Although you may never have heard of Krtek, he's a legend in some parts of the world. Also known as "The Little Mole," Krtek (pronounced KURR-teck) could probably be considered the Czech Mickey Mouse and is an important cultural relic of the Soviet Bloc communist countries during the Cold War. Created by a Czech artist in 1954, Krtek's cuteness weirdly belies his communist origins, not unlike Disney's Mickey Mouse gas masks, but the fact that Krtek is still hugely popular may be a testament to the nostalgia of simpler times.
Communist countries in the 1950s - including the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc - banned Disney cartoons and other western influences, so communist animators created their own characters. But Krtek became one the most widely popular thanks to his innocence, kindness, and desire to help others, all traits that earned him the respect and love of worldwide audiences even after the Fall of Communism. Today, shops in the Czech Republic are filled with Krtek merchandise, and he continues to be one of the most beloved characters that many people in the United States never even knew existed.
The mole known as Krtek first appeared in 1956 in a cartoon film called How the Mole Got His Trousers, created for the Czechoslovakian Communist Party as a commission. The short was made to help teach children how pants were made (as well as, perhaps, the communist value of industry?) but the story development went so much deeper that viewers immediately fell in love with the main character, Krtek. Originally voiced by the creator's daughters, the mole later took on took on a mostly silent role, similar to many other cartoons of the time period, such as Tom and Jerry. Because of this, Krtek didn't require translation and could easily be shared and loved by audiences in different countries throughout Europe. He eventually came to symbolize values like friendship, human decency and morality, and with Mickey Mouse banned in Communist countries, Krtek had little cartoon competition.
Zdenek Miler was born in 1921, went to school for art, and worked on a few of the films by renown Czech animator Jiri Trnka. He later got a job at Barrandov Studios who gave him the task in 1954 of creating a cartoon about the manufacturing of pants. Miler realized the idea wasn't very exciting and as he was trying to figure out how to creatively tell the story, gained inspiration after tripping on a molehill. The lovable character of Krtek was born to lighten the subject matter, and he tested the mole's appeal on his own children. Perhaps one reason his character became so beloved was the fact Miler put a little of himself into his cartoon. "When I draw Krtek I am drawing myself. What I mean is that Krtek is the ideal that should be me. But I can’t meet that ideal," Miler once commented.
Thanks to communism, Krtek was confined to the Soviet bloc for more than three decades. When communism ended in 1989, the cartoon mole spread quickly throughout the world in part because as his stories did not rely on dialogue, language barriers were not an issue. Merchandising deals appeared outside of Czechoslovakia for the first time, and Krtek found himself on books, lunch boxes, and other paraphernalia. But although Krtek is now known worldwide, he is still most beloved in the countries that once made up the Eastern Bloc. For Czech citizens, Krtek brings a sense of nostalgia, a feel-good message about life, and a reminder of simpler times. However, Krtek never became popular in the United States, possibly because in his absence, Disney and other animation giants had filled the gap with other characters.
Zdenek Miler passed away in 2011 at the age of 90 and left a Krtek empire, starting a minor war over who would inherit it. Miler had left five of his direct relatives with a controlling stake of Krtek. This caused tension in the family, but his granddaughter Karolina Milerova claims she helped Miler creatively with the cartoons when she lived with him and allegedly he had gave her full control of the company while on his deathbed. Over the years, the family entered into agreement about the company, and Milerova retained control. She formed a new company and began licensing new products, some to vendors who compete directly with one another. Now some companies are dispuing her ability to create legal agreements, citing vague documentation and lack of proof that she is the rightful heir to Miler's legacy. There are currently legal suits over the character, and some companies that make Krtek products are not happy with the way Milerova is running things.