Last month, a new report dropped on Research and Markets about animation in Russia. In recent days we’ve also seen some activity and buzz surrounding the industry within the country, so it’s worth taking a closer look at how animation has evolved within Russia through the past up until today.
Russia’s history with animation dates back all the way to the Soviet Union. Perhaps their most prominent studio is Soyuzmultfilm, which can be translated into Union Cartoon. Soyuzmultfilm was founded in 1936 when the government merged all existing animation studios into a single entity. Over the next few decades the studio put out a range of great work. With over fifteen hundred credits it’d be impossible to list them all here, but some highlights are in order. In 1945 they released their first feature Propavshaya gramota or The Lost Letter, a tale about a messenger going to Hell to retrieve a letter stolen by demons. In 1957 they adapted Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen as well, a film that Hayao Miyazaki claimed was inspiration for him to continue pursuing his own career in animation.
Soyuzmultfilm also produced propaganda shorts, such as the 1963 “Millioner” or "The Millionaire” which depicts a bulldog inheriting a fortune and, over the course of the piece, mocking the lifestyle of the American wealthy. Perhaps their most notable work though was Skazka skazok or Tale of Tales, released in 1979 and has since been often referred to as the greatest animated film of all time. The half-hour short is structured in a stream-of-consciousness style, with fairy tale elements and themes of war and loss.
Unfortunately, the studio fell on hard times following the breakup of the Soviet Union. One of its buildings was reclaimed by the Russian Orthodox Church and raided by Cossacks. Many of its assets were sold off as they adjusted, rather harshly, to a new market economy. In 1999 the government stepped again, and Soyuzmultfilm was once again made a state company.
With the new mixed economy though, Soyuzmultfilm found that they had new domestic competition. Nowadays there are several animation studios on the rise in Russia. One of the biggest animated brands in the country since the early to mid-00s has been Smeshariki, known internationally as Kikoriki. The bright and simple characters first appeared in 2004 and in each 6-7 minute episode go on various misadventures. Produced by Ilya Popov, they’ve since seen multiple film adaptations, educational spin-offs, a pre-school version titled Babyriki, and merchandise deals. According to the Research and Markets report, they are the second biggest animated brand in Russia even fifteen years later, just beating out Winnie-the-Pooh and only topped by Disney Princesses.
Perhaps the best-known Russian cartoon internationally is the series Masha i Medved, or Masha and the Bear. Created by Oleg Kuzovkov and produced by Animaccord, a private studio, Masha has been broadcast in over a hundred countries according to the Dhaka Tribune. It’s been a big hit on both YouTube and Netflix, and has even been licensed into an “On Ice” live show through Eastern Europe. The success of Masha and the Bear has since prompted the Russian government to invest more into animation. Now, state-owned Parovoz, creator of Fantasy Patrol (Skazochny patrul), has several more Netflix contracts lined up to provide new content.
However, there are also concerns both domestic and international. Internationally, there is some disquiet about the Russian government funding cultural projects that might seek to push a certain worldview. The Dhaka Tribune reports that Anton Smetankin, chief executive of Parovoz, has admitted that the government is looking for what he terms “soft power” and wants to use these productions as a form of cultural diplomacy. This ties into the domestic concerns; the government clearly wants these projects to succeed. And with success being at the forefront of their mind, risk has to take a backseat. The result is that there’s more emphasis on projects that can sell well, rather than more artistic but also more risky ventures.
The animation field in Russia is very different today than it was eighty years ago. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is their ability to create work that leaves a strong cultural impact. The domestic industry has gone from the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation and kept on rolling.
Eric Miller Animation Studios is dedicated to crafting heartfelt stories and compelling visuals through 3D computer graphics, offering design and VFX for advertising, gaming, TV & film production. We work with the best animation talent in the industry to deliver visually stunning imagery. Big or small, we can bring any character or story to life.