I waited a long time — though not as long as I’d planned — before I let my daughter watch any sort of television; when I did, I knew her first cartoon had to be “Ny Pogodi,” the strange Roadrunner-esque cartoon that I and so many millions of Russian children grew up on in the USSR. For a child, “Ny Pogodi” is the perfect introduction to television. The graphics are basic, the music is amazing, and best of all, the episodes are only two to three minutes long.
If you are in any way Russian, you have probably seen this cartoon in its entirety. If you are not, let me describe it to you. The main character is a chain-smoking wolf who, in the series premiere, first notices a young bunny rabbit because she (or he?) is watering the plants on her balcony and the water drips onto the wolf’s cigarette. The wolf looks up, imagines the rabbit as a cooked dinner, then spends the entirety of the series trying to catch her (or him?): hence, the series’ only spoken dialogue, which is also the show’s title: “I’ll catch you!”
As an adult in America — albeit, an American temporarily unemployed due to pandemic-induced lockdowns — re-watching the most popular cartoon to ever come out of the Soviet Union was a bit funny, to say the least. So many questions arise now that didn’t when I was younger, and I can’t help but wonder if my grandparents and parents were asking these same questions when I first saw the series when I was a child in the late 1980s, or when my parents were watching it in the 60s and 70s. Why is the wolf so slow? In real life, wolves are not slow. But in the cartoon, every time Wolf gets close to Rabbit, he either hugs the rabbit close, causing me to think he desires love from the rabbit more than a quick meal, or goes for her so slowly that the rabbit has ample time to discover a quick and easy escape plan. It’s like Wolf doesn’t really want to attain the object of his desire — he only wants to believe he does, so he has a reason to get up in the morning. Could the entire idea behind “Ny Pogodi” really be more about a man’s pursuit of purpose and meaning in life? If it is, I feel a little bad for the wolf, knowing he will never achieve his goals. I wish he would find some new way to satisfy himself. A friendship with the bunny, perhaps. Or a job that doesn’t require him to catch an animal, since that is clearly not his forte. Maybe he could find a nice she-wolf and start a family?
As for the rabbit, why does she keep getting alone in a room with this creep? Is she an adrenaline junkie, addicted to the rush of danger? Rabbits have good memories, and she often eventually recognizes the wolf. And yet, when she is not busy outrunning him, she is first trying to play with him, trusting he will not harm her in some very enclosed spaces. Maybe her youth renders her naïve, and she believes people can change, or wants to give them the chance to. Or maybe she is lonely; she doesn’t seem to have many friends, and for whatever reason, the city in which they live is rather deserted. In most of the episodes, only Wolf and Rabbit ever bother to leave their homes. In an episode where she takes a cruise staffed for some reason by navy officials, she hands the director a child’s ticket, leaving me to understand she is, indeed, a child. If that is the case, where are her parents? What kind of world is this where a child is allowed to wander around town by herself and even board a cruise ship with a hungry wolf on her tail? There’s a sort of laissez-faire attitude about safety in general that I find interesting in “Ny Pogodi,” especially in pandemic-era 2020, a time of such caution. The rabbit always manages to outsmart the incompetent wolf and get away. Perhaps their relationship illustrates a lost way of parenting, one that was still popular at the height of the show’s popularity: this idea of letting kids be kids and not meddling, stopping, or constantly forbidding things deemed unsafe.
Before rooms filled with toys and 1,000 shows on Netflix, we would wander around our apartments cage-free and play all day in the yard, where we were often unsupervised. Where did this incessant need to cushion and control come from, anyway? In a time where it feels like everything outside your house is either illegal or frowned upon, even walking outside, I feel the closest to the version of myself who watched this cartoon as a four-year-old in Soviet Ukraine, yet also the farthest. The closest because of our temporary lockdown-induced poverty; the farthest because of our lack of a social network, which, even at the worst of times, was what kept people in the USSR sane. They may have been constantly hungry and unable to voice any contradictory opinion, but everyone had active social lives and a network of family providing support. Even before Corona killed the social network, in many places, it was already dying. In America, you may have a bigger house, but you work all the time and your parents most likely do not even live in the same city as you, let alone the same building. In Ukraine, several generations would often share one apartment. During the only episode in which we see Wolf’s dwellings, he is drinking alone in a room with barely enough space to walk in. Perhaps this is at the root of his obsession: he has no family, and the rabbit is in some ways the closest acquaintance he has. It would definitely explain why he never manages to actually kill her.
Obviously, it’s a cartoon. It’s not supposed to make sense. “Ny Pogodi” was created to entertain millions of children without offending the totalitarian government — not an easy task at any time, but especially in the 60s and 70s, when the rest of the world was experiencing dramatic advancement and revolution. It’s very likely the writers would have embedded these episodes with a deeper meaning, especially when they clearly have a lot of respect for Russian culture. When they’re not at the beach, Wolf and Rabbit are constantly wandering around visiting museums, carnivals, circuses and sports arenas. They visit different types of theaters where they somehow end up singing and dancing together in front of a random crowd — once, they performed an entire magic show. In nearly every episode, both of the characters make music; this does not include the tangos that frequently play in the background, let alone the faster paced soundtrack of chase scenes. Perhaps, since Rabbit and Wolf clearly do not have jobs, there is little else for them to do other than pursue hobbies. Before the Internet, ways to spend your free time were limited. Why not play a guitar, like Wolf, or join a choir, like Rabbit? Why not spend the entire day at the beach reading about Baba Yaga? In this way, the show really resonates with our current situation, where many people are either furloughed, on unemployment, laid off, or working at a smaller capacity than before. In the USSR, many found solace in music and art; here, during lockdown, many find it in bread baking and zoom meetings or other newfound hobbies. When all else fails to entertain at our house, Alma and I turn up the radio and have a little dance party. Because dancing is fun, and it’s still free.
Being in a countrywide lockdown is not so different from having a baby. I barely noticed there was a lockdown for the first month and a half, until I sent the final draft of my novel to my publisher, because between writing and baby-raising I was so used to spending all my time at home. At first the freedom of extra time was a rush. I cleaned the house from top to bottom, painted the backyard fence, organized the basement, and rearranged and cleaned every closet in the house. But, when after a week I ran out of projects around the house, I began to wonder exactly what others had been wondering already for more than a month: what to do with our newfound time?
Humans are not accustomed to having so much free time. Until very recently, most of our days were spent trying to survive the wild, our neighbors, or invisible enemies. We had to hunt and gather and clean and work. Now, because of technology, most people have at least a few hours a day off. Of course it’s different for everyone. Parents have less, college students have more. Some people work more than one job. Some are retired. But for the most part we all have a small amount of time to ourselves. The lockdowns have doubled or tripled this time, while also prohibiting many of the things people used to do in their free time: go out to dinner, or meet family, or travel. Gone are long commutes, conferences, department meetings. Suddenly everyone has to figure out a balance that I, as a writer who has worked from home for many years already, always struggle with: how much of the day to devote to work — whatever that may be — and how much to spend working out, cleaning, or watching TV. How to not let the entire day disappear into smoke. Having too much time, I have learned over the years, can cause just as many issues as not enough time — they’re just very different issues. Being able to navigate these challenges is all a state of mind. You can let yourself fall into a hole of depression by bingeing “The Tiger King” or every season of “Breaking Bad,” or you can use the time to better yourself, by learning a new skill or getting into shape or whatever brings you happiness.
Just like the characters in Ny Pogodi.
The wolf and the rabbit are diametrically opposed in temperament. Rabbit has a very chipper attitude, and Wolf is oafish and grumpy. Growing up, my parents were the same; my mother an optimist, my father a pessimist. Because sometimes the two sides complement one another. But if watching “Ny Pogodi” shows you anything, it’s that your life will be better if you don’t go too extreme in either direction. Frankly, the rabbit is immensely lucky that the wolf is such a buffoon. She is so blindly optimistic and interested in everything she sees that it’s sometimes an impairment to her well-being. Had she a more clever or quick nemesis, she’d have died a hundred times.
It’s hard to be blindly optimistic these days — especially as an adult, especially now. Since the lockdowns, my husband and I have seen our income dwindle to almost nothing (he is a touring musician whose tours have all been canceled and I run an Airbnb when I’m not writing), and neither of us have been approved for any government stimulus money or unemployment. Our bank accounts have suffered greatly. However, our house and yard have never looked better. And with my husband home all the time and taking on more childcare, I have been able to write almost twice as often as when he was always out of town touring.
Re-watching “Ny Pogodi” helps me see the bright side in things, as well as offering some solace, too; its familiar images and songs live in a place in my heart that feel like an unmade bed. It also reminds me that, unlike our struggles in the USSR, this is a temporary situation. Even though it can feel dire, it’s a more comfortable kind of dire than that my forebearers. We have central air and hot water, things my parents did not have in our Chernovtsy apartment, where they still had to carry water from a well to boil in order to wash our cloth diapers. I have cloth diapers too, but I have a washer and dryer. And it’s just the three of us here. When I was a child watching “Ny Pogodi,” I lived in a three-bedroom apartment with my grandparents and uncle as well as my parents and sister. (I loved it, but now that I have my own child, I understand how hard it must have been for everyone else.)
It also makes me recognize a change in myself. If you had asked me ten years ago, I would say I am more like the wolf; only seeing the downside of things, and wasting time chasing something that I could never quite catch, because I wasn’t really sure what it was. Now, I would describe myself more like the rabbit: entering a room with my head held high, trying to find the joy, but also knowing to run at the first sign of real danger. When you have a family of your own, you don’t have time to get depressed and crawl into a hole, devouring everything in your path the way the wolf does. You have to be creative and solve the problems that are thrown at you; this involves having optimism and courage. You have to be the rabbit. And that means looking for the bright side, even in a time of darkness.
Zhanna Slor was born in the former Soviet Union and moved to the Midwest in the early 1990s. She has a master’s degree in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University, and has been published in many literary magazines, including Ninth Letter, Bellevue Literary Review, Midwestern Gothic, Another Chicago Magazine, and Michigan Quarterly Review, which received an honorary mention in Best American Essays 2014. She lives in Milwaukee with her daughter and husband, saxophonist for Jazz-Rock fusion band Marbin, and her first novel, “At the End of the World Turn Left,” will be published by Polis Books in Spring 2021.