“Dancing on Brezhnev’s portrait, or a naked girl appearing next to Stalin’s face”: satirical animation films of the perestroika era
This article explores satirical animation films made across the Socialist bloc during 1986-1991. Coming from Latvia or Czechoslovakia, these films are united by their daring subject matters and visual representations, clearly aimed at breaking taboos of the socialist culture and ridiculing the socialist ideology.
In the late 1980s, under the influence of the ideas of perestroika and the weakening of the censorship grip, the tone of satire across the Socialist bloc drastically changed. Prior to that, the artists had to either choose the ‘politically correct’ subjects to satirize or to retreat to using Aesopian language. With the relative freedom brought by perestroika, satire became more explicit as the artists started to work with imagery that was quite daring by the standards of the official socialist culture.
This became particularly noticeable in the genre of animation, primarily because this medium does not have the limits that the live-action film has: it requires less effort to be invested by fewer people, as well as fewer financial expenses (the latter undoubtedly was an advantage in the situation of stagnant economy that many socialist countries faced in the late 1980s). Besides, the animators always had more freedom in portraying extreme situations and settings because of the nature of their medium: the animator can draw anything, whereas the filmmaker’s possibilities are limited by the technical skills of his production designer. Apart from that, animation short films, as opposed to full length feature films, had smaller distribution and therefore were not as heavily censored. Some of them were even made at amateur film clubs and thus hardly had any distribution at all, but also were not subject to any censorship.
The given situation was a fertile ground for the animation genre to strive, and a variety of harshly satirical short animation films appeared at that time all over the Socialist bloc. Some of them were critical in more abstract ways, using mere geometric shapes and sounds to comment on problems like social inequality and the limitation of the individual’s freedom. For example, one of the episodes of the Ukrainian animation film Kam’iani istorii (Stone Stories, 1991, Kirich) shows how mysterious wind transforms a group of stones of different shapes, sizes and colours into indistinguishable bricks. Latvian amateur animation film Karjera (Career, 1986, Šverns) tells a story of a wooden cube, who, personifying a simple person from the crowd, overthrows the corrupt leader, represented by a sphere, and takes its place on the pedestal; soon, however, the cube slowly acquires spherical shape and becomes indistinguishable from its former leader. However, a lot of the late 1980s animation shorts were far from being abstract and offered overt criticism of the regime primarily by freely tampering with the official symbols of the socialist culture.
For instance, in 1988, Ukrainian animation artist Volodymyr Honcharov, who had built his career at the Kievnauchfil’m studio, created a biting animated satire Pravda Krupnim Planom (A Close-up of the Truth) that uses grotesque visual juxtapositions and is heavily influenced by the style of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1968-74, Chapman and others) animated sequences and by Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982, Parker). The film opens with a demolition of The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman statue, which suggests not only getting rid of the eye-tiring symbols of the official Soviet culture, but also escaping the hegemony of the Mosfil’m studio (that uses the image of the statue as its logo until today) over the peripheral film industries of the Soviet Union. The film is also extremely frivolous with nearly all former leaders of the Soviet Union: at some point we see a stage, on which Josef Stalin is seated at a dining table; in front of him is a dish with the red flag instead of food, and hammer and sickle instead of cutlery. Lavrentii Beriia is waiting his table. The auditorium is full of mannequins, who applaud as Nikita Khrushchev appears on the stage, banging the desk with his shoe until the desk cracks. He is replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, and the mannequins raise their red party cards in approving unison. Suddenly Brezhnev becomes a three-headed monster as Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s heads appear on his shoulders; eventually he falls and is revealed to be a coat hanger. The film presents the former leaders as grotesque caricatures of themselves, which would be absolutely unthinkable less than a decade ago.
Pravda Krupnim Planom (A Close-up of the Truth, 1988)
Similar in this regard is the animation short film with a telling title Konec stalinismu v Cechách (Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, 1990, Švankmajer). The film it is an overt critical statement against the Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, that is as humorous as it is angry and vengeful. Among other daring visuals, the film features a sequence in which Stalin’s bust is dissected on an operating table, and from the depth of its innards the bust of the long-time Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald is removed. As observed by Russell-Gebbett, Gottwald is literally portrayed as Stalin’s brainchild and even speaks in his voice. Later in the film Stalin’s bust, along with a variety of everyday objects, like buckets, tyres, shovels, is painted as the Czech tricolor by a bodiless hand and then split open again; this time, however, nothing can be found inside, and one can feel unease about this void and uncertainty about who will come to fill it.
Another episode of the already mentioned animation Stone Stories silently ridicules the verbal aspect of the official socialist culture: we see a bogatyr’ (an epic hero in Russian folklore), who comes across a stone with a mysterious inscription: ‘Go left and you shall lose your horse, go right and you shall lose your head, go straight and you shall face your enemy’ – a classic point in the Russian traditional storytelling that is usually faced by a hero in the introductory part of the folk narrative. However, in the Stone Stories narrative, bogatyr’ does not get to face the ordeal he craves for, stumbles from one stone to another as the inscriptions become more and more incomprehensible, and ends up in a ‘graveyard’, where stones are adorned with Soviet ideological slogans: ‘We will catch up and overtake’, ‘Have you enlisted in the army?’, ‘The enemy does not sleep’, ‘Proletarians of all countries – unite!’, and others. The ironic element here is not only in the suggested meaninglessness of the slogans, but also in their ironic juxtapositions: high-sounding Lenin’s quote ‘Study, study and study again’ right next to mundane ‘Keep off the green areas!’. Bogatyr’ is overwhelmed with the meaningless information that is thrown at him and in the end of the film looks confused and apathetic. Similar device is employed in Eksperiment (The Experiment, 1988, Gamburg), a film that takes place in the ‘bright socialist future’, when the cities are clogged with traffic, and as a result of this the citizens are allowed to grow wings and fly. However, soon the authorities realize that this decision can lead to undesirable outcomes and introduce a variety of measures to exert control over its flying citizens. Throughout the film the sweet voice-over sarcastically comments on the events, obviously mocking Soviet bureaucratic jargon: for instance, it reports that the transport system has stopped functioning for ‘objective reasons’ and as a result ‘certain difficulties have arisen’.
So what was the purpose for this new satirical representation of the established norms of the official socialist discourse? As it is precisely put by Yurchak, during the late socialist period, ‘the form of ideological representations—documents, speeches, ritualized practices, slogans, posters, monuments, and urban visual propaganda—became increasingly normalized, ubiquitous, and predictable‘. For the author, this standardization of discourse developed in the 1950s, when the external editorial voice (that of Stalin), that was endowed with the ability to modify the discourse, disappeared. From that moment, the ideological representations ‘became fixed and replicated—unchanged from one context to the next’. Yurchak, borrowing Mikhail Bakhtin’s term, names this fixed and normalized discursive system ‘authoritative’, and specifies that it has two main features:
First, because of a special “script” in which it is coded, authoritative discourse is sharply demarcated from all other types of discourse that coexist with it, which means that it does not depend on them, it precedes them, and it cannot be changed by them. Second, all these other types of discourse are organized around it. Their existence depends on being positioned in relation to it, having to refer to it, quote it, praise it, interpret it, apply it, and so forth, but they cannot, for example, interfere with its code and change it.¹
Thus the peculiar trend of tampering with the visual and verbal symbols of the socialist culture, exhibited by the animation films mentioned here as well as many others, can be interpreted as an open rebellion against the authoritative discourse, to borrow Yurchak’s term. The films analysed here could only appear in the late 1980s; at that time they were still perceived as daring and shocking, but their existence was possible, as the script according to which the socialist authoritative discourse was coded already started to disintegrate. The analysis of the several animation films revealed that the artists in the late socialist era, when choosing to be political, were still largely dependent on the authoritative discourse, being positioned in relation to it, having to refer to it, to apply it; however suddenly they were in power to interfere with it and change it.
It was to be expected that the new satire was sometimes received rather negatively. For instance, film critic Valentin Tolstykh observed the changes the genre underwent in the late 1980s and stated his verdict:
I don’t see any special courage or artistic revelation or even any special need and reason in ridiculing and mocking our distant, and even our near, past. … I do not trust these many attempts to show in black colors all that was worshiped or treated with respect or was silently endured yesterday. … I don’t know what others think, but I don’t feel any delight when I see characters in films dancing on Brezhnev’s portrait or a naked girl appearing next to Stalin’s face. ²
So was there any ‘special need’? For many artists, cutting Stalin’s face open or portraying a typical Soviet bureaucrat with large breasts was a somewhat cleansing experience, allowing them to reflect on, analyse and put to a test ubiquitous and unquestionable discourses they were always surrounded by. At that time, performing deconstruction of the symbols of socialism, along with such things as artistic revisiting of the Stalin’s era atrocities or discovering previously censored or forbidden cultural product, was an important step in the process of the critical re-evaluation of the socialist values and the recent past.
¹ Aleksei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), 22.
² Valentin Tolstykh, ‘Soviet film satire yesterday and today’, in Andrew Horton (ed.) Inside Soviet Film Satire: Laughter with a Lash. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 18-19.