Peter Dickinson is a British writer and journalist based in Kyiv, Ukraine. As editor of What’s On Kyiv magazine from 2001 until 2007 he commissioned a series of feature-length articles entitled, “Cult Icons of the Soviet Era” which covered everything from children’s animated heroes to a Soviet cigarette brand named after Stalin’s favourite slave labour project.
New life of Soviet icons
The idea of doing a series about the pop icons of Soviet life first came to me after a particularly camp pop star friend presented me with a toy Chebourashka doll at my 24th birthday celebrations in Kyiv in early 2000. I had initially assumed that this cute, jug-eared little teddy bear was some sort of Japanese gimmick, perhaps taken from a Manga cartoon, and thought nothing more of it. However, I noticed that whenever a Ukrainian girlfriend saw the little toy resting on my bedside shelf she would literally whoop with delight and ask where I had got it from. Over a period of months this effusive reaction piqued my interest and led me to the discovery that Chebourashka was, in fact, a kind of Soviet Mickey Mouse who had delighted generations of children throughout the USSR and remained a firm favourite with the post-Soviet generation.
At the time I also began noticing more and more Chebourashkas dolls on sale around Kyiv and released that this was part of a rising of tide of Soviet kitsch and tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for the more iconic elements of the old empire. USSR-themed restaurants were springing up all over town, while Kyiv’s night clubs rarely allowed a soviet holiday to pass by without a parade of saucily outfitted young pioneer ladies complete with mock-Soviet placards. Given the widely accepted death toll of over twenty million Soviet citizens during the dreadful communist experiment, this light-hearted approach seemed a phenomenon worthy of closer investigation, and in Chebourashka I was confident that I had identified I central player in the fashion for lovable Soviet pop culture.
Eventually I managed to amass a small collection of Soviet-era books and animated Chebourashka videos which told the tale of how this furry little figure was discovered in a crate of oranges at Odessa port before going on to befriend Crocadile Gena, a lonely but somewhat sophisticated pipe-smoking crocodile from Odessa zoo. The Chebourashka children’s tales revolve around this unlikely duo and their many escapades as they help conscientious young pioneers to built houses, befriend bitter old ladies and generally promote a humane and idealistic approach to life that seemed quite at odds with the totalitarian instincts I have always associated with the Soviet existence.
It struck me that my own impression of the Soviet past was almost exclusively focused on the negative aspects of life in the USSR, something which seemed to be true for the vast majority of foreigners living in the former Soviet Union. In other words, I was only aware of half the picture, albeit the important half from a world-historical viewpoint. However, I came to the conclusion that I could no more neglect the other half of the picture than the average Soviet could go to Disneyland and spend the day fretting over the iniquities of the exploitative capitalist oligarchy. While I had grown up inundated with information about the Gulags and bread queues of the USSR, the twenty and thirty-something people who were my direct Soviet peers had spent their childhoods entranced by the likes of Chebourashka and his message of peace and love.
To overlook this would be to indulge in the kind of ideological sophistry and Marxist contortionism that did so much to undermine the Soviet experiment in the first place. In other words, it would not be intellectually honest, nor would it offer a meaningful reflection of what the defining day-to-day experiences of the average Soviet Masha and Sasha were all about. A true Cold War warrior might have been tempted to call Chebourashka an insidious propaganda tool of the evil empire, but personally I was quite hooked by the simplistic charm of the character and soon became determined to share this discovery with my expat readership. My objective was to try and spark interest in these more mundane aspects of everyday Soviet life and to foster a better understanding among our international readership of how nostalgia for such a seemingly repressive regime could not only exist but actually thrive in the post-Soviet space.
The Chebourashka-inspired issue of What’s On Kyiv that resulted from my personal epiphany finally came out in September 2003. It proved an enormous success with readers and led to a whole series of articles on pop culture Soviet icons that ran until the Orange Revolution one year later, when the tide of public opinion finally turned away from efforts to fathom the Soviet mind as attention shifted towards issues related to European integration. Even today there are lots of people in Kyiv who comment fondly on the series to me, while many expats have long since introduced their own kids to the joys of Chebourashka and gained cultural kudos with their Ukrainian in-laws thanks to their familiarity with this cutest of communist-era cuddly toys.
The Soviet Icons series was enormous fun to produce both for me and my team of Ukrainian journalists, but as I look back I can say that it was also one of the more meaningful things we ever published. Beyond the kitsch and the nostalgia that seemed to catch our readers’ imaginations lay a rare window into the day-to-day experience of the average Soviet citizen, from the music he listened to and the films he watched right down to the heroes he was invited to emulate. Here was something far closer to most ordinary people’s experience of Soviet society than the horrors of genocidal forced famines and factory floor denunciations. Among all the dated language and naïve workers’ paradise eulogizing, there was also much to be learnt.
The terrible fury of Stalin’s five-year plans had always been apparent to me primarily through accounts of the twenty-year hard labour sentences dished out to so-called wreckers and recidivists who failed to meet their quotas, but I had no appreciation of the more tongue-in-cheek side of the plans as articulated by the cult of the Stakhanovite, named after the Ukrainian miner Stakhanov who was said to have produced super-human amounts coal during a double shift in the late 1920s.
I discovered that far from being tight-lipped and humourless, the Soviets were more than capable of laughing at themselves, whether it was the cult movie “Irony of Fate” which pokes fun at the relentless repetition of the identikit Soviet urban landscape, or the rich subculture of Stirlitz jokes, which parody the state-sanctioned cunning of Soviet fiction’s most celebrated WWII spy. Nothing, meanwhile, quite captures the Soviet era’s disturbing indifference to the millions of lives crushed by the regime than the continued popularity of Belomor Kanal cigarettes, a brand named after Stalin’s showcase slave labour project which saw tens of thousands of political prisoners die as their dug a channel of biblical proportions in the early 1930s with their bare hands and stone-age equipment.
The Belomor Kanal, which epitomizes so many of the Soviet contradictions in its prehistoric brutality coupled with its championing of Socialist modernity, was also the inspiration of numerous Stalin-era plays and movies trumpeting the value of redemption through hard labour, and today this paradox lives on in the iconic packets of Belomor Kanal cigarettes that remain in production in Russia itself. Most people have long since stopped smoking them due to the course tobacco used and their lack of filters, but these distinctive tubular cigarettes remain popular for use in the construction of marijuana joints.
I remain a big Chebourashka fan, despite the fact that in recent years the Putin regime has hijacked the doll as an internationally appealing icon for resurgent Russian nationalism. It is a shame that what was once part of a truly pan-Soviet youth culture has been surrendered to the revisionist ambitions of the former senior partner in the old USSR, but in that sense Chebourashka is just the latest victim in a long-running process that has seen Putin’s regime lay claim to everything from victory in WWII to the Soviet national anthem as theirs and theirs alone, while disingenuously denying any responsibility for the atrocities of Soviet rule. Nevertheless, I still believe that there is much of current value that we can all learn from a closer study of the everyday dross that characterized Soviet life. Not only does it help outsiders to move beyond the headlines of totalitarian atrocities, but it also places much of the emerging eastern European culture in a context that has until now been largely overlooked. Western culture may well been riding on an unprecedented wave of success throughout the region, but it did not appear in a vacuum.