Watching the late 1960s Soviet animated series starring Cheburashka, “a beast of unknown origins,” was an important marker of childhood in the last decades of communist power. Ask any person who grew up in the Eastern bloc about “the Soviet Mickey Mouse” and they will likely break out in song in Cheburashka’s cloyingly naïve voice: “I was once a strange no-name toy, whom no one wanted in the store and now I’m Cheburashka…” The series, an adaptation of writer Edouard Uspenskii’s children’s tales, enjoyed the still novel experience of national television syndication coinciding with the opening of children’s television in the 1960s. As the series achieved national icon status, the episodes were adapted for media as diverse as broadcast radio and the theatrical stage. Children memorized and recited the songs in choruses during school assemblies and for events of the communist youth organization known as the Pioneers.
I recall the larger-than-life role that the series occupied in my childhood. When we immigrated to the United States in 1979, we took our filmstrip projector and a handful of cartoon strips with us, including the first Cheburashka episode. In time, Cheburashka was extolled in the Soviet world for his moral superiority over American film icons such as Mickey Mouse and the roaring lion of MGM’s studio emblem. Cheburashka’s popularity held steadfast after the dissolution of the Soviet Union; rock bands, nightclubs, humanitarian organizations adopted Cheburashka for their logos, and Cheburashka served as Russia’s national mascot for three different Olympic Games. More recently, Japan brought Cheburashka to the top of all adorable things with an animated version of the original and a number of spin-off series.
Less well known, even among those who grew up with these cartoons on something of a perpetual loop, is that the series’ creative team was made up almost entirely of Yiddish-speaking Jews who had lost their families and homes in the genocidal campaigns during WWII. The director Roman Kachanov typifies the classic refugee background of many of the Jewish men that he drew into the project. Kachanov was born in a poor Jewish neighborhood in the city of Smolensk and pursued boxing in the cultural atmosphere of Smolensk’s Labor Zionist Movement before his father and sister were murdered point-blank at an execution site near Smolensk as Jews. Cheburashka’s puppet designer, Lev Shvartsman, raised in the Zionist youth culture of Minsk, changed his name to “Israel” after the 1967 War despite official hostility toward the Jewish state. Kachanov recruited Teodor Bunimovich, a photojournalist who recorded many frontline documentaries of Nazi atrocities in Belarus, as his cameraman. The series’ operator Iosif Golomb not only spoke fluent Yiddish but his father was an avid collector of Hasidic music and contributed much to the Yiddish musical lexicon. To what degree the film crews’ status as Jews affected the trajectories of their artistic careers is largely a matter of speculation, but it stands to reason that the myriad rejections that they characterized Cheburashka as enduring as a consequence of his “unknown origins” resonated on a personal level.
Jewish artistic works from the Soviet Union are typically thought of as “underground,” and made their way to the West via smugglers and defectors. Yet, as this animated series demonstrates, despite systematic anti-Semitism and narrow dogmatism, a lively and active Jewish culture developed in the centralized animation studio Soyuzmultfilm—the largest animation studio in all of Eastern Europe—right in the middle of Moscow. The embedding of Jewish material into the series by its Jewish creators calls into question the narrative that Jewish self-expression was wholly suppressed in Soviet popular culture.
Cheburashka’s mysterious origins provide one of the central intrigues of the series, and Cheburashka’s embodiment of the Soviet Jewish type is primarily an issue of emplacement. The first episode opens with a fruit vendor opening up a crate of oranges and finding an adorable cross between a brown bear and an imported orange. Looking at the strange creature, the grocer reads the crate packaging in exaggerated English, “Oh-ran-jes!”
Not coincidently, Israel was the main source of orange imports to the Soviet Union. More to the point, Jaffa oranges were the signature export of the Jewish state. Indeed, Jaffa oranges were the only product that the Soviet Union imported from Israel and were the source of both national pride, representing productive Jewish labor in a country of their own, and anxiety for Soviet Jews, as the ultimate symbol of Zionism. Herman Branover recalls in his émigré memoir Return, “I remember in that winter of 1952-53 Jaffa oranges arrived at the food store where Uncle Naum worked. He said that the store employees labored deep into the night, destroying the paper coverings in which the oranges had been wrapped.”
Cheburashka’s terribly confusing identity as part Russian bear and part tropical orange leaves him unable to find a place anywhere in Soviet life. The baffled greengrocer takes his strange charge to the likeliest institution that could find him a home: the city zoo. In lieu of his required “papers,” Cheburashka is delivered to the zoo with a piece of the orange crate’s packaging—a half-bear declaring an amorphous ethnicity of “orange.” This official declaration of “orange” for an ethnically ambiguous character would have struck a chord with folks whose internal passports listed their national identification as “Jew.” The guard returns with both the homeless Cheburashka and the foreign orange document and reports that the zoological experts rejected his entry on “scientific” grounds. “No, this will not pass,” says the zoo guard in reference to the unprecedented orange passport: “He cannot be classified in the current scientific system.”
After Cheburashka is rejected from the zoo, the greengrocer takes his ward to a shrewd storekeeper, who assigns Cheburashka the task of sitting in a store window pushing a spin-top to attract customers. Cheburashka again expresses enthusiasm to fulfill his social duty to work, but when he asks where he could live, the storekeeper points to a city telephone booth and says “Live? Hmm…well, this will be, as they say, your…” and with both hands making the A-OK gesture, “home.” Outside of making phone calls, public telephone booths were considered unsavory places to loiter, and associated with teenagers and alcoholics who used them for illicit or even illegal purposes. Cheburashka takes a long look at the telephone booth and acquiesces with a sardonic, “Umm..hmm.”
It is not just at the zoo or the store. Cheburashka cannot be classified anywhere in the Soviet system. When a Russian school girl named Galya innocently asks Cheburashka: “Who are you?” Cheburashka answers in characteristic fashion, “I … I don’t know.” Galya ventures, “Are you by any chance a little bear?” Galya’s hopeful suggestion coaxes Cheburashka to identify with Russianness, at least on a symbolic level, as the bear is a widespread symbol for Russia. The drama of the moment is stretched out as Cheburashka looks hopefully up at Galya but then his ears slowly droop and he quietly repeats, “Maybe … I don’t know.”
The resourceful Crocodile Gena jumps in to help with Cheburashka’s ambiguous identity. Crocodile Gena attempts to look Cheburashka up in a thick dictionary, reading aloud: “Chai? Chemodan? Cheburaki? Cheboksary?” (Tea? Suitcase? Dumplings? [City of] Cheboksary?). Where Crocodile Gena may have found the entry for “Cheburashka” in the dictionary, he instead finds Slavic ethnic foods and local Russian place names along with the discordant term “suitcase,” a loaded symbol that throws doubt on Cheburashka’s national loyalties by signaling the theme of immigration.
The exclusion of “Cheburashka” and the inclusion of “suitcase” in the Russian dictionary is fraught with meaning. Once again undefinable, Cheburashka is a scientific oddity who has no place in the zoo and no place in the Russian language. Sadly, Cheburashka’s ears droop and he makes the only reasonable conclusion: “So it means you will not be my friends.”
Throughout the series, there is a great deal of emphasis on the amorphous social codes that restrict Cheburashka’s desire to live and work “as himself.” Cheburashka’s status as a homeless outcast is most palpable in relationship to the character of Crocodile Gena who “works” at the zoo from which Cheburashka has so recently been barred. In a later episode, Cheburashka expresses the hope that after he learns to read Russian and graduates from school, he will be able to work at the zoo with his friend Crocodile Gena. The wizened Crocodile Gena shakes his head: “No, Cheburashka, not for anything. It is not permitted for you to work with us.” When Cheburashka innocently asks for further explanation, Crocodile Gena cryptically responds, “Nu, why ‘why’? They’ll eat you up.”
Crocodile Gena works in a park-like enclosure, complete with a pond and a tree, based on the Moscow Zoo, which replaced the use of cages in the 1920s with more picturesque enclosures such as “Goat Hill” and “Animal’s Island.” In setting Cheburashka’s rejection at the site of the historic Moscow Zoo, where animals were famously trained to live together in peace as a demonstration of the superiority of collective socialization, Kachanov and Shvartsman developed a cynical version of the experiment. Cheburashka’s official rejection from the zoo implies that despite the supposed socialist openness to genetic diversity, some “tropical” characters were simply not allowed to cross its threshold.
It was Crocodile Gena’s all-too-simple job in the zoo that drew the Jewish director Roman Kachanov to the project: “Can you imagine?” Kachanov repeated on numerous occasions at the studio, “a crocodile who works at the zoo as a crocodile!” Unlike the rootless Cheburashka, the 50-year-old crocodile was born in the early years of the Revolution and holds the honorific “Crocodile” before his name—parallel to the title “Comrade” given to people at their places of employment.
Crocodile Gena is an Old Bolshevik who walks around with a pipe dangling from his mouth in Stalin chic—but at the end of the day, when Crocodile Gena is free to leave the zoo, he sits at home all alone with nothing to show for all of his compromises. Dispirited with his own lot, Crocodile Gena carefully composes an advertisement in longhand with a request for friends, which he posts all over town. This advertisement serves to connect Crocodile Gena with Cheburashka. Rushing across town to answer the advertisement, Cheburashka meets a schoolgirl named Galya, who also saw the ad and came to Crocodile Gena’s apartment.
Indeed, perhaps the most resonant part of the series was Crocodile Gena’s strategy to find friends and their collective strategies to organize as a group. After all, Cheburashka meets his friends and forms a small community through personal advertisements written and copied by hand in the privacy of Crocodile Gena’s home, word of mouth, apartment meetings, and grassroots organizations, which mirrored the way that Jews organized themselves and created communities beginning in the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Galya meets Tobik “on the street” outside of a yellow building with a neo-classical façade that echoes the Moscow Choral Synagogue with its yellow color and neo-classical façade. The street outside the Moscow Choral Synagogue was in fact a meeting place for Jews, and some scholars even cite the spontaneous demonstrations held outside the synagogue during Golda Meir’s October 1948 visit as the impetus for the first repressive policies towards Jewish national consciousness. Moscow’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Shleifer maintained a learning program in the corner of the Choral Synagogue throughout the Khrushchev years, but those who sought to connect with organized Jewish culture were better served by informal operations on the street and in people’s homes.
Among the riffraff that answer the advertisement is the long-haired intellectual lion Lev Chander, the most “Jewish” character outside the complex character of Cheburashka. It is easy to detect a resemblance between the lion character and popular Soviet images of Sholem Aleichem with his facial features, swept back hairstyle, and penchant for formal dress. Director Kachanov and Shvartsman, who were both fluent in Yiddish, named the lion “Leib Chander,” a non-Slavic name with a distinctly Yiddish-sounding cadence that would translate as “Lion’s Shame” (or, the great shame). The lion’s Jewish character is reinforced when Leib Chander gives a slight bow and makes his introduction to the accompaniment of a slow and melancholic violin melody. As Tobik (the Good One) and Leib Chander (the Great Shame) walk off together into the romantically dimming light, Crocodile Gena observes in the grave voice of a philosopher: “Do you know how many people who live in our town are lonely like Tobik and Chander? And, no one sympathizes with them when they are sad.”
The studio’s in-house editing body called the Artistic Council immediately flagged the film’s strange social undertones. Why, asked members of the Council, is it necessary for Crocodile Gena and ‘an unknown beast to science’ to answer the question of national belonging? Both the Artistic Council and the Ministry of Cinematography, known as Goskino, questioned Cheburashka’s uber-Pioneer activism in light of his status as a persona non grata, a disenfranchised foreigner, and especially in light of his individualistic methods of building a community center and organizing support without official orders or any documentation. One Goskino editor disparagingly referred to Crocodile Gena and his friends as “house friends.” Veteran animator Ivan Ivanov-Vano questioned the grave seriousness of the lion character and suggests that he might wear brighter colors to appeal more to young audiences. He also questioned the “luxury” of Crocodile Gena’s apartment and then, finally, poses the central question: “Why is it a House of Friendship?”
Ivanov-Vano astutely picked up on the ways that the film expressed a particular Jewish experience, as the Jewish creative team doubled semiotic systems in ways that enabled them to displace their own ethnic backgrounds on their puppets to express personally significant themes within the preexisting language of Soviet culture. Yet despite the apprehensions of the Artistic Council, the series was released nearly intact.
While the Jewish nationalist awareness of the series’ creators no doubt informed Cheburashka’s transnational character, Cheburashka is no Zionist, at least not in the American sense of the term. He certainly harbors no desire to leave the Soviet Union and return to his native land. Rather, his identification with oranges renders him out of place and communicates his questionable status. In delivering this line of thought with wide-eyed wonder, the film evokes sympathy for Cheburashka’s impossible position. As a strange creature who wants nothing more than to live a productive life, Cheburashka’s identification with oranges raises the absurdities that Soviet Jews faced in the late 1960s and beyond. Despite the conventional xenophobic treatment of foreigners in Soviet live-action cinema of the period, Kachanov and Shvartsman succeeded in making the illegal stowaway a sympathetic foreigner by virtue of the absurd constellation of rules governing his status. If the Cheburashka series has gone down in history as the most quintessential example of Soviet children’s media, it was the product of a Jewish team that drew upon their personal experiences of life as members of a species of unknown origins.
Maya Balakirsky Katz, associate professor of Jewish art at Bar-Ilan University, is the author of, most recently, Drawing the Iron Curtain: Jews and the Golden Age of Soviet Animation.