July 01, 2021

Cheburashka in the Fog

Cheburashka in the Fog
A Cheburashka poster in Pripyat, abandoned site of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Fotokon

In late May of 2020, the world of Russian children’s literature was plunged into controversy after Tatyana Uspenskaya, the daughter of Eduard Uspensky, issued an open letter denouncing her father. Uspensky, a towering figure of late Soviet culture and the creator of Cheburashka, had departed this world two years earlier, and the Russian State Children’s Library was establishing an award in his honor. His daughter was objecting to that decision and accusing Uspensky of abusive treatment. “The name of a man who for many years perpetrated violence on his own family, including his children, should not be honored with an award in so humanistic a field as children’s literature,” Tatyana wrote.

This incident gave rise to what may be the most vociferous discussion to date of “cancel culture” in the Russian context. After all, Eduard Uspensky was not just a famous writer and television personality: his characters were integral to several generations of childhoods, and the idea of relegating the stories of Cheburashka, Crocodile Gena, Uncle Fyodor, and the cat Matroskin to the trash bin felt like a body blow to all Russians, tantamount to asking them to throw their own childhood in the trash.* Many prominent people have ardently defended Uspensky. The well-known journalist and writer, Dmitry Bykov, for example, publicly stated that he knew Uspensky to be a very good person: “I have a pretty good idea how unbearable any person can be in everyday life; there are no ideal parents.”

Several months later, the journalist Roman Super released a documentary film, This is Edik, telling the story of Uspensky’s life. The biopic covered the writer’s soaring achievements but also brought to light some rather unsavory details. On the positive side, once he became influential, Uspensky was an indefatigable fighter who helped other authors break through the censorship and stultification of the Soviet system. On the negative side, he was someone who went to court to strip Leonid Shvartsman, the artist who drew Cheburashka, of all copyrights to this world-famous image. Uspensky himself became a millionaire, while Shvartsman received no royalties whatsoever.

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