Before we get started, I need to tell you a story about a squirrel.
One day, when I was 11 or 12, I was riding my bike home from school. I come from a small town – lots of trees, quite deep ditches, not many people – and knew the route by heart. More often than not, I'd spend the ride daydreaming instead of paying attention to the road.
On this particular day, a squirrel leapt from a tree and startled me.
I swerved and fell off my bike, then tumbled right into the ditch and hit my head on a big ditch pipe. My helmet did its job, so I was totally safe, but 12 year old me was certain that I had almost died. I developed a fear of squirrels, and to this day, I'm still somewhat wary of the furry little devils.
This fear is one example of what's called associative meaning, and our native languages feel so automatic because of how firmly rooted they are in life experience. We burn our hands on the stove and understand the meaning of hot, then we sit in front of a fireplace on a winter day and suddenly differentiate between the negative scalding and the positive toasty. Life, and language, is all about nuance.
Unfortunately, you can't make those visceral connections with a textbook.
The good news is that you don't need to go all the way to Russia to start making them, either. The internet gives you access to a wealth of Russian content anywhere in the world. Better yet, many Russian animation studios have made their content freely available on YouTube.
Compared to movies and dramas, which feature difficult dialogue about potentially complex topics, cartoons tend to be simpler in scope. Chances are, even if you don't understand all of what is being said, a simple understanding of the episode's plot will let you fill in gaps by using context.
Cartoons can also help you understand the culture of the country on a much deeper level–they reflect what people think children should find entertaining and espouse values they hope that children might grow to have.
Plus, they're fun.
Brief history of Russian animation
The reach of soviet animation has spread far beyond the post-Soviet states. Famous Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki mentions the soviet animators Yuri Norstein and Lev Atamanov as being among his inspirations. A cartoon about one of the beloved Russian characters, Cheburashka, was even recreated in the 2010s in Japan. After all this time, Soviet animation is still a source of remarkable hidden gems home to many experimental techniques and engaging stories.
Russia's first experiments with animation took place right after the revolution in the 1920s and were mostly avant-garde works testing the possibilities of animation. From there, a festival of American animation showcasing the works of Walt Disney took place in the Soviet Union in 1933. The outstanding works of Disney Studios inspired the creation of the main Soviet animation studio Союзмультфильм (Soyuzmultfilm, translated as Union Cartoon). Like most things in the USSR, Soyuzmultfilm was state-funded and employed all the best animators and directors in the country.
Over the next few decades, Soyuzmultfilm became the center of progressive Soviet animation, producing cartoons that were technically and aesthetically inspired by Walt Disney Studio works—until the 1950's. With the outbreak of the Cold War, soviet creators were forced to abandon Walt Disney's method. Thus began the most experimental, and successful, period of Soviet animation: All the most widely known and critically acclaimed Soviet cartoons were produced during the period from the 1950s to the end of 1980.
During the post-Soviet crises, animation in Russia was put on hold. Recently, however, some new privately-held animation studios were founded. Pilot, Animaccord, and Melnitsa, among others, create well-known modern Russian cartoons like Smeshariki and Masha and the Bear. These cartoons have been successfully distributed abroad, so you might have heard of them!
Here are five cartoons – some classic, some modern – to start with.
1) Гора самоцветов (Gora Samotsvetov – The Mountain of Gems)
An animated series created by different directors in various animation styles, Gora Samotsvetov shares the fairytales of different ethnic groups from around the Russian Federation. Each of the 80 episodes tells a Russian, Ukranian, Armenian, Tartarian, or Tuvinian story–and many more–all in Russian. This brilliant series, often funny and insightful, sheds light on the multiethnic Russian cultural background.
2) Смешарики (Smeshariki, also known as Kikoriki)
This modern Russian cartoon series has gained a following not only in Russian-speaking countries but also all around the world. All 209 episodes have been translated into 15 languages, and as they're only 6 minutes and 30 seconds long, they're great for learners.
The Smeshariki are little round animals who find themselves in a variety of fun situations. The series discusses complex themes and includes many specific cultural references, so it's a great starting point for a larger foray into Russian media.
3) Жил был пёс (Zhil Byl Pyos–Once Upon a Dog)
Adopted from a Ukrainian folktale, Once Upon a Dog is one of the most beloved Soviet cartoons, though it isn't as popular abroad as Gena the Crocodile or Hedgehog in the Fog. It is the origin of several popular Russian catchphrases, many of which are still used even today.
The whole cartoon is only 10 minutes long and it has a very simple plot, so it’s easy to follow.
4) Винни-Пух (Vinni-Pux–Winnie-the-Pooh)
You're familiar with Disney’s yellow bear Winnie-the-Pooh, but the Soviet Winnie is unique. The story is pretty much the same, minus Christopher Robin, but it has been interpreted from the Russian point of view. Those of you who later get into Soviet film might recognize the voices of Yevgeny Leonov and Iya Savvina, famous Soviet actors who voiced the cartoon's characters.
This cartoon includes many funny songs and useful phrases. There are 3 cartoons in the series, ranging from 10 to 20 minutes in length.
5) Три богатыря (Tri Bogatyrya–The Three Bogatyrs)
If you feel up for a challenge, we recommend The Three Bogatyrs, a series of full-length animated movies set in medieval times. Bogatyrs are epic characters, the heroes of Russian folk legends, and defenders of Russia.
Each of the first three films features one of the bogatyrs, based on the legendary heroes from a collection of traditional Russian oral epic narrative poems. This series also includes many jokes and catchphrases that are still used in everyday Russian speech.
Follow the Fun
Just because these cartoons were made for children doesn't mean that they'll be a walk in the park. It will likely be difficult at first. That in mind, try to focus more on what you do understand, rather than what you don't. Even if you don't understand everything, you can still pick out key phrases and find opportunities to practice things you've been learning about–for example, try to identify all of the genitive declensions in one episode.
If you watch 20 hours of content, you'll definitely pick up something. All those words add up. Try to find something you can enjoy, at your current level, and the learning will come naturally. As you get more episodes and series under your belt you'll improve your vocabulary and become more comfortable understanding natural Russian accents at normal speeds.