A kindhearted uncle
Helped with a match
No, he won’t finish the construction
He was numbed with paralysis
I’ll be dreaming for a long while
About her blue eyes on a pine tree
I lurked by the chain link fence surrounding the kindergarten, waiting for one of the tiny Russians playing in the yard to approach me so I could recite the poem I’d so carefully memorized. Unfortunately, none of the children even looked in my direction. The adults minding them, however…that was a different situation entirely. The women in charge of the class stood by the school’s doorway and watched me with stony faces, wondering why I’d come back to their fence for a second day, and how long I’d stay this time. I tried to allay their fears, squinting up at the leafless trees like a disoriented birdwatcher, checking the non-existent watch on my wrist like someone with a reputable place to be. When the older teacher bent towards the younger one to whisper something, never taking her eyes off of me, I figured it was time to leave.
My Russian professor in Gainesville was either mistaken or had deceived me, and now I was in trouble. “Oh yes,” he had said, when he told me about the Sadistic Couplets, “every Russian knows of them. They are very, very popular. With everyone!” We had been having a casual discussion about Russian versus American humor, and I had trotted out something I was sure would shock him: the dead baby joke (you know, what’s red and white and goes round and round?). He blinked placidly and responded with something that did actually shock me. The Sadistic Couplets, he explained, were mordant verses obliquely describing the deaths of hapless peasants or whole countries full of innocent bystanders. He recited a few of them to me and I was immediately hooked, not so much for their humor but for their subtle violence and absurd perspective on tragedy. In my first staff meeting at the Guardian I suggested a piece on these troubling ditties, promising that I’d find out where they came from, what they meant, and why they (according to my Russian professor, at least) had such a hold on the Russian imagination. My idea had been enthusiastically received and I’d set out full of determination, but now, on my third day of research, I was starting to worry.
Sits on his father’s knee
What a lovely red button, he says
Madagascar was a nice island
I’d started, quite logically I thought, by walking up to random children I saw on the street and saying, “What do you know about the Sadistic Couplets?” This had produced interesting, yet unprintable, responses. The kids, bless their little hearts, were loath to talk to a frizzy-haired, hunting-boot-clad stranger on the street about much of anything, and gave me a wide and mainly silent berth.
I’d decided I’d have more luck talking to kids if I had an official sponsor, so I resolved to go to the local kindergarten, win the trust of the teachers, and interview the entire class at one time. This proved more difficult than I’d counted on, however, perhaps because I got off on a bad foot. Afraid to walk in the front door and ask for an interview about the Russian equivalent of dead baby jokes, I instead haunted the fence outside the playground for several days, hoping someone would come close enough to hear me.
Now I was walking briskly down the sidewalk, looking over my shoulder for the policemen I was sure would soon be pursuing me. I hated to go home. I’d never find the answer to the Couplets’ origin there. But where else could I go? I walked towards the new apartment I shared with Lyosha, a 2-room flat in a gothic building that sat across the street from one end of the Arbat, Moscow’s pedestrian shopping street. I stood on the corner outside of my building and gave it one last try. “Excuse me!” I collared random adults as they hurried by, “Do you know about the Sadistic Couplets?”
To my surprise and relief, every person I spoke to stopped dead in their tracks. Some would gaze into their childhoods with misty eyes, others would hop excitedly from one foot to another, beaming. Nearly every person I accosted responded to my initial question by happily rattling off a long rhyming stream of Russian. My teacher was right; adults of a certain age knew all about these poems. Sadly, though, not one of them could tell me where they came from. “Stalin’s daughter made them up!” they’d say, or “They were passed down by the tsars.” Everyone agreed that they’d known them since childhood and never given them much thought. They were part of the landscape they inhabited; noteworthy the way unusually shaped rock formations are, and worthy of about as much analysis.
I knew from their answers that I was on to something with these Couplets. I’ve always believed that the things that are so ingrained in your consciousness that you no longer see them are the things most worth looking at. They give you clues about why you think the way you do, why you believe the things you do, and why you value the things you do. They are the canvas your day-to-day experience is painted on, these things you take for granted. Maybe I was reading too much into perverse doggerel, here, but I really thought that the Couplets said something important about Russians and Russian culture. It’s one thing to respond to oppression or terror or poverty or to the slow grind of a life you’ll never control by popping a cap in its ass or posturing as someone who’s made it to easy street. It’s quite another to enshrine the brutal waywardness of existence in a handful of bloody children’s stanzas. That’s life for you, these poems said; you may think everything’s going along splendidly but even the most innocent of gestures by those with the purest of motives eventually, inexorably, result in cinematic disaster. And what can we do about this, these poems seem to ask? Just laugh. Ultimately, that’s all any sane person can do.
Two lovers lay
In a field of tall wheat
Quietly, quietly comes the combine
Grandmother spits out the cloth
She has found inside her bread
Excited by the response I received from strangers on the street, I decided to press on. I’d go up and down the Arbat, I decided, and see if I could find something more interesting than military watches. Though I usually avoided the Arbat with its aggressive vendors of cheap tourist trinkets, today it seemed like a reasonable place to research. The Sadistic Couplets would be a very difficult topic to discuss with my limited Russian. Perhaps on the Arbat I’d find people who could speak English and would not mind talking to a foreigner.
I walked down the middle of the street, looking for a likely target for my questions. “Devushka!” yelled a man at one table who was brandishing a string of amber beads, “Special price for strangers!”
I stayed away from everyone who hollered at me or attempted to menace me with commerce, but about halfway down the street, I stopped at a table displaying black lacquered jewelry. The eight boys behind it ignored me completely as they drank their Troika beer and hummed along to the guitar that the one in the middle was playing. It was a relatively warm day for April in Moscow, the sun was shining, and these boys were enjoying their day. I poked at the pins for a while and then the guy with the guitar stood up. “You would like a pin?” he said politely, in perfect English. I looked at him. He was a bit younger than me, probably 19 or so, and with his flybacked shoulder-length hair and even features, he looked like Shaun Cassidy.
“Well,” I said in English, “I’m writing an article about something called the Sadistic Couplets. Do you know anything about the Sadistic Couplets?”
“Oleg,” called the boy, turning his head towards a guy near the edge of the table, “Do we know anything about the Sadistic Couplets?”
Oleg surveyed me for a few seconds and, apparently finding me acceptable, stood up. “Of course we do!”
The boys all began talking to me at once, peppering me with verses which I struggled to write down in the small reporter’s notebook I was carrying. Suddenly their leader, the Shaun Cassidy boy, waved his arms at us. “Quiet, quiet,” he hissed, “Here come some customers. You,” he pointed at me, “Come back here behind the table and we’ll finish in a minute.” I stepped around the table and stood in the midst of the group as a fanny-packed, sweat-suited clutch of older folks made their way towards us. When they were still a few tables away, Shaun Cassidy picked up his guitar and began to sing. The other boys joined in.
“Esli znali vi, kak mnye dorogi, podmoskovni vechera.” As they sang the plaintive refrain and ignored the approaching group, I realized what was going on. If Russia had a theme song, the tune they had chosen, Moscow Nights, would have been it. In the same way that “Take Me out to the Ballgame” is closely associated with “things American,” Moscow Nights evokes Russia for millions of people. It’s one of the very first things you learn when you start learning Russian, and you practically have to sing it to the customs guards to be allowed in the country. Even for people who are hearing it for the first time, the song somehow sounds like Russia: beautiful and haunted. These clever boys were bringing out the big guns to attract the group to their table, luring them over by creating an Authentic Russian Experience the tourists could talk about on the bus back to the hotel.
And sure enough, it worked. The small crowd bypassed the last few tables and walked straight over to ours. The handsome boys continued singing as the tourists began discussing the pins. “Do you think Jennifer would like this one?” said one lady in an American accent to her husband. Without waiting for an answer, she held the pin out to me, the only non-singing, standing person behind the table. “HOW MUCH IS THIS ONE?” she said very slowly and loudly.
I had no idea what the pins cost, but I had an idea of what this American lady might pay. So, “1000 rubles,” I replied (about $1.30).
The woman blinked and jerked her head back in surprise. “You’re an American!” she said. “What are you doing here?”
I knew that “writing an article about the Sadistic Couplets” would only confuse her, so I put my hand on the shoulder of Shaun Cassidy, who had now stopped singing, and said, “I’m selling pins with my Russian husband to try to help finance his singing career. He is a musician, you see. And also an artist. Yes, he made these pins.” I smiled at Shaun lovingly and he smiled back at me, batting his gray eyes.
“How darling!” enthused the woman, who was my grandmother’s age. “Everyone, everyone, did you hear this? This American girl is married to this Russian boy and they are selling pins!”
For the next 10 minutes the 8 or so people in the group fawned all over the two of us, taking pictures of Shaun and me with our arms around each other, or with him kissing my cheek and me rolling my eyes at the camera like “Men! What can you do?” They patted me and cooed at me, a young girl so far away from her own grandparents. And happily, they bought several pins each.
When they departed, chattering excitedly about the story they’d purchased with their jewelry, Shaun and his friends looked at me in silence for a second. Then Shaun, whose name turned out to be Kostya, said, “What are you doing today? Would you like a beer?”
I ended up spending the rest of the day – about 5 hours – sitting behind the table with Kostya and his friends, drinking beer, singing Russian folk songs, and exploiting our non-existent wedding vows to sell loads of pins at a 50% mark-up to tourists from all over America and Western Europe. Several beers into the experience I was slouched happily in the warm sun, listening to the boys sing, when I suddenly remembered why I was there. As absolutely comfortable as I was with these people and with my new vocation, I still had to find out where the Couplets came from. Even though it was apparently my calling, I couldn’t just drink and lie and sell pins all day. So I brought the topic up again with Kostya and his friends.
“We know some Couplets,” he said, “but if you really want to know about them, you need to talk to Ivan.”
“Who’s Ivan?” I asked.
“He is…bezdomni,” said Kostya, flicking the underside of his jawbone with his middle finger, the Russian gesture that meant someone was an alcoholic, “He sweeps this street.”
“Will he talk to me?”
“Sure, if you buy him some beer.” I handed some rubles over to Kostya and he in turn handed them to one of the other boys, with instructions to fetch both Ivan and Ivan’s beer.
After a short time, the boy reappeared toting a plastic sack of green bottles and shepherding a very old, very dirty man. The man wore a padded canvas jacket and stained green trousers. He was hunched over in a permanent stoop, and his hands as they reached for the bottle were purple with frostbite scars. Nonetheless, he smiled at me wickedly, the bringer of beer, and proceeded to lecture me for several hours about his past as a ballet dancer, his time in the army, the indignities of homelessness, the sorry state of today’s youth (“not you, Kostya”), and his favorite dishes from childhood. I had had a million conversations just like this with homeless people back in Jacksonville (minus the frostbite and the ballet dancing), and I was perversely grateful for the continuity poor Ivan and his suffering provided. No matter where in the world you go, I guess, when the costumes and accents and trappings fall off, what you really want is someone to talk to, to share a drink with.
With Kostya translating, I was able to collect several pages of Couplets from Ivan, who knew hundreds of them. But like everyone else, he could not tell me where they came from or when he’d first heard them. I realized I’d never deliver on the promises I’d made when I first suggested writing about the couplets. But as I sat in the fading afternoon listening to Ivan recite the poems as if he’d written them himself -- a little raised fist in defiance of his circumstances -- I realized I didn’t care. I had found what I needed today.
An old man found a grenade in the field
He went with his finding to the party district committee
Pulled out the pin and threw it in the window
The man is old, for him it’s all the same.
Read more about the Couplets.