Old Brew


Animated Soviet Propaganda

The fourth in a series of holiday gift-giving suggestions from your pals at Cartoon Brew.

If you pick up one dvd of foreign animation this holiday season, make it the ANIMATED SOVIET PROPAGANDA four-dvd box set from Films by Jove. I’ve been working my way through the set for the past week and every disc is packed with unbelievable material that I’d never seen before. The films, created between the mid-1920s through the mid-1980s, are separated into four categories:

Disc 1: American Imperialists
Disc 2: Fascist Barbarians
Disc 3: Capitalist Sharks
Disc 4: Shining Future

As can be expected from the disc titles, the films are shamelessly propagandistic, taking aim at everybody from the Americans and the British to the Germans and Fascist ideology. The films have an endearingly kitsch quality at first, but after a few hours of watching this stuff, the material begins to take on a more depressing tone, and one begins to feel sorry for the Russian people who were fed this manipulative garbage for decade after decade.

What’s really fascinating about these films, however, is how much creative effort the Russian animators put into the visuals. They clearly believed in the messages of the films, and though they had little control over what they were saying, they could exercise their imagination with how they presented the same tired slogans. There’s a spirit of experimentation from the earliest films on the disc. For example, SAMOYED BOY (1928) uses regional art styles of northern Russian peoples and BLACK AND WHITE (1933) is graphically mature in a way that few cartoons in the US were in the early-30s.

The Russians weren’t tied down by the demands of creating entertainment cartoons with recurring characters; their assignment was to get across a particular message, and as such, they focused more on the filmmaking aspects than on character and personality development. Though in some of the later films, like SOMEONE ELSE’S VOICE (1949) and THE ADVENTURES OF THE YOUNG PIONEERS (1971), they also exhibit a solid grasp of traditional character animation principles.

If you’re looking for visual inspiration, there’s enough graphic ideas scattered throughout these dvds to keep you busy for a long time. A few of the visual highlights for me: INTERPLANETARY REVOLUTION (1924) is animation at its most Constructivist with photo montage and strong graphic design; the heavy use of black shadows in THE PIONEER’S VIOLIN (1971) gives Mike Mignola a run for the money; THE SHAREHOLDER (1963) is a 23-minute powerhouse of beautifully animated, elegantly staged characters that evoke high-style magazine illustration; and SHOOTING RANGE (1979) uses colorful, gritty ’70s style graphics that somehow still feel fresh today.

With politically-oriented films such as these, providing context is imperative to understanding the works and each disc is supported by a half-hour documentary. The documentaries are appreciated, but I thought they could have been even more helpful to a layperson like myself who isn’t well versed in Russian history. There were snippets of interviews with some of the filmmakers, but I would have liked to have seen longer versions of these interviews instead of extended clips of films that were already on the dvd set (though the clips that had narrative explanation added were very useful). Also, I’d be curious to find out just how much of this propaganda was seen by the average Russian compared to other forms of animation; non-propaganda characters like Cheburashka and Fyodor Khitruk’s version of Winnie the Pooh were also popular among Russian kids so they obviously were exposed to other types of animation. But this is all nitpicking. The dvd set, produced by Joan Borsten, is a must-have for any fan of foreign animation; it’s not only an incredible survey of Russian propaganda animation, but also of the development of the animation art in Russia.

The set is $89 at the Films by Jove store. The website also has a set of notes about the films and offers for viewing a part of the documentary included on the dvd.

Below are some of the inspiring visuals that you can find on the set:

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Soviet propaganda cartoon