My Russian Funskool GI Joe articles have been some of the most popular pieces on my website. Today, we’re going to look a little deeper and tell their origin story. Thanks to the hard work of a friend, we now know when these figures came out, how they came about, and who imported them. This is the definitive Russian Funskool GI Joe origin story. Until we learn more, at least.
Before we start this article in earnest, I need to thank my friend Brusleep. He conducted all of the interviews and did all of the research for this piece. This is truly his work and I’m happy to share it with the world. All I did was re-write it, streamline it, and publish it. All credit goes to Brusleep, who you can find on Twitter. He is one of my favorite people in our online toy community, and he’s an absolute joy to interact with. Give him a follow.
Brusleep interviewed Igor Zhorzhovich, the founder of Two Beetles. If you’ve read any of my reviews and articles about Russian Funskool GI Joe, you’ll know that name. Two Beetles was the company that brought GI Joe into Russia, using Funskool figures and newly-translated packaging.
All of the information in this article comes from Brusleep’s audio and text interviews with Igor.
All photos in this article come from either Igor’s personal archives or from Brusleep.
I’m excited to finally bring you The Russian Funskool GI Joe story.
Russian Funskool GI Joe: The Origins
Igor Zhorzhovich says that previously to 1998, he was involved in the construction of buildings. There was a monetary crisis across Russia and former USSR territories at the time, and people weren’t even buying sausage. He was looking to pivot his business, as he had been involved in construction for 25 years.
Someone locally involved with Barbie and other toys advised him to invest in importing toys, but also to invest in voice acting to dub an already-existing cartoon for Russian audiences. It would be expensive, but was also forecasted to earn him a good deal of money. He thought the “local channel” (what Igor calls the TV channel that covers all of Russia and many former USSR territories, even now) might be a good place to show a cartoon, GI Joe, in this case, to promote some imported toys.
In 1998, Funskool already had the molds for the 24 figures that would eventually be released as the Russian GI Joe toy line. That businessman who advised Igor was named Rimsky. He basically told Igor that he had the potential to strike it rich if he invested money in the translation, voice acting, and broadcast for the GI Joe cartoon to support the toys. All Igor had to do was import the toys and pay a ton of money up front for the cartoon.
The toys were made by Funskool, but imported, packaged, and distributed by Two Beetles. Two Beetles was a company Igor already owned. The name and iconography were designed to get a small chuckle out of Russian consumers, as “beetles” could mean “swindlers” and the logo had some imagery in common with what the Kremlin used. The irony and full meaning is likely lost on most westerners, though.
Regardless of if we get it or not, Igor says you really can’t make those jokes these days. The “gloves” on the beetle mascot were supposed to be reminiscent of Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters, as Disney was very popular in Russia at the time.
The level of production for the toys themselves was very serious, and there was another monetary crisis in Russia in 1998. Igor paid a lot to import the toys during a hard economic time, but there were other complications, as well. The toys got stuck in customs and Igor had to pay $20,000 to get them out. Igor is not joking when he says that’s the moment his hair started to turn grey.
Largely, Igor was just importing existing figures. Funskool already had the molds for these toys. The Russian Funskool GI Joe figures are exactly the same as their Indian counterparts. The only differences are the packaging and some batch variations that might mean thicker paint or different colored rivets.
The figures released in Russia were:
- Beach Head
- Croc Master
- Deep Six
- Night Viper
- Quick Kick
- Road Pig
- Storm Shadow
All Igor needed to do was pay for another factory run and change the packaging. The only difference between Indian Funskool packaging and Russian Funskool packaging is the back of the cards.
Since Indian GI Joe packaging was printed in English, Igor needed to translate the file cards, character names, and other text into Russian before he could sell them. He had to print entirely new card backs for his target audience. He hired a student to translate the cards and paid her about $200, and the translations ended up being very bad. Igor doesn’t quite remember, but he says some of the text may have been translated by computer, also. The file cards for Beachhead and Storm Shadow were mixed up entirely with one another, and other errors occurred, as well. A Russian newspaper even ridiculed the poor translations shortly after the figures came out.
After the cards were translated, they were printed at a factory in Chennai (formerly Madras)i, India.
The figures themselves were also made in Chennai, which is where most, if not all, Funskool GI Joe figures are made. Funskool, as a company, is a joint venture between India’s Madras Rubber Factory (MRF) and America’s Hasbro Inc., so that makes sense. Igor also chose to work with Madras and Funskool because their toys (GI Joe especially) were thought to be higher quality than those produced in China. There were official Hasbro GI Joes released in China, but there were just as many low-quality bootlegs. Igor wanted to do better than that.
After the toys were made and a large amount of money was paid to free them from customs, Igor still faced some problems. Distribution ended up being terrible, as Igor himself was the only distributor and he had a lot on his plate. Igor gave the toys to stores in installments without requiring prepayment. Sales were poor without a cartoon to back them up.
Igor was looking to import and broadcast the GI Joe cartoon, of course, but it proved impossible for him. He already paid at least $200,000 (Updated 9/16/22 — we formerly reported he paid $20,000, but the number was actually $200,000) to produce the toys and another $20,000 to get them out of customs impound, and money was very tight for Russian people in 1998. Fully translating, dubbing, and airing the cartoon in Russia would have cost him another $200,000 and he came up short.
The cartoon was extra important, because Russia and other former USSR territories were hungry for anything new and foreign in 1998. They wanted to participate in everything exciting and innovative the world had to offer, whether it was from the East or from the West. But TV broadcasting was expensive for everyone in Russia. For example, it cost $20,000 for a private entity to run a music video on the “local channel” for a few days. Now imagine those costs applied to running a huge, syndicated cartoon series like GI Joe.
Without the cartoon, the toys weren’t destined to become the hit they were in North America, South America, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. To this day, the GI Joe cartoon (neither Sunbow nor DIC) has never officially aired in Russia or most former USSR territories.
Igor didn’t just import figures– he also imported vehicles (which likely never gained any wide distribution, since no samples have ever really turned up), t-shirts, hoodies, and other merchandise. He did try to promote the brand in other ways. In the photo below, you’ll see his booth at a toy exhibition/trade show at Russia’s Armand Hammer Center. The poster reads “Two Beetles will help children become the happiest in the world.”
Igor regrets that he didn’t have enough money to show the GI Joe cartoon in Russia. He also lost money on importing GI Joe figures into the country. It’s a sad memory for him because the venture didn’t turn out how he planned it. But, as Brusleep spoke to him, Igor was happy. He’s excited that so many people enjoyed the figures he worked so hard to bring into Russia and he’s thrilled that we want to know his story.
Above everything else, Igor Zhorzhovich is glad he could help bring these beloved toys to a new audience, and is proud that fans still love these figures to this day.
Not All of Our Funskool Figures are Brothers
As it turns out, Igor wasn’t the only one to import GI Joe figures into Russia, even if he was the first.
At some point after 1998, some businessman or group of businessmen reprinted the cards and sold the same toys under the Two Beetles branding, but Igor wasn’t involved. It’s likely that these are the figures that showed up in Kazakhstan and other former USSR territories. Igor isn’t sure who imported more toys under his company’s name.
If that seems puzzling, don’t worry– there’s a good explanation. At the time, MRF and Funskool would run a line of figures for literally anyone who had the money. Igor was one such person. According to Mike T. of Forgotten Figures, American dealers sometimes paid Funskool to make a run of certain figures for them, as well.
As Igor says, you’re no one in Chennai without money. But, if you have that money, you can get most anything you want.
Since the figure molds and translated cards already existed, it likely wasn’t too hard for other entities to print cards and figures for Russian distribution. According to Brusleep, some have been printed as recently as 2017. Sometimes there’s a sticker on the card covering the Two Beetles logo, and sometimes there’s not. The quality of the newer, post-Igor figures is generally lower.
Igor likely doesn’t begrudge the owners of Funskool for any of this. Igor knew one of the co-owners of Funskool and they often had drinks at the pub together. Igor regards him as a very decent man.
But, money talks in Chennai. Both American dealers and Russian dealers have purchased extra figure runs from Funskool’s factories. If you do have Russian Funskool GI Joe figures, there’s a good chance they’re from the factory runs that Igor Zhorzhovich poured his time and money into. But there’s also a chance that they’re newer and were ordered by a different dealer/distributor. Not all Russian Funskool figures are Igor’s figures. Not all of our figures are brothers, as Brusleep put it.
I hope you found this informative and enjoyed reading it. Thanks again to Brusleep and Igor!
I love publishing stuff like this, and I could not be happier with Brusleep’s work.
What was the most surprising thing you learned? Do you think you have any newer Russian Funskool figures? Let us know in the comments!