Comrade Vinni remembered

The Soviet double-life of a favourite children's hero is revealed

In Winnie the Who? (Radio 4, 17 January, 10.30am) we were told it would come as an awful shock to most Russians to learn that Winnie the Pooh is not in fact "Vinni Pukh" from the Urals. One nice Ukranian lady described how she was recently sitting around suffering her British in-laws reminiscing about their favourite children's television programmes ("clangers and vombles") when she shared her own deeply-cherished memory of a series of Soviet films in which a bear hung out with an intensely stupid pig and a bookish rabbit, and how Russian and marvellous it had been.

After she was firmly put straight on things ("There was no end to my surprise!") she says she flat-out refused to regard herself as foreign. The discovery had standardised all human experience, period.

I'm always startled to hear that Winnie the Pooh is popular, anywhere. The Cliff Richard of children's heroes, he is a proper stiff, wandering through a foolishly idyllic landscape with his jumper and copy of the Daily Mail. And yet in Poland, for example, he's a national hero with streets named after him. In 1969 the Soviet Animation Company made waves adapting the Milne books ("without permission," sniffed the British executor) and promptly turned Pooh into a black bear with benzedrine-addict bags under his eyes and feet that never quite join up with his body.

I suggest you take a look yourselves on YouTube, specifically at Vinni Pukh Idet v Gosti, in which he and Piglet progress across a landscape that calls to mind Millefiori paperweights, occasionally rolling their eyes at the camera and singing "tram-ta-tan-pu-pum-pum" to a theme composed by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, friend and colleague of Shostakovich. After a while they visit Rabbit, who appears to be wearing a lacy red shirt and skintight capri pants. Over the course of a frankly trippy few hours, Rabbit perversely feeds Pukh all the decadent treats in the house, thereby preventing him from leaving via the front door (too guilty) and furnishing Rabbit with boundless opportunities to insist that everyone hand over their purchasing coupons.

Of course, that kind of thing happened all the time in the Hundred Acre Wood, but it did suddenly feel very Russian somehow - specifically very like The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, Vladimir Voinovich's novel about a hapless, rotund Red Army soldier fond of jam on black bread and amorous couplings in country haystacks - right down to Rabbit's Trotsky specs.

I might add that there was no sign of Christopher Robin, a character of whom the Soviets are violently suspicious ("If you imagine these guys are controlled by someone more intelligent then they would just be toys! Yes, yes, I saw the American film, but the presence of Christopher Robin completely undermines the credibility of the other animals!") Occasionally the programme cut to Russian émigrés remembering the days they played out in concrete brutalist yards in Moscow, swaddled in mink, until their mothers yelled "Pukh!" out of the 175th floor window and they hurried up to watch (". . . nose is cold tiddly pom, yes yes yes, that was a good one!"). There was no end to the sentimentality.

Pick of the week

Burns The Brand
24 January, 10.30am, Radio 4
Presenter Fred MacAulay estimates the monetary value of famed poet Robert Burns.

My Dark Places
24 January, 8pm, World Service
James Ellroy’s exploration of his mother’s real-life murder is dramatised for radio.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?