Masha and the Bear are not coming to invade your homeland

On Guard For The Defence Of The Motherland!

Time for a Saturday spleen-venting. It’s always dangerous to predict that we’ve reached “peak” anything, because life will no doubt find a way to prove you wrong. But I truly with that a story in today’s Times could turn out to be peak…I don’t even know quite what to call it…cliché Russophobia.

The target of my ire is a short article, ‘Children’s show is propaganda for Putin, say critics,’ which uncritically relays allegations that the Russian animated cartoon Masha and the Bear is “a ‘soft propaganda’ tool for the Kremlin” because “the Bear symbolised Russia and was designed to replace a negative image of the country with a positive one in children’s minds.” Worse yet, “in one episode, Masha, wearing a Soviet border guard’s cap, patrols the Bear’s garden and chases out a hare that tries to steal carrots. Critics have seen this as a statement about Russia’s defence of its borders.” One Prof. Glees, of the University of Buckingham, is trotted out to deliver the punchline that “Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her slight weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.”

Well, actually it is pretty damn far fetched to see Putin in a little girl who cries when she doesn’t get what she wants and gets her pig to dress up like a baby. Even more so that the Kremlin would want that to be how people think of Putin. Needless to say, the only contrary view in the article is a note in the last paragraph that “Russia’s state media has ridiculed the concerns.”

For a start, such a take omits to consider that the cartoon series, which admittedly began in 2009, under Putin, is based on a long cycle of oral folk stories predating the 1990s. It would be a little like accusing Fawlty Towers as being pro-Brexit, because the representation of the incompetent Spanish waiter Manuel was a call for Britain to ‘take back control of its borders’…forty years later. Or perhaps that Bob the Builder, with its distinct absence of Polish plumbers and Romanian roofers, is likewise Brexit-Isolationist brain washing…

This is just one of a steady trickle of bizarre stories relating to Russia’s Machiavellian genius in weaponising everything. Remember those football hooligans who were somehow part of Putin’s ‘hybrid war’? Of course Russia is launching a active measures campaign against the West, but shoddy pieces like this that suggest that anything demonstrating that the Russians themselves are human beings like us, that their kids watch TV cartoons like us, that their hot-headed young men can get violent in support of their teams and in mutual displays of machismo like ours, that they live and love, dream and die like us, is somehow ‘soft propaganda,’ is depressing to the nth degree.

It’s also a problem. Why?

  1. It’s stupid. Just that; this is a desperate and silly idea that shouldn’t be reported except as such. And if it is going to be written about, it really shouldn’t be too difficult to find some kind of alternative take – that’s just proper journalism, no? (By contrast, The Herald had earlier ran a much funnier but also more balanced take.)
  2. It devalues the real propaganda. Of course Russia is maintaining a soft power campaign to try and influence foreign perceptions, ranging from presenting Putin as some kind of bare-chested champion of traditional values, to suggesting that the Europeans are being coerced into sanctions and other anti-Kremlin moves by an overweening America. Just as to defend all is to defend nothing, so too to see everything coming from Russia as propaganda is to make it impossible to make a serious case when it really is.
  3. It devalues us. When did it become necessary to dehumanise the Russians, to have to pretend that everything in and from Russia is evil, in order to critique and resist Putin’s regime? First of all, this – I would say – flies in the face of our own liberal world view.
  4. It helps Putin. Secondly, it is bad politics, it plays to Putin’s own legitimating narrative, that the West hates Russia and Russians, and that is why they need a strong state and a strong leader.

 

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10 Comments

  1. The animated cartoon Masha and the Bear is also famous in Indonesia. I don’t see any political element in it.
    I just like it because it’s adorable.

    Reply
  2. I agree with you that it’s far-fetched to read the show as propaganda, but I still hope it doesn’t take off. Masha is a really terrible figure for kids to aspire to (and also, it’s totally annoying)

    Reply
  3. Only ‘Masha and the Bear’? Other pieces of shameless propaganda: ‘War and Peace’ (militaristic), ‘Song for the Knyaz Igor’s Army’ (proto-expansionist), ‘Dead Souls’ (nationalist writing masked as social criticism), ‘Crime and Punishment’ (especially Raskolnikov’s confession, agressive Orthodox propaganda), ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Prokofiev used Russian-style music – case of Russian cultural appropriation), ‘Francesca da Rimini’ (the same appropriation, crime committed by Chaikovsky this time), ‘Lolita’ (Russian author making propaganda in favour of child abuse), and many others. I like these kind of judgments. They make me feel young again, even if I am not old enough to have been contemporary with A.A Zhdanov.

    Reply
  4. Edwin Pace

     /  November 17, 2018

    By God she scares me! And that rabbit looks pretty sneaky as well. And did either ever visit Salisbury?

    Seriously, it’s actually good to see what appeals to average Russians. They would not like a lot of our media either.

    Reply
  5. Thanks to a daughter who likes “that silly girl”, I’ve seen my fair share of episodes. I never thought I’d think deeply about Masha and the Bear, but Masha appears to be a orphan living in rural poverty, surrounded by rusting, decrepit artifacts from her country’s past. Honestly, it could just as easily be seen as subtle criticism of the system by the makers of the show as propaganda.

    Reply
  6. I’m surprised you slag me — and The Times — off, Dr Galeotti. I’m a fan of yours & I guess The Times is to (I don’t work for them and I comment as I please). But the ‘folksy’ kind of kids’ TV, e.g. the East German ‘Sandmaennchen’ show that there is a purpose behind almost everything state controlled media decides to broadcast, and this can often be to reassure during turbulent and violent times. I’m surprised you seem deaf to this message. Russia is testing us in the West. In every which way.

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  December 2, 2018

      I wouldn’t say I “slag you off” so much as take issue with something you say. Likewise, the Times is a first-rate newspaper, which is why I was surprised and disappointed to see a third-rate article like this in it. The notion that everything on Russian TV is broadcast because of a political message may have applied in Soviet times (and indeed to the GDR), but is hard to sustain if you watch much of it today. As I say, the point of dispute is not whether Russia is testing the West, it is whether *everything* that comes from Russia can be seen in that light.

      Reply

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