[Boris Kagarlitsky]

"The Moscow Times", Friday, Jan. 26, 2001. Page 8

Russia Needs A Pokemon to Call Its Own

By Boris Kagarlitsky

Even children's cartoons can provoke political controversy. As soon as ORT announced plans to broadcast the Japanese cartoon Pokemon, the press was full of critical commentary. Why do we need these "pocket monsters" if we already have our own excellent cartoon favorites, such as the adorable Cheburashka? ORT ended up broadcasting a special program defending Pokemon and showing its roots in Japanese culture.

In terms of artistic quality, Soviet cartoons are indeed considerably better — both the artwork and the literary value. Many of the most labor-intensive forms of animation were practiced almost exclusively in the Soviet Union. Moreover, Cheburashka is a creation of the great writer Eduard Uspensky, while most Japanese cartoons are based on comic books that have absolutely no literary merit.

It is hard to imagine the creators of Pokemon developing a scene in which the mini-heroes, having lost their masters, decide not to fight one another but to instead sit down over tea and discuss life. After all, its producers must crank out hundreds of episodes each year, so there is simply no time for aesthetic niceties.

Alas, however, it is this mass production that guarantees Pokemon's victory. Cheburashka stars in only four films, while Pokemon is attacking along the broadest possible front. Every day new episodes appear on our screens, while the stores are full of related toys and clothing and goodness knows what else.

The advent of Pokemon will not mean the end of Cheburashka. After all, he and his friends continue to fire children's imaginations. However, it is impossible to ignore mass production. In this instance, the experience of Finland may be instructive. Instead of whining about the onslaught of American/Japanese popular culture, it fought back with its own weapons. They created a mass-culture version of the popular Moomintroll series by the talented Finnish writer Tove Jansson. Now Moomintroll has become an entire industry — books, toys, comics, clothes, etc.

Moreover, the Moomintrolls appeared on television with the help of the Japanese, who shared their mass-production techniques. The profundity and beauty of the original stories were combined with mass production and highly efficient Japanese technologies. As a result, Jansson's heroes now speak not only Swedish and Finnish, but English, German and Japanese as well. The Finns were never tempted to try to block themselves off from global culture: Instead, they sought a serious and realistic response.

But we have a different tradition. Inertia prompts us to immediately start bandying words like "ban," "prohibit," "censor." If we can't formally cut off the flow of Japanese cartoons, then we will call upon parents to forbid their children from watching them. We can lobby state-controlled ORT to stop showing Pokemon. We can pass laws banning foreign mass culture. We can make our children watch Leopold, Baba Yaga and Cheburashka until they are absolutely sick of them.

Of course, this is no answer. The late-Soviet system of restrictions and semi-bans on foreign culture simply produced a generation that was willing to blindly consume absolutely any trash as long as it was produced in the West. By defending one's native culture with idiotic means, one merely hurts oneself.

We should learn from the Finns. You can and must defend your native culture, but you have to do it using the means and opportunities of the modern world. Even with our limited resources we can find a creative solution if we apply our imaginations.

In order to resist the onslaught of mass culture, we need to understand the secrets of its success and learn from it while maintaining our own traditions and values. Cheburashka can learn from Pokemon.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.

[Boris Kagarlitsky]
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