History of Russian animation  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The history of Russian animation is a very rich, but so far nearly unexplored field for Western film theory and history. As most of Russia's production of animation for cinema and television was created during Soviet times, it may also be referred to as the History of Soviet animation.



The first animator in Russia was Ladislas Starevich, who was of Polish descent and is therefore also known by the name of Wladyslaw Starewicz. Being a trained biologist, he started to make animation with embalmed insects for educational purposes, but soon realized the possibilities of his medium to become one of the undisputed masters of stop motion later in his life. His first few films, made in 1910, were dark comedies on the family lives of cockroaches, and were so revolutionary that they earned Starevich a decoration from the Tsar. Starevich's 41-minute 1913 film The Night Before Christmas was the first example of the use of stop motion and live action in the same scene.

After Starevich's emigration following the October Revolution, animation in Russia came to a standstill for years. Only by the mid-to-late-1920s could Soviet authorities be convinced to finance experimental studios. These were typically part of a bigger film studio and were in the beginning most often used to produce short animated clips for propaganda purposes.

In doing so, these early pioneers could experiment with their equipment as well as with their aesthetics. Creators like Ivan Ivanov-Vano, Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy or Nikolay Khodatayev made their debut films in a very fresh and interesting way, aesthetically very different from American animators. As Ivanov-Vano recalls in his mémoires, Kadr za Kadrom (Frame by Frame), this was partly because of the general atmosphere the Russian avantgarde created around them and partly because they were able to experiment in small groups of enthusiasts.

Important films of this era include Ivanov-Vano's On the skating rink (1927), Tsekhanovskiy's Post (1929) and Khodataev's The barrel organ (1934).

Another remarkable figure of the time is Aleksandr Ptushko. He was a trained architect, but earlier in his life had worked in mechanical engineering. In this field, he is known for the invention of an adding machine that was in use in the Soviet Union until the 1970s (an example of it can be seen in Fyodor Khitruks first film as a director, History of A Crime of 1962). When he joined the puppet animation unit of Mosfilm, he found an ideal environment to live out his mechanical ambitions as well as his artistic ones, and became internationally renowned with the Soviet Union's first feature-length animated film, The New Gulliver (1935). This film mixes puppet animation and live acting. It rewrites Jonathan Swift's novel to become more communist, but does so with a didactic verbosity that makes it sometimes hard to bear. It nevertheless is a masterpiece of animation, featuring amazing mass scenes with hundreds of extras, very expressive mimics in close-ups, and innovative, very flexible camera work combined with excellent scenography. Ptushko became the first director of the newly founded Soyuzdetmultfilm-Studio, but soon after left to devote himself to live-action cinema. Still, even in his feature films he showed a liking for stop-motion special effects, e.g. in Ilya Muromets (1956).

Socialist Realism

In 1934, Walt Disney sent a film reel with some shorts of Mickey Mouse to the Moscow Film Festival. Fyodor Khitruk, then only an animator, recalls his impressions of that screening in an interview in Otto Alder's film The Spirit of Genius. He was absolutely overwhelmed by the liquidity of the films' images and enthusiastic about the new possibilities for animation that Disney's ways seemed to offer.

Higher officials shared this impression, too, and in 1935, the Soyuzdetmultfilm-Studio was created from the small and relatively independent trickfilm units of Mosfilm, Sovkino and Mezhrabpromfilm in order to focus on the creation of Disney-style animation, exclusively using cel technique.

Already since 1932, when a congress of Soviet writers had proclaimed the necessity of Socialist realism, the influence of Futurism and the Russian avant-garde on animation had dwindled. Now, esthetic experiments were shoved off the agenda, and for over twenty years, Soyuzmultfilm, as the studio was called from 1936 onwards, worked in a taylorised way, using cel technique and division of labour. It became the leading animation studio in the Soviet union, producing an ever-growing number of children's and educational animation shorts and features, but the experimental spirit of the founding years was lost.

One of the most alarming examples of the transformation that not only the studios underwent, but also the artists were succumbed to, is Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy. The Leningrad-born artist made a name for himself in book illustration and graphics. He found animation to be an ideal medium to transfer his style to and develop his artistic vision further. He became internationally renowned by his film Post, shot in 1929 and earning him a number of prizes at international film festivals. With the establishment of Socialist realism, he had to abandon his innovative and highly convincing style for the then general practice that in Russia has come to be known as "Éclair": The filming of live action, followed by a frame-by-frame projection that had to serve the animators as their only source for the realization of movement (in the West, this is known as rotoscoping). A striking example is the following comparison of two screenshots, taken from two of his films. The left one is taken from the unfinished 1934 film The Tale of the Priest and His Servant Balda; the right one from The Tale of Fisherman and Fish of 1950, both based on poems written by Aleksandr Pushkin. The differences in visual decisions are clearly visible and characteristic for the transformation not only Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy, but Soviet animation as a whole had to go through during that time.

Many artists did not withstand these changes, though, and left the industry for other fields like painting or book illustrations. An example is the ingenious trio of Yuriy Merkulov, Zenon Kommissarenko and Nikolay Khodataev, who after finishing their last film The Barrel Organ (1934) stopped working in animation.

For two decades, the studio confined itself to sober and to an extent tedious adaptations of folk tales and communist myths. An exception might only be found in wartime propaganda spots, shot during evacuation in Samarkand 1941 - 1943, but their humour is arguably unintentional. Nevertheless, directors like the sisters Zinaida and Valentina Brumberg with films like Fedya Zaitsev (1948), Ivan Ivanov-Vano with 1954's Moydadyr (there is a first version from 1927, but it lacks the fluidity of the later version) or Lev Atamanov with The Snow Queen (1957, told after Hans Christian Andersen's tale) managed to create masterpieces of their genre that have been rewarded various prizes at festivals all over the world and have taken a lasting place in animation history.

From Khrushchev Thaw to Perestroika

When Khrushchev in 1956 proclaimed the end of the personality cult about Stalin, he started a process of political and cultural renewal in the country. Even though animators still needed a while to free themselves from the long tradition of "Éclair", from the 1960s onwards, animation films gain completely new qualities. The starting point for this was Fyodor Khitruk's film History of a Crime (1962). Not only had he changed the animation style to something that resembled what the UPA was doing, but for the first time since the avantgarde years, he was able to tackle a contemporary story.

Khitruk's revolutionary approach paved the way for a vast number of young animation directors that in the following years developed their own distinctive styles and approaches. One of the most political was Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, whose film The Glass Harmonica (1968) was severely cut by censors, but shelved nevertheless. Anatoly Petrov is known as the founder of the cinema journal Vesyolaya Karusel (The Happy Merry-Go-Round, since 1969) that gave an opportunity to many young directors to make their first own films. Among them were Leonid Nosyrev, Valery Ugarov, Eduard Nazarov, Ivan Ufimcev and others.

The 1970s saw the birth of the Soviet Union's most popular animation series, Nu, Pogodi! (Just you wait!), directed by Vyacheslav Kotyonochkin. These seemingly simple miniatures about a wolf chasing a hare through soviet-style cartoon worlds owe a great deal of their popularity to the cunning subtexts built into their parts.

During the Stalin period, puppet animation had come to a halt. Only in 1953 was a puppet division was refounded at Soyuzmultfilm. Its first head of department was Boris Degtyarev, under whose direction young animators tried to recover the knowledge that had been lost since the time of Aleksandr Ptushko. Among the most outstanding of these young artists were Vadim Kurchevskiy and Nikolay Serebryakov, who worked together for their first films, e.g. The Cloud in Love (1963). Even when they decided to separate and make their own films, their style was marked by an extensive aesthetic search for, as Bendazzi puts it, "the combination of realism and the baroque", most clearly to be seen in Not in the Hat is there Happiness (1968, by Serebrjakov) and especially in Kurchevskiy's masterpiece, The Master of Clamecy (1972, after Romain Rolland's novel Colas Breugnon). One generation later, Stanislav Sokolov started to make movies that brought the art of puppet animation to a new height. His approach, characterized by complex animation structures and multiple special effects can well be observed in The Big Underground Ball (1987, after Andersen) or Black and White Film (1985), which won a prize in Zagreb.

The most famous director of the time, and of Russian animation in general, is undoubtedly Yuriy Norshteyn. His films Little Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) and Tale of Tales (1979) show not only technical masterliness, but also an unrivaled magic beauty content-wise. Tale of Tales was elected best animation film of all time during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, and again in 2002.

Unfortunately, since the beginning of Perestroika, Norshteyn has not found a possibility to finish his last film, The Overcoat (clips: [1], [2]).

Other directors were more able to cope with the changes that this time brought; they even commented on it in their films. Garri Bardin's Little Red Ridinghood et le Wolf (1991) not only provoked by including a foreign language into the title, it also was full of allusions to the upcoming end of communism. Aleksandr Tatarskiy even managed to found his own studio (Pilot) in 1988, where he produced absurd films inspired by the Zagreb School. Yuriy Norshteyn and three other leading animators (Fyodor Khitruk, Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, and Eduard Nazarov) founded a school and studio in 1993 which exists to this day, called SHAR Studio.

Russian animation today

After the end of the Soviet Union, the situation for Russian animators changed dramatically. State subsidies diminished significantly on the one hand, and the number of studios competing for that amount of money rose a good deal on the other. Most of the studios during the 1990s lived on animation for advertisement and on doing commissioned works for big studios from America and elsewhere. Nevertheless, there were a few very successful international co-productions, e.g. Aleksandr Petrov's Oscar-winning The Old Man and the Sea (1999, from Ernest Hemingway's novel) or Stanislav Sokolov's The Winter's Tale (1999, from William Shakespeare's play) that earned the director an Emmy.

Soyuzmultfilm, the former juggernaut of Russian animation studios (at one time employing as many as 400 animators and other staff), was beset by corrupt administrators who sold off all the rights to all the films previously made by the studio without telling shareholders or employees. Notably, in the mid-1990s Sergei Skulyabin illegally took over the company and used hired thugs to keep the animators in line and the government officials from asserting legal authority. The legal director of Soyuzmultfilm kept a very low profile after having been beat up in an alley and forced to go to the hospital with injuries to the head, and during this period many documents were signed by Skulyabin illegally on behalf of Soyuzmultfilm.

Georgiy Borodin writes of this time, "artistic work at the studio became psychologically unbearable and impossible. No one had the guarantee that come morning, he would not find his cabinet broken open, and his working table - cleared. Similar cases became almost a regular occurrence during the years of occupation. Animators who worked in other studios refused to believe the tales about the working conditions at the stolen "Soyuzmultfilm". Imagine, for example: you - the manager of one of the sections of the studio - come to your work cabinet and see in there several unidentified youths, engaged in packing away several large boxes with studio puppets to send them to an undisclosed location "at the command of Skulyabin". And when you, along with the director of the Puppet Dpt. (who is, by the way, responsible for the keeping of these puppets) keep them from being stolen by hiding them in a studio room which is inaccessible to these men, you are officially charged with attempted robbery." ([3]) Skulyabin was eventually ousted and Soyuzmultfilm began a slow period of recovery.[4]

As Russia's economic situation became increasingly stable, so did the market for animation, and during the last three years a number of feature-length animation films from Russian studios have emerged (e.g. Melnitsa Animation Studio's Little Longnose, 2003, from Wilhelm Hauff's fairy tale, and Solnechny Dom Studio's 2006 Prince Vladimir, based on early history of Rus' - the highest-grossing Russian animated film to date). While the Russian animation community is yet far from reaching the splendor it possessed before the end of the Soviet Union, a significant recovery is being made and it is becoming more and more clear that the revived Russian animation industry will be very different from what it was in the late 1980s. According to Andrei Dobrunov, head of Solnechny Dom, several Russian studios are currently working on some ten animated feature films. [5]

Krakatuk, which will be released on August 23, 2007, will be Russia's first CG-animated feature film. [6] At the same time, Soyuzmultfilm has partnered up with Mikhail Shemyakin and is working on Gofmaniada, a puppet-animated feature film which is deliberately being made entirely without computers.

References to Russian animation

  • The American cartoon series The Simpsons once featured an animation short named Worker and Parasite, referred to as "Eastern Europe's favorite cat and mouse team" — a parody of an unspecified type of Eastern European animation, perhaps inspired by the films of Estonian Priit Pärn (who developed his style in the 1980s), the beloved but ideologically enhanced, wolf-and-hare, Soviet cartoon "Nu, pogodi!" (Just You Wait!) or Gene Deitch's work on Tom and Jerry. Though the cartoon's title screen claims that it is from 1959, its style is extremely different from anything being made in the Soviet Union in that era.


  • Bendazzi, Giannalberto. 1994. Cartoons. One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation. London/Bloomington: John Libbey/Indiana University Press.
  • Giesen, Rolf. 2003. Lexikon des Trick- und Animationsfilms. Berlin: Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf.
  • Leslie, Ester. 2002. Hollywood Flatlands. Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde. London, New York: Verso.
  • Pilling, Jayne (Ed.). 1997. A Reader in Animation Studies. London et al.: John Libbey.
  • Асенин, Сергей Владимирович. 1986. Мир мультфильма. Москва: Искусство.
  • Венжер, Наталья Яковлевна (Ed.). 1990. Сотворение фильма. Несколько интервью по служебным вопросам. Москва: Союз Кинематографистов СССР.
  • Иванов-Вано, Иван Петрович. 1978. Кадр за кадром, Москва: Искусство.
  • Орлов, Алексей Михайлович. 1995. Аниматограф и его анима: психогенные аспекты экранных технологий. Москва: Импето.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "History of Russian animation" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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