viktor-chizhikov
Viktor Chizhikov

Viktor Chizhikov is bitter, even today. His creation, Misha the Bear, emerged as the best out of 40,000 submissions for a contest to select the mascot for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

The mascot born out of the Communist bloc’s greatest power, the Soviet Union, ironically became the first to be a globally commercial success. And Chizhikov said that he was promised the copyright, didn’t get it, and thus never saw any royalties from the stuffed toys, t-shirts and television programs related to Misha the Bear. “I hate to talk about mascots,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “This is like a thorn in my heel.”

The renowned author of over 100 children’s books in the Soviet Union, Chizhikov insists he was promised copyright ownership over Misha. He has taken various parties to court for use of Misha, particularly over television programs that feature the famous bear.

And when the Winter Olympics came to Russia in 2014, Chizhikov was indignant over one of the Sochi mascots, Mishka the Bear. According to Inside the Games, he told a radio program the following:

It’s exactly the same as mine: the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the smile, though it’s askew. They pulled around all the details of my bear. The eyes are rounded the same way, the nose is a little altered and the smile has the same characteristics.

I can’t help but wonder what property rights or IP rights law was like in the Soviet Union, a state based on the ideology that the means of production are socially owned. But Chizhikov may be tilting at windmills, or at least fighting the wrong front. According to the Wall Street Journal article, it is not the national organizing committee that owns the IP rights to such items as the design of a mascot, it is the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In the end, Chizhikov said he received about 2,000 rubles (about USD1,600 at the time) for his original design of Misha…as well as credit for kicking off the race for commercial cash, even before the famously profitable 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

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The headlines in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s was of economic malaise, Three Mile Island, the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the presidential campaign pitting incumbent Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan.

It was the Cold War, and the temperature was below zero. And yet, then president of stuff toy manufacturer and importer, Dakin & Co., Harold A. Nizamian, thought the planned mascot for the 1980 Moscow Olympics was charming. So he bought the license to create a stuffed bear and began producing and selling “Misha the Bear“.

Dakin began producing 240,000 Misha the Bear toys a month in early 1979, and the bear was selling. According to this Inc. article, Nizamian implies that he had global licensing rights as he claims the “the Russians were delighted and tried to buy it from us”.

But when the United States government announced that America would boycott the Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and forbade American companies to do business in relation to the Olympics, orders were cancelled, and Misha was suddenly a victim of a bear market.

misha-the-bear-dakin-adI actually had one of those bears. I remember getting a whole bunch of Moscow Olympic swag because NBC had the US broadcast rights for those Games, and my father was working for NBC at the time.

What’s fascinating about Misha the Bear is that ironically, this lasting symbol of the Soviet Union is one of the best known of all Olympic mascots in the world, its image gracing t-shirts, coffee mugs, pins, posters, and toys. In other words, the Soviet Union created the first commercially viable and globally popular Olympic mascot.

According to the Huffington Post, “no other mascot has done more for its country than Misha from Moscow. As the smiling tiny bear touted as Russia’s cuddly ambassador to the world, Misha served as a warm child-friendly sight as the peak of the Cold War. His image, starkly different from the traditionally gruff bear common in Russian lore, propelling Olympic merchandise sales forward while 55 nations boycotted the games.

It is said that Misha the Bear’s farewell during the Closing Ceremonies was one of the most memorable moments of the 1980 Moscow Games.

As for Dakin, Nizamian had $1 million dollar’s worth of Misha the Bear sitting in his warehouse. So what did he do?

Nizamian decided to give the bear a new nationality and a new lease on life. He removed the belt and reintroduced Misha in an assortment of T-shirts. “I Am Just A Bear,” one read; another proclaimed “U.S.A. Olympic Hockey Bear,” trading on the stunning victory by the United States at the winter Olympics. “It moved fairly well,” he explains. “We were able to dispose of about half of our stock by using that vehicle.” Dakin donated another 100,000 bears to the Special Olympics, a competition for handicapped children, and sold the final 100,000 to liquidators.