When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Society

Is Masha And The Bear Russian Propaganda, Cartoon-Style?

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.

Russian cartoon Masha and the Bear​

Russian cartoon Masha and the Bear

Elmar Krekeler

-Essay-

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.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

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”.

\u200bRussian cartoon Macha and the Bear

Illustration of Russian cartoon Macha and the Bear

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.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

Taking A Position: A Call To Regulate Yoga In India

Trained practitioners warn that unregulated yoga can be detrimental to people's health. The government in India, where the ancient practice was invented, knows this very well — yet continues to postpone regulation.

Prime Minister Modi at a mass yoga demonstration in Lucknow, India

Banjot Kaur

NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the observance of the eighth International Yoga Day from Mysuru, in southwestern India, early on the morning of June 21. Together with his colleagues from the Bharatiya Janata Party, he set out to mark the occasion in various parts of the country — reviving an annual ritual that had to take a break for the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yoga is one of the five kinds of alternative Indian medicine listed under India’s AYUSH efforts — standing for "Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and naturopathy, and Homeopathy." Among them, only yoga is yet to be regulated under any Act of Parliament: All other practices are governed by the National Commission for Indian System of Medicine (NCISM), Act 2020.

Yoga and naturopathy are taught at the undergraduate level in 70 medical colleges across 14 Indian states. The Mangalore University in Karnataka first launched this course in 1989; today, these subjects are also taught at the postgraduate level.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ