Ukrainian Animation on the Margins of the Empire:

The Case of Davyd Cherkas’kyi’s Adventure Trilogy

Olga Blackledge
Upon their release, the series Prikliucheniia kapitana Vrungelia / Pryhody kapitana Vrunhelia / The Adventures of Captain Wrongel (1976-1979, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), Doktor Aibolit / Likar Aibolyt’ / Dr Aibolit (1984-1985, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), and Ostrov sokrovishch / Ostriv skarbiv / Treasure Island (1986-1988, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) directed by Davyd Cherkas’kyi at the Ukrainian studio Kyivnaukfilm became instant Soviet animation classics. These three series were commissioned by the Creative Association “Ekran” for All-Union television broadcasting. They are adaptations of books about overseas adventures – a popular genre in the literature of colonial powers. Yet, by using multi-layered intermedial imagery, as well as fragmented narratives that change the mode of the literary works from romantic adventure to physical comedy, Cherkas’kyi creates a postmodernist hybrid site that invites multiple interpretations.
Davyd Cherkas’kyi, Ukraine, Kyivnaukfilm, animation, adventure literature, postcolonialism, postmodernism, hybridity, cultural appropriation.


Davyd Cherkas’kyi at Kyivnaukfilm

“Ekran” and Cherkas’kyi’s Adventure Trilogy

Adventure Literature as a Literary Source for Cherkas’kyi’s Trilogy

The Adventures of Captain Vrungel' (1976-1979)

Doctor Aibolit (1984-1985)

Treasure Island (1986-1988)





Suggested Citation


In the comment section of “Masters of Russian Animation”, a list of films published on the streaming service MUBI, user Sophie wrote “Great list! But add DOKTOR AYBOLIT, it's a classic!” (27 June 2021). Apparently, in response to this demand, the animated series Doktor Aibolit / Likar Aibolyt’ / Dr. Aibolit (1984-1985, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) was added as #279 with the geographic attribution “Soviet Union”. The series was directed by David Cherkas’kyi (1931-2018), a Ukrainian director of Jewish origin, and produced at the Ukrainian studio Kyivnaukfilm. Another animated series directed by Cherkas’kyi, Ostrov sokrovishch / Ostriv skarbiv / Treasure Island (1986-1988, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic)1 is mentioned as #256. This list is just one of the many examples of animated films produced in Ukraine that were not seen to be ‘Ukrainian’ during the Soviet period and were instead perceived as Russian even after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Indeed, such an attribution would be typical for audiences outside Ukraine: before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, the discourse about the Soviet legacy was dominated by voices from Russia, which perpetuated the Cold War practice of equating the Soviet Union with Russia. As the terms ‘Soviet’ and ‘Russian’ were used interchangeably outside the region before 1991, they continued to determine the understanding and interpretation of the geographical, political, and cultural processes taking place in the territories that previously constituted the USSR. Regardless of where the cultural products came from in the Soviet Union, they were called ‘Russian’ and perceived as such. It is possible to argue that Russia appropriated the cultural products produced in the national republics that constituted the Soviet Union and absorbed them; this would, however, represent only part of the story, which this article attempts to address.

Focusing on Cherkas’kyi’s trilogy – Prikliucheniia kapitana Vrungelia / Ostriv skarbiv / The Adventures of Captain Wrongel (1976-1979), Doktor Aibolit / Likar Aibolyt’ / Dr. Aibolit (1984-1985), and Ostrov sokrovishch / Ostriv skarbiv / Treasure Island (1986-1988) – this article asks questions about the animation production and distribution in Soviet Ukraine. It also analyses the trilogy, investigating the thematics – travels to far-away-lands – as characteristic of imperial cultural production and demonstrating how these themes were interpreted in animation produced outside the imperial centre. Drawing on Homi Bhabha’s interpretation of hybridity (Bhabha 1994), the article argues that Cherkas’kyi’s films present inclusive sites of cultural hybridity created through, on the one hand, the parodic reinterpretation of the romantic travel narratives and, on the other, by using the collage technique in creating the imagery of the films.

Davyd Cherkas’kyi at Kyivnaukfilm

The Adventures of Captain Vrungel' – Davyd Cherkas’kyi’s first adventure series – brought its director all-Soviet popularity and recognition. An engineer by trade, Cherkas’kyi was a self-taught artist whose influences included the French cartoonist Albert Dubout (“Intellektual’nyi rablezianets” 2017). He started working at Kyivnaukfilm in 1959, the year when a new animation department specialising in the production of narrative animated films was established at the studio.2 Later, the studio hired Marc Draitzun, Volodymyr Dakhno, Efrem Pruzhans’kyi, and Alla Hrachova (Cherkasskii 2012) – all architects by trade – who, together with the founders of the animation department, Ippolit Lazarchuk, Iryna Hurvych, and Nina Vasylenko, laid the foundation for the Ukrainian school of animation developed at Kyivnaukfilm.

In multiple interviews, Cherkas’kyi emphasised that when the studio was founded, nobody in Kyiv knew how to produce animation, which is why the newly hired animators were sent to the Moscow studio Soiuzmul’tfilm for professional development. At Soiuzmul’tfilm (Soyuzmultfilm), Cherkas’kyi was supervised by Viacheslav Kotenochkin, the future director of one of the most popular animated series Nu, pogodi! / Just You Wait! (1969-2017, Soviet Union, Russian Federation). Animators from Soiuzmul'tfilm would also visit Kyivnaukfilm to teach its staff how to produce animated films. Radna Sakhaltuev, an animator from Ulan-Ude, who upon graduation from VGIK was sent to Kyivnaukfilm and worked with Cherkas’kyi on most of his projects, also felt that Kyiv lacked (able) animators and that the help from Moscow was necessary (Sakhaltuev 2017). Such a position fits into the general narrative about Soviet animation: starting from the 1930s, the animation industry in the Soviet Union was centralised in Moscow at Soiuzmul'tfilm studio, whose name became synonymous with Soviet animation. To become an animator, one could attend animators’ courses also located in Moscow, the only city in the USSR where education in animation could be obtained. In such a centralised hierarchical system of animation production, Moscow was considered the centre and the best place for education and work, thus determining animation trends and priorities, while animation in the republics lagged behind.

However, the Ukrainian animation department was founded by animators with considerable experience who had already worked at Kyivnaukfilm producing “useful animation”3 for educational films – Ippolit Lazarchuk, Iryna Hurvych, and Nina Vasylenko. Cherkas’kyi himself acknowledged that the founders’ approach to training new hires by engaging them in the production of animated films was successful. In Cherkas’kyi’s own words,

We [animators] grew from film to film. Eventually, we developed rather outstanding high-quality animation, but it was completely different from that of Soiuzmul'tfilm. When we started working in animation, we knew that we would not be able to make it similar to Soiuzmul'tfilm – we simply did not have the education for that, which is why we […] had to create something new and developed a style of our own. It took a long time, but as a result, we had a solid animation studio. (Cherkasskii 2012)

Cherkas’kyi was known for his self-deprecating humour and downplaying his achievements, and his comment about being unable to draw animation similar in its quality to that of Soiuzmul'tfilm seems to be one of those cases. What is definitely true is that even though the work of the Ukrainian animation studio was “controlled by Moscow” (Marchenko 2018), Kyivnaukfilm and the film directors who worked there developed a unique animation style. Yet, Ukrainian animation before Prikliucheniia kapitana Vrungelia, especially that produced in the Ukrainian language, including the animated films directed by Cherkas’kyi, remained largely unknown outside the Ukrainian Republic.4 The fate of Cherkas’kyi’s adventure trilogy was different: it was created for the central distribution company located in Moscow, it was in Russian, and it was distributed on All-Union television, which assured its fame and popularity.

“Ekran” and Cherkas’kyi’s Adventure Trilogy

Until television became a mass medium in the Soviet Union, the exhibition of animated films through cinemas had been a challenge – it was hard to fit them into screenings, and theatre directors often did not want to compile separate programmes of animated films, which meant more work and less profit. Television completely changed this situation. As Iulia Baiandina maintains, in the 1960s, animation was gradually moving from the cinemas to the television screen (Baiandina 2012). Already in 1960, a resolution adopted at a meeting of the Union of the Cinema Workers of the USSR and the Directorate for Film Production of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR declared the foundation of a studio specialising in the production of animation for television (Ibid.: 5). In 1970, the Creative Association “Ekran” (under the directive of the State Committee of Television and Radio Broadcasting of the Soviet Union) began commissioning animated films for television release. “Ekran” contracted various regional and republican studios, including Kyivnaukfilm, to produce animated films and series, thus determining their content and language: to be broadcast on the All-Union TV channels, animation had to be produced in Russian. All three Cherkas’kyi’s series analysed in this article were commissioned by “Ekran”. They enjoyed the broadest possible viewership across the country and became a cultural phenomenon. The thematics of these series were also determined by “Ekran”: they are all adventures, with the main characters travelling to exotic lands; they are also based on the classics of children’s literature, some of which had been previously adapted for the Soviet screen.5

Adventure Literature as a Literary Source for Cherkas’kyi’s Trilogy

Adventure literature emerged as an imperial genre, and as the Soviet Union was a country with strong anti-colonial foreign views – with colonialism seen as the worst form of imperialism6 – adventures and travelogues were a contested genre in Soviet children’s literature, and the official attitude towards them varied at different historical periods. In the 1920s, there were a good number of books of this genre, even though the points of travel destination were “the countries in which the world revolution was to break out in the near future or to underdeveloped indigenous countries to bring the light of political enlightenment” (Maslinskaia 2014: 237; translations are mine unless otherwise noted – O.B.). By the 1930s, however, due to the Soviet state’s moving away from the idea of igniting communist revolution around the world in favour of building “socialism in one country” and due to the adoption of Socialist Realism as the state’s official artistic method, the new focus of children’s literature was “on plots with emphasis on verisimilitude and the description of the pioneers’ every day” (Ibid.: 244). Despite the decline in adventure and travel stories in the 1930s, adventure stories remained of high importance for the theoreticians of Soviet children’s literature. Thus, Samuil Marshak, a major theorist of Soviet children’s literature, as well as poet and translator, in his seminal 1936 article “For Great Children’s Literature” (“Za bol’shuiu detskuiu literturu”), emphasised the importance of adventure stories (Marshak 1971). In this article, he also praised Jules Verne as one of the model writers for children and “English writers”, saying that “Only the English were considered the masters of children’s novels” (Marshak 1971).7 Thus, among the books recommended for publication in Detgiz - the publishing house specialising in children’s literature founded in 1933 - were “the best books from world literature (Robinson Crusoe [by Robert Louis Stevenson], Gulliver’s Adventures [by Jonathan Swift], Jules Verne)” (cited in De Florio 2018: 196).

To complicate this picture of the place of adventure and travel stories in Soviet children’s literature, it is important to keep in mind that different Soviet republics displayed different tendencies. For instance, as Darya Semenova demonstrates in her comparative study of Polish and Ukrainian children’s literature published in the 1920s and the 1930s, in Soviet Ukrainian literature of the period, there is only one case of a novel that features travelling abroad, 8 whereas in other novels, the encounter with the “other” takes place on specifically Ukrainian or Soviet territory (Semenova 2014). Semenova juxtaposes this tendency with that in Polish literature, where the thematics of exotic overseas travel were much more widespread, explaining this difference by the political situation in independent Poland, which strove to acquire overseas colonies: this goal was specifically expressed in the activities of Liga Morska i Kolonialna (Maritime and Colonial League).

The argument about the relationship between national literature developing the thematics of travelling and adventure and its colonial pursuits is not new.9 What is interesting about Semenova’s argument, however, is that it demonstrates how the idea of the exploration of exotic lands becomes a part of the collective and creative consciousness in a newly independent country like Poland, which once occupied much more of Europe and after 1918 tried to develop colonial ambitions. In other long-established empires, such as Great Britain and France, overseas travel and adventure had been literary staples for centuries. In Martin Green’s words,

the adventure tales that formed the light reading of Englishmen for two hundred years and more after Robinson Crusoe were, in fact, the energizing myth of English imperialism. They were, collectively, the story England told itself as it went to sleep at night; and in the form of its dreams, they charged England's will with the energy to go out into the world and explore, conquer and rule (Green 1979: 3).

These stories involved travelling overseas to far-away places, exploring and establishing the colonial order in new lands, and hunting for treasure. The stories told in the Russian Empire were similar, but the majority of them were not for children, and they were a product of a different type of colonial expansion – continental or internal.10 As a result, as Martin Green and Alexander Etkind demonstrate, the stories of Russian colonisation were about travelling by land or in-land. Soviet literature included Western European imperial classics in the canon of children’s literature, making the dream of far-away islands also a dream of Soviet children.

The Adventures of Captain Vrungel' (1976-1979)

All of the series in Cherkas’kyi’s adventure trilogy feature exotic overseas travels. The first and the most radical out of the three, Prikliucheniia kapitana Vrungelia, is loosely based on the eponymous novel by the Soviet writer Andrei Nekrasov, published in 1937, with significant differences – the original story narrates a voyage around the world and does not have any plot twists or characters complicating the genre. In the series, Cherkas’kyi introduces the Robbery of the Century, the gangsters, the mafia chief, and the secret agent with the purpose of adding complexity to the dramatic composition of the story. Another difference is that in the book, the captain provides significant critical commentary on the countries he encounters, while in the series, the captain is less prone to such cultural criticism.

In the book, the captain’s commentary is embedded into his storytelling in the form of critical observations that have been interpreted by Katia Cennet as “a kind of digression into the traditions of other cultures” (Cennet 2015: 146). In her analysis of the character of Captain Vrungel’, Cennet maintains that Vrungel’ is an individual unlimited by either ideological or geographical constraints and that he represents an archetype of a free person who “echoes the European humanistic tradition […] according to which culture and progress are juxtaposed to the true existence of ‘savages’ whose representatives Vrungel’ and his team encounter during their voyage” (Ibid.: 151). As a piece of evidence to support this argument, Cennet points out that Vrungel’ does not compare the foreign countries he visits to the Soviet Union and does not create in his narrative the “triumphant image of the Soviet reality” (ibid?). In Cennet’s view, this makes Vrungel’ “if not an anti-Soviet, then at least beyond-Soviet character” (Ibid.: 147).

Cennet’s reading of Vrungel’s character in the context of the European humanistic tradition and asserting his ideologically and geographically unbound freedom is highly problematic – the idea of freedom, European style, despite its claims for universality, is racial, and to a large extent grounded in white privilege and fortified by the colonial expansion of European empires into non-white continents.11 However, the racial blindness of Cennet’s argument does not seem surprising, especially considering that Vrungel’s expressions of axiological concerns regarding the cultures he encounters cannot be easily explained in racial terms. Vrungel' expresses his sympathy towards Norway, Egypt, and Hawai’i while criticising the future Axis countries – Italy, Germany, and Japan – and future Allies – the UK and USA, as well as Brazil. If the criticism of the latter three is more subtle and done in passing – for instance, Vrungel’ mentions the extermination of indigenous populations in Hawaii, the ubiquity of English conventions in Egypt, and a high level of street violence in Brazil12 – the criticism of the former three occupies a substantial amount of Vrungel’’s narrative. The main focus of this criticism is colonial expansion or occupation of other countries. In Vrungel’’s story, Italy, Germany, and Japan are criticised for their aspiration for territorial expansion. Below is one of the passages from Vrungel’’s narrative:

Вот я вам про Италию имел случай рассказать. Там заправилы мечтали всю Африку к рукам прибрать, пол-Европы, четверть Азии [...] А на востоке японские бояре (самураи по-ихнему) так же вот размечтались – подай им весь Китай, всю Сибирь, пол-Америки [...]

Вообще-то, конечно, мечтать никому не заказано. Полезно даже порой пофантазировать. Но когда такой вот фантазер нацепит погоны да сядет на боевом корабле у заряженной пушки – тут и неприятность может случиться [...] Размечтается да прицелится, прицелится да бабахнет. Хорошо, как промахнется. А ну как попадет? Да тут такое может случиться, что к ночи лучше и не вспоминать! (Nekrasov 1937)

I have had an opportunity to tell you about Italy. The bosses there dreamed of taking over all of Africa, half of Europe, a quarter of Asia. … And in the East, Japanese boyars (or samurais as they call them) also got to dreaming – they wanted all of China, all of Siberia, and half of America. ... Of course, no one is forbidden from dreaming. Sometimes it’s even helpful to fantasise. But when such a dreamer puts on shoulder straps and gets on a warship with a loaded cannon – this can cause a lot of trouble. … He would get to dreaming and take aim, and having taken aim, he would shoot. It would be good if he misses, but what if he doesn’t? Things can happen that are better not to remember closer to the night.

Using the figure of a dreamer and the popular ironic Russian expression about unrealistic desires – “There is no harm in dreaming” (mechtat’ ne vredno) – Nekrasov paints the image of a greedy coloniser whose ambitions can lead to tragic outcomes. It is remarkable that, in Vrungel'’s words, “it is better not to remember” what can happen as a result of colonial pursuits: he knows from his own experience (the Great War, perhaps) how dangerous they are. Vrungel’ describes the evidence of the changes that happen to colonised territories using the word “culture” with a negative connotation – he contrasts it to the pre-colonised times, idealising them, while associating “culture” with the departure from the traditional ways of life – modernisation, the rise of commerce and crime, and economic inequity. For instance, in his commentary on Norway, Vrungel’, while expressing his love for its people, contrasts old and contemporary Norway, remarking that things there have changed:

Ну как же, знаете: в войну немцы там побывали – новый порядок наводили. И сейчас посещают страну разные просветители, поднимают образ жизни на должную высоту. Ну и, конечно, пообтерся народ, стал порасторопнее. Теперь уж и там понимают, что где плохо лежит. Культура!

You know, Germans were there during the war – established their own rule. And now different enlighteners visit the country, raising the living standards to the appropriate level. And, of course, the people have gained some experience and become more efficient. Now they also understand where and what is easy to poach. This is culture!

Here, Vrungel’ uses the term “culture” as synonymous with social modernisation while referring to the negative changes that the coloniser brings to the colonised territories – changes in the social order, traditional relationships and practices. This understanding of “culture” is the opposite of how Western European civilisation represents itself – as enlightened, progressive, and sophisticated. For Vrungel’, the consequences of colonisation are damaging to local life. In this regard, the name of Vrungel’’s ship – “Pobeda” – that is transformed, due to an accident, into “Beda”, becomes more than a pun – it is a reminder of the dialectics of victory, of how a victory can inadvertently turn into a disaster.13 However, while being overtly critical of the contemporary colonial expansions, Vrungel' is more ironic than critical regarding the old empire – England (other ‘old’ empires are not even mentioned). It seems that he is more concerned with the future and potential changes in the world order and the threat coming from the countries attempting to expand their territories.

Vrungel'’s literary voyage around the world is well-documented geographically: Nekrasov lists all the ports where “Beda” stops and all the places Vrungel'’s team visits, with the point of departure being Leningrad, a Russian city in the west of the country, and the final stop of the trip being Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii, a city in the Far East. As Cennet writes, “Thus, the circle remains incomplete, and it seems unbelievable that in 1937 the vigilant censorship overlooked the fact that between the starting and ending points of the brave captain’s adventures there lies an immense space – the whole territory of the Soviet Union” (Cennet 2015: 144). However, even though the circle is incomplete, the travels in the overseas colonising or colonised lands came for Vrungel' and his team to an end. If Vrungel' were to travel through the whole territory of the Soviet Union, he would have to comment on a different type of colonisation – the continental one – and how the lives of multiple Indigenous peoples from whom their land was taken by the Russian Empire were affected, and on the methods of colonisation used by the Russian Empire and the Soviet government, including those of forced settlements and incarceration in labour camps. In the political climate of the 1930s, the discussion of such topics in literature could be highly problematic for the author. Nekrasov is not taking any chances, simply avoiding any reference to the cultural life in the Soviet Union.14 Thus, the anti-colonial narrative created in the book turns out to be highly selective and ineffective for speaking about the history of colonialism of old colonies, such as the British Empire, as well as of the author’s own country.

In contrast to Nekrasov’s book, Cherkas’kyi’s series does not provide any commentary on colonisation or cultural changes. The events in the series take place outside of any reference to historical time, in spaces stripped, to a large degree, of their cultural specificity. There is still Egypt and Hawaii. While Egypt is only marked by the pyramids and kaffiyehs, in Hawaii, Vrungel' and Fuchs, mistakenly identified as natives after their ship has crashed, give a hugely successful performance of what is supposed to be local Indigenous music, but is, in fact, Russian humorous folk song, chastushki, for the rich white audience. The rest of the places are mostly reduced to signs in Russian – such as Korolevskii Muzei Iskusstv (Royal Art Museum) – and fragmented pieces of buildings, harbours, and islands. The majority of the places are nameless, and the ship’s route is not geographically sound.

Vrungel' teaches at a naval academy in an unknown, presumably Soviet, town and is invited to participate in a regatta which starts and finishes in the city of Nsk – an unidentified city – in which Beefeaters participate in the ceremony at the start of the regatta in the harbour.15 On the way to Nsk, the ship first sails by Antarctica (Vrungel' identifies his position on the map in the vicinity of the Lazarev Sea, saying that the ship is supposed to reach its destination in two days) and then moors at a city with a zoo that has inconspicuous signs in Italian. Cherkas’kyi’s story is not concerned with local cultures and geographical verisimilitude, it mixes and matches places and characters, introducing new plot twists.

The series parodies multiple genres, including musical, crime, thriller, spy, detective, etc. Here, Cherkas’kyi introduced multiple songs, some of which became extremely popular.16 All the singing characters in the series – parodies from foreign films – display a metanarrative awareness of their function in the story and of how they complicate the series’ genre. Thus, Agent 00X – a parody of James Bond – in his introductory song declares, “I am here because without me there won’t be a detective story” (“Я здесь, поскольку без меня не будет детектива”),17 while the two Italian mafiosi, Julico Banditto and De La Voro Gangsterito,18 sing in fake Italian, “Банко, тресто, президенто оргаблянто в ун моменто. И за энто режиссенто нас сниманто в киноленто” [We would rob a bank, trust, president in no time, and for that, the director casts us in his movie].19 The main characters – Captain Vrungel', his mate Lom, and the sailor Fuchs – do not display the same level of reflexivity: they are simply participants in the story told by the captain in a single flashback. With the new characters – Agent 00X, the mafiosi, the yacht club speaker, whose image is inspired by Uncle Sam – transplanted from foreign films to Soviet animation – and with the new plotlines of the round-the-world regatta and robbery of the century, the series transforms into a complex multi-layered pastiche celebrating postmodernist ahistoricity and absence of geographic specificity.

The film is also highly complex visually. The dominant technique used in the series is cut-outs (for the characters and some other objects, for instance, newspapers), combined with stylistically diverse drawings (inspired by comics, propaganda posters, maps, realistic paintings, etc.), objects (for instance, threads), and documentary footage (of water, fire, sky, and, presumably, Wall Street). 20 This type of imagery is reminiscent of a collage in which a variety of media are brought together. The liberal use of parallel editing that follows intertwining plot lines, active camera movement within the frame, and dramatic angles create highly dynamic film imagery despite the fact that cut-out characters are limited in movement. But these cinematic techniques are not the only ones that create movement in the series – there is also the complexity of the image itself, its intermediality. The most complex metamorphic character in the series is Agent 00X, who, having been annihilated multiple times (blown up, mutilated, burned), recovers every time and continues his pursuits of the mafia, his body disintegrating into and regenerating from pieces and ashes. Similar to the bodies in the previously discussed Cherkas’kyi series, the Agent’s body is fragile but also invincible, which is highly unusual for Soviet animation, especially before the 1980s, which featured predominantly integral and ossified bodies. The hybrid postmodern image of the series emphasises the complexity of the world created in it without reducing it to a single point of view, whereas the intermedial tension among the elements of the image allows for bringing them together without unifying them.

Doctor Aibolit (1984-1985)

Cherkas’kyi’s second series, Doktor Aibolit, is also an intermedial text. The series is based on a compilation of poems by the famous Soviet children’s writer and poet Kornei Chukovskii. Several of them, the ones about Dr. Aibolit and his nemesis, pirate Barmalei, are free adaptations of Hugh Lofting’s stories about Dr. Dolittle21 – a doctor who learned to understand the language of animals and who travelled to Africa to cure them. Starting in the 1960s, Lofting’s books were criticised for their verbal and visual racist imagery of African people and were subsequently removed from the following editions by the publisher. Yet the problems with the books go much deeper. As David Steege demonstrates in his analysis, the stories about Doctor Dolittle are embedded into an imperial ideological framework in which the white doctor is worshipped by the Indigenous people, and British science, management, and culture are presented as a desirable norm. As Steege points out, Doctor Dolittle positions himself as a bearer of the British Enlightenment, showing no “interest in learning about or maintaining the cultural traditions of the indigenous peoples” (Steege 2003: 95). In his retelling of Lofting’s stories, Chukovskii considerably reinterpreted and recontextualised the original, stripping Doctor Aibolit of any “national features” (Platt 2008: 104).22 In Cherkas’kyi’s series, however, even though Aibolit’s background is not identified in any way other than that he is white, there is more information about other characters’ geographic origins. For instance, Barmalei, the “evil bandit”, who is also a pirate, is being addressed by the African native animals as “sir”, pointing towards his British origin, while the eagles who help Aibolit reach Africa speak with a distinct Georgian pronunciation.

In Cherkas’kyi’s series, the story of Aibolit is expanded beyond Chukovskii’s retelling of Doctor Dolittle’s story – various other Chukovskii poems, including Tarakanishche / The Monster Cockroach (1921), Mukha-Tsokotukha / Little Fly So Sprightly (1923), Telefon / The Telephone (1926), and Kradenoie solntse / The Stolen Sun (1933) are woven into the plot, which changes the dynamics among the characters. Thus, in the series, Barmalei occupies a much more prominent role, with his character being more complex and ambiguous. Instead of declaring that he is “blood-thirsty and merciless”, as he does in the poem, he seems to doubt his own characteristics, using a questioning intonation – “Am I blood-thirsty? Am I merciless?” He needs the others to reassure him of his negative role. He also demonstrates much creativity – he stages an opera, Little Fly So Sprightly – even though the goal is to lure children so that he would be able to eat them, which he never does.

The animated series is itself an opera – all of Chukovskii’s verses are sung by various characters. Such use of music in animation was characteristic of the earlier Soviet animation influenced by the Fleischer Studios. Early animated adaptations of Chukovski’s poems, such as Limpopo and Barmalei, directed by Vladimir Polkovnikov and Leonid Almarik (Soiuzmul'tfilm, 1939 and 1941, respectively), heavily borrowed from the Fleischers’ style, not only in the use of music and characters’ singing, but also in the construction of characters and their movement. For instance, Barmalei (in the eponymous 1941 short) resembles Popeye’s nemesis Bluto (later Brutus). Cherkas’kyi’s animation demonstrates an awareness of the earlier adaptations – there are some similarities between the construction of the characters and some of the mise-en-scenes. Yet, Cherkas’kyi’s style – a combination of drawn animation and cut-outs – creates a different type of imagery and movement, which points less to borrowing but more to a dialogue with the previous animated adaptations of Chukovskii, as well as his poems. In Homi K. Bhabha’s terms, Cherkas’kyi’s animation is a “hybrid site of cultural negotiation” (Bhabha 1994: 177-178) that creates a third space, different from the hegemonic narrative and open to alternative interpretations.

Treasure Island (1986-1988)

The chronologically last series, Ostrov sokrovishch / Treasure Island, is based on the famous eponymous classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883).23 Extremely popular since the time of its publication, the novel told a romantic story in which a voyage to far-away lands promised fabulous treasure. It continued the genre of island fiction established by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but its romanticism, purity of adventure, and distance from any obvious participation in the exploitation of the people and resources of the far-away lands made it particularly attractive. And, as Diana Loxley maintains, its “apparently oblique engagement with a colonial imperial vision makes it all the more powerful a text, given both the moment of its historical and ideological unfolding as well as the specific literary tradition with which it is aligned” (Loxley 1990: 132).

Cherkas’kyi’s series is a faithful adaptation of Stevenson’s novel in terms of the preservation of the original plot and characters. However, instead of an adventure story, Cherkas’kyi created a slapstick comedy filled with chases and gags resulting in bodily distortions and mutilations. All the characters, including the protagonists, are reduced to caricatures with a few dominant – mostly negative – features that are announced in a style parodying the reading of personnel files in the popular Soviet World War II spy series Semnadtsat’ mgnovenii vesny / Seventeen Moments of Spring (Tatiana Lioznova, 1973). The animation technique used in the series is traditional cel drawing,24 with an animation style similar to that of comics, with exaggerated grotesque figures and drawn sound effects missing from the soundtrack (the latter works more as a general music background or a counterpoint to the visual imagery).

In addition, the series uses footage of live actors performing musical numbers – humorous songs with didactic messages that, together with animated chases, disrupt the narrative and provide commentary on the plot developments similar to a Greek chorus – sung by actors dressed as pirates. For instance, when Jim Hawkins defeats a pirate in a pub brawl, the chorus sings a song about Jim’s exercising and the pirate’s drinking habits, drawing a conclusion about the benefits of sports. Some of these songs parody the official Soviet discourse, creating additional intertextual semantic layers. For instance, the refrain of “Pesnia o vrede kureniia” [Song about the Harm of Smoking] – “Минздрав предупреждает – куренье это яд” (The Ministry of Health warns you that smoking is poisonous) – uses the opening words of a typical Soviet public health announcement. At face value, the refrain is didactic and performs a socially beneficial function of deterring children – the target audience of the series – from smoking. However, used in the context of an adaptation of a colonial British novel, this phrase makes Soviet discourse a part of British colonial history while also making British colonial history a part of the Soviet imaginary, with the series parodying both. Such a hybridization of discourse could be called in Homi Bhabha’s terms “the display of hybridity” that “terrorizes authority with the ruse of recognition, its mimicry, its mockery” (Bhabha 1994: 115). Similar to the animated imagery, the live-footage inserts use physical comedy and manipulated movement of the characters, as well as optical, funhouse mirror kind of distortion of the bodies, adding to the comedic effect.

Thus, the overall style of the series is a hybrid – it is a collage of drawn animation and live action. Even though the plot, the characters, and the dialogue are the same as the original, by changing the genre and creating a highly dynamic comedy that annihilates the romanticism of the treasure hunt, Cherkas’kyi reinterprets the novel – it is not a colonial adventure anymore, but instead a self-reflective story about the survival and capacity of the animated body.


Cherkas’kyi’s adaptation of literary classics in the adventure animation trilogy is not only a postmodern but also a postcolonial text, even though the trilogy was produced during the late Soviet period. Working on Ekran’s commission and engaging with stories of adventure and travels to the far lands that are traditionally associated with imperial cultural production, Cherkas’kyi rereads their narratives, turning them into a hybrid site which resists a holistic explanation and is open to interpretation. The style of the series, with its intermedial imagery and a hybrid genre, resists the idea of a homogenising ideology. For Bhabha, such work in cultural production is possible from a “hybrid location of cultural value” (Bhabha 1994: 173) – from the place of marginalised and colonised experience. Working at a Ukrainian animation studio, far from the imperial centre, Cherkas’kyi reverses the colonial meaning of the novels: instead of repeating the grand romantic narratives driven by the unifying ideology, he creates post-modernist collages open for the audience’s interpretation. Though the popularity of the series was assured by their distribution through the All-Soviet television broadcasting and by their production in the Russian language, they are nonetheless a work produced on the margins of the empire.

Olga Blackledge
University of Pittsburgh


1In the US, a recut version of the series was released as a feature-length direct-to-video animated film The Return to Treasure Island in 1992. The American version does not include any of the musical numbers. (Accessed May 21, 2023)

2 The animation studio at Kyivnaukfilm was not the first one in Ukraine to produce animated films. The earlier animated films were produced during VUFKU (All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration) period, and when VUFKU was eliminated in 1930, Ukrainian animation mainly produced scientific-technical films (naukovo-tekhnichni filmy) and educational films. Very few narrative animated shorts were produced during the 1930s-1950s. (See, for instance, about the history of Ukrainian animation before Kyivnaukfilm: Briuknovetska, Kanivets 2018).

3 The term “useful animation” was coined by Malcolm Cook, Michael Cowan, and Scott Curtis (2023).

4 Prior to Prikliucheniia kapitana Vrungelia, Cherkas’kyi directed a number of animated films, including Taiemnytsia chornoho kopolia / Mystery of the Black King (1964), Kolumb prystaie do bereha / Columbus is Landing (1967), Misteria-buf / Mystery-Bouffe (1969), Korotki istorii / Short Stories (1970), Charivnyk Okh / Wizard Okh (1971), Navkolo svitu mymovoli / Around the World against the Will (1972), and Kakogo rozhna khochetsia? / What the Hell do you Want? (1975).

5 Prior to Cherkas’kyi’s series, three eponymous live-action adaptations of Treasure Island had been released in the Soviet Union: in 1937 (director Vladimir Vajnshtok), in 1971 (director Ievgenii Fidman), and in 1982 (director Vladimir Vorobiov). Doktor Aibolit had been adapted twice as a live-action film: Doktor Aibolit (1938, Soviet Union) and Aibolit-66 (1966, Soviet Union), and once as an animated short Barmalei (1941, Soviet Union).

6 See, for instance, Lenin 1920.

7 Jules Verne’s oeuvre includes such famous adventure novels as Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869–70). The “English writers” as a category included multiple authors who were famous as pioneers of and contributors to the adventure genre.

8 Kal’nitskii, Iurezanski 1928. Darya Semenova maintains that this book can be considered belonging to both Ukrainian and Russian Soviet literature, since it was simultaneously published in both languages, with neither of the editions being marked as translations (Semenova 2014: 72).

9 See, for instance, Bhabha 1994; Green 1979; Loxley 1990; Said 1993.

10 More on the difference between Russian and “western” colonialism see, for instance, Arendt 2017; Etkind 2011; Green 1979.

11 See the discussion of the amalgamation of the ideas of freedom and racial thought in, for instance, Stovall 2021.

12 Apparently, this is a reference to the political instability in Brazil in the 1930s, starting with the Revolution of 1930, when Getulio Vargas with the support of the military started consolidating power, and, probably, specifically to the failed communist uprising in 1935.

13 The name of the ship, “Beda” (in Russian: trouble, misfortune) is a reduction of the word “Pobeda” (in Russian: victory), which was the initial name of the ship.

14 The initial and the final points of Vrungel'’s voyage are reminiscent of the ones that Ivan Goncharov described in his autobiographical book Frigate "Pallada" (1854–1856) – Goncharov’s voyage starts in Kronstadt and finishes in Ayan. However, Goncharov proceeds to describe his trip from Ayan to St. Petersburgh by land.

15 Beefeaters are strongly associated with London and the British Empire. However, considering that they perform the function of ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London, their presence in a harbour for an opening of a regatta would be highly unlikely.

16 For instance, the mafiosi’s song Bandito gangsterito or the Gavaiskie gitary chastushki (music by Georgii Firtich).

17 Agent 00X song, lyrics by Iukhym Chepovets’kyi.

18 The first name comes from Aleksandr Nekrasov’s book on which the series is based, whereas the latter one appears only in the series. Both names consist of Italianised Russian words – ‘zhulik’ (scoundrel), ‘bandit’ (bandit), ‘vor’ (thief), and ‘ganster’ (gangster).

19 Banditto, Gangsterito, lyrics by Iukhym Chepovets’kyi.

20 Some of the reasons for using live footage combined with drawn images and marionettes, according to Cherkas’kyi, were purely practical – the timeline for the production of the series was tighter than what the resources of the studio could allow for, and the use of live footage, specifically of the sea, which movement is notoriously difficult to recreate in animation, allowed for meeting the deadlines imposed by “Ekran. See, for instance, Cherkasskii 2017.

21 The first story in the series of thirteen books, The Story of Dr. Dolittle, was published in 1920.

22 Even though Aibolit does not have an unambiguous national identity, the text of the poem Barmalei (1925) points to the Slavic origins of the human children that Aibolit saves from the bandit, as well as to the anti-African prejudices of their parents.

23 In his interviews, Cherkas’kyi called this adaptation a series (see, for instance, Cherkasskiy 2012) even though it was screened in two parts and later was released as a film.

24 Invented in the 1910s, cel (celluloid) animation technique involves creation of a multi-layered image with different layers containing different parts of imagery (such as background, characters, moving parts, etc.). This technique allowed for the conveyor-belt method of animation production and was the most widespread animation production technique up until the digital turn in animation.


Olga Blackledge is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on aesthetics, politics, and technology of media. She has published articles and reviews in Studies in Russian and Soviet CinemaAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Film QuarterlyGerman Studies Review, and KinoKultura.


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Suggested Citation

Blackledge, Olga. 2024. “Ukrainian Animation on the Margins of the Empire: The Case of Davyd Cherkas’kyi’s Adventure Trilogy”. Decolonising the (Post-)Soviet Screen II (ed. by Heleen Gerritsen). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 18. DOI:


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