Friday, 12 May 2017

In Tel Aviv, a Russian cartoonist draws upon the old country for inspiration

Think of him as today’s Dostoyevsky, only animated. Oleg Kuvaev is the creator of Masyanya, a stick-figure in a mini skirt, whom he uses to poke fun at life in modern Russia — minus the politics.

Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, the 50-year-old now crafts his commentary on Russian society from sultry Tel Aviv. But he’ll be making his way to the Limmud FSU conference in New York for the first time this week, where he’s scheduled to speak about cartoons and the history of cartoon-making. Kuvaev promises that it will be entertaining — something like a stand-up comedy performance.

“It would be strange if I talked about cartoons in a serious way because cartoons are supposed to be funny,” he says, before pausing to laugh — a frequent occurrence from the jocular illustrator.

Kuvaev claims his hometown of St. Petersburg breeds a sarcastic sense of humor different from anything one might encounter elsewhere in Russia.

Although he grew up in the USSR, Kuvaev says Soviet cartoons — in which carnivorous animals often take on human personalities — had no influence on him whatsoever.

“Soviet cartoons are slow. It looks like the people who made them were on tranquilizers,” Kuvaev says dismissively. “I would have rather watched ‘Tom & Jerry’ if it was shown on Soviet TV.”

Another thing Kuvaev can’t stand about Soviet cartoons is that they were made for children. This is definitely not the case with his work. In fact, he says he has a very hard time trying to explain his own cartoons to kids — they just don’t get them.

In one cartoon, Masyanya decides she urgently needs to get a gun to scare away traffic so that she can cross the street and hopefully get to work on time. The plan works. But by the end of the cartoon, she forgets the gun and joins a protest calling on the government to outlaw all cars in the city.

In another cartoon, Masyanya gets talked into a trip to the countryside to look at an old oak tree, only to get lost on a road that isn’t even on the map. She spends the night in a car stuck in a manure-smelling field. In a third clip, she tries to make her morning coffee before fully alert and ends up almost setting her apartment on fire.

Before becoming a cartoon-maker Kuvaev says he worked at so many odd jobs the interview would take all day to list them all. He’s studied mathematics and physics in the USSR, served in the Soviet army (though he’s reluctant to expound) and even worked as a night guard at a kindergarten — which he says was fun because he got to wander around in the dark and play with children’s toys.

Asked if this was another one of his jokes, and why a kindergarten would need a guard at night, Kuvaev is stumped.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “Perhaps it is to keep vandals and punks out. I guess in Israel they don’t have night guards in the kindergartens.”

Kuvaev also worked in the 3D gaming industry in Russia, specializing in virtual racing.

He says it’s not a good idea to stay in one job for more than a year and a half because that way you miss out on the opportunity to try out all kinds of occupations.

After returning from his army service, Kuvaev veered from his science and technology background and became an artist. He says he started making cartoons after learning Flash while building a website to promote his art.
What he likes the most about making cartoons on the internet is the freedom — something that he appreciated as the Soviet Union collapsed.

“It was totally free. Drugs, porn, anything — no one cared what you talked about online,” he says excitedly.

When asked about why he moved to Israel from St. Petersburg, where all of the Masyanya cartoons are set, Kuvaev says that it was probably his karma. For one, he married an Israeli.

“I think I made the right decision because I’m still alive!” he says.

Alive — unlike many of his Russian classmates and coworkers who have been dying off “like ants” lately, not just from serious diseases like cancer, but unexpectedly, from things like “sudden cardiac arrest,” says Kuvaev.

“Everyone [in Russia] is dying, it’s like an epidemic without obvious causes,” he says.

As for Kuvaev himself, he says he is happy with his personal life now. He is married to an Israeli woman and has two small children. And he says he’s thinking of making a new episode for his cartoon, where Masyanya might finally travel outside of St. Petersburg. Say, maybe to Israel or New York.