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Drawing the Iron Curtain: Jews and the Golden Age of Soviet Animation Hardcover – June 17, 2016
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The essence of this book is superbly described on the back cover: “In the American imagination, the Soviet Union was a drab cultural wasteland, a place where playful creative work and individualism were heavily regulated and censored. Yet despite state control, some cultural industries flourished in the Soviet era, including … animation and the Jewish artists who enabled it to thrive.”
Throughout history, Jewish artists thrived even in the most difficult of times and in the most hostile environments. It is also well-known that institutionally anti-Semitic countries valued Jewish artists’ talents and used their creative works to promote government agendas, Imperial Russia and the subsequent Soviet Union being good examples. In the Soviet Union, while art by Jews was taken advantage of, the Jews themselves were often marginalized. Those with Jewish-sounding last names, for example, seldom had opportunities to advance in Ukraine or be accepted into Moscow’s leading institutions, whether educational or industrial (many universities had quotas on Jewish students, not to exceed 5% of the entire student body). Naturally, this discrimination applied to the fields of visual arts, literature, and music as well. The author explains that Jewish artists, often excluded from professional roles in the fine arts, were able to enter the animation arena with more ease than usual, as it was a new form of media and not yet esteemed or entirely politicized. As a result, much of the animations that become ingrained in the culture were created by Jews and offer a peek at Soviet-Jewish identity.
Another fascinating exploration throughout Katz’s book is how many great artists did not necessarily consider themselves “Jewish artists”, even amid the raging Soviet and European anti-Semitism of the day. Was Mendelsohn a “Jewish composer?” Of course not – he was first and foremost a German composer. That, of course, did not stop the Nazis from demolishing his monument and prohibiting his music on the stage. Was David Oistrakh a “Jewish violinist”, as Wikipedia once claimed (now corrected)? No, he was a Soviet musician who happened to be born to a Jewish family. Was Boris Pasternak a “Jewish poet?” He was not - Pasternak was a Russian poet; There are many more examples. It is helpful to understand, however, that Jews were second-class citizens in Soviet Russia. To identify them as such, their passports proclaimed their nationality as “Jewish” while everyone else’s read, “Russian.” On page 7, Katz quotes scriptwriter Lipskerov: “You know who I wanted to be as a child? Russian! … All my books are written on behalf of a Russian Jew who considers himself a representative of Russian culture.” As a Russian-Jewish, American immigrant, I personally know many people who feel exactly the same way.
What struck me the most about Katz’s book was that the animations, familiar from my own childhood, had other meanings which had always stared me in the face, though I’d never noticed. When I asked my wife if she thought Cheburaska - one of the main characters in Soviet animation and a “quintessential Soviet pop icon” to this day - was Jewish, she responded, “of course! Is it not obvious?” Well, I had never looked past his adorable ears and the obligatory Soviet messaging in the cartoon. In this respect the book was a revelation to me: nothing was actually hidden from view and yet I had been blind to the obvious.
The book makes abundantly clear that despite the temptation to draw certain parallels with iconic American animations, such as Mickey Mouse, Soviet animated films actually played a much larger role in Soviet culture than American cartoons in the culture of the U.S. Many of the characters become household names, subjects of well-circulated jokes, and mascots of national events. Even a device that controls Russian tanks’ turrets is called “Cheburashka” after the hero of the animation of the same name! What is even more amazing is that many of the Jewish artists that created these characters projected their most personal and painful life experiences (many fought in WWII and lost countless relatives and friends in the fighting) on what has become an integral part of the Soviet/Russian cultural fabric.
I vividly remember a 1980’s article in an influential Soviet newspaper regarding a poll conducted in Poland. The subject of the poll was anti-Semitism, which was on full display in Poland at that time. What was startling to read was that none of the respondents had ever met a Jew! In Poland there were less than 2000 Jews left in the 1980s – those that were not killed had left the country. It is a little-known fact that there were pogroms initiated by the Poles right after the liberation of Poland by the Allies at the end of WWII; there are still eyewitnesses around. One would be tempted to think that 30 years after WWII and the suffering the Poles themselves endured at the hands of the Soviets and Nazis, they would have been less severe to Polish Jews. I am well aware that far greater minds than mine have strived to understand this enigma. I feel this history is important to keep in mind while reading this book, as it is impossible to separate it from the historical context.
While Maya Katz’s book is concerned with the fairly narrow subject of the roles of Jews in Soviet animation – the author’s expertise is in art history - it is inevitably a part of a larger discussion on issues of anti-Semitism, cultural identity, and the role Jews played in the cultures of their native countries. It would be helpful for the reader to have some understanding of the historical context and, in particular, have some familiarity with Russian/Soviet history.
My hope is the reader will not only find the book informative and enjoyable but will also seek to find further answers to some of the questions the author explores. In my opinion, the companion books would be “The Cunning of History” by R. Rubinstein, published over 40 years ago, “Wages of Destruction” by A. Tooze, a very recent release, as well as “Stalin’s Last Crime - The plot against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953” by J. Brent.
This book is obviously a labor of love and represents a mountain of research; it is an invaluable addition to the subject of Jewish artists’ identity under totalitarianism.
Most highly recommended!