Masyanya's Rise -- Shiftless Cyberpunk Rules the Web

Oleg Kuvayev
ST. PETERSBURG -- Your parents would surely disapprove of this girl. She's a foul-mouthed, dope-smoking idler with a skirt that's much too short and far too few teeth in her mouth. She has no job, no respect for authority and sports a cackle so piercing that it's painful to the unaccustomed ear.

And yet Masyanya, for that is her name, is the talk of the northern capital. People in St. Petersburg speak Masyanya-speak. Children write her fan mail. Internet cafes are filled with people glued to computer screens watching her latest adventures, bending in spasms of uncontrolled laughter. And at the end of every working day, the city's white-collar workers feverishly log on to the net for a glimpse into her life.

"The busiest time on the site is between 5 and 6 p.m.," says Oleg Kuvayev, Masyanya's 35-year-old creator, laughing heartily. "That's when the bosses all leave the office and their employees are left alone with their computers and Internet access."

The girl everybody in St. Pete wants to hang out with is a cartoon character with an elliptic face, bulging eyes, one lone tooth and a few thin strands of hair gathered into two ponytails. Her barrel-shaped body barely fits into the tight red shirt and blue mini-skirt she wears constantly; her arms and legs are little more than two pairs of thin black lines.

But less than half a year after coming to life, this girl and her creator stand a fair chance of receiving a prestigious Russian Internet award for the best web debut of the past year. The award ceremony takes place Friday evening in Moscow.

Masyanya, by now dubbed "the Russian answer to Beavis and Butthead" was born last October, when Kuvayev was still working as a web designer for a Russian game site. "In the beginning she was just a joke I made for myself and my friends at work," he laughed earlier this week over a cup of coffee in a trendy St. Petersburg cafe. "A kind of anarchic cyberpunk character that was supposed to stay underground."

But as the word of Masyanya spread all over the net, the servers that were hosting her home site, Mult.ru, started bulking under the weight of surfers eager to catch up with her.

"For a while I was releasing new cartoons every Monday morning. It usually took less than 15 minutes for the site to crash," Kuvayev says. The number of hits per day went into the thousands and then climbed rapidly to reach a staggering 30,000, pushing Mult.ru to 16th place on the list of the most-visited sites of the Russian Internet.

When the cartoon started taking more and more of Kuvayev's time, his bosses suggested the anarchic cyberpunk lady was incompatible with office work. "So I left," Kuvayev smiles mischievously. "Now, instead of a nice comfortable job with a nice salary and a stable future, I have Masyanya and the sea of troubles that comes with her."

What else can one expect from a girl who lives in a decrepit apartment in a dreary St. Petersburg's suburb and earns her money by singing stale rock-ballads in the elektrichka so badly that people pay her to leave? Or addresses her boss with a list of choice expletives after having smoked one joint too many? Or orders a selection of soft and hard drugs for her birthday party, but refuses to add beer to the list? "Oh no, no beer," she declines in her characteristic squeaky voice. "People will get drunk, turn the place into a pigsty. I'm a decent girl."

A simple, urban girl from the dawn of the 21st century, Masyanya is blessed with a set of traits that anyone who has spent some time in this country is bound to recognize: a bit of impulsiveness, a handful of irresponsibility, a pinch of laziness and a healthy dose of dushevnost, or soulfulness. Add some good music and local St. Pete color and this recipe for success is complete.

"Every episode is one way or another taken from real life," Kuvayev says. "Not literally, of course, but it always has something to do with the situations in which I or my friends have found ourselves. You pick up one detail, blow it up and build a cartoon around it. Very simple."

For the time being, Masyanya is an exclusive Internet dweller, born in a simple two-room flat in St. Petersburg's historical Vasilyevsky Island neighborhood.

All it takes to make the cyberpunk is a computer, a microphone with a simple sound system and a double bed where Kuvayev crashes every dawn after having worked through the night on the cartoon. Kuvayev both draws Masyanya and provides her trademark squeaky voice. But these days he mostly talks to the journalists, he complains.

"Since Masyanya was 'discovered' all I do during the day is meet people, talk to them and answer their e-mails," he says. "Serves me right. I always said that interactivity is the crucial feature of the net. Now I'm paying for my words. I'm nothing but interactive these days. The only time I have left for work is at night."

Kuvayev's newfound fame brought other trappings as well -- dozens of phone calls from radio stations asking for Masyanya to host their music shows, clubs offering to throw Masyanya theme parties, people asking where they can buy Masyanya T-shirts or coffee mugs.

And, to the dismay of its creator, it seems that adults are not the only people to fall for Masyanya. "It turned out kids love her, and it's not at all a site for children," says Kuvayev. "I mean, there is some foul language, and stuff like that."

Now a new warning for children appears on the site telling them they've come to the wrong place and directing them to one of the rare children's web sites on the Russian Internet. "Not that it helps," Kuvayev, himself a father of an 8-year old, smiles helplessly.

The most difficult part of Kuvayev's fame, he says, is dealing with the numerous businessmen -- mainly from Moscow -- who started knocking on his door as soon as Masyanya was a success. As the creator says, they followed the smell of money.

"I had to give myself a crash-course on doing business just so I wouldn't get tricked [into making bad deals]," he says. "And I drank far too much beer at the time. Our businessmen prefer beer, I discovered."

What he learned is "if you want to be able to live off your own art, you have to give someone a percentage," he says. "So I hired two friends from Moscow -- sharp, slick guys -- to deal with other Moscow slick guys like themselves. Now we have a company called 'OOO Masyanya.'"

The most visible results the company's work -- apart from the advertisements that have started popping up when downloading cartoons -- are the negotiations currently underway with MTV Russia to air a series of Masyanya cartoons. But before she can appear on MTV, the tough St. Pete girl will have to become "softer," Kuvayev says, sighing heavily. "I'll have to take out some of the sharp angles. There's lots of stuff on the site that could never run on television," he says.

"But I'm not ready to change her too much," adds Kuvayev. "Masyanya's charm is in her sharp angles. That's the stuff she's made of."