50 years of Cheburashka: why the Soviet Union’s best-loved cartoon character is still winning hearts after half a century

4 October 2021

Fifty years ago, a mysterious creature “unknown to science” toppled onto Soviet screens. Born in a land far, far away, this strange, monkey-like creature had been carried inside a box of oranges to an unnamed yet idyllic Soviet town — lost and alone without friends or family. But with his large, round ears and even bigger heart, the mysterious animal soon finds himself making friends in this strange new world, weaving a story of discovery and comradery that still enchants the world today. His name is Cheburashka.

Ask almost anyone in Eastern Europe about Cheburashka, and they’ll tell you that they’ve known the character all their life. Although the fuzzy-furred creature was only featured in one book and four short films, his tiny pawprint has made a large impact and left a lasting legacy — so much so that he remains a superstar half a century on from his big screen debut.

Walk through the streets of Moscow today, and you’re sure to find an array of fluffy Cheburashka merchandise. The Russian Olympic team has used Cheburashka as its mascot for the last three Olympic games, selling collectable different colours of the doll to Olympic enthusiasts. Even Russian airplanes such as the L-410 and An-72, are often nicknamed cheburashkas, due to their large engines that resemble the character’s fluffy ears.

But the character also has global appeal. In Finland, Cheburashka is known as Muksis, in Germany as Plumps, and in Sweden, as Drutten. He is also particularly popular among Japanese audiences, where he is known as Chebi. In the past 30 years, several Japanese-made versions inspired by the original 1970s Cheburashka film have been released.

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The original Cheburashka was created by beloved Soviet author Eduard Uspensky, also famous for writing local classics like Prostokvashino: the story of a boy named Uncle Fedya who escapes from the city with his loyal dog, Sharik, and his frank cat, Matroskin. Akin to a Russian Dr. Seuss, any bookshop in Russia is bound to have a special shelf dedicated entirely to Uspensky’s stories. With his Cheburashka tales, the author wanted children to be able to recreate his stories at home with any of their toys, whether it be a tiger or a funny character with large ears. In the original 1965 story, Crocodile Gena and His Friends, Cheburashka was described as a defective toy with yellow eyes that was something between a hare, a cat, a dog, and a kangaroo.

Meanwhile, the internationally recognised character that the public will recognise on screen was developed by Russian concept artist Leonid Shvartsman at state-run Soviet animation studio Soyuzmultfilm. The lighter state censorship that came with the Brezhnev era meant that the USSR could more easily draw on global techniques to improve hand-drawn animation, popularised by men such as Walt Disney in the United States. Animators moved forward with stop-motion animation in an attempt to accentuate free-moving facial features and allow for more interesting movements of the body. In Cheburashka’s case, the artists argued that bringing attention to this would allow for audiences to connect more deeply with the characteristics of sympathy, care, and tenderness that Cheburashka is famously credited with.

Soyuzmultfilm was in charge of creating films geared towards children in the hopes of molding them into respectable Soviet citizens. In Cheburashka (1971), a troupe of Young Pioneers, a Soviet youth organisation fostering good morals, appears on screen, ready to build bird houses and plant trees. Cheburashka and his friend Gena look at them with envy.

But perhaps the film’s lasting success is because it does not focus on the importance of becoming the perfect Soviet citizen. When the Pioneers laugh at Cheburashka and Crocodile Gena for not being able to march in proper Pioneer fashion, they do not give up. Instead, the pair work together to set an example and better the community by building a playground for local children. By the end of the episode, the Pioneers eagerly welcome the pair into their group. It is not so much a lesson on good Soviet morals as it is about the importance of resilience in adversity. It is applicable not only to its target Soviet audience, rather, it is something that anyone can relate to and act on.

This under-the-radar rebellion was in many ways thanks to Cheburashka’s artform. The animation produced by Soyuzmultfilm was generally not as heavily censored by the Soviet authorities as other mediums, largely because officials regarded it as harmless entertainment for children, not worthy of strict oversight. As a result, Cheburashka was also allowed to do what many Soviet citizens could not: criticise bureaucrats by depicting them as rude and demanding, and question the values of movements such as the Young Pioneers. It offered an avenue of expression that was later cherished by Soviet citizens, making its furry main character even more relatable.

Moscow-based animator Georgi Boguslavsky describes Cheburashka as a “fond friend”. In 2018, Boguslavsky animated a commercial for Soyuzmultfilm (now a private, albeit still popular, film studio) using the original puppet of Cheburashka from the 1971 classic film. He also worked on the animation This is Yedik: The Tale of a Childhood Donated and Stolen, which is a feature-length biographical film on Cheburashka’s creator Eduard Uspensky. “[Back in the Soviet Union], there were very few people on the streets, with these young Pioneers collecting garbage and recycling, [just like you see in Cheburashka],” he says. “So, all of the things that you see in Cheburashka, the buildings and the people, they all existed in a way. Uspensky made fairytales into something that you could relate to and even experience in real life.”

But it is not Soviet nostalgia, or even the touch of magic that Uspensky’s stories brought to children’s everyday lives that Boguslavsky remembers most. The show is a “compelling example of loneliness. No one knows, nor do they ever find out, where [Cheburashka] came from or if he has relatives or friends. He is an orphan,” the animator says. “Cheburashka is essentially a freak, and yet he makes so many friends on his journey. By the end of the film, everyone wants to be his friend.”

Cheburashka embodies what many former Soviet citizens felt: shut out by the constraints of the Soviet system. His search for friendship awoke in many the same desire to belong within Soviet society, where the ability to display behavior that was both acceptable to officials and the masses could have a devastating impact on social status. But Cheburashka thrived in a world of paradoxes. He demonstrated that while a desire to belong is normal, it is okay to be a little odd. Most importantly, he showed that anything is possible with enough determination and friendship; a lesson that is still applicable today. These lessons have only caused Cheburashka’s popularity in Russia to grow over the years, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His longevity has transformed Cheburashka from a character who children and adults alike found relatable, to a symbol that, for many people, represents what it means to be Russian.

Ultimately, Cheburashka’s 50 years have been defined by tales of overcoming loneliness and resilience in adversity. He is an icon that continues to permeate all facets of pop culture. “Some people adore him, and others simply understand that at this point he is just a fact of life,” Boguslavsky says. One thing is certain: the fluffy little character with remarkably large ears isn’t going anywhere — and the messages he teaches will long outlive his creators for generations to come.

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