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Filed Under , on February 7th, 2015

Review: Russian Optimism

By Seth Kabala

A blonde youth, maybe four or five-years-old, gazes up from the tableau, a smile on his face. He holds the end of a piece of copper wire. It trails behind him, coiling like a snake. In the background on a shelf, Russian dolls stand in left-to-right ascending height order. Above this, the object on which the boy has cast his vision comes into view–the human object: Peter.

Peter’s head is out of the frame, making him visible only from the neck-down, but on either side of his neck, copper wire curls out, like the styled ends of an absurd mustache sprouting from the face of a hysterically laughing, deus ex machina-loving, damsel-tying-to-tracks villain, work boots touching only air as they point to the floor, suspended inches above a stool knocked on its side.

And next to the illustrated frame, titled Don’t Ask Stupid Questions, this verbiage:

I asked Peter the electrician,

“Why is there copper wire around your neck?”

He didn’t respond,

His boots just swayed quietly.

Russian Optimism, the brain-child of NYC-based comedian/writer Ben Rosenfeld and graphic artist Dov Smiley, is an illustrated collection of 30 Russian nursery rhymes translated to English, each text snippet set against a graphic-novel style background that adds to the darkness, bringing it to life with a sinister chuckle. Though the original Russian followed a rhyming form, Ben made an editorial decision to convey the most accurate meaning in English, a decision that resulted in deadpan delivery of some seriously dark stuff, ratcheting up the humor 10 more notches, in this author’s opinion.

Subtitled “Dark nursery rhymes to cheer you right up,” if your idea of getting cheered up is somewhere along the lines of thugs getting beat-downs from senior citizens, and people getting maimed consistent with the style of that scene from Fargo, you’re going to want to set aside some money out of your next paycheck to buy this book. No money available this pay period? Sell some stocks from your retirement portfolio. No retirement portfolio? Go pick up pop cans or give plasma or shovel snow or switch out the price tags at the store–whatever it takes, for you must add this book to your collection for one simple reason: it exactly echoes the sentiments of subjugated Western society, so reading this will provide a catharsis like none other.

Ben was born in Russia. He is a comic, so, go figure, he was depressed one day. (Knowing several comics, I feel this is an accurate statement of the collective undulating emotional state of comics. If any comics take offense to this, just use this parenthetical for your next bit. I promise huge laughs. Everybody loves an angry comic, right?) To extricate Ben from his “funk,” as he called it, his dad, who immigrated from Russia when Ben was a boy, read him some traditional Russian nursery rhymes, which, in case you missed the lead, are dark, morbid micro-stories.

For some weak-minded serial killers, reading these would be preferable to the needle, gallows, firing squad, or Kim Kardashian lecture on how to identify your talent. For these timid takers of life, reading the nursery rhymes from Russian Optimism would either send their brains into shutdown mode, rendering them vegetables, or would convince them that humanity was on its way down the crapper anyway, no need for them to further it along with the application of their craft–i.e., killing people–so in true Russian Optimism style they’d just go ahead and off themselves.

Death seems an appropriate ending to every nursery rhyme from Russian Optimism.

For non-serial killer, Ben (not fact-checked, but reasonably assumed), depression led to the uncovering of the literary gem that is Russian Optimism. For the rest of us well-adjusted, non-serial killer humans, we all get to enjoy the results of Ben’s cultural experience and translation skills juxtaposed with a deft handle on American appreciation for dark, sharp wit. Together with Dov’s artistic mastery, they have woven together the equivalent of a studio audience laugh sign–it’s funny, you’re laughing, and you’re not sure why–if said sign were affixed to a tapestry, soaked in blood, crawling with vermin, and teeming with ravenous insects.

Death is funny. It just is.

Getting back to Peter (#2 in the Moral Messages chapter), maybe he was a mustachioed villain? Maybe the damsel’s man found out, hired Peter, so as to have a ready-made murder room, and strung him up with his own working materials? Setting aside the electrical-wire-threaded, mustachioed villain (because other explanations are so plausible), was Peter the victim of a suicide? Murder? Really, really weird accident? Perhaps not dead but part of an ongoing session of erotic asphyxiation, in which case the presence of the kid is even more messed up than before? Or maybe it’s not a kid; maybe it’s a dwarf who is part of the S&M, and Peter is secretly hoping the dwarf says the safe word soon?

I could conjure a thousand more questions for literary, Freudian, and legal analysis, but I think the intent of this Russian nursery rhyme isn’t hidden behind metaphor. When you buy this book and read/view Don’t Ask Stupid Questions, you, too, will find your mind spinning on a well-greased axle, each rotation bringing with it more questions without logical, probable answers, but that doesn’t matter, because the intent of these is exactly what you see. If you walk into a house and see an electrician strung up using copper wire, don’t ask him why there is copper wire around his neck.


Because he’s dead, and it doesn’t matter.

Here’s why.

In America, we expect each successive generation to be richer, leaner, and have better hair than the previous–demand it, even. Why do you think there has been a rise in killings of lazy, post-high-school, living-in-mom-and-dad’s-basement gamers? We believe that if we paint ourselves into a corner, we will either get a great high off the oil-based paint or develop super-human abilities and levitate across the wet pigment, landing safely on the carpet, all the while lengthening our penis by three inches or enlarging breasts two cup sizes, or both, as the case may demand. Americans are eternal optimists to a ridiculous degree.

Russians are, from our perspective, eternal pessimists, but they don’t think of themselves as pessimists; they think of themselves as realists. Why get happy about anything when the rain clouds could appear at any moment, create a mudslide, and bury everything in sight?

Ben puts it this way in the book’s introduction: “Generally speaking, Americans expect each generation to accomplish more than the previous one. Russians expect each generation to suffer and be miserable. In reality, we all suffer the same, but Americans view suffering as a temporary setback whereas Russians see it as inevitable.”

These nursery rhymes reflect that way of thinking. It may seem absurd, but that’s the way they think. So rather than contorting our faces into aghast caricatures of Scream masks, I believe we can learn something from these snippets of Russian culture, these poison-pill nuggets of wisdom. So I will endeavor to draw parallels to the traditional American family, American living, American culture, and suggest ways that we can leverage the truths proffered in Russian Optimism to lead better lives.

Following are seven examples culled, with some difficulty, from the 30. I have provided a brief description of each, followed by positive takeaways to be gained from the midst of the macabre, the shocking, the completely nonsensical–or–as Ben says in the introduction to the book, “These poems are a dark way of saying, ‘Don’t be so sad, things could be worse.’”

1. Mom’s Gifts (ch: Parenting Pointers)

Description: Mom gives kids sharp tools, noisy neighbor isn’t bothersome anymore.

Wisdom: there are alternatives to calling the police, and one of those keeps the kids busy so you can take a nap.

2. The House Guests (ch: Parenting Pointers)

Description: kid gets electrocuted, guests have a good laugh.

Wisdom: no matter how irretrievably bad the night’s entertaining has gone, an electrical outlet is always nearby, just waiting for its chance to provide a surge of comedic value.

3. School’s Out (ch: Parenting Pointers)

Description: kid gets scolded for poor grades, mom in hospital with injuries from a hot poker.

Wisdom: hey, Mom, better get your ass outside and run more. Probably your own damn fault you couldn’t out-run junior.

4. The Rat (ch: Aquatic Adventures)

Description: kid puts rat in toilet, Dad gets balls bitten off.

Wisdom: discount vasectomy/later-in-life admittance to the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

5. Surprise (ch: Close Calls)

Description: Grandpa protects granddaughter, scares off, possibly murders (I don’t know, their eyes are all crossed out, so … sounds good) would-be rapists with a pipe.

Wisdom: soaked in gasoline and burned is the notion that a cane is a sign of weakness. Bad-ass-ness is more like it.

6. The Happy Singers (ch: Cheery Children)

Description: kids who sang poorly are hung by the neck outside a classroom window as examples to the other children.

Wisdom: as a serious student of the voice, I actually agree with this one. Note of warning to my future pupils: get yo-self warmed up!

7. The Woods (ch: Explosive Endings)

Description: kid gets machine gun, no more animals in the woods.

Wisdom: just think of all the varieties of jerky. Firing up the smoker now.



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Seth Kabala

About: Seth Kabala
Seth is an entrepreneur, writer, musician, family man, and juggler of balls--big ones. He lives with his wife and three children in Portland, OR.

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