Vinni Pukh, the bear of very little brain from the land with no pooh

Phil Reeves
Sunday 21 June 1998 00:02 BST

THERE ARE few officials in the world with a more unconvincing nickname than Boris Fyodorov, the man chosen by Boris Yeltsin to bludgeon rich Russians, mafias included, into paying taxes. He is a hefty, tough-talking fellow with an arsenal at his disposal, including a Balaclava-clad swat team, who race around in fatigues brandishing grappling-hooks and semi-automatic machine guns. Why, then, is the newly appointed head of Russia's tax service known to his friends as Winnie-the-Pooh?

Every Briton knows that the Bear of Very Little Brain has neither the credentials of a revenue-raiser nor a hunter of miscreants. We know that he hums and dithers; that he cannot collect honey without being pursued by a swarm of bees or getting jammed in doorways, and that he is no more likely to catch a Heffalump than he is to play centre-forward for England. Right? No - at least not in Russia.

Russians have their own version of Pooh, and he is currently enjoying a revival. Though based on AA Milne's 1928 version, he is a somewhat different character known as "Vinni Pukh". The word "pooh" has no meaning in Russian, but "pukh" describes the white fluffy seeds shed by poplar trees in the early summer (currently swirling like snow around the streets of Moscow). Unlike the genial figure drawn by Ernest H Shepard, Vinni is small - the size and shape of a football - and bouncy enough to be bordering on the aggressive. His eyes are wrapped in a black band, like the Lone Ranger's mask. And he has long black claws. He first appeared on the bookshelves of the Soviet Union many decades ago, but he made his film debut in 1969 - a year after Walt Disney had introduced us to his crass and stomach-churningly saccharin attempt at the same stories. A new edition of the Russian cartoons, originally made by Moscow's celebrated animators at "Soyuzmultfilm", recently arrived in the video stores.

Far from being overshadowed by cyber-entertainment, it sold out. "We quickly sold 30,000 copies, and next year we are expecting to do even better," says Olga Molokanova, commercial director of the company which released it. Britons familiar with the urbane and understated English Pooh are unlikely to feel comfortable with his celluloid Russian counterpart. Far from singing softly to himself while ambling across the landscape, Vinni strides around the forest as if he is marching on Berlin, blasting out "rum-tum-tum-tiddle-um" in a throaty drinker's voice. But Russians love him. So much so that some actually believe he is their own native creation. "Vinni has become a Russian national hero. He is living among us," says Svetlana Kim, head of the animation department at Moscow's Museum of Cinema. "It is because of the warmth of the characters. Disney's Pooh cannot in any way compete with ours. Our heroes look so real, so humane, with real character. In the American version, the heroes are without heart."

His star in the ascendant, and aided by the high profile of his namesake, the taxman, Vinni has begun to appear in newspaper political cartoons. Some of AA Milne's most celebrated phrases have long been in the vernacular and are still quoted as readily as Pushkin. A Muscovite who sees a storm-cloud gathering is likely to invoke Christopher Robin's line, "Tut-tut, it looks like rain". However, instead of "tut-tut" he will say "Oi-yei-yei". For Britons devoted to AA Milne, the presence of the words "oi-yei-yei" in a phrase borrowed from the most English of children's heroes sounds a little odd. But it is worth remembering that the cultural gap between us and the Russians is about far larger issues than mere words.

We also have different ears. How else can one explain the fact that, according to Russian toddlers' books, dogs do not go "bow-wow" but "Gav, Gav". Pigs do not oink but utter the cry "khroo-khroo". Geese say "Ga- ga". And - the crowning oddity - foals announce their arrival on the planet with an energetic "E-go-go". "Oi-yei-yei" might sound strange to you and me, but to Vinni's Russian fans, it's spot on.

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