Over the past year, I've had many discussions and debates over the "function" of pop culture in public diplomacy, and whether it can provide a viable solution to overcoming the massive volume of noise in the current communication and technological environment. Various theoretical frameworks suggest that it can. Actual observations suggest it works in some cases (after all, some audiences can surely be turned off by some of the more sexually or violently explicit, or extremely Western-centric "pop cultural" products coming from abroad).
But then, just like any other "tool" in cultural diplomacy, cartoons (which clearly fall into the "pop" category) can establish the grounds for goodwill. They can even help overcome long-held preconceptions and stereotypes about the other, thus creating the space for further openness to meaningful communication and information processing. Many communication and cognitive processing theories would support this argument, suggesting that "narrative transportation" and cognitive focus on the humorous/engaging aspect of the information can bring down the resistance to communication that would normally be induced by previous perceptions, attitudes, or beliefs.
Certainly, a good lesson to learn for Russians. I - just like everyone else in the post-Soviet/Socialist region - grew up watching the Soviet/Russian cartoons, most of which were far from having anything to do with ideological indoctrination: insofar as "indoctrination" is different from "socialization," that is. (Yet, "Tom and Jerry," "Looney Toons," and even "Popeye The Sailor" were among my favorites, too; though, I've got to admit, there might have been a degree of parental influence involved here.)
And although it might be unrealistic to "ask" Cheburashka, Postman Pechkin, or Karlson (who lived on the roof) to perform Russian public diplomacy (with all their time- and culturally-specific references), modern and well-produced animations with typical Russian or generally neutral themes could certainly help enhance it. Not only can they tell a typical Russian folk/fairy tale (thus conveying a lot about Russian culture, traditions, and history), but they can also deal with generally interesting and exciting subjects, thus appealing to young and adult audiences alike.
Here is a great example of a recent cartoon about the Russian legendary knight Alyosha Popovich (2004) [unfortunately, I was unable to find any English translations/subtitles].
Nevertheless, seems like the government has started to notice the potential: the Ministry of Culture has apparently been a significant supporter of and contributor to the creation of a recent cartoon "Belka and Strelka: The Star Dogs" (2009) about the pioneer dogs that made it to space and back (alive) in 1960. The cartoon was even released in 3D (in 2010) and the fact that the official website has an English section (plus many English-dubbed trailers available online) suggests that there was a special effort made to reach out to foreign audiences, too.
That is true of several "private" productions, as well. Yet, at the current rate, they obviously can't beat the American animated blockbusters. Not in marketing at least. Perhaps the great number of the Russian Cultural Centers abroad could be more helpful in facilitating various local screenings or - even better - organize local "cinema releases", even if in smaller, non-mainstream theaters?
After all, these cartoons are so cute (!). They speak to the younger audiences, who are much less susceptible to the pervasive attitudes or stereotypes about Russia (within their respective societies). And most importantly: they don't feature bears, fur hats, vodka, or Siberian winters...
P.S. - Completely forgot to share "Well, You Just Wait!" (really, can't get a better translation for Nu Pogodi!): probably my favorite. Enjoy!