Packed full of Russian culture, the children’s cartoon “Masha and the Bear” is a very popular cultural export. But does that make the little girl and her furry friend pro-Putin propaganda? Reflections from a conflicted parent in Germany.
BERLIN — The worst aspect of parenthood is that at some point you realize you have become what you never wanted to be – your own parents. You say things to your children that you hated to hear when you were a child. And the first few notes of a cartoon’s theme tune are enough to set you on edge.
For my parents, it was “Tom and Jerry” and Udo Jürgen’s “Thank you for the flowers”. For me, all it takes is two seconds of the hyperactive brass section from the frenetic popular Russian cartoon series “Masha and the Bear”. And now unfortunately, I have to pay attention when it comes on.
Because we must treat Masha with caution. At least, if we view the little girl in her traditional Russian smock, who lives in a gatekeeper’s cabin between the steppe and the woods in an unnamed part of today’s Russia, as part of the long arm of the Russian propaganda machine. And if we then decide that, given the mass killings committed by Russia in Ukraine, her rightful place is on the list of boycotted Russian cultural offerings, alongside the opera singer Anna Netrebko.
No one can honestly deny that the series – which started on the Russian internet in 2009 and is produced by the Moscow-based Animaccord Studio, which receives no state funding – is a cultural export in the same way as ballerinas and piano maestros, synonymous with Russia like vodka or Kalashnikovs. There have been 14 seasons so far (aimed at children aged 3 to 5), and the program is shown in 150 countries and more than 40 languages.
Among series for young children, only “Paw Patrol” and “Peppa Pig” have a similar reach. Little girls in Indonesia are named Masha and across the world there are probably many more Masha dolls than magic wands gathering dust in the wardrobes of children’s bedrooms. Masha also made it into the Guinness Book of Records when one of her seemingly endless adventures alongside the patient Bear racked up more than four billion views on YouTube, making it the most viewed content that year.
Playing into Putin's hands
As with every children’s TV series, the stories always follow the same pattern. Masha goes looking for her friend, the bear, in his treehouse deep in the woods. Then chaos ensues. Noisy, bright chaos. But by the end of the episode, everything is resolved: the kind bear and the mischievous little girl love each other, order is restored. Until the next adventure.
If we treat everything that originates from Russia as propaganda, we dilute the meaning of the word.
Of course, summaries like this are playing into the hands of Russian trolls. In recent years, there has been no shortage of attempts to provide a political assessment of Masha’s global influence. In London’s The Times, one political scientist characterized Masha as a Putinesque.
The patient Russian bear – the character that all parents of hyperactive children, by which I mean all children, identify with – is deliberately lovable and tolerant so that children in the West won’t hate Russia (the bear is a well-known national symbol). In 2018, politicians in the Baltic states raised concerns about the series’ political overtones.
There was unmistakable crowing in the response from the Russian propaganda machine – in a primetime news bulletin on Russian state TV. The accusations of propaganda – from politicians and the media – were held up as a prime example of “Western Russophobia”. They claimed that these reactions, and the possible threat of a Masha boycott, were the first signs of encroaching Fascism. The Twitter trolls set about stirring up fights.
This time that will hopefully not be the case. If we treat everything that originates from Russia as propaganda, simply because it comes from Russia, we are diluting the meaning of the word. Banning Masha would only play into Putin’s hands, just like banning Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or performances of “The Nutcracker”.
Illustration of Russian cartoon Macha and the Bear
Memories of Mariupol
The problem with Masha is not its politics. The series’ creators, Animaccord, emphasize their independence, saying they don’t receive a single ruble from the state (and they certainly don’t need it, because global merchandising alone brings in hundreds of millions every year). They reject interpretations that paint the character as an anarchistic proto-feminist – as she has sometimes been criticized in conservative Russia, where she has also been seen as a symbol of Western decadence.
I can't look at Masha without thinking about the women in Mariupol.
The stories are based on Russian fairytales and play out in a Russian setting, a cozy, lovingly decorated, carefully modernized village straight out of Russian folk history. However, equating those elements of Russian culture with Putin’s politics would be too simplistic an interpretation.
And yet, watching “Masha and the Bear” now leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It starts with Masha herself: I can't look at her, dressed in her traditional apron and headscarf, without thinking of the weeping old women in Mariupol. And it gets worse when we see the two wolves whose broken-down ambulance lies at the side of the road like one of the shot-out cars abandoned in a desperate attempt to flee.
What doesn’t bother me as much – although it seemed to bother my parents in “Tom and Jerry” – is the frenetic pace, the over-excitement, the voices, the choppy editing. The way the whole thing starts all over again every six minutes.
Just like its radically slow-paced counterpoint “Teletubbies”, “Masha and the Bear” is a series designed to keep parents away from the TV screen (or tablet) because they simply can’t stand it. They get a chance to catch up on housework, with noise-cancelling headphones clamped over their ears. They roll their eyes at any mention of the little girl and her bear friend – just as my parents did with Tom and Jerry. And aside from keeping an eye on the kids to make sure they’re all right, they let their children escape into Masha’s world alone.
But surely these noisy, quick-fire scenes cannot be good for children’s brains. They lay the groundwork for TikTok. And that is a frightening thought.
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