The Beautiful, Innovative & Sometimes Dark World of Animated Soviet Propaganda (1925–1984)

Grow­ing up, we assem­bled our world­view from sev­er­al dif­fer­ent sources: par­ents, sib­lings, class­mates. But for most of us, wher­ev­er and when­ev­er we passed our for­ma­tive years, noth­ing shaped our ear­ly per­cep­tions of life as vivid­ly, and as thor­ough­ly, as car­toons — and this is just as Lenin knew it would be. “With the estab­lish­ment of the Sovi­et Union in 1922,” writes New York Times film crit­ic Dave Kehr, “Lenin pro­claimed the cin­e­ma the most impor­tant of all the arts, pre­sum­ably for its abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate direct­ly with the oppressed and wide­ly illit­er­ate mass­es.”

Lenin cer­tain­ly did­n’t exclude ani­ma­tion, which assumed its role in the Sovi­et pro­pa­gan­da machine right away: Sovi­et Toys, the first U.S.S.R.-made car­toon, pre­miered just two years lat­er. It was direct­ed by Dzi­ga Ver­tov, the inno­v­a­tive film­mak­er best known for 1929’s A Man with a Movie Cam­era, a thrilling artic­u­la­tion of the artis­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties of doc­u­men­tary. Ver­tov stands as per­haps the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive fig­ure of Sovi­et cin­e­ma’s ear­ly years, in which tight polit­i­cal con­fines nev­er­the­less per­mit­ted a free­dom of  artis­tic exper­i­men­ta­tion lim­it­ed only by the film­mak­er’s skill and imag­i­na­tion.

This changed with the times: the 1940s saw the ele­va­tion of skilled but West-imi­ta­tive ani­ma­tors like Ivan Ivanov-Vano, whom Kehr calls the “Sovi­et Dis­ney.” That label is suit­able enough, since an Ivanov-Vano short like Some­one Else’s Voice from 1949 “could eas­i­ly pass for a Dis­ney ‘Sil­ly Sym­pho­ny,’ ” if not for its un-Dis­ney­like “threat­en­ing under­tone.” (Not that Dis­ney could­n’t get dark­ly pro­pa­gan­dis­tic them­selves.)

With its mag­pie who “returns from a flight abroad and dares to war­ble some of the jazz music she has heard on her trav­els” only to have “the hearty peas­ant birds of the for­est swoop down and rip her feath­ers out,” Some­one Else’s Voice tells a more alle­gor­i­cal sto­ry than those in most of the shorts gath­ered in this Sovi­et pro­pa­gan­da ani­ma­tion playlist.

The playlist’s selec­tions come from the col­lec­tion Ani­mat­ed Sovi­et Pro­pa­gan­da: From the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion to Per­e­stroi­ka; “work­ers are strong-chinned, noble, and gener­ic,” writes the A.V. Club’s Tasha Robin­son. “Cap­i­tal­ists are fat, pig­gish cig­ar-chom­pers, and for­eign­ers are ugly car­i­ca­tures sim­i­lar to those seen in Amer­i­can World War II pro­pa­gan­da.” With their strong “anti-Amer­i­can, anti-Ger­man, anti-British, anti-Japan­ese, anti-Cap­i­tal­ist, anti-Impe­ri­al­ist, and pro-Com­mu­nist slant,” as Kehr puts it, they would require an impres­sion­able audi­ence indeed to do any con­vinc­ing out­side Sovi­et ter­ri­to­ry. But they send an unmis­tak­able mes­sage to view­ers back in the U.S.S.R.: you don’t know how lucky you are.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Dzi­ga Vertov’s Unset­tling Sovi­et Toys: The First Sovi­et Ani­mat­ed Movie Ever (1924)

Watch Inter­plan­e­tary Rev­o­lu­tion (1924): The Most Bizarre Sovi­et Ani­mat­ed Pro­pa­gan­da Film You’ll Ever See

Watch the Sur­re­al­ist Glass Har­mon­i­ca, the Only Ani­mat­ed Film Ever Banned by Sovi­et Cen­sors (1968)

When Sovi­et Artists Turned Tex­tiles (Scarves, Table­cloths & Cur­tains) into Beau­ti­ful Pro­pa­gan­da in the 1920s & 1930s

Ani­mat­ed Films Made Dur­ing the Cold War Explain Why Amer­i­ca is Excep­tion­al­ly Excep­tion­al

The Red Men­ace: A Strik­ing Gallery of Anti-Com­mu­nist Posters, Ads, Com­ic Books, Mag­a­zines & Films

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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