This was a skit by M. Zhvanetsky, a renowned Russian satirist. As with much Russian humor, if you read this literally, from the perspective of a socially-liberal 21st-century American reader, you risk walking away with a sense of horror rather than the over-the-top black humor that is the skit's intended goal. Keep reading after the piece if you are curious about my analysis.


The father chases his son into a corner.


"You had two apples. I threw one out. How many are left?"


Quiet whimpering.


"You had two apples. I cut one into pieces. How many are left?"


Whimpers, shoves, hugging the wall.


"You had two apples. I ate one... I took it and ate it! How many do you have left?"


Crying, bawling, slaps.


"You held in your dirty hands two unwashed apples. I grabbed one from you and devoured it. How many apples are left, damn it?"


More bawling: "No, daddy, don't."


"Oh, yes, I will. You had two apples. I yanked one out of your dirty hands and stomped it into mulch! One out of two is now rotting on the floor. How many do you have left?"


Shivering, howling, shouts. Shrieking from the mother: "Leave the child alone!"


"He is a goddamn idiot! Fine, I'm changing the setup. You had two apples. You ate one of them! You yourself ate it! How many apples, you idiot, you dumbass, do you still have?"


"Aaaah! Don't hit me! Daddy!"


"No zoo for you! No playdates! You're never having another birthday party again! I'm spending the whole holiday with this moron. You had two apples... Zina, do we have apples? What? Fine, give me the carrots. You had two carrots, you stupid creature! I took... give it... let go, you idiot, this is arithmetic! I forcefully took one from you and ate it. Here. Crunch, crunch. Are you watching? Crunch, crunch."


"Grisha, it hasn't been washed."


"Fine! Let him watch. I just ate an earth-covered carrot. How many carrots do you have left?"




"Look, dammit! How many carrots are in your filthy paws?"




"Very good, sonny. Now let's get back to apples."






"Stop bawling! Answer me! You had two apples..."


"Grisha, I'm begging you..."


"Shut up! This is necessary. This idiot answered correctly with the carrots. Therefore, there's still hope. I'm developing abstract reasoning in him. You had two apples..."


"Grisha, don't!"


"Damn it! Either he won't be such an idiot, or he's never growing up at all! You had two apples..."




"Silence! The whole house shut up! No hints! I, your dad, have taken from you... one out of two apples."




"I, your father, out of TWO apples—have taken ONE... stop! Shut up! You had one apple. I snuck up and gave you... stop bawling! I snuck up from behind... no, I snuck up from the front and gave you a second apple... how many do you have now? Fine, I'll change the setup again. You have no apples whatsoever, you're just standing there like an idiot. I surreptitiously crawl up to you and give you, my favorite little son, one apple. How many apples do you have now? Oh no you don't, you goddamn— don't you even dare say it. Where the hell did the second apple come from? Where in all that is holy did you find the second one? I only gave you one. Let's try this again. You, my most beloved son in the whole world, are standing there like an idiot and looking around... you have no apples. You have nothing! The wind blows: whoosh. The wolves howl: awooo. And then I crawl out of the woods. Quietly sneak up on you. You're just there alone. You have nothing. Wind, wolves... then I quietly sneak out of the dark forest. Come up to you from behind... and bam! Give you two whole apples."


"Daddy, don't!"


"Who are you saying this to? You didn't have anything. I gave you two apples. How many do you have now? What do you mean you won't take them? It's winter! Woods! You are all alone, starving, and won't take the apples? Zina, go away... close the door. Look: nobody around. You are alone. Only the wolves are howling and the cops are blowing their whistles somewhere. And here I am, sneaking up..."


The bawling became intolerable. The downstairs neighbors began to knock on the floor.


"Okay, fine. You gave me one yourself. How many are left?"


Quiet whispering: "One."


"So, how many apples do I have?"




"And how many do you have?"




"Let's go ahead and eat them."




"But we have no apples. There's nothing to eat. Now that's what's called abstract reasoning."

And now, as promised, my attempt at literary analysis. As with any piece of art, I cannot dictate how it ought to make you feel, but I'll explain what motivated me to translate it in the first place.


You'll notice that the structure of the piece is unusually sparse. There's no descriptions and minimal taglines; what little setup exists is delivered in the barest of sketches. Russian language can generally get away with a lot fewer helper words than English; in this instance, I chose to preserve the phrasing (going so far as to omit most verbs altogether) to indicate how little it matters. When I read the phrase "The father chases his son into a corner", I envision a generic Soviet-era 60s tenement apartment, based on the type of housing I grew up in. I have no doubt that you imagine something quite different.


But in the end, the setting remains irrelevant. Like an impressionist painting, it flows with an emotional energy, a raw, sheer frustration, implied rather than explicit. I myself have never been in the verbatim situation of the child nor the father, but it is easy to forget in today's enlightened era of child emotional validation that corporeal punishment was not only routine but expected less than half a century ago in many of the world's cultures. This piece doesn't condone or proselytize it; instead, it takes it as a baseline and builds to a disproportionate grotesque parody, until you can no longer take it seriously. The lack of grounding and descriptive details serves to drive this point home: too much realism, and you flip back from comedy into horror.


As for what emotional resonance this piece has for me? If I had to boil it down to a single word, I would pick catharsis. As a parent with less than a saint's dose of patience, I know the frustrated feeling of explaining what I consider to be a basic mathematical concept to my child (and what could be more basic than 1+1?), only to hit a conceptual and emotional wall. When my daughter is struggling with her homework, she will burst into tears at the drop of a hat as soon as I ask her to walk me through her reasoning. From that angle, I don't have to agree with the skit's protagonist to be able to relate to him as he finds himself scraping at the bottom of his barrel of creativity just to get through to his child.


And, of course, all of that comes against the backdrop of late-Soviet-era scarcity, as brilliantly encapsulated by the last line. You can engage in whatever abstract philosophical debates you please, but in the end, you still have nothing to eat.