My wife sat in our bedroom spellbound by YouTube clips of The Adventures of Buratino, a 1975 Russian-language made-for-TV film. For her the song at the finale, with an auditorium full of children shouting "Bu-ra-ti-no!," brought back warm memories of a happy childhood. And there always is this question in Estonia of how fondly to recall life in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.
It reminded me of an interview I read with Toomas Hendrik Ilves conducted by Mikhail Veller and published last month in Nezavasimaya Gazeta:
What do you think now, many years later – aside from the bad, did Soviet rule bring Estonia anything good?
If I’m not mistaken, Brodsky has an essay on this topic. He answers it this way: yes, but no.
But didn’t Estonia have a dynamic, intriguing and rich literary, painting and musical scene? A foundation was laid for science; the Estonian Academy of Sciences was founded…
Yes. But it all took place under pressure. It would appear that a totalitarian regime is still too high a price to pay for artistic development.
Too high a price to pay for artistic development, most certainly. But what about all those kids clapping and shouting about Buratino? If that film was made under Stalinist guidelines of Soviet realism, where everything has but one meaning, I couldn't tell. Besides, little Buratino didn't even have a red star on his nose. Wait, Buratino? Who the hell is Buratino?
If you are from the Anglo world like me, then Buratino is Pinocchio. But in the Russian world, Pinocchio is Buratino. Just as Puff Daddy took The Police's 1983 hit "I'll be Watching You" and made it his own in 1997 with "I'll be Missing You," Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy borrowed the motifs from Carlo Collodi's 1883 masterpiece The Adventures of Pinocchio and made them his own in his 1936 book for children, The Golden Key, or the Adventures of Buratino. Tolstoy had read the original as a child, tried to recreate it as an adult, and came up with something slightly new, he said. "Geppetto" became "Papa Carlo," and other new characters were thrown into the mix. The book soon spawned a series of cartoons, films, records, dolls, and other Soviet merchandise. It's still somewhat popular. While Estonians now consider their land to fall under the protective umbrella of the West, to this day they put on Buratino plays. In the Estonian language, of course.
That was another "Say wha?" moment the other night. The 1975 film my wife was watching was in Russian. Except my wife's native language is not Russian and, even though she lived within the USSR as a child, Viljandi county in the southwest of Estonia is a pretty monolingual environment, unless you want to consider Mulgi dialect a separate language from Estonian. "Did you understand what they were saying back then?" I asked her. "Muidugi," she replied. Muidugi? Of course?
For me, and a lot of Americans, this one is a bit hard to fathom. The most of any other language I knew as a child was gleaned from listening to Speedy Gonzalez, Warner Brothers' "fastest mouse in all of Mexico," shout ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! French lessons were provided by a skunk named Pepé Le Pew, who was always searching for "l'amour." Affaire d'amour? Affaire de coeur? Je ne sais quoi ... je vive en espoir. Mmmm m mm ... un smella vous finez. So, no, I was not functional in any language other than inglise keel as a child. How did she do it? I don't know. But she still knows the Russian words to the songs in Buratino.
An interesting aside: as a child, a lot of the programming I consumed was not produced in the United States. Instead, other than Looney Tunes, I watched imported British television (cartoons like Danger Mouse, spooky serials like The Third Eye). In my formative years, I saw enough British TV that I still get excited when I see the old logo of Thames Television. Whenever I see the reflection of London in the river, something stirs in my chest; I know that something really good is about to happen. "Ah, the good old Thames," thinks this New York-bred 30-year-old who lives in Estonia, "how I miss it."
What does this really mean? It means that we are dinosaurs. How small is the demographic of Estonians for whom that Buratino film from 1975 brings back warm feelings of nostalgia? It's a preciously thin slice of the local population. Likewise, how many Americans really care about Danger Mouse? For most, he's a successful DJ, not a mouse detective. And Mikhail Veller can reference Eesti NSV and the triumphs of the cassette generation, but how many Estonians today are still leafing through the nearly 50-year-old works of Leelo Tungal and Jaan Kaplinski?
When our 15-year-old babysitter gets a case of childhood nostalgia, she starts talking about the Moomin TV series from the early 90s. I don't understand it, but she can sit and watch those old Finnish cartoons dubbed into Estonian all day long.