Firebirds and firebrands, forests and fools, water and witches, puissant princesses and pulchritudinous princes: all of these and more are elements within the environment of Russian fairy tales. Many of these factors are similar to those found in fairy tales the world over, as are the history and structure of tales in Russia. However, the fairy tales of Russia also possess a number of characters who, though they have counterparts in other cultures, are unique to the Slavic tradition - including Baba Yaga, Koshchei the Deathless, and various spirits such as rusalkas, vodoniye, leshiye, and domovieye, to name only a few. In Western tradition they can be compared, respectively, to Frau Holle or the witch of "Hansel and Gretel," to Bluebeard or the sorcerer of "Fitcher's Bride," and to the nixies, selkies, elves and brownies of folklore.
However, these characters differ sharply in a number of important ways. As Russia acquired a broad level of literacy relatively late in its history, many of the trappings associated with these characters are closely linked to holdovers from the oral tradition, reflecting elements of pre-Christian belief — a characteristic underscored by Russian folklorists' reluctance to alter their tales merely for the purposes of propriety. These factors came together to create a pantheon of figures more individual and more primal than those of Western fairy tales, characteristics which come through clearly in their use in modern fiction. The examination of these characters in lore and literature allows us to better understand Russian folk beliefs of the past, as well as modern attitudes towards fairy tales and the fantastic. For the sake of brevity, let's look at the character of Baba Yaga, who stands as a good example for the whole of Russian folk belief.
One of the most well known figures from Russian folklore, Baba Yaga's name can be roughly translated as "Granny Yaga." In Russian Myths, Elizabeth Warner notes that Baba Yaga brings many of the dominant themes of Russian fairy tales together: she travels on the wind, occupies the domain of the leshii, the forest spirits, is associated with death, and is an acceptable surrogate for the generic ved'ma, or witch. Also known as "Baba Yaga Kostinaya Noga," or "Baba Yaga Bony Leg," she possesses gnashing steel teeth, and penetrating eyes, and, in short, is quite enough to intimidate even the most courageous (or foolhardy, depending on the tale) hero or heroine. Like the witches of other cultures, her preferred method of transportation is an implement commonly used for household labor, though unlike the witches of the West, rather than traveling upon a broom, she chooses to ride in a mortar, rowing with a pestle, and using a broom to sweep away the tracks that she leaves. Her home is a mobile hut perched upon chicken legs, which folklorist Vladimir Propp hypothesized might be related to the zoomorphic izbushkii, or initiation huts, where neophytes were symbolically "consumed" by the monster, only to emerge later as adults.
In his book An Introduction to the Russian Folktale, Jack Haney points out that Baba Yaga's hut "has much in common with the village bathhouse … the place where many ritual ceremonies occurred, including the initiatory rituals." This corresponds to the role that her domicile plays in the fairy tales of Russia: though the nature of the initiation differs from story to story, dependent upon the circumstances of the protagonist, Baba Yaga's presence invariably serves as a signifier of change. Baba Yaga's domain is the forest, widely acknowledged as a traditional symbol of change and a place of peril, where she acts as either a challenger or a helper to those innocents who venture into her realm. In Western tales, these two roles are typically polarized, split into different characters stereotyped as either "witch" or "fairy godmother." Baba Yaga, however, is a complex individual: depending on the circumstances of the specific story, she may choose to use her powers for good or ill.
One of the aspects of Baba Yaga that makes her fairly threatening even when she plays the helper role is that, like the witch of "Hansel and Gretel," her culinary habits leave something to be desired. She is a cannibal: children who fail to observe proper etiquette in her home find themselves serving as examples to the audience, and served to the witch as meals. Theorists connect these tales to a Russian ritual of healing referred to as perepekanie (rebaking) in which newly born or ill children were placed in a warm oven with the incantation: Just as the dough rises, so let the body of this child rise, too. Jack Haney notes that this "rite finds its analogue in those tales in which a witch, the Baba Yaga, captures a small boy, Ivanushka, and prepares to eat him… She tells him to lie down on the oven panel. He lies down, hands and feet straight up, and therefore does not fit into the oven. He asks her to show him how to lie on the oven panel correctly. She lies down, and he pops her into the oven and roasts her."
Haney's use of "the" in reference to Baba Yaga indicates her definitive positioning in the hierarchy of Russian myth. Unlike other villains, who may be defeated once, never to be heard from again, Baba Yaga is not permanently conquerable, for Baba Yaga is far more than just another witch. In such stories, typically, the protagonists fall into Baba Yaga's hands by breaking some rule of the forest, or abusing her hospitality, and are assisted or advised by woodland creatures whom they have met and befriended along the way. Vladimir Propp compared Baba Yaga's role as mistress of the forest and its denizens to a parallel figure from the Indic Rig Veda: it is likely that Baba Yaga is a amalgam of numerous archetypes, incorporating elements of rulers of the forest and underworld mistresses in a single entity. Scholars of Slavic mythology have also linked her to the ancient Indo-European goddess of death. The forest of Baba Yaga symbolizes more than the forest; it is also the otherworld, the "land of the living dead," also known as "the thrice-nine kingdom."
The land of "the truly dead," also known as the "thrice-ten kingdom," is separate from her realm. Frequently, thby Iae boundary between the two lands is symbolized by a river of fire which she cannot cross — though the hero or heroine often must — and in those cases, Baba Yaga traverses the same bridge as the hero or heroine, only to have it break: she hurtles, not to her death, because she appears in other stories, but certainly out of the present story. When she does return, she is unchanged, indicating one of the fundamental tenets of the Russian fairy tale: that while humanity may enact changes for the better, there will always be forces working against them.
Art by Rima Staines, "Baba Yaga"