The Watchlist: Seasonal Soviet Animation

The Watchlist is Klassiki’s occasional series of themed viewing recommendations drawing from the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we salute the season once again with a selection of six Soviet animated classics for the whole family.

The Snowman-Postman (dir. Vladimir Suteev, 1955)

Animation was one of the jewels in Soviet cinema’s crown. The founding of the Soyuzmultfilm studio in 1936 built on pre-revolutionary exploits including ballet master Aleksandr Shiryaev’s ground-breaking stop-motion animations and Ladislas Starevich’s world-first puppet film The Beautiful Leukanida (1912). During the studio’s “golden age” in the 1950s, filmmakers increasingly turned to folktales or national poems for inspiration, aided by the rise of rotoscoping, an animation technique allows for the tracing of motion picture footage. While Christmas largely disappeared from the public sphere during Soviet rule, New Year remained the chief festival in the calendar – with its ubiquitous yolki or fir trees, gift-giving, and attendant fairy tale cast of characters – providing animators with the canvas on which to create some of their most beloved fantasies. It is from this rich history that this seasonal Soviet watchlist is drawn.

 

The Snowman-Postman (dir. Vladimir Suteev, 1955)

In the late 1930s, Leonid Almalrik began working with his contemporaries to direct short films that would go on to define the “Soviet style” of animation. Following the Second World War, during in which he continued to work, mainly to the avail of anti-Hitler sketches, Amarlrik began to adapt fairy tales written by his long-time friend, Vladimir Suteev. The Snowman-Postman was born out of Suteev’s folktale Yolka (or fir tree). Set on New Year’s Eve, the storyline centres around a group of children who make a charming snowman that miraculously comes to life. Teaming up with a puppy named Druzhok (“Little Friend”), the Snowman embarks on a journey to find Grandfather Frost, hoping to deliver the children’s letter requesting a traditional fir for their celebrations. Some may know the cartoon as Spunky the Snowman as it was heavily edited and dubbed for Western audiences in the years following its release. Recognised internationally, this short film has evolved into a nostalgic and classic tale, making it worth a watch – for the endearing snowman, but also for its vintage and feel-good festive charm.

 

The Snow Queen (dir. Lev Atamanov, 1957)

Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 fable of the same name, this classic offers a unique take on the same fairy tale that inspired Disney’s Frozen. During the era of the Iron Curtain, the film’s production team faced restrictions that prevented them from visiting Andersen’s home country during research for the film. Instead, they turned to Latvia and Estonia for architectural and atmospheric inspiration. The result was a production that would span over two years, a 70-minute runtime, and a dazzling animation design where the religious motifs of the original story were now removed to align with Soviet conditions. While not conventionally humorous, and distinct from its Western counterpart, it has been described as a poetic showcase of Soviet animation. Similar to other animations on the list, The Snow Queen has been translated into several major languages and distributed globally. If possible, experiencing the original Russian version with subtitles is recommended.

The Mitten (dir. Roman Kachanov, 1967)

The Mitten (dir. Roman Kachanov, 1967) 

A delightful, award-winning 10-minute puppet animation with no dialogue, The Mitten is set against a snowy backdrop and tells the heart-warming story of Anya, a young child with a deep desire for a pet dog (we’ve all been there) despite her mother’s reluctance to allow one into their home. The narrative takes an enchanting turn when, while playing outdoors, Anya’s vivid imagination brings a knitted puppy to life from her mitten. Blending tenderness with tragedy, The Mitten foregrounds the imaginative exuberance and liberty of childhood, only to confront the sombre realities of parental rationality. To no surprise, the film received widespread international and domestic recognition. Notably, the director, Roman Kachanov, went on to helm the celebrated Cheburashka trilogy, solidifying his place in the annals of animated filmmaking.

 

The Nutcracker (dir. Boris Stepantsev, 1973)

An acclaimed masterpiece of animation, based partly on Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet of the same name, but more closely following E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. The music in the film borrows from the ballet but also includes selections from Tchaikovsky’s other famous fairy tales: The Russian Dance, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. In dreamy surrealist tones, the narrative courses through a tapestry of vibrant colours, where characters shimmer and dazzle throughout the film’s twists and turns. Honouring its inspirations, the animation captures the spirit of Hoffmann’s tale and Tchaikovsky’s melodies, offering a seasonal celebration of the enduring power of love.

The Nutcracker (dir. Boris Stepantsev, 1973)

Hedgehog in the Fog (dir. Yuri Norstein, 1975) 

No list of Soviet animations is complete without Yuri Norstein. Produced by the Soyuzmultfilm studio in Moscow, the Russian script was penned by Sergei Kozlov, who also authored a book under the same title. While not strictly a festive title, the gloomy, wintry atmosphere that permeates the film hides a miniature marvel of intrigue and wonder in keeping with the season. Norstein’s deceptively simple fable deals in weighty conceits: the “seeker versus dweller” dichotomy represented by the hedgehog and the bear; the mysterious white horse that emerges as a potential embodiment of truth, and perhaps even God. After being voted the world’s greatest ever animated film in 2003, a monument of the hedgehog was erected in Kyiv, speaking to the cartoon’s international acclaim as well as its commercial success.

Watch Hedgehog in the Fog on Klassiki now.

 

Winter in Prostokvashino (dir. Vladimir Popov, 1984) 

The third instalment in a trilogy following the escapades of Uncle Fyodor and his companions in the picturesque titular village. With a blend of oddity and whimsy, this festive cottage-core episode charts the fallout between a family, a dog, and a cat, who have all come together to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The film’s particular qualities lie in its abundance of cultural references and colloquial phrases embedded in the Russian vernacular. For example, Matroskin, the recurring cat character from the animated series and the original film, has evolved into a widely recognised feline persona renowned for both intelligence and frugality – and the cat alone justifies the film’s inclusion here. “You eat your sandwich with the salami side down, just because one cat said it tastes better?” Happy holidays.

Explore our collection of animated film here.

Thomas Sensini is a freelance writer and videographer interested in creative production, cultural history, and sound design, studying at Central Saint Martins and living in London.