I don’t have a TV (and still don’t speak much Russian) so keeping up with Russian pop culture is difficult. I know there is a popular band called Leningrad, I’ve heard about a few famous actors and films (and even a clown). They have a version of Big Brother called “Dom” (House). But working with young children on a regular basis means it is a little easier to learn about cartoons for children, especially the ones that keep popping up in the materials I use.
Here are some examples of the main characters I have come to know.
Masha and the Bear
This is the story of a little girl who is friends with a bear, who keeps saving her from disasters. It is based on a folk story and the cartoon started in 2009. It is hugely successful, I understand it is very popular outside Russia and may even have infiltrated some English-speaking countries. The most viewed video on Youtube that is not a music video is (according to Wikipedia) an episode of Masha and the Bear.
Masha is a diminunitive form of Maria, but rather than translating it as Mary and the Bear, it seems the English versions have stuck with Masha. Masha and the Bear merchandising is ubiquitous in Russian shops. When I went to the circus I saw Masha balloons.
Cheburashka is an “animal unknown to science” that looks a little like a cross between a monkey and a bear. He is friends with Crocodile Gyena. They first met after Cheburashka was found in a crate of oranges delivered to Gyena’s town. The name means “tumbled” and in some English translations the character is known as “Topple.” He is outstandingly cute. He first appeared in a story written in 1962 but became famous with the series of stop-motion films beginning in 1969.
Soft Cheburashka toys are still popular; I see them often in shop windows, and although he has appeared in new cartoons recently, the original stop-motion film is very fondly remembered by both older and younger Russians.
Nu Pogodi (or “Just You Wait”) is the Russian equivalent of Bugs Bunny or Road Runner. Here the protagonist is a hare and the antagonist is the lazy, sociopathic wolf that is continually trying to catch him. The cartoon began in 1969 and continued until 2006. Unlike the American cartoons, the more popular character is the wolf, who frequently find his way into other popular culture media and internet memes. He seems to reflect a common stereotypical perception of Russian men. Every episode ends with the wolf’s plan being foiled at which he says the eponymous phrase “Just you wait!”
Winnie the Pooh
You think you know Winnie the Pooh? Think again. At around the same time as Disney were adapting the stories of AA Milne into the friendly yellow bear in the red shirt, Soviet animators were making their own version of the stories. Here Pooh is a lot rounder, fatter, and drawn with less detail, and strange panda-like eyes. He is still joined by his friends Piglet, Eeyore and Owl, but there is no Christopher Robin in these stories (possibly to create a more egalitarian relationship between all the characters).
For a Western visitor, encountering this version of Winnie the Pooh can be confusing and disorientating. The Disney version is known here but many Russians are more invested in and attached to their home-grown “Vinni-Pukh”
Fiksiki are small anti-Gremlin characters that help to keep electronic equipment working. They feature in their own educational cartoons which are distributed internationally as “The Fixies.” I don’t know if they are really all that popular as characters, but one song from their show called Pomogator (“Help/Aid”) has become viral and is a must-play at any children’s disco – which is where I first heard it at Summer Camp. In the song they fix a television, a refrigerator, a coffee-machine, an electric fan, and other things.
You can see the song in the cartoon here, and watch the dance here!
Like Cheburashka, Uncle Fedya started life as a story by the author Eduard Uspensky and was later made into a popular and much-loved animation, this one called “The Three from Prostokvashino.” Uncle Fedya (Fyodor – a version of Theodore) is actually a young boy who earns the title “uncle” because he is always so serious and mature. He runs away from his parents because they do not want him to keep a talking cat he found (Matroskin) and they both end up living with a talking dog called Sharik. They make friends with the local postman, Petchkin.
Everyone in Russia knows these characters, which I occasionally find in my teaching materials. The three animated films were released between 1978 and 1984 but they have stood the test of time and are still popular and well known.