Russia's Animated Debate

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One chilly October evening in 1975, a motley contingent of American exchange students at Leningrad State University found themselves herded off to yet another peace-and-friendship function, this one convened by a beaming Komsomol chap who claimed he'd show us a film so funny it was "guaranteed" to make us laugh.

This turned out to be a cartoon from the series "Nu, Pogodi!" ("Just You Wait!"), in which two sparely drawn characters, representing a wolf and a rabbit, took turns annoying one another with near-glacial alacrity in laboriously setup scenes of the mousetrap-snaps-on-nose and dumbbell-falls-on-foot variety.

So much for Soviet guarantees. The resounding dearth of American laughter left our hosts somewhat puzzled. The problem was actually quite simple: The cartoon wasn't funny. Or wasn't funny to us, rather. And there's the rub.

We'd all grown up on Disney-standard animation and animal characters of considerable depth and wit -- Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry, Roadrunner and so on. If you've spent years laughing at the ever-expanding ingenuity of Wile E. Coyote's attacks on the Roadrunner with items from the infamous Acme Company -- everything from rocket-powered roller skates to dehydrated boulders -- then "Nu, Pogodi!" can seem rather preschool-ish.

But what if you'd never seen a Roadrunner cartoon, or any of the others? And what if a wolf smoking cigarettes, drinking vodka and acting "cool" represented a conceptual revelation, a daring breakthrough in your insular country's animation history -- and perhaps even a cheeky sub rosa commentary on a society that piously and relentlessly trumpeted its "mature socialism"? I suspect that context made "Nu, Pogodi!" a different story -- literally and figuratively.

Briefly put, two audiences could watch the same Russian cartoon in 1975 and see two different shows altogether. One could empathize and one couldn't; one laughed and one didn't. And that was that.

Fast-forward to present-day Moscow and another cartoon dilemma, this one with higher stakes. Once again, two audiences are watching the same cartoons and seeing entirely differently things; but now the cartoons are American, and the audiences are both Russian. Local pro and anti groups are hotly debating whether "The Simpsons," "South Park" and "Family Guy" should continue on Russian television, and their debate says as much about Russia today as "Nu, Pogodi!" said about the Soviet Union of the 1970s.

The anti side is a near lock to win, since it has state prosecutors and State Duma deputies arguing before state courts and state monitoring and licensing agencies -- all very cozy. The pro side consists of a modest private business -- 2x2 television, which has been airing the cartoons -- and a sprinkling of youthful fans and civil libertarians.

Yet as "South Park" viewers worldwide will attest, you can kill Kenny, but he doesn't stay dead: The victory of the antis, in which the closed-society impulse defeats the global-village reality and "patriotic" crony capitalism trumps the open market, will likely be both temporary and pyrrhic.

The chief "legitimate" objections of the antis -- to satirizing ethnic and religious groups, to vulgar language and to occasionally execrable imagery -- are only legitimate if your cartoon context is circumscribed by "Nu, Pogodi!" and your calendar says 1975. This new-millennium comic Gang of Three trades in unabashedly adult, postindustrial amusements not intended for the very young and impressionable; if you find such humor offensive, inappropriate or incomprehensible, say the pros, keep your young impressionables away from it. And yourselves too. But know that the world has moved on.

If the state forbids adults satire that their peers elsewhere can watch, it will create an unwelcome domino effect, by turns alienating people, pushing them toward resistance, precipitating confrontation and eventually creating instability -- exactly what the antis claim to be anti. So, the pros ask, is it really wise to de-license 2x2 in favor of what one Duma stalwart calls a "new state-controlled patriotic youth channel" -- and others might call NashiVision?

What Russians allow on Russian television is their business, certainly. But the debate about it, equally certainly, needs to be honest -- not cast in false choices like "harmful" vs. "healthful" programming or "patriotism" vs. "pornography."

How about a real debate? Couldn't some Duma deputy ask, for starters, "Why can the archbishop of Canterbury enjoy the 'The Simpsons' while our audience needs protection from them?"

What year is it again?

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.