What Does Popular Culture Reveal About Russians' Feelings?

April 7, 2023
  • Mikhail Zygar

Mikhail Zygar argues that the unprecedented success of the film Cheburashka reveals how Russian viewers withdraw into a children’s fairy tail movie in order to avoid the war.

The 2023 Cheburashka film poster. Source: VK
Almost a year has passed since the start of Europe's worst war since World War II. During that year, Russian society has learned to pretend that nothing is happening, that there is no war.

One often heard that the main feature of Russian society was cynicism. But now infantilism is at the top of the list of “national” character traits. Russians prefer to deliberately lapse into childhood, close their eyes and forget about the reality. The clearest symbol of the current state of Russian society is the “Cheburashka, the highest-grossing motion picture in Russian history.

The fairy tale comedy for family viewing, Cheburashka, was released on 1 January 2023. As early as 10 January, it became the highest-grossing Russian film ever made. On January 13, the film outperformed “Avatar” of 2009 - though only in rubles. At that point the box office of “Cheburashka” was 6.5 billion rubles (about $ 93 million at current exchange rates). This means that the picture is still slightly behind the Avatar in dollars. 14 years ago, the ruble-dollar exchange rate was different, and James Cameron's film earned $119 million in the countries of the former USSR.

There is absolutely no sociology in today's Russia; no opinion polls can be trusted; alas, even independent services are unable to convey the true state of Russian society. People are that much afraid - no one will answer sociologists' questions honestly, a significant proportion of citizens see everything as a threat, so they pretend to be loyal to the authorities just in case. However, box office returns in cinemas are a very different indicator. It cannot be falsified. Viewers vote with their ruble - and won't buy tickets to a film they don't want to see.
“The popularity of 'Cheburashka' is not faked; it is an objective reality, one of the few indisputable indicators that can shed light on the true mood in Russia.”
Cheburashka from the 1971 animated film. Source: Wiki Commons
So, who is Cheburashka? He is a fairytale character who was invented by the Soviet writer Eduard Uspensky in 1966. In 1969, a cartoon was made about Cheburashka and since then he has become one of the most famous, iconic characters for Soviet children. Cheburashka could be called the Soviet Mickey Mouse - both have huge ears. It is true that Mickey Mouse is a mouse, while Cheburashka is an “unknown animal”, a cross between a bear cub and a hare. According to Uspensky's book, he comes to Russia from the rainforest as he is accidentally brought in a box of oranges.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union Cheburashka did not lose his popularity, and even turned into a kind of national symbol - in 2004, for instance, he became the mascot of the Russian Olympic team. In 2021, the company Yellow, Black and White, Russia's most successful private production company, began making a feature film based on the characters invented by Uspensky. Cheburashka himself remained the same unknown big-eared animal, while all the other characters, including Cheburashka's best friend crocodile Gena, became human beings. There is no point in retelling the plot of this comedy. It is modelled on American children's comedies, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. By the way, the main negative character in the American film is a chocolate factory owner.

Much more important is the context: the film appeared on the screens during the New Year holidays, in a situation when Western films are no longer shown in Russia. However, perhaps the absence of American blockbusters is not so important: in recent years, Russian movies have consistently grossed more than American ones. Leaders at the box office in recent years have been the comedy Serf, which mocks the spoiled golden youth and celebrates traditional values (2019 leader), the patriotic drama about Soviet basketball players Going vertical (2017), the World War II action film T-34 (2018), and the Russian-made Disney tale The Last Warrior - about an undefeated Russian hero (2021).

Against this backdrop, Cheburashka looks striking. In all recent years Russian audiences have gone to cinemas to feel proud, to feel a rush of patriotic feelings.
“This year it's the opposite. No action movies, no war dramas, no sports blockbusters. It is as if grown-up Russians want to crawl under a blanket, snuggle up, feel like small children again and watch a fairy tale like the one they saw in their distant childhood.”
Dmitry Pevtsov, actor turned pro-war MP, condemned the "Cheburashka" film for LGBT propaganda. Source: Wiki Commons
They don't want to hear anything about the war, they don't want to be proud of someone else's victories, they are so tired and scared that they are ready to sit in a dark cinema and cry with compassion for an imaginary little eared beast. They want their childhood back, so they can decide nothing and be responsible for nothing.

It is funny that Cheburashka was received with hostility by the militarist part of Russian society. The infamous (and rather marginal) ideologist of Russian fascism, the philosopher Alexander Dugin, spoke out against the film - because it does not bring Russia's victory in the war against Ukraine any closer. “We don't need Cheburashka, this is some kind of weak-mindedness,” Dugin declared, “With Cheburashka we won't win”. Moreover, the philosopher went so far as to say that Cheburashka is not an innocent cartoon character at all. “I did a special study on the metaphysics of Cheburashka. And I realised that it's about a demon of the moon called Sherdbarsheotshertatan,” he claims.

Another angry voice resounded in the State Duma. A formerly popular actor Dmitry Pevtsov, now an odious pro-war MP, interpreted the film as LGBT propaganda. “Why are we all laughing at the fact that Cheburashka calls Uncle Gena his mother? It is kind of funny, isn't it? But for children this is such a little signal that daddy or mummy doesn't matter. A man can also be a mother,” said the actor.
Cheburashka toys. Source: VK
However, there are a lot of critical reviews. Critics scold the film because the jokes are unfunny and old-fashioned. Psychologists say that all adult characters in the film are terribly traumatized, weak, passive and infantile. Liberal journalists feel insulted because the film shows not the real Russia, but a scenery. And also for the fact that the film deliberately distracts attention from the war with Ukraine, by the way the performers of the two main roles are Sergei Garmash, a native of Russian-occupied and destroyed Mariupol, and Fedor Dobronravov, the former star of the Ukrainian series Svaty, whose author and producer was once Vladimir Zelensky.

Few people think the film is good. It simply hit too exactly the current mood of so many Russians - a state of weakness, defenselessness, surprise at the unlikelihood of what is happening, news fatigue and a childlike belief that it will all magically end by itself.
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