The Soviet Union was known for many things: censorship, tensions with America, the Space Race. But perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of its existence is the immense cultural contributions and legacy it left behind, from the albeit censored works of literature to childhood cinema and cartoons. Anyone growing up with Russian influence in their home has likely watched 70s-style animation from popular film studio Soyuz-multfilm or other boutique studios, producing classics such as Ny Podogi (Just You Wait!), Cheburashka, and Prostokvashino. Although these names bring back fond memories for those more experienced with Russian culture, there exists a niche for Russian language learners as well. With the help of subtitles, knowledge of basic Russian, and attention to detail, these cartoons are perfect for those who want to learn more about Russian cinema through watching some of the best productions from the 20th and 21st centuries.
A staple of children’s animation, Ny Pogodi is the Russian version of Tom and Jerry, with a rebellious, smoking wolf chasing after the model citizen rabbit. Many have interpreted this cartoon as a juxtaposition of Western, capitalist corruption (smoking, poor hygiene, and other traits of the wolf) and the model Soviet citizen that is the rabbit. Regardless of your take, Ny Pogodi is rich in cultural references and has minimal spoken Russian to boot, making this the first on our list of top cartoons for Russian learners.
It’s a monkey, it’s a bear, it’s...Cheburashka? Anyone familiar with Russian cultural icons will recognize this animated, bipedal monkey with large circular ears, as he escapes from a zoo enclosure and makes friends with local children, animals, and his sidekick, Gena the crocodile. Though the plot is certainly distinct from other cartoons, the stop-motion animation is phenomenal for its time and is a backbone of modern Russian childhood emblems. If not for the plot, Cheburashka is a must-watch to understand what in the world a half-monkey half-bear is doing on former Olympic advertisement flags, food labels, and brand labels. This cartoon is best watched with subtitles.
As the title suggests, this cartoon follows a vagabond group of musicians as they give performances around the cartoon world. After performing to the royal family of a small town, the lead singer falls in love with the princess and the rest, as they say, is history. Though there are only two episodes, this cartoon series features references to Western society through bell-bottom jeans, hippy-style hair, and a nod at the “free spirit” lifestyle of the 60s and 70s. There is minimal talking in this cartoon, but plenty of melodic songs and feel-good moments that will bring a smile to any viewer's face.
Although this series is analogous to the American version of Winnie Pooh, the plot couldn’t be any more different. While Winnie Pooh is a honey-hungry, happy bear, Vinni Pukh follows a more solemn plotline with numerous references to Soviet life and censorship. Despite a grimmer undercurrent, the distinct animation style, melodic songs, and cultural significance of this cartoon should not be understated. For Russian learners, this is best watched with subtitles.
As the only cartoon on this list produced within the past five years, Masha and the Bear is an animated series made of six-minute episodes that follows the story of a retired circus bear and a curious little girl, Masha, as he tries to keep her out of trouble. Based loosely on a folktale of the same name, Masha and the Bear has been translated in over 10 languages and has achieved international recognition for the kind characters, simple plotline, and cultural references. And, good news for Russian learners: the bear does not speak throughout any of the episodes, making the series easier to understand.