Winnie the Pooh is a very much-loved character from children’s literature and can be recognised in two forms: the original book version and the Disney, red jumper-wearing version that has spawned a multi-million dollar merchandise empire, brilliant cartoons (yes, I loved them even though some do consider them to be overly saccharine) and some not-so brilliant cartoons (My Friends Tigger and Pooh? Why did it unceremoniously dump Owl and Kanga? Why?!)
There is, however, another version of Pooh Bear which you may not be as familiar with, namely the Russian version of Winnie the Pooh AKA Vinni Pukh.
Certainly, you can see that Vinni Pukh looks like an actual bear. For one, he has long, black claws and has the correct colourings of an actual bear i.e. he isn’t mustard yellow. He has a much deeper timbre in the cartoons than Disney Winnie the Pooh and stomps about the forest in an almost aggressive manner as he goes about his business. However, he is just as philosophical – perhaps even more so more than Disney Pooh – and loves honey as much as his counterparts. While Disney Pooh is quite laidback though and eagerly goes ahead with the plans of others, especially if they’re Christopher Robin’s, Vinni Puhk takes the initiative much more often although he often takes advice and help from his best friend Piglet. So, I hear you ask, when did this start?
Back in 1958, Russian children’s author Boris Zakhoder had just read A.A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories and loved them so much that he translated Winnie the Pooh and The House On Pooh Corner for the Russian market. Because of differences in the Russian language, diminutives were added to some characters’ names along with some necessary name changes in order to make sense to Russian readers. For example, what we know as a heffalump, part-elephant, part-hippo, is known in Russia as a slonopotam. A few extra songs were added as well. Otherwise, the translations remain faithful to the story and Pooh and friends’ activities.
The books went on to become amongst the most popular children’s literature in the country to the point that the bear even had his own radio show, known as Winnie On The Radio. The show helped teach Russian children grammar which, according to Zakhoder, they were interested in learning from Winnie the Pooh because the English-speaking bear had to learn it himself.
In an interview with the New York Times in 1986, Boris Zakhoder posited that the books were so popular in Russia because of the bear’s “spontaneity, modesty and naïveté” and that he spoke “a universal language” for children. Vinni Puhk was also a warm character and while Alice from Alice in Wonderland, which Zakhoder also translated, was brilliant, her brilliance was often cold and so she was not as popular.
Zakhoder later approached director Fyodor Khitruk and Soviet animation studio Soyuzmultfilm to create a trilogy of Vinni Puhk cartoons: Winnie the Pooh (1969), Winnie the Pooh Pays a Visit (1971) and Winnie the Pooh and a Busy Day (1972). The cartoons follow the original stories although they exclude Christopher Robin in order to make Pooh the leading character and put the rest of the characters at a more equal level, not being overshadowed by a human. They still feature a narrator to deliver necessary exposition although he has no relation to the plot.
The cartoons met with great success and in 1976, Khitruk was awarded the USSR State Prize for the Winnie the Pooh trilogy. The characters have since featured on the 1988 Soviet stamps and 2012 Russian postal stamps, have sculptures in Moscow and were the first to be permanently featured on the side of a streetcar in Soloniki Park as part of the Fairy Streetcar Project. Notably, Wolfgang Reitherman, author of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day which won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, told Khitruk that he preferred the Soviet version to his own.
Winnie the Pooh’s popularity is thus international, transcending languages and other cultural barriers. As Pooh Bear continues to sell countless books, toys and other merchandise in many countries and is now worth several billion dollars, the bear with little brain but big heart shows no signs of slowing down yet.