Vol. 14, No. 2
Superbook to the Rescue: Christian Animation on Soviet Television
Preethi Fenn Jacob with editorial assistance from Mark R. Elliott
A Mountain of Mail
“We have never had such vast amounts of mail come into our post offices in any given four weeks.” So reported officials at Moscow’s Central Post Office in 1991 following the airing of episodes of the Superbook Christian animated series on Soviet television. According to Canadian-Finnish producer Hannu Haukka, who had worked for six years to see Superbook gain Soviet air time, “It was an incredible sight. A mountain of mail spread all over the floor of the building. They were deluged with letters. No previous program on Soviet television had ever triggered such a response from its viewers.”
Who is Hannu Haukka? How did Christian programming make its way onto Soviet television? And what happened to that mountain of mail in Moscow’s Central Post Office? Answers to these questions will bring to light one of the most extraordinary, and seemingly improbable, episodes in the history of Christian mass media and in the history of Soviet media.
Hannu and Laura Haukka
Hannu Haukka, born in Finland in 1954, immigrated with his family to Canada in 1957 and settled in Vancouver, British Colombia. Haukka attended Katinala Bible College in Finland and traveled from there to the Soviet Union some 20 times between 1971 and 1976. In 1974 he was ordained a minister in the Pentecostal Church in Finland. Haukka’s wife, Laura, a native of Russia, has been an active partner in his broadcasting ministry, which began with radio work in 1977. After radio broadcasting assignments in Austria with Earl Poysti (Pocket Testament League) and in Sweden with IBRA Radio, Haukka and his wife moved to Helsinki, Finland, in 1980 to launch a weekly Finnish radio program under the auspices of IBRA-Finland. The Haukkas’ growing interest in television, as well as radio, is reflected in the name of their ministry, International Russian Radio/TV Ministries (IRR/TV), founded in 1987.
First Acquaintance with Superbook
As the Haukkas were searching for a video product for Russian children, Finnish friend and computer program supervisor, Keijo Palonen, mentioned to them that he had seen animated Bible stories called Super book, produced by the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in the United States. Haukka immediately recognized the Russian potential of this innovative, professionally produced animation that was both entertaining and biblically faithful. That took considerable vision on his part, given the longstanding, heavy hand of censorship on all Soviet media. (Editor’s Note: But there were the beginnings of cracks in the Red armor. For example, “Dallas” could be viewed in Tallinn, Estonia, in the Soviet Union, in the late 1980s in households with antennas directed across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki.)
Obtaining Rights; Obtaining Airtime
In 1986 Hannu Haukka approached David Clark, CBN Vice President of Marketing, seeking to secure Russian rights to Superbook. Following up on a written request, Haukka called Clark on 1 April 1986, but was unable to secure a commitment from CBN by phone:
We said to David that we needed to come to Virginia Beach [Virginia] to negotiate the rights for Superbook. But we didn’t know which way the issue would go — would they give us the rights or would they not? Because we were a small organization, we said to David, “We can’t invest the money just for nothing. I mean, if you can’t tell us on the phone whether we can get the rights or not, we won’t even come. Because we can’t afford it. We can’t afford the air tickets.” The only thing he said was “Come on over. We will try to be as thoughtful as possible, as considerate as possible.” So we decided finally that we would come. We would take the risk and pay the airfare.
By 8 April 1986 Clark granted Haukka the rights to dub Superbook into Russian, but the CBN executive was skeptical that Russian TV viewers would ever see it because of Soviet censorship. The U.S.S.R. was still a closed Communist country and unlikely to broadcast a television series with religious content. In addition, if the series caught the attention of Soviet authorities, there was the possibility they could ban it from Russian video as well as television markets.
In the months that followed, Haukka dubbed four episodes into Russian at the IRR/TV studio in Finland. These video episodes were then smuggled into Russia by volunteer couriers. Haukka knew his intended audience. As a Finn, he understood better than most Westerners. In addition, his wife was Russian, and he had spent time in the Soviet Union. He also knew the extraordinary potential of Soviet television to reach a mass audience. In 1940 the Soviet Union was home to only 400 television sets, but by 1976 the U.S.S.R. was producing seven million sets annually. Whereas only five percent of the Soviet population watched television in 1960, by 1986 that figure had jumped to 93 percent (Ellen Mickiewicz, Split Signals: Television and Politics in the Soviet Union [New York: Oxford University Press, 1988], 3). If Superbook could ever make its way onto Soviet television, it could reach an enormous audience.
The Launch on Leningrad Television
In Spring 1989 Leningrad Television was preparing a documentary on religion in the Soviet Union. Haukka relates:
Well, this is what happened. In the course of doing a documentary, the camera team (from Leningrad TV) stumbled into a private home where our first Superbook video cassettes were already available and they [the parents] were showing them to the kids in the family. And when the team came in to shoot footage for the documentary, they saw the children watching these Christian videos, and they noticed that this product was not made in the USSR. It caught their attention; it was the episode on how the world began. The film crew included a small portion of Superbook in the documentary on religion which was aired on Leningrad TV.
Both the family and Leningrad TV took a risk in April 1989 by airing footage from a video that had been smuggled into the country, but the response could not have been more heartening. The two-minute excerpt from Superbook that aired on Leningrad Television as part of the hour-long documentary on religion in Russia sparked tremendous, favorable audience response. Telephone calls and letters poured into the offices of Leningrad TV, asking what the excerpt was and whether more could be shown. Leningrad TV then opened negotiations with Haukka that only a few months later led to a contract for the Russian version of Superbook to be aired as a weekly program. The Leningrad television channel on which the documentary aired was the third largest in the U.S.S.R. Leningrad TV could be seen throughout Russia proper and many of the other republics, with an estimated viewership of 70 million.
After about eight weeks on Leningrad TV, Channel One of Soviet Central Television in Moscow called to negotiate a contract to air Superbook as well. By May 1990, Superbook was being shown during prime-time on Soviet Central Television which, because it was a satellite-based system, had a viewership of almost 300 million across the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Vietnam (E-mail from Hannu Haukka to Mark Elliott, 16 October 2005). This was the first time in the history of the Soviet Union that a Christian television series was broadcast.
As noted, providing viewers with an address to request more information led to a flood of mail into the Moscow Central Post Office. The letters expressed appreciation for the programs and, in almost every case, parents and children asked how they could find God. Within four weeks after the end of the series, viewers wrote over one million letters in response. When news of the success of Superbook in Russia reached CBN and after Haukka delivered some of the mountain of mail to Virginia Beach, CBN executive Michael Little pledged financial help to speed up the dubbing process and to allow Haukka to pursue other broadcasting opportunities. CBN entered into a joint venture with Haukka’s International Russian Radio/Television and Soviet Central Television to co-produce three one-hour television specials, the first of which was called Superbook Party. It, in turn, generated millions of letters, as did the airing of Superbook in the early 1990s in other regional languages: Estonian, Latvian, Belarusian, Karelian, Moldovan, Armenian, and Georgian. IRR/TV, all totaled, received over five million letters in response to various showings of Superbook in Soviet bloc states (Haukka to Elliott, 16 October 2005). Four weeks into the launch of the Superbook series, Soviet Central TV President Mikhail Nenashev had many of his staff threaten to resign in protest over the airing of Christian programming, but Nenashev stayed the course and the series continued to air. F
Editor’s note: For information on current projects and programs of IRR/TV in Russia, the Middle East, and China, consult the ministry’s Web site: http://www.irrtv.org/ministries.html.
Edited excerpt published with permission from Preethi Fenn Jacob, “Diffusing an Entertainment-Education Television Series Across National Boundaries: Superbook in the Former Soviet Union,” Ph.D. dissertation, Regent University, 1999.