So I was doing my occasional hobby of Insta-stalking Lissov, the good-looking spaghetti noodle from the band Little Big, and on his daily story he started to tell a bed time tale from an old vintage book. Of course I don’t speak Russian, so I was just enjoying the view when a familiar word popped up: Christopher Robbin. I quickly zipped back and realised this was a story about Vinni-Pooh (ВИННИ-ПУХ) the Russian version of Winnie the Pooh. I know popular books get translated all over the world so it shouldn’t be surprising. But it was this image of Vinny’s home dressed up like he’s an American with strong opinions about microchips in breakfast cereal that really got me hooked.
Now let’s not ignore the fact that a lifetime of American Cold-War propaganda has perhaps skewed my Russian world-view, but Winnie the Pooh’s adventures behind the Iron Curtain is still an interesting way to see subtle soviet fingerprints on something so familiar. Also, I’m going to refer to our fluffy friend as Vinny because that is how it’s pronounced in Russian and I like to think of him as his own unique person entirely separate from the British and American interpretations.
So our fluffy soviet friend Vinny Pooh appears in about 1960 with the translation by Boris Zakhoder. There were versions in English around before this and there must have been a translation or two floating about, but this is the first mass-produced popular version. Boris had come from a career in the military press and had been shipped off to two major wars before he sat down and started writing and translating poetry and books for children. He became known for subtly shifting works to suit Russian culture without losing the original heart of the book he was translating.
Zakhoder’s translation was printed and re-printed a dozen times with different illustrators, and it was the 1970’s version illustrated by Alice Poret that Lissov was reading. Thanks to Alice we get a style of illustration universal to all children’s books – dozens of pages of fluffy adorable faces, and then that one page that continues to unsettle you well into your 40s.
But the version of Vinny-Pooh most Russians fell in love with was the 1969 film version by Fyodor Khitruk and produced and animated by the state-run Soyuzmultfilm. Soyuzmultfilm has it’s own engaging history especially during the Second World War period. Most of the staff were sent to fight on the front and the rest evacuated from besieged Leningrad to southern Uzbekistan with instruction to make propaganda but without the provisions of pens, paper, power, food or heat.
Khitruk made the most significant changes from the text: for starters the complete removal of Christopher Robin. In an interview towards the end of his life he explained that the decision was made because the appearance of Robin added too much contrast and emphasised that Vinny and his friends were animals or toys, but he wanted them to just be characters all living together in the same world. I can also imagine that the removal of an autocratic protagonist in favour for an equal distribution of power and leadership went over very well when presenting the script edits back to The Party.
The animation style is beautiful with hand-drawn crayon backgrounds and the character designs are iconic. Vinny has a real zero-fucks-given attitude and there’s a wonderful dry humour in the writing. One of my favourites is when he’s trying to use a balloon to steal honey from up in a tree. He’s musing to Piglet that the bees won’t notice if he uses a green balloon because it will blend into the leaves, or if he uses a blue balloon it will blend into the sky. Piglet just flat-out points out that they might notice the massive bear under the balloon. Vinny thinks a moment and decides he will pretend to be a cloud. Easy.
The animation itself is also littered with hilarious mannerisms which combined with the deep gravely voice gives Vinny the air of a pack-a-day coal miner rather than the carefree pants-less buffoon you see in the American cartoon. It’s perhaps no surprise as Yevgeny Leonov that actor that plays him spent the war working alongside his whole family in a munitions factory and was known for playing characters that drank too much and loved to talk nonsense at the pub.
And so with this film I too have fallen in love with little Vinny Pooh. He’s rough and perhaps a little brash, but he gets shit done and enjoys the company of the friends around him. I’m so glad I got to learn about this little corner of soviet animation history.
A little bonus for those interested. We return to the original story. I will say that technology has advanced considerably in my lifetime, but it still takes a lot of imagination to interpret the results of google translate transcription. So I present to you, my version of what’s going on in Lissov’s Winnie the Pooh story.
Vinny Pooh is happily asleep in his bed when he suddenly hears a noise outside. “For Fuck Sake – it’s midnight” thinks Vinny. “Hey is that you?” he shouts to no response, “Christopher Robin – is that you back from the pub?” he calls, but again to no reply. “Well that’s weird” he thinks to himself before a strange noise breaks through night. “GGRGGRGGRGRGRRRRRRRRR” growls an unknow foe in the distance. But Pooh is a bad-ass and so no growling motherfucker is going to stop him from getting a good night’s sleep. There was nothing else for it – Pooh was going to have to get up and see what was going on. He put on his slippers, lit a candle, and walked out into the night.
“Hello?” Pooh called into the darkness. “Hello?” came a response from nearby. “Oh” sighed Pooh – this bastard was going to make him work for it. “Hello?” He asked again in the direction the response had come from. “Hello?” again came the voice from a bush nearby, he saw a tail poking our from beneath the leaves. “Oh, it’s you. Hello”. “Hello!” the stranger in the bush responded again. “For fuck sake” thought Pooh “How many times we going to go round in this circle?” He decided to take a different approach because at this rate they were just going to shout hello at each other till dawn.
“Come the fuck out here” Pooh gestured to the bush and in the candle light Pooh could see a large stiped ball of fluff emerge into the clearing. Because Pooh was a bad-ass he did not concern himself with how a Sumatran tiger had walked across the Siberian steppe and found itself in this section of the Russian forest. It was fucking midnight – it just needed to shut up. “My name is Pooh” said Vinny Pooh. “My name is Tigger!” responded the tiger with enthusiasm. “Does Christopher Robbin know about you?” Pooh asked. “Who knows” replied the tiger. “No, then.”said Pooh “Well we can sort this shit out in the morning but for the moment it’s bloody midnight so how about you shut the fuck up and we can all get some sleep.”
Pooh walked back to his home in the stunned silence that followed. Maybe tomorrow he would apologise and bring the visitor in for breakfast and give him some honey but for now – it was a cat so it could sleep on the ground. Pooh climbed back in to bed thankful that his clock was still in the midnight hour, it was time for him to go to sleep. And it’s time for you to go to sleep too. Good night.