter, the wilful princess Zabava, to marry the corpulent merchant Polkan. Zabava falls for the scruffy commoner Ivan and tells her father that she will only marry a man who can get her a flying ship. Ivan seeks the help of a depressed, lonely vodyanoy and a coven of musical witches. Polkan steals the ship Ivan builds, but only Ivan knows the magic words to make it fly.
Notable for multiple musical interludes sung by the well-known performers of the day with rockin' instrumentation.
† The witches' musical number is an example of chastushka, a kind of fast folksong made up of rhyming quatrains, usually humorous and usually sung by women.
Ивашка из Дворца пионеров | Vanya from the Young Pioneers' Club (1981, 9 min.)
Baba Yaga sends her magic geese to abduct a child for her upcoming birthday party with Kaschei the Deathless, Zmei Gorynych, and Hypnocat. The child turns out to be a plump, but resourceful scout who thwarts the witch's plans using his superior mastery of woodworking tools, magnets, and duct tape. No need for Masha to save him.
† The Russian title has "pioneers' palace," which is a kind of architecturally monumental children's recreation center (e.g.).
Enjoy, and feel free to ask about anything that you might find unusual or unclear.
The paintings and illustrations used are by fin de siècle illustrator Ivan Bilibin and painter Viktor Vasnetsov.
posted by Nomyte (13 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Well, the 'wholesome' personae in our Russian and Slavic mythology (link in our first paragraph) preceded the Soviet era by quite a few centuries:
posted by girl Mark at 2:36 PM on May 4, 2012

Also, a lot of the delightful art in the OP's first few links precedes the Soviet era and the animators by a bit, too.
posted by girl Mark at 2:41 PM on May 4, 2012

What a fabulous & fascinating post: (I loved the "horror vacui" link).
Thanks so much.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 2:44 PM on May 4, 2012

Great post, and I knew you were going to be linking to Bilibin illustrations before I even clicked any links. Just in case anyone is confused by the links in "fantasies about the natural, wholesome lives of honorable, strong-willed Russian peasants": bogatyrs were not peasants but knights-errant, comparable to the Knights of the Round Table. (I know you go on "...and folk heroes," but people will have clicked on those bogatyr links before they get there.)

> Well, the 'wholesome' personae in our Russian and Slavic mythology (link in our first paragraph) preceded the Soviet era by quite a few centuries

Nomyte wasn't saying the mythology was Soviet, just the animation, which I don't think preceded the Soviet era by quite a few centuries.

> I loved the "horror vacui" link

Me too—absolutely glorious!
posted by languagehat at 2:50 PM on May 4, 2012

Sorry for the confusion! My claim (a pretty weak one) is that Soviet "animated folklore" is tied up with Soviet ideology and went on to form part of the bedrock of Soviet and post-Soviet popular culture.

I am not claiming that Russian and Slavic folklore is uniquely Soviet, although I suspect that "quite a few centuries" overstates the point.

More to the point: Bilibin previously. Doesn't look like there's been an FPP about either of the Vasnetsov brothers, who are rather important painters from the school of Russian Romanticism.
posted by Nomyte at 3:01 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thank you so much for this! I have no Russian whatsoever, but I've been a lifelong fan of animation, and the amount of amazing stuff from behind what used to be the Iron Curtain is still a surprise to me.

Previously: "Wow, a talking fish!"
posted by Countess Elena at 4:45 PM on May 4, 2012

I liked the 'struggles' picture, because the bones on the right made me think: mastodon.

Anyway ... those who like the lush orchestration should check out Gliere's Third Symphony Илья́ Му́ромец. 90 minutes of action-packed thrills with all the robust virtues you mention above. Here's a review of the few available recordings.

(I was lucky to hear a rare live performance once. Oi! John Williams only wishes he could conjure drama.)
posted by Twang at 6:51 PM on May 4, 2012

Wow, Nomyte. My four year old heartily thanks you. I do to, while the computer remains available.
posted by c13 at 6:53 PM on May 4, 2012

Great post, animation was an interest of mine whilst at university, and I felt it was a crying shame the pioneering Russians never really got the due they deserved, and attention instead was focussed on your Disneys and Tex Averys etc. Soviet animation is a genre unto itself, and I would argue if not tremendously influential (though I would argue that, ha!), at least as important as a pillar of early animation development, with its own language, structures etc.

I think the situation has slowly been resolving itself over the last twenty years or so, but I still think it's a travesty that people can think of themselves as well-versed in animation with little to no knowledge of the Soviet animations.
posted by smoke at 7:48 PM on May 4, 2012

Like you, I'd hesitate to say that Soviet animation wasn't influential. Quite a few films went to festivals and took prizes. I've recommended Masters of Russian Animation before, although it mainly showcases very individual pieces, rather than the kind of studio work this FPP introduces. And although the impact of Soviet animation on big studio films in the US may be difficult to discern, it's much easier to trace influences in the body of animated films from Western Europe and East Asia.

I am not a student of animation in any way, really. I'm sure the story of Soviet animation, the environment wherein it was produced and screened, and the places it occupied in the broader world of international animation is rich and fascinating. Sometimes the extraordinary success of animation in cinema itself seems remarkable.
posted by Nomyte at 8:46 PM on May 4, 2012

Bliss! An extraordinarily generous and wonderful post! Thank you, Nomyte, for these treasures, so beautifully and thoughtfully set out for enjoyment.
posted by nickyskye at 9:05 PM on May 4, 2012

My two cents = Best of the Web? Yes! So, thank you for this post and thank you for all this good content.
posted by J0 at 10:47 PM on May 4, 2012

Wonderful post. As a child growing up in Cuba in the 80's this brings a lot of memories. I have to say though, that most of the cartoons that we saw from the Soviet Union were of lower quality.
posted by alasdefuego at 2:10 PM on May 6, 2012

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