Russian Animated Films for the Russian College Curriculum

Bella Ginzbursky-Blum, College of William and Mary

This paper will suggest ways in which Russian animated films can be integrated into the Russian language classroom. Russian animation has a lot to recommend itself for use in the Russian curriculum and many of the best films are now available on video in both Russian and English. My paper will focus primarily on the uses of animated short films in Russian classes throughout the curriculum.

The appeal Russian cartoons would have for our students is obvious. Unforgettable characters and memorable songs from some of the best-loved Russian cartoons already have an impact in our classrooms. For example, students who had studied Russian in high school, visited Russia or hosted a Russian student often ask me to teach the class “the Russian birthday song”—the song one of the most popular cartoon characters, Gena, sings on his birthday. While cartoons are fun for students, they can also be used as powerful teaching tools. The visual and musical cues cartoons provide are ideal mnemonic devices for students of any language. Ultimately, I believe the real use of cartoons in the language classroom will not be for listening comprehension exercises—there are enough educational videos and film excerpts for such purposes—but as both a reward and an authentic source of new cultural information. Animated shorts appropriate for the level of study can be chosen for each chapter, or each month, as a series of milestones throughout the year. After learning the vocabulary and the new grammatical constructions the students can understand and enjoy something short and amusing in the target language. The viewing will also ideally spark class discussion of cultural issues represented in the cartoon. Ryžij, ryžij, konopatyj, for example, is an interesting example of the less-than-accepting Russian attitude toward redheads, while Čeburašska, besides containing “the birthday song,” offers our students a glimpse of such aspects of Soviet life as a Young Pioneer-organized metal drive.

Russian cartoons are also suitable for more serious language and cultural study. Over the years the Sojuzmul′tfil′m studio has produced a great number of Russian fairy tales and animated a number of short stories by Russian writers. Such animated films can add an interesting dimension to the upper-level culture, literature, and conversation courses taught in Russian. Animated fairy tales are an ideal introduction to Russian folklore and its characters, and they are also a wonderful way to help students visualize Russian village life, folk objects, and customs. In addition to animated fairy tales there are many Soviet-period cartoons that provide many topics for discussion of Soviet art, life, and humor. Skaz o mal′čiše-kibal′čiše, a disturbing example of Stalin-era patriotism drawn in the style of early Soviet propaganda posters, can be a springboard for discussion about politics, art, or even the role of children in Russian society. Avtomat, about an unruly matchbox dispenser, lends itself to a myriad of interpretations about Soviet reality. The whimsical Soviet version of the Bremen Town Musicians proved to be an exciting source of discussion in my course on “Russian Views of the West.” Not only did we discuss the story line, the significance of its deviations from the original tale, and the visual portrayal of the characters, but we also examined possible reasons for this cartoon’s enormous popularity with the Russian public. Finally, the one idea I think is crucial in using cartoons in the Russian classroom is that cartoons offer students access to Russian culture in a way that is fun and intimate, easy to understand and hard to forget.