CHEBOURASHKA – THE KINDEST SOVIET ICON

This article has been partly published in the September 2003 issue of “What’s On Kyiv” magazine.

Of all the icons of popular culture in Soviet times, none is as visually striking and memorable as Chebourashka. This little creature with the little-boy-lost eyes and big ears first appeared in the late nineteen-sixties, initially as a character in illustrated children’s books penned by creator Eduard Uspensky, and later on screen – thanks to Soyuzmultfilm animation.

He has proved to be an enduring character, and today Chebourashka dolls and videos and other merchandising can still be bought across the former Soviet Union. Chebourashka’s appeal is not restricted to the former Soviet space, as this cute character has legions of fans in Japan, the Far East and Europe. To learn more about the origins of this hugely popular imaginary creature, one must talk to Eduard Uspensky, the legendary Soviet-era children’s author who brought Chebourashka to life.

In the original story, Chebourashka was discovered in a crate of oranges, after having climbed in for a nap while out for a stroll in the jungle. The almost sloth-like Chebourashka stumbles about, disorientated and then finds his way to a toy shop, before being united with his long-term partner Krokodil Gena, a fifty-year-old crocodile who places an advert in the local newspaper looking for friends. Chebourashka replies and the rest is history.

“I got the original idea while watching a film about Odessa port. They had unloaded a load of bananas and among the fruit was a chameleon,” explains Uspensky. He has an even more straightforward explanation for the inspiration that lays behind Chebourashka’s distinct stumbling way of walking. “I was paying a visit to my friends one day and they had a little girl,” he remembers. “Her parents had bought her a little fur coat, but these were Soviet times and such items were in deficit, so it was the practice to buy items several sizes too big to allow a child to grow into them. So here was this little girl, struggling in this brown fur coat, getting up, falling down, and so on. I then simply took a very rare and old Russian verb, “chebourakhnoutsya”, which means ‘to fall down’, and changed it a little to get Chebourashka!”

These days Chebourashka is part of almost every Slavic child’s upbringing, but if the authorities in the USSR would have had their way, he may have never seen the light of day. The original Chebourashka book was criticised by the Soviet censors for reasons which now appear so absurd one needs to have lived in the USSR to comprehend them. The fact that Krokodil Gena places an advert looking for friends was seen as un-soviet, as people should be making friends at work. It was suggested that it might encourage the growth of lonely hearts columns or dating services, both of which were deemed un-soviet.

When the project finally got the go-ahead thanks to the support of a bigwig who had taken a fancy to Chebourashka, the cartoon was again criticized because in one scene Chebourashka collects more scrap metal than the pioneers he is helping. Exasperated, Uspenky tried to point out that the whole point of the scene was to illustrate Chebourashka’s attempts to join the pioneers, so by definition it was pro-Soviet, but still the censors moaned. There were times, though, when the authorities attempted to use the kudos surrounding the big- eared doll to their advantage. Once Uspensky recalls being approached by army officials and asked to write a Chebourashka tale involving the Red Army to shed them in a better light. As events proved, they were not always ready to accept the author’s interpretation: “I started writing a few drafts,” Uspensky offers, “but remember how nervous the officers were. They were scared because in my story Gena starts as a soldier and becomes a general, and so ultimately they said ‘no’ to my tale.”

In more recent years Chebourashka has even moved towards private enterprises. Back in 1989, in the midst of the ‘perestroika’ upheavals Uspensky created ‘Krokodil Gena’s Business’, where the croc goes into business selling dog houses with Chebourashka as his accountant and consultant. They do well honestly but lose out when greed gets the better of them and they get involved in a military arms purchase. “I received many thank-you’s for that book; for helping people to educate their children in the themes that were appearing in our lives then”, he smiles.

With his distinct and loveable appearance Chebourashka is wildly marketable, and yet while the estate of Walt Disney is almost incalculably huge, Eduard Uskensky has reaped relatively little from his greatest invention. The inital problem he faced was the lack of author’s copyright legislation in the USSR. As the character’s popularity grew, Chebourashka toys, badges, chocolates, moisturising creams and all kinds of souvenirs became widely available, but without a patent, Uspensky received nothing. At times the author resorted to drastic measures, with comical results.

On one occasion he attempted to demand that a sweet company pay him for the use of his invention on their popular ‘Chebourashka’ chocolates. “I asked them why they were making ‘my’ sweets. It was very dangerous to use the word ‘my’ then, of course. They asked if I owned the license, which I didn’t, but nevertheless I threatened legal action and promised to tell the children of the USSR not to eat Chebourashka sweets because the people who made them are cheating. The company eventually backed down and tried to blame me for stopping kids enjoying themselves with sweets! Later they actually complained that since they changed the name from Chebourashka to Vanka-Vstanka sales collapsed.”

After 1991, with author’s rights respected in principle, it proved difficult for Uspensky to actually get hands on his share of the revenues. “I was paid via the All Russian Agency for Authors’ Rights, who took 90% of the fees for themselves and passed 10% on to the author,” he explains, and it got worse. “What was most funny and curious about it all was that although the money was transferred and a new currency account opened, I could not receive the money!” It turns out that Uskensky could only receive the money when abroad. Infuriated, he went to the Ministry of Finance. “I spoke to some KGB officer or other and asked if it was my money in the account. ‘Yes’, he told me. ‘Can I take it?’ I asked. ‘Only when you are abroad. The country needs currency, do you understand? Are you a citizen of your country?'” Faced with this, Uskensky was forced to admit defeat.

These days things are better, with merchandising operations running round the globe. Perhaps more from habit than anything else he remains embroiled in a number of patent-related court cases, and speaks readily of his ‘enemies’ in Russia and abroad.

Over in Japan they cannot get enough of Chebourashka, which comes as no surprise to Uspensky, who believes the character to be closer to Asian than to European tradition. “It is generally considered that children like strong heroes as Batman to defend them, but with Chebourashka the child can feel like it is the protector,” he reflects. Whatever the appeal, it is among 20-25 years old Japanese girls that interest is highest. To them he is said to be perceived as incredibly adorable and kitsch in a land where most kitsch-o-meters would be permanently off the scale, which is really saying something.

Japanese interest will further swell Uspensky’s Chebourashka coffers, with a series of films as well as those merchandising toys set to generate more income. It is no more than Eduard Uspensky deserves for having contributed so much to the development of Slavic youth. The creator of Chebourashka has always remained devoted to children’s literature, something he modestly downplays. “I’m a children’s writer because I’m not talented enough to write for adults,” he says with a laugh. “I once tried to write an historical work, and a publisher gave me an advance and half a year. I was still writing four years later! It proved too difficult and after that I vowed never to write for grown-ups.” Luckily for generations of post-Soviet kids, he kept his promise and brought us Chebourashka in a crate of oranges!

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