project > Strashilki (little horror poems)

This is an abridged web version of Octavian Esanu's recent project "Strashilki: little horror poems" (Chisinau, New York; Oculus Capri, 2010). Some of the couplets in this book were translated from A. P. Iarosea and A. I. Naumova's anthology Mal’cik v ovrage nashel pulimet: antologia cernogo umora. Minsk, Parus, 1992. For a complete version of Strashilki book contact the author.







Little Horror Poems

This book, which at the present stage is still a work in progress, is my attempt to introduce to the English reader a genre little known outside the former Soviet region. These short poems, unofficial and unsanctioned in their early days, emerged in the Soviet Union during the 1970s, and became known, particularly within defiant youth circles, as strashilki, or sometimes sadistskie strashilki (“sadistic little poems,” or simply “little horror poems”). The English language, which compared to Russian and other Eastern European languages is so poor in diminutives, cannot render the name of this genre without inserting a “little” in the middle, making it somewhat too long and explicative. In its original one-word form strashilki economically expresses the entire essence of this type of folk literature: by adding the diminutive suffix ki to the root word strakh (horror) it presents horror in a humorous and, let’s say, less horrible way. The suffix ki plays yet another role besides that of diminution: it makes a subtle reference to chastushki, to that historical Russian folk genre of short humorous couplets that also emerged anonymously as a form of popular literary resistance to authoritarian control and censorship.

Something similar has existed in the West, similar yet different: strashilki may very well be compared to what in German is known as Der Struwwelpeter (Shaggy-Peter or Slovenly Peter) – the collection of children’s cautionary tales written and illustrated by the psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann in the mid-nineteenth century. An Anglicized version, or rather a parody of the original Struwwelpeter, appeared in 1941 under the title Struwwelhitler, signed by Dr. Schrecklichkeit [Dr. Horrors] – an allusion to Dr. Goebbels. The author, Robert Spence, created this book in the spirit of Hoffmann in order to poke fun at the leaders of Nazi Germany and the Bolshevik Soviet Union, and here both Hitler and Stalin appear as little children who have been playing with fire, that is with the United States. In Anglo-American literature, a similar literary phenomenon has appeared under the name of “cautionary tales,” some of the earliest of which were written and published by the Anglo-French writer and historian Hilaire Belloc under the titles: The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896) and Cautionary Tales for Children (1907).

Although similar, at first glance, to the Western cautionary tales, strashilki differ in several crucial ways. The main difference is that the German and English tales are “cautionary,” which is to say they were written with the purpose of moralizing, preaching, correcting, or even cautioning children as to their highly underprivileged position in a world dominated by adults. Consider these closing lines from Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children:

...Exclaiming, with a Final Thud,
“Take that! Abandoned Boy!
For Playing with Disgusting Mud
As though it were a Toy!”


From Franklin Hyde’s adventure, learn
To pass your Leisure Time
In Cleanly Merriment, and turn
From Mud and Ooze and Slime
And every form of Nastiness –
But, on the other Hand,
Children in ordinary Dress
May always play with Sand.

Most of the cautionary poems conclude on a moral note, suggesting that children must obey, and that if they won’t – well, then they will be punished. Unlike Struwwelpeter, and more so than Struwwelhitler or Belloc’s cautionary tales, most strashilki do not moralize. The voice of the narrator does not belong to that of the adult, and the narration appears to be impartial and indifferent to who is being punished or hurt. Strashilki do not take sides, neither with adults nor with children; they simply present a cold-blooded situation as if for its own sake, as if for the pleasure of saying what is often acknowledged as unsayable in everyday language. If in the cautionary tales the depiction of horrors inflicted upon children is presented as if for the opportunity to offer the moral at the end, strashilki do not have a clearly stated educational or correctional purpose, and what awaits the reader at the end is simply a suspended sense of horror. Therefore, absolved of their moralizing function, strashilki – in which, it must be stressed, the scenes of violence are more cold-blooded than those of the cautionary tales – tend to appear more abstract and also more absurd. Although written as little stories, each evolving according to a narrative line or theme, which makes them similar in this respect to the cautionary tales, their style is also more epigrammatic, and without a clear moral or didactic purpose strashilki appear as a form of poetic pinching, as quick releases of small doses of accumulated anger.

Also, unlike their Western counterparts, which present certain situations that one can still encounter in the everyday language, (for example as in Struwwelpeter, children who suck their thumbs are warned that their fingers may be cut off ), strashilki often draw on absurd and grotesque exaggerations or even on the impossible, for example when children break into a nuclear missile center and by accident press the launch button, which results in the disappearance of Kamchatka peninsula. Or consider this situation:

The boy lies in the bed – foot amputation.
The surgeon completed his operation.
The nurses praise the sugeon’s skill,
Placing foot-meat outside on the grill.

Critics have mentioned the relationship between the genre of strashilki and the work of poets or researchers associated with the OBERIU literary tradition, discussing in particular the influence of Daniil Kharms, who wrote also extensively for children. Although in recent decades there have been attempts to trace the first known examples of these genre to a specific author, or to a circle of authors, most of the strashilki that have accumulated thus far are anonymous. Perhaps it is this anonymous quality that allows this genre to aim at a degree of transgression that would be otherwise difficult to attain in an authored work; perhaps it provides for a carnivalesque atmosphere where the author can construct, from behind the mask of anonymity, horrible situations both imaginary and real without having to resort to hypocritical moralization or excuses.

One might say that the essential theme of strashilki is the eternal conflict between the young and the old. If indeed the origins of the historical genre of tragedy lie in the dra- matized victory of the old over the young in this quarrel (and comedy in the victory of the young), then strashilki is the genre in which both tragedy and comedy takes place, in which there are no victors, and neither the old nor the young win. Strashilki are both a playground and a battlefield. Here children are playing, but hurting both themselves and the adults who enter this field in a highly ranked army of parents, teachers, principals, members of the central committee, preachers, educators, soldiers, cops, surgeons, construction workers, and so forth. But the reverse is also true: the adults also penalize and hurt the children, so that in the end all are punished equally – just as in everyday life.

This artist-book is divided into two sections: “Terminal,” corresponding to the Soviet or socialist experience, and “Post-Mortem,” which plays upon situations from the post-Soviet or capitalist era. For the “Terminal” or Soviet section I translated but more often interpreted couplets from the A.P. Iarosea and A.I. Naumova anthology Mal’cik v ovrage nashel pulemet [The Little Boy Found a Machine Gun in a Ravine]. The frequent decision to modify instead of translate was inspired by the difficulty of rendering certain concepts or situations without lengthy footnotes and explanations, inappropriate outside of a more scholarly examination of this genre. I have, however, provided a short bibliographical list of the main publications in which those interested in this genre can find primary sources. Most of the strashilki in the second “Post-Mortem” section are of my own invention, as well as the illustration and design of the book.


The little girl found a razor blade in the sink,
“What is this daddy?” she asked with a blink.
“It's a harmonica, play it my dear!”
Her smile now stretches from ear to ear.

Little Ivan has a hiccup condition,
Daddy'd once aspired to be a clinician.
He rushed to smother the boy with his palm,
A jerk and a shake and the son is now calm.

The daughter was begging for candies in tears,
“First stick your pinky in that socket, my dear!”
Her stutter was much worse thereafter,
Mommy and Daddy are bursting with laughter.

Red ties and badges, a few pairs of ears,
The tram ran over some Young Pioneers.
One hand holds a flag while a head rolls aside,
This was the group's leader, comrade and guide.

Red ties and badges, a few pairs of ears,
The train ran over some Young Pioneers.
Fingers, buttons, laces, and a snub nose,
Whose belongings these are – nobody knows.

Naked young ladies fly all over the skies,
The bath was too close to the army's supplies.

The grenade was unearthed behind the chapel,
“Is this a potato? No a pineapple!”
High in the sky fly heads, boots and glasses,
More children are taking now botany classes.

Quietly graze the famished cattle,
Children are playing Samurai Battle.
Our warriors grow gradually tired and weary,
The cowman Ivan doesn't like Hara-kiri.

It's freezing as hell, this cold is sinister!
My mother is heating the stove with my sister.

Waiting for Mommy to give him a scrub,
The infant happily splashed in the tub.
Mama sneaked in, keeping low to the ground,
THUD! with a stool, and the child was drowned.

Oh, wicked little souls! Oh excruciating pain!
The children have learned of the Inquisition in Spain.
Wedging the nails, peeling the skin,
The teacher of physics repents of his sins.

A blind little boy, one afternoon,
Was eating his stew with a bent little spoon,
The mother hatefully watches her son,
"You sightless dork, I wish you were gone!"

Anya and Vanya were playing nurse,
Their grandfather died while giving birth.

Children are playing in the basement – Gestapo!
On the torture wheel is the plumber – Potapoff.
His right eye is missing, gone are both ears,
The left eye is bursting in blood and in tears.
Children would shoot him but guns are forbidden,
The guy wouldn't tell where the vodka is hidden.
The soirée will start with Potapoff's confession,
Preparations are made for the following session.

A boy found a machine gun in a glen,
Nobody lives in his village since then.
Just one scared babushka is still on the run,
“I'll get you, just let me insert a new drum!”

The boy lies in the bed – foot amputation.
The surgeon completed his operation.
The nurses praise the sugeon’s skill,
Placing foot-meat outside on the grill.

Naughty little Vanya robs the local store,
The old watchman spies at the door.
(Adult Version)
Crying and wailing Vanya fell dead,
“My one hundred and twelfth” – the watchman said.
(Children’s Version)
The shot was loud, the watchman fell dead,
Quick-draw Vanya is munching rye bread.

In childhood my family put out my eyes,
So I don't steal jam from our winter supplies.
Now I can't read, but I've learned to curse well,
And I've also got quite a good sense of smell.

A sickle and a hammer – a dove and a heart,
Children in the basement made Socialist art.
Tradition's revered! No dissent or protest!
The art teacher woke up tattooed on her chest.

My grandfather works at night as a porter,
He opens doors at the Party headquarters.
Last night he planted a bomb on the stairs,
Grandpa's very old and he doesn't care.

Oh, noble grace! Oh, everlasting peace!
Last week's assignment was ancient Greece,
Children in the basement read Oedipus Rex,
One boy murdered his daddy, and then he had sex!

It's Sunday, we're marching in the parade,
Little Vanya brought out a rifle grenade.
The militia is conducting meticulous searches,
Old brain jelly plop-plops from the birches.

Granny loves Annya with heart and with passion,
She's placed many field mines under her cushion.
Last night the explosion was loud as hell,
Granddaughter loved her Granny as well.

The Young Pioneer was fishing for trout,
A huge crocodile slowly crawled out.
“Lenin is Truth!” was the boy's brave reply,
The reptile now sports a little red tie.

Children in the basement played maternity ward,
Grandpa's abortion was performed with his sword.

It's terribly freezing, I'm wrapped in a towel,
Dad's running again to throw up in the shower.
Mom is skinning our friends' lost poodle,
We're a good family, send us some wood(el).

Daddy was planning to poison his daughter,
He's asked for some arsenic in her water.
The tired waiter's feet are sore,
“This will be fifty kopeks more!”

Children were playing, neighbours complained,
Machine-gun fire… It's quiet again.

The perverse uncle Vanya wants to play with his niece,
Let his tortured soul rest now in peace.

Two lovers were napping in a field of rye,
The combine-harvester drove quietly by.
The sharp cutter-bar was widely spread,
Worker Ivan finds thumbs in his bread.

A little girl found a grenade by the water,
“What is this daddy?” inquired the daughter.
“Pull off the ring” was father's reply,
Her cute little bow glides high in the sky.

A boy was sucking on a long candy cane,
When he suddenly got hit by an armored train.
In the interrogation room, blinded by the lamp,
The candy factory boss is sent to the camp.

The door of the train Moscow-Prague,
Gave the little boy a pneumatic hug.
His head is stuck and his legs pick up speed,
We are making bets on who will succeed.

Paying no heed to words of advice,
The little boy fell in a hole in the ice.
He tries to get out, he cries in despair,
I've never seen a more entertaining affair.

On the Red Square, by the Kremlin wall,
Children were playing American football.
A black limousine spat out a few men,
The mothers won't see their babies again.

A healthy body and a healthy mind,
In Soviet sports no one's left behind!
Against the hideous capitalist threat,
We will train at Russian roulette!

This week's assignment is Leo Tolstoy,
A long boring story that nobody enjoys.
Anna Karenina is not like John Wayne,
Chunks of Lit teacher hang from the train.

The road roller ran over our little Ivan,
Children came to tell his poor old mom.
“– Where is my boy, I can't wait anymore!”
“– Don't worry, we'll slip him under the door.”

Little Annya played in the park with her doll,
An old comrade stopped by on his stroll.
“Oh little kittie, oh my cute sweetie pie!”
Skewered on her fingers winked his blue eyes.

Playing with his ball, made out of straw,
The boy tripped and fell from the seventh floor.
Meanwhile his mama was checking the sky,
“Look neighbours! My Vanya is learning to fly!”

Children noisily play at the top of the hill,
The troops have begun their artillery drill.
The maneuvers end when the last shell is fired,
Oh, Sweet Mother Nature, it's so peaceful and quiet!

The little boy Vanya bought a karate Gi,
He taught himself stances watching Bruce Lee.
He yells each time he delivers his blow,
As Grandpa's balls swing to and fro.

The class was learning to master Freestyle,
Each kid was assigned to cover one mile.
In tears they begged the principal's daughter,
“Please go tell your daddy to run us some water!”

The little boy Vanya is hanging around,
A full truck of cops rolls fast into town.
Shooting, shouting, blood, disarray,
The boy hides his rifle and walks slowly away.

Children in the cellar play secret police,
The kneeling teacher begs for release.
“Please! I’m no enemy of the revolution!”
Preparations are made for the final solution.

Annya was training for the swimming world cup,
On Monday she dove, and on Friday bobbed up.

No fear of Lenin, no fear of God,
The children discovered le Marquis de Sade.
Chained naked to the desk and begging for pity,
Cries an elderly member of the Central Committee.



Children helped the state farm harvest its beets,
A spade hit a mine left in the German retreat.
Workers thronged the canteen in one noisy group,
“Cook says today there's meat in the soup!”

The toddler crawled happily over the rug,
Mother mistook his hand for a plug.
The entire house smells like a burning shoe,
Tomorrow little Ivan would have been two.

The child stuck his finger deep into a socket,
What was left, dad could fit in his pocket.

Garlic, lard, bread, and grilled chicken thighs,
Children looted the kolkhoz's food supplies.
A shot in the dusk! – a potato rolled on a rack,
A scream in the dark! – the night watch fell on his back.

The little boy plays in the kolkhoz canteen,
The cook ensnares him with a rotten sardine.
“Let's boil the water, let's light up the gas,
There will be sausages for the working class!”

Snowflakes behind, cold winds ahead,
The boy flies downhill on his new wooden sled.
The driver didn't stop, didn't even slow down,
“This truck needs a wash! I'll clean it in town!”

Daddy was fixing our old TV on the floor,
I plugged it in and ran away through the door.
Now I can watch cartoons as long as they last,
Enough with news about the working class.

“Stop! No Trespassing! Do Not Enter!”
Children set foot in the missile center.
A mistake, an accidental turn of the hand,
The North of Chukotka is now buried in sand.

At a construction site a boy was fooling around,
He fell into a lift shaft – all the way down.
His Mama’s now pestering the paramedic crew
“Comrades! Where is my son's second shoe?”

Attack, subversion, or again: “human factor,”
Somebody has damaged the atomic reactor.
The school will be closed. (Too much radiation),
Children are happy with the sudden vacation.

Fed up with promises and half-empty plates,
Children decided to escape to the States.
The jet was shot down over the Barents Sea,
They'll never set foot on the land of the free.

It's winter it's cold, but it felt very good,
The father and son were chopping some wood.
The blade of the axe went right through his chest,
Now Daddy will never escape to the West.

No shoes and no butter, no cigarettes or beef,
How can people embrace this Party's belief?
No candy, no chocolate, not even ice cream,
Chidlren grow tired of the Soviet regime.



Willie with a thirst for gore
Nailed his sister on the door
Mother said with humor quaint
“Careful, Willie, don’t scratch the paint!”
(Anonymous USA)

A new revolution! – the Fall of the Wall,
Most of the time is spent at the mall.
One boy choked on vanilla ice cream,
And his parents on the American Dream.

Three kids were playing in the street - Superman,
When Johnny came up with a brilliant plan.
“Let’s climb that building, let’s get superpowers!”
Three corpses lie next to a new office tower.

Naughty little Johnny went for a skate,
But he trespassed into a private estate.
The proud homeowner aimed from atop,
The board’s wheels rolled, then came to a stop.

Children in school were playing Apaches,
The math prof's scalp was traded for matchees.

Yelling, howling, groans – so sad and traumatic,
Children opened a madhouse up in the attic.
With dilated pupils and eyes full of agression,
The principal waits for her electroshock session.

A new Market Crash at the end of the week,
High on the roof children play hide and seek.
The old janitor lost all his savings and stock,
Motley little corpses land flat on the sidewalk.

Cash, motorcycles, candies and Coke,
Dreams filled the air like clouds of smoke.
“When I grow up, I'll become a millionaire,
I won't die like dad in an electrical chair!”


The history of France is a big question mark,
Children were assigned Saint Joan of Arc.
Flunking everyone was an enormous mistake,
The teacher was fat and burned fast at the stake.

Credit or Debit? Debit or Credit?
Dad craved capital but didn't know how to get it.
Selling one kidney made him very proud,
My family now has a savings account.

The children were playing corporation,
The favored game of the new generation.
“All is commodity!” declared the daughter,
Grandpa can’t afford now to pay for his water.

Children were playing a PlayStation game,
Dad’s bad advice drove the players insane.
The battle was lost in the “Final Resistance,”
Mama’s crying for medical assistance.

A few piles of coins lay spread on the floor,
Children are playing CEO.
Rivers of blood and torn pieces of flesh,
Johnny won! – and grabbed all the cash.

Johnny was playing hedge fund by the shed,
Dad shouted: “Do your homework instead!”
The boy quickly flashed his razor’s sharp edge,
Dad tried to escape but was stopped by the hedge.

No more kings, supersition, or the gallows of chance,
Children have learned of the Revolution in France.
The guillotine's blade! (you could hear it swish),
The history prof was denied his last wish.

Among the long aisles of the local K-Mart,
Johnny was riding a huge shopping cart.
A series of swerves led to his final collision,
His body was found in an LCD television.

Snowflakes behind, cold winds ahead,
The boy flies downhill on his new plastic sled.
The driver did not stop, didn't even slow down,
“This truck needs a wash! I'll clean it in town!”

The culinary arts bring joy and delight,
The boy craves again chicken nuggets and Sprite.
“Eat everything, my plump little bunny!”
Mom hopes to get some insurance money.

Children are pulling hard on a rope,
The P.E. teacher gives up all hope.
His neck's in the noose, his legs swing on the floor,
Two teams compete at the Tug of War.

Bad little Johnny found a rope,
His mom gave him a wet lump of soap.
The children joyfully jump and scream,
The principal’s body swings from a beam.

Art and beauty: the realm of the divine,
Johnny downloads free music online.
A mutilated little body lies next to a tree,
Children beware of the entertainment industry.

O’erburned with sweet desire,
Johnny set his school on fire.
After William Blake

Daddy was fixing the old TV on the floor,
John plugged it in and ran away through the door.
Now he can watch cartoons as long as they last,
No more soccer, news and weather forecasts.

It's night, it's raining and it's getting quite late.
Children in the basement are gambling with fate.
A toss of the coin or a roll of the die?
Who's gonna knock out the principal's eye?

Living better means getting high,
Children loot the drug store supply.
The guard with a Taser – Oh, poor dear,
Johnny is good at throwing his spear.

«Buy one get another free!»
That's what he was telling me.
"Are you Doctor deaf or dumb,
I don't need another thumb!"

The free ride in the bus was kind of brief,
The chief conductor sneaked in like a thief.
“No Money? Child, you must’ve lost your reason,
The cops will beat you and torture in prison!”

The little boy was surfing – he'd just gone in,
A tiger shark came by, showing its fin.
The coastal guards run, each carrying one oar,
A gentle wave brings a board to the shore.

Every night and every morn,
Some can’t buy Monsanto corn,
Every morn and every night,
Some serve hamburgers with Sprite,
Some serve hamburgers with Sprite,
Some go hungry through the night.
After William Blake




A. P. Iarosea, A. I. Naumova, Mal’cik v ovrage nashel pulimet: antologia cernogo umora. Minsk, Parus, 1992.

A. F. Belousov, “Vospominania Igorea Maliskogo: Krivoe zerkalo desitvitelinosti: k voprosu o proiskhojdenii ‘sadistskikh strashilok.’” Lotmanskii sbornik-1, IZ Granat, Moskva, 1995.

Luzan, Sergei, and Antonio Machado. Kontury Poezii: Strashilki, Perevody, Lirika, Satira. Moskva, Paleia, 1998.

"Strashilki." v. Moskva: Zhurnal "Rossiiskaia Karikatura."

Yurchak, Alexei. Everything Was Forever, until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.