Dispute Pits Deripaska Against Cheburashka

Itar-TassRusskiye Oteli says it has documents proving the studio's property at 25 Dolgorukovskaya Ulitsa belongs to it.
Winnie the Pooh may soon be kicked out of his home by businessmen in search of a reasonably priced bed.

Soyuzmultfilm, the premier animation house in Soviet days, is in a death fight with real estate developers who want to build a hotel where the cartoonists' central Moscow studio now stands.

The tug-of-war between the animators and Oleg Deripaska's Basic Element holding company has far-reaching implications for the country's still-evolving definition of "private property," hotels market and fabled cartoon industry.

At issue is the question: Who owns the 70-year-old neoconstructivist building and the 0.7-hectare lot it sits on, a stone's throw from the Novoslobodskaya metro station?

The cartoonists, backed by the Federal Property Management Agency, say it belongs to the state. Russkiye Oteli, one of the companies owned by Deripaska's Basic Element, insists it is theirs.

Late last month, it was learned that the two sides had been battling it out in city courts for more than a year. Most recently, a court sided with Russkiye Oteli in July, stoking fears among animators that after 60 years at 25 Dolgorukovskaya Ulitsa, their days there were numbered. On Sept. 7, the cartoonists will appeal.

"This was a factory of culture, and it must remain a factory of culture," said Akop Kirakosyan, the studio's director. "Without our studios, Soyuzmultfilm's sense of purpose will disappear."

As Kirakosyan sees it, the studio's troubles began in 2004, when a firm called Tigma announced, in a city court, that it had bought the property. Tigma presented documents to the court showing the property, in fact, had been privatized and sold in 1991. The documents apparently showed that the property had passed through several hands before Tigma bought it.

But those documents could very well have been doctored, said the studio's lawyer, Vsevolod Volkov.

"There aren't any originals of the Soviet documents, and we think the ownership records are falsifications," Volkov said. He noted that Dolgorukovskaya Ulitsa had retained its communist-era name, Kalyayevskaya, until 1994. Oddly, documents presented by Tigma, supposedly dating to 1991, say the property was on Dolgorukovskaya.

Tigma was unfazed by any suggestions of impropriety: Months after announcing its ownership, Tigma sold the property to Russkiye Oteli, Volkov said. It was unclear what had happened to Tigma since 2005.

Volkov, for his part, wasn't about to roll over. "A film studio isn't some little store you can push out," he said. "It's going to make noise."

Russkiye Oteli's spokeswoman, Yelena Guryanova, said the animators were taking advantage of their reputation as the creators of Cheburashka, Crocodile Gena and dozens of other characters to win public support.

"If this were any organization other than Soyuzmultfilm, it wouldn't be such a big deal," she said. "People are trying to exploit [the status of] the studio, but the question has no social implications."

A scene from the first part of "Gofmaniada," which the studio is producing.
With the property's fate likely to be undecided for at least another year, Guryanova said, Russkiye Oteli has not drawn up any architectural plans for a hotel. "It would be a waste of money if the court rules against us," she said.

A Moscow lawyer, who asked not to be identified for fear of offending state officials, noted that until 1998, state property records were kept manually, and many records were lost after the system shifted to an electronic database.

Natalya Petelina, who is also a Moscow lawyer and specializes in real estate, added that this confusion could hurt Russkiye Oteli. "If it's found out that in the very beginning something was falsified by a previous owner, then unfortunately the current owner will be the one that suffers," she said.

But it is unclear whether any falsifications, in fact, took place. As Volkov, the cartoonists' lawyer, acknowledges, the criminal inquiry into the alleged record tampering that was opened in June 2005 has since been closed, with no wrongdoing unearthed.

For the cartoonists, all the talk about property records and falsifications is beside the point. The Soyuzmultfilm studios are a piece of history and the embodiment of a belief that humor, art and the wacky, wily adventures of two-dimensional animals can cheer, sustain and even elevate or teach.

The 1936 building, erected in the midst of the Stalin purges, gave rise to numerous films etched into the nation's collective memory -- "Cheburashka," "Among Blind Breads," "Tale of Tales," "The Heron and the Crane" and "Well, Hang On!" among others.

Today, its dusty, granite interior is festooned with awards and posters from film festivals in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Havana; presidential messages; and other mementos of a faded glory.

"I became an animator accidentally, but I then came to know all its secrets," said Vyacheslav Shilobreyev, the studio's deputy director. "Animation is an art at the intersection of all arts: You have to be an actor, an artist, a theater historian, a musician. Every film opens up a new world."

Stanislav Sokolov, a director working on "Gofmaniada," a series of films based on the tales of German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, recalls that the cartoonists approached their work with relentless good cheer. "We'd get picked up by the police sometimes and ask for a pencil to finish the project we were working on while being detained," he said.

If the studios are shut down, Kirakosyan said, Soyuzmultfilm -- which has already been reduced to 100 animators from its peak of 600 in the 1980s, and has suffered numerous downsizings over the past decade -- will fold. Many say it is already on its way out.

The only solution, Kirakosyan added, is for the government to step in. Russia, he said, needs a leader like U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, whom he credited with saving U.S. culture in the 1930s.

Failure to save the studio would mean a great cultural void for the country, Shilobreyev said. "We weren't creating idle, insignificant things," said the cartoonist, who, like many other animators at the studio, is in his 60s and has been professionally drawing pictures for four or five decades. "We were trying to raise film to the level of philosophy."