A history of russian sadistic poems

Alexander Belousov. St. Peterburg

Robin Sweat, whose article about Russian sadistic poems appears to be the only publication on this issue in English so far, noted that the origin of this specific type of black humor is unknown.1 Much has cleared up since then. The man who initiated the future "sadistic poems" broke cover with the publication of his memoirs (Belousov 1995). This allows us to outline, if only in general terms, the history of a folklore genre which enjoys great popularity among Russian schoolchildren.x

In the autumn of 1977 five students of Leningrad University (four historians and a philologist) decided to set up a hippy commune for what they rented a part of a two-storey wooden house at the end of Primorskoye Road. The commune was named Yellow Submarine, in honour of the Beatles' renowned creation. The organizers of the commune were busy setting up its interior design and, at the same time, since the house was heated by a stove, stocking up on firewood. One day, while one of the members was chopping wood in the yard, Igor Malski, who was resting by a window with a guitar in his hands, out of fun composed a song about what might happen if his frail comrade be-came distracted and dangerously careless:

 The flowers are wilting, the grass is withering
 A consumptive boy is chopping wood Refrain: Oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa-pa (3 times) Para-pa-para-pa-pa
 Last spring - gee! I'd wish it for everyone
 He found a five-kopeck piece in that yard Refrain:
 Again the axe is flying up to the sky,
 The boy is glad, shaking his hair. Refrain:
 The blade pierced through the flesh with a hiss,
 Childhood departed along with the grass (the leg).
 Vianut cvety, sohnet trava,
 Mal'chik chahotochnyj kolet drova. Refrain: Um-pa-pa, um-pa-pa, um-pa-pa-pa (3 times) Para-pa-para-pa-pa.
 Proshloj vesnoj — eh, vsem by tak, -
 V etom dvore nashel on piatak. Refrain:
 Snova vzletaiet topor v nebesa,
 Mal 'chik dovolen, triaset volosa. Refrain:
 Sprisvistom lezviie v miaso voshlo,
 Vmeste s travoj (nogoj) detstvo ushlo.

This ditty was received quite favorably. It was followed by a couple of dozens of fragmentary texts created in the waltz rhythm of "A Consumptive Boy" in imitation of its manner of poking fun at one's friends:

 A small boy climbed up a tree,
 The watchman Arkhip took out his shotgun.
 A shot rang out, a cry was heard.
 "The forty second," - grinned the old man.
 Malen 'kij mal 'chik na derevo vlez,
 Storozh Arhip dostaiet svoj obrez.
 Vystrel razdalsia, poslyshalsia krik.
 "Sorok vtoroj " — uhmyl 'nulsia starik.

(this was an allusion to the author of "A Consumptive Boy," who was a relative of the film actress Izolda Izvitskaya, star of the popular film "The Forty First"). At first, they were different in size, ranging from two to six lines:

 Little stars, ribs and bones in a row
 A streetcar has run over a group of oktyabryonoks
 (= Cub Scouts)
 Zvezdochki, rebryshki, kostochki v riad:
 Tramvaj pereiekhal otriad oktiabriat.

 A heavy roller was rolling slowly
 A small boy was running across.
 The driver got hoarse in a blissful wheeze:
 The small boy got stuck to the asphalt.
 Eh! He had hurried, I wish he had held on:
 There's no way to scrape the flesh off of the asphalt.
 Medlenno katit tiazhelyj katok,
 Malen 'kij mal'chik bezhit poperek.
 V hripe blazhennom voditel' osip:
 Malen 'kij mal 'chik k asfal 'tu prilip.
 Eh, pospeshil on; iemu b obozhdat':
 Miaso s asfal 'ta nikak ne sodrat'.

However, these were soon supplanted by the quatrain, which became the principal form of the waltz-based ditties (or, as they were known in the commune, couplets):

 A boy was begging: "Give me a sweet!"  
 His mother said: "Shove your finger into the socket!"  
 His arse became creased, his bones became charred.  
 The guests were laughing at that practical joke for a long time.  
 Mal 'chik vymalival: "Daj mne konfetku!"  
 Mama skazala: "Sun 'pal 'chik v rozetku! "  
 Smorshchilas ' zhopa, obuglilis ' kosti.  
 Dolgo smeialis' nad shutkoiu gosti.  
 Waiting for her grandson (to come back) from school Grandma was grinding potassium cyanide in a mortar. Grandpa left grandma behind:  
 He nailed his grandson to the fence.  
 Babushka vnuka iz shkoly zhdala, Cianistyj kali] v stupke tolkla. Dedushka babushku operedil:  
 Vnuka gvozdiami k zaboru pribil.  
 An ice-breaker sneaked up on him from behind.  
 Those little hands were scratching the ice for a long time.  
 However regrettable it might be, the boy shall die.  
 Mal'chik na ozere prorub' kolol,  
 Szadi podkralsia k nemu ledokol.  
 Dolgo ruchinki carapali led...  
 Kaknipriskorbno, no mal'chikpomret.  

It should be noted that, according to Igor Malsky, all these texts were, "occasional, and, as a rule, impromptu creations at get-togethers with the guitar, and all who wished took part in composing them". They were the product of collective creation.

The principal features of the new comic genre were set by the ditty about a "consumptive boy". Here the surrounding reality is transformed in such a way that there appears a new comical version of an image of autumn - a most characteristic one in our culture - where nature's autumnal decline is extended to the human world. The textbook example of such an image is found in Nikolai Nekrasov's "Unreaped Strip", a work written in the same (though more "correct") dactylic tetrameter with plain rhyme. A multitude of similar texts have established a well-defined tradition of depicting "autumnal" unhappiness, towards which the author of "A Consumptive Boy" was somehow oriented. He used a well-known plot but deprived it of its usual poetic halo. This technique is highlighted at the end of the ditty, when, according to one variant of the final line, the association of the metaphorical image of passing childhood with the chopped-offleg creates a most comical impression. Mocking at his friend Igor Malsky actually derided the texts which unduly inflated dangers and disasters. The approach to the "fears and horrors" of real life that is characteristic of "A Consumptive Boy" laid the foundations for later ditties (couplets).

The creators of the ditties often caricature frightening events in such an exaggerated way that "fears and horrors" appear totally improbable. There are many hazards in the streets, but no one seems to have been run over by a roller; a child can sometime perish under the wheels of a streetcar, but not a whole group. Adults may mistreat kids, or even sometimes murder their own children, but the circumstances of the death of the boy who requested a piece of candy are unlikely to be true, while the case of the watchman who shoots his forty second victim is absolutely unthinkable. The hero of the ditties is a perfect match for such fanciful mishaps that border on fantasy. Transformed from "a consumptive" into a "small boy" (malen 'kij mal'chik) he must embody a typical and universal example of light-mindedness and carelessness. Meanwhile the features of a true "fool" are often found in his image - exceptional naTvete, utmost recklessness and absolute underdevelopment, - all of which are dangerous for both him and those around him: people near the "small boy" suffer violence and even destruction simply because he knows not what he does. Hyperbolic flightiness and carelessness sometimes make the little hero of the ditties a most implausible figure; the accidents in which he is involved are no less remote from reality. The texts frequently depict an ideal, grotesque world that turns the fearful into the ridiculous, and discredit the "fears and horrors".

The style of the ditties confirms that it is not real dangers and disasters that are laughed at. Their narrative manner, involving dry, factual exposition, from time to time suddenly acquires an uncharacteristic emotional colouring through the use of expressive elements of "children's" discourse and poetic language. However, the form and context of such elements immediately reveal their intended parodic meaning:

 A kind-hearted uncle  
 (= the form of address by children to any male adult)  
 helped with a match;  
 Dobren 'kij diadia spichku podnes;  
 No, he won't finish (the construction)... he was numbed with paralysis.  
 Net, ne dostroit... Hvatil paralich;  
 I'll be dreaming for a long while  
 About her blue eyes on a pine-tree.  
 Dolgo mne budut snit 'sia vo  
 sne leio golubyie glaza na sosne.  

The background against which the ditties arose is recreated and discredited. By poking fun at literature characterized by an excess of emotional expressiveness the ditty is counterposed to the customary narration about the "fears and horrors" associated with children. Moreover, the opposition is preserved even if there is no parody at all. Its deliberately neutral style is so controversial with respect to the sentimental-and-pathetic stereotype that its constant function is "in addition to its literal sense to always strike a polemical blow against other people's discourse concerning this issue, against other people's statements about this object" (Bakhtin 1963, 261). As a rule, the authors of the ditties took "other people's discourse" and "other people's statements" about dangers and disasters as their point of departure, and mocked the unduly inflated "fears and horrors" of the world around them.

The commune on Primorskoye Road rejected official ideology and the accepted way of life, and was creating an alternative culture in their stead. The extremely negative attitude of its members towards their world was openly expressed in the ditties:

 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 (the grenade) into the window.  
 The man is old - for him it's all the same.  
 Dedushka v pole granatu nashel,  
 S etoj nahodkoj k raikomu poshel.  
 Vyrval cheku i brosil v okno.  
 Dedushka staryj — iemu vse ravno.  

More often the ditties rejected the surrounding world by focusing on elements within it that were especially alien and hostile to the youth counterculture. This was not only its oppressive seriousness, carried to extremes in "fears and horrors", but also its striving to place constraints on a person, to subj ect him/her to its power through dread of all kinds of potential hazards and misfortunes. Everything that evokes antipathy of cheerful and free people becomes an object of derision in the texts. Curiously enough, the very form of deriding the "fears and horrors" is rather traditional: again the grotesque "sets the world free from all the fearsome and intermidating, makes it maximally free of fear and, therefore, maximally joyful and bright" (Bakhtin 1965, 55). The same cultural collision gives the same overall result. Confrontation with culture made for the emergence of contemporary "ridiculous monsters". The commune's comic creative work was permeated by polemics with dominant views, by the discrediting of generally accepted values, by parodies on speech stereotypes, on ideological and artistic patterns for mass consumption. The energy of confrontation gave rise to an alternative literature, which includes those two dozen sadistic ditties whose fame spread very quickly far beyond the commune on Primorskoye Road.

It took only several years for the sadistic ditties to circulate all over the country and provide the basis for a new folklore genre, which gained great popularity among students. Together with their dissemination the poems were very quickly increasing in number. As is shown by materials recorded in different parts of the former Soviet Union, in the 1980s around a hundred poems were in circulation among schoolchildren alone.

However, the genre of sadistic poems does not include only waltz-derived ditties.2 We also find here several texts which sound utterly different.

Some of them originated within the commune in Primorskoye Road. Here is a chastushka:

A boy was lying on the snow        

Totally pink with blood:        

His father had played        

Pavlik Morozov with him,        

Mal 'chik na snegu lezhal,        

Ves' ot krovi rozovyj:        

Eto papa s mm igral        

V Pavlika Morozova;        

and a text whose words sprang up as comic undertones for the Apostles' Chorus at the Last Supper from the rock-opera "Jesus Christ Superstar":

 In my childhood mother put my eyes out  
 So that I wouldn't find jam in the cupboard.  
 I neither go to the movies nor read fairy-tales.  
 But then I can smell and hear well.  
 (== have a fine sense of smell and hearing)  
 Mne mama v detstve vykolola glazki,  
 Chtob ia v shkafu varen 'e ne nashel.  
 la ne hozhu v kino i ne chitaiu skazki,  
 Zato ia niuhayu i slyshu horosho.  

The rest appeared among the sadistic ditties a little later. They were:

1) a slightly modified variation of a poem by the Leningrad poet Oleg Grigoriev (1943-1992), who is considered by many to be the founder of sadistic poems:

 I asked electrician Petrov  
 "Why have you put (a piece of) wire round your neck?"  
 He said nothing in reply  
 Swinging his slippers quietly (cf. Grigoryev 1993, 114);  
 la sprosil elektrika Petrova:  
 "Tu zachem nadel na sheiu provod?  
 " Nichego Petrov ne otvechal,  
 Tol 'ko tiho tapkami kachal;  

2) a tall tale by an unknown author:

 The old woman suffered only a little  
 On the high voltage wires  
 The timurovtsy (= pioneers) found  
 Her charred carcass under a bush;  
 Nedolgo muchilas' starushka  
 V vysokovol 'tnyh provodah.  
 leio obuglennuiu tushku  
 Nashli timurovcy v kustah;  

3) a parody on Soviet songs that is equally obscure in its origins:

 Grey hair...  
 On a child's head  
 (We) all have a good life...  
 Eh! in the land of the Soviets!  
 Volosy sedyie...  
 Na golovke detskoj.  
 Horosho zhivietsia vsem...  
 Eh, v strane Sovetskoj!  

Clearly, each text vividly illustrates salient features of the genre meaning of sadistic poems: the chastushka - their abruptness and paradoxi-calness; the monologue by the victim of parental cruelty - their polemically sharpened objectivity, neutrality in describing "fears and horrors"; Oleg Grigoriev's poem - their hyperbolization of depicted situations, thanks to which a flighty child is turned into a total idiot; the tall tale - the very character of the grotesque world, fictitious and fantastic, the parody of Soviet songs - the comic genre's dialogic nature, its alternative meaning However, they continued to exist within the genre of sadistic poems not only due to their special content.

In the early period of the ditties' dissemmation among circles of Leningrad students their genre was that of songs While being performed the ditties were often combined with some kind of special refrain In one such student circle the aforementioned parody on Soviet songs served as the refrain, in some others - the tall tale about the "high-voltage" old woman It is possible that the other texts marked by a metrical pattern differing from the genre norm could also be used as a refrain, i e as a constituent part of fixed singing entities They had to have reached today's schoolchildren in that form, which subsequently collapsed, so that each separate fragment of a song turned into a poetic text - a sadistic poem proper, thus making the former refrains equal to ditties and ensuring their survival They were preserved because from the very beginning they belonged to the foundation, the core of the folklore genre It is worth mentioning that its growth was due solely to an increase in the poems created in accordance with the ditty pattern, whereas texts with a different metric structure, remained a kind of rarity, a reminder that this poetic genre within school folklore originated in song.

The analysis of sadistic poems that derive from ditties shows that they do not undergo any significant change. They retain their original nature as ditties, the main features of which are reproduced in subsequent poems from outside the commune on Pnmorskoye Road. Of course, a multitude of new texts has extended sharply the plot repertoire of the ditties. But whatever the increase of sinister discoveries, of misuse of dangerous instruments, of children's games which caused little ones to perish, of perilous places, of growing hostility between parents and children - all these were predetermined by the ditties' subject matter. And above all the ditties' intrinsic approach to depicted events has remained unchanged. Any of the sadistic poems exists as a polemical text and continues to deride the stratum of official literature.

The main object of polemics is the unceasing stream of parental exhortations and warnings, when children are being constantly told of how their crazy games might end, of the threat posed by their doubtful discoveries, of the menace associated with "fearful" places, - in general, of how dangerous it is when a child is flighty and careless. The sadistic poems focus around such themes and discredit the didacticism of adults. With its importunate exaggeration of both a child's recklessness and its fatal consequences. They are created in response to intimidation and endless attempts to overpower: in order to protect and affirm the deepest of human concerns - freedom and gaiety. These values are no less important for our children, who responded with enthusiasm to the youth ditties that now constitute one of the most popular of folklore genres in their milieu.

Translated by Irina Marchenko, St. Petersburg


1) Sweat R. The Sadistic Couplets. Moscow Guardian. April 23, 1993. Vol. 3, No. 15, p. 22. In our article the term ditties (kuplety) is used solely to refer to texts that were sung. Texts which are recited or told are referred to as poems.

2) The tune determined the rhythmical peculiarities of the ditties (four-foot dactyls with rather frequent caesural truncation: Pulled out the pin and threw [the grenade] into the window - Vyrval chek i brosil v okno which can be replaced with equally measured amphibraques (A streetcar ran over a group ofoktyabryonoks - Tramvaj pereiekhal otriad oktiab-riaf).


Bakhtin, M. 1963: Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo. Moscow.

Bakhtin, M. 1965: Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kulfura Srednevekovia i Renessansa. Moscow.

Belousov, A. 1995: Vospominania Igoria Malskogo "Krivoie zerkalo deistvitelnosti": k voprosu o proiskhozhdenii "sadistskikh stishkov". Lotmanovskij sbornik. 1. Moscow, pp. 681-691.

Grigoriev, O.1993: Stikhi. Risunki. St. Petersburg. - Cf. O. Grigoriev's text, written in 1961.