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Animated Soviet Propaganda (4-part series) cover image

Animated Soviet Propaganda (4-part series) 2006

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Films Media Group, PO Box 2053, Princeton, New Jersey 08543-2053; 800-257-5126
Produced by Films by Jove
Various directors
DVD, color and b&w, 106 min., 140 min., 121 min., 152 min.

College - Adult
European Studies, History, Russia, Animation, Film Studies

Date Entered: 04/27/2009

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

This collection of Soviet animated propaganda films provides a wealth of material for teachers of modern Russian history, Cold War history, and film studies. The collection contains four discs, each with anywhere from seven to 14 Soviet-era animated films. The films are grouped thematically into four separate discs. The first disc, entitled American Imperialists: Soviet Animation vs. the United States, presents the standard Soviet clichés and stereotypes about capitalist culture and civilization (some outlandish and some not so far from the truth).

The second disc—perhaps the most compelling of the four—is entitled Fascist Barbarians: Soviet Animation vs. Nazi Tyranny. The films represent Nazis as jackals, wolves, dogs, pigs, and monkeys—a menagerie of dehumanizing imagery. While trading in crude stereotypes, the films also convey the intense suffering and loss experienced by the Soviet people during the war. Watching these films, viewers can begin to appreciate the deep psychological and physical scars which fueled (and continue to fuel) Russia’s sense of insecurity relative to the outside world. One of the most moving films on this disc recounts the story of a young Pioneer (the Soviet equivalent of a boy scout) who learns to play a violin. When the Nazis invade, a disgusting and obese Nazi tank commander forces the boy to play a German tune on the violin. The boy, after being humiliated and abused by the Nazi, defiantly plays the Soviet national anthem. The Nazi tank commander aims the tank’s gun at the boy and obliterates him. At the end of the film, the boy’s dead body in the field gives way to a meadow of flowers—and to images of future pioneer violin players after the war honoring the martyr’s heroic act. This reviewer’s class of Soviet history students sat in stunned silence when the film ended. The third disc (Capitalist Sharks: Soviet Animation vs. Greed and Ambition) covers some of the same terrain as the first—presenting examples of capitalist stereotypes from the earliest Soviet animation films of the 1920s. These films illustrate a remarkable continuity of stereotypical images of capitalists (especially the old standby of fat cats in top hats) from the very earliest years of the Bolshevik Revolution to the very end of the Soviet Union. Interestingly, unlike the images of Nazis, the images of Americans seem to retain something of their human form and look—an indication, perhaps, of a critical distinction made by Soviets between the irredeemably evil Nazi enemy and the American enemy.

The fourth disc is entitled Onward to the Shining Future: Animation and the Big Soviet Lie. This disc features Soviet propaganda films about the glorious future—as compared to the horrible capitalist past—supposedly awaiting them. The last of the films on this disc was produced in 1984 on the verge of Gorbachev’s perestroika and of the collapse of the entire Soviet experiment.

Each disc comes with an overview of the disc’s content and commentary from Russian films experts, Russian cultural historians, and surviving Soviet animators, including the lucid, 101-year old Boris Afimov, the Walt Disney of Soviet animation. Efimov (who died shortly after the interview) remarked that he had little problem producing party-ordered propaganda. Like other animators and producers interviewed in this collection, he approached his assignments passionately and sincerely. Even when he disagreed with the script, especially in the Stalin years, he said he had a responsibility to his wife and children to keep his mouth shut and do his job—lest he be shot for refusing to animate and leave them hungry and fatherless. Afimov’s candor about his motivations suggests the powerful mix of terror, belief, and enthusiasm that inspired many of the films in the collection. The commentators—all of whom grew up either making the films as adults or watching them as impressionable children—bear witness to the role of animation in shaping the worldview of generations of Soviet citizens.

The films range in length from a few minutes to 20 minutes and originate in nearly every major period of Soviet history. The short length and compelling imagery of the films make them ideal for use in the classroom. The films also provide a fascinating history of animation and political propaganda for students of film and animation. Creators of the films discuss their influences (including Walt Disney, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and American comic books) as well as the various ingenious ways they overcame technological and material deficits to create their films.