Penwhisk

Food with a Slice of History

Cheburashka

a crate of organges

Image courtesy of Sean Mungur on Unsplash

The mention of Cheburashka would send me running from my bedroom through our dining room straight into the living room in our house in Plovdiv.  I was certain that I must had seen the Soviet stop-motion animation series with this character at least a hundred times. Once in the living room, I would place myself in one bold leap onto the squeaky green armchair in front of our black and white television set.  I would hold my breath and cross my fingers that the set wouldn’t start flickering or all of a sudden go dark in the middle of the show.  I would jump up and down on the armchair (something strictly forbidden to me, for this piece of furniture was inherited from the father of my grandmother) and sing in Russian, loudly and very much out of tune, the crocodile Gena’s song from the series.  In the first episode, Cheburashka, a big-eared, fanciful creature covered in dark brown fur, was discovered fast asleep in a crate full of oranges at a Soviet food market.

I had a definite idea of what oranges were.  They were available about once a year in the weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve in the state-owned grocery stores. (In communist Bulgaria it was forbidden to celebrate Christmas, for Karl Marx had once claimed that religion was “the opium of the people.”)  My grandfather would wait for hours in the cold so that he could bring us home some of the bright, shiny globes bursting with flavor.  Once his turn came, he would be allowed only a limited number of the fruit because there were quite a few other comrades waiting in line outside the store.  Occasionally, it also happened that he would come home empty-handed after spending hours in the cold in the company of grumpy customers, for the delivery truck had not brought enough oranges on that particular morning.

Oranges never tasted good to me.  Maybe they were too messy, maybe the flavor was too intense.  I certainly didn’t appreciate the fuss associated with eating one.  At home in Plovdiv, we would gather around the table staring at my mother’s hands while she was trying to peel the fruit without wasting any of the flesh.  Once, upon finishing my piece, I tried eating the pith and couldn’t get rid of the bitter taste for hours on end.

The food market in the Cheburashka series was nothing like the grocery stores in my real life experience.  It had crates and crates full of oranges and no one lined up to buy them.  The only customer, a smartly dressed man, even bargained with the salesperson to get a smaller fruit than the one originally offered to him.  What was I to make out of oranges that no one wanted to eat? Were they poisoned like the apple in the fairy tale of Snow White?  Or, more likely, had the comrades died of hunger before the delivery truck had arrived? Or even worse, had they gotten so aggravated from having to wait for hours on end that they had started a fight and finished each other off?

In the world where no one cared about oranges Cheburashka was lonely.  The zoo keeper, to whom Cheburashka was handed over, couldn’t identify what kind of an animal he was and deemed him unworthy of being put in a cage.  Then he was taken to a store for discounted goods because, supposedly, he looked like a defective rabbit and was made part of the window display to attract customers.  Cheburashka was assigned a phone booth for a home, in which he passed his lonesome evenings sitting underneath a poster for oranges, sadly staring at a spinning pegtop.  It seemed unhappiness was one’s certain fate when one effortlessly obtained all the oranges in the world but had no hungry comrades to share them with.

Cheburashka’s empty universe was confusing to me in yet another way.  I associated the Soviet Union, the country whose language Cheburashka spoke, with the overcrowded Red Square in Moscow on May 9, the date of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.  To commemorate this momentous event, the Soviet government staged an elaborate Victory Day parade, which was broadcast on Bulgarian television directly from the Soviet capital each year.  The screen of our tiny black and white television set would be filled with rows and rows of tanks and other military equipment, rolling over the expanse of the square.  Generals would salute Brezhnev, the head of the Soviet state, who stood on a tribune in front of the Kremlin.  How could I reconcile oranges with tanks, or the cute Cheburashka with a stern-looking man with significant eyebrows?  Did Brezhnev even eat oranges?  Did he eat anything at all?  It looked like the tanks and missiles, the sight of which he seemed to enjoy, deemed even the thought of food unnecessary.  Good for him because food was in shortage in the communist world as I knew it!

While Cheburashka was shy and indecisive, Brezhnev appeared imposing.  Surrounded by his military entourage, he didn’t budge until the end of the parade, when the Nazi flags seized by the Soviet army during the war were brought out to be thrown onto the ground.  The gesture was a highly charged, symbolic expression of Soviet military might.  In the animated series, Cheburashka befriended the crocodile Gena.  Together they built a “house of friendship,” to which they wanted to invite even more friends.  Brezhnev was surrounded by his military friends.  He didn’t need to befriend anyone, for he had tanks and missiles.  We, Bulgarians, were said to be his friends.  I suspected that this wasn’t because he wanted to build a “house of friendship” with us but because we didn’t want his tanks rolling across our borders.  I had heard adults whispering about Czechoslovakia in 1968, when my uncle had decided to stay in West Germany and not return to Bulgaria.  Probably Deutsche Welle, the West German radio station, to which my grandfather secretly listened, had also something to say about this.

Despite my conflicted feelings, I found fascinating both the song from the Cheburashka series and the sight of the Nazi flags thrown onto the ground on Victory Day.  Therefore, I couldn’t resist jumping up and down on my great-grandfather’s armchair, while singing loudly and out of tune the well-known Soviet children’s song from the series. And all of this without giving a second thought to the fact that I was breaking a strict family rule.

Nonetheless, oranges still don’t taste good to me.

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2 Comments

  1. Aubrey Preston

    The propaganda machine was hard at work! Fascinating to learn your perspective on socialism as a young child.

  2. Sylvia

    Penwhisk, this is such an illuminating insight into your childhood and the political atmosphere of the time. Having grown up in a country where freedom is sometimes taken for granted, I am humbled by your observations.
    Wonderful writing.

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