If you visit Russia today, you’ll see Cheburashka’s image in plush form, as a matryoshka nesting doll, and on T-shirts as “Che Burashka,” riffing on the revolutionary Marxist Che Guevara. Bronze statues have been erected in his and Gena’s likenesses in the towns of Ramenskoye and Khabarovsk, and Cheburashka was named the official mascot for the Russian Olympic team from 2004 to 2010, for which his brown fur was changed to a more patriotic white, followed by red, then blue.
But Cheburashka’s teachings about friendship have reached well beyond former Soviet states, to Europe and East Asia. Uspensky’s original 1965 book, Gena the Crocodile and his Friends, has been translated into over 20 languages. Cheburashka is known as Muksis in Finland, Plumps in Germany, and Topple in the U.K. He’s named Drutten in Sweden, where he and Gena starred in a hand-puppet spin-off show in the 1970s and ’80s. In Japan, where kawaii (cute) creatures reign, Cheburashka became a cultural phenomenon in the 2000s, inspiring a new Japanese-produced series of shorts in 2009, followed by a full-length feature film in 2010; the latter is part of the Ghibli Museum Library.
Cheburashka’s legacy has persisted because of the universality of his message—where you come from doesn’t matter, it’s kindness that’s important—but also because of Uspensky’s legal smarts. He copyrighted Cheburashka’s name and image and sold the rights to other countries, even approving the scripts for the Japanese productions. However, that came with legal hurdles: He and art director Leonid Shvartsman, who reportedly conceptualized Cheburashka’s most distinctive features for the original film, took at least one of their heated battles over Cheburashka’s image to court.