Russian Fairy Tales and Utopianism
When Avdotiia Kireevskii plotted the structure of her Library of Folktales, she wrote that Russian tales “are completely the same as those of other peoples in content, but the locality gives a certain color to each” — an observation which serves as an excellent starting point for an examination of familiar tale-types depicted in a Russian context. The content of Russian fairy tales differs from Western European tales in a number of important ways. They all render the details of magical quests and adventures, but the fairy tales of Russia are dictated by an inherent utopianism, an ideal of a better world.
Typical Russian tales, as Haney points out, “set the time and place (no time, no place) ‘In a certain tsardom, in a certain country, there lived and dwelt...’ or, ‘In the thrice-nine tsardom in the thrice-ten country there lived and dwelt....'” This introductory formula “serves to disconnect the audience from its own small world simply by abolishing concrete geography.” This common introductory technique is used in a different mannner in Slavic tales than in Western fairy tales, however. In the latter, most often, once the introduction establishes the occurrence of events in some Otherland, no information is subsequently given to contradict the reader's ‘suspension of disbelief’. In Russian tales, by contrast, although the world in which the action of the story takes place is typically separated from our own, the characters usually come not only from mortal lands, but specifically from Russia.
In Russian stories, Haney tells us, “while other types of tales ... contain virtually no mention of ethnicity ... tales dealing with magic ... mention res russica... At the end of such tales it is common for the hero to come ‘back to Rus’ to live out the rest of his life.” Frequently, during the hero's travails in the Otherworld, “the villains Baba Yaga, Koshchei the Immortal, and the dragons all detect the presence of the hero because he has ‘the smell of the Rus’ about him.” Similarly, though “in a considerable number of tales the action begins without reference to concrete space, at the end the hero comes to claim his reward and/or bride in ‘Rus’ or ‘Russia.’” In Russia, folktales and history were inextricably entwined, and the tales reflected a belief that the world of the tellers, too, could somehow change for the better.
This relates to the fact that Russian tales invariably present some change to the established order of things, frequently on a grand scale. Haney notes that it “is not enough to state that the hero and his bride returned and lived happily ever after, to quote the English exit formula.... Although the transformed hero will return from his or her quest, the world will not be the same.” For example: In a Russian variant of tale-type 510B (entitled “The Golden Lantern”), a daughter defeats the incestuous advances of her father by demanding a lantern of gold, which she then uses as a hiding place, and as a means to select a suitable bridegroom. After her marriage, the golden lantern is hung as a second sun in the sky; and we read that “the earth is fertile from its warmth...all that's good began to be borne of it.” In such stories, heroes and heroines not only succeed in healing the breach in the social order that set them forth on their adventures, they also improve the world around them as they go.
Russian folktales end in a manner similar to English tales (“and then they lived happily ever after”) — but the Russian endings are more formulaic and more intricate than their Western equivalents, frequently consisting of assertions that the storyteller was physical presence at the event, and can attest to the truth of the tale. “The Crystal Mountain,” for example, ends with a nuptial ceremony, concluding in a typical manner: “The wedding was held at once. I was at that wedding, too. I drank beer and mead; they flowed down my beard but did not go into my mouth.” The “real” nature of these events, uninfluenced by any inebriative or unverifiable elements, is one of the most crucial elements of the story.
The subversive tone of Russian fairy tales (which are commonly peopled by venal priests, incestuous relatives, and abusive tyrants) was not lost on the ruling classes. Haney notes that the “folktale was a powerful form for the expression of social values, and there is evidence that it flourished at times when social values were in conflict with the ideas of a dominating social group.” Proof of this can be found in the fact that “medieval Russian skoromohks were suppressed, not because they offered a spiritual alternative to Russian orthodoxy, nor because of their suspect behavior, but because they offered an image of the physical world that was highly preferable to the one in which they operated, because they offered a scathing indictment of the world created by ‘the powers that be.’”
In an example of the philosophy of “if you can't beat them, join them,” Catherine the Great wrote her own folktales in an attempt to influence popular opinion — her behavior likely based as much on her German upbringing and knowledge of Machiavelli as anything else. Her tales, however, never gained the same level of popularity as the native tales that had evolved over the years, first through oral transmission and then through the medium of the printed word.
Russian Fairy tales and the Modern Fantastic
It is perhaps due to the relative failure of “artificial” folktales by writers from Catherine the Great to Pushkin that most Russian authors of fantastic literature in the twentieth century decided to take a wholly different route. Rather than choosing to craft new tales set in the magical landscapes of folklore, these writers — Evgennii Zamiatin, Aleksei Tolstoi, Ivan Efremov, Valentina Zhuravleva, Olga Lariovna, and the Strugatsky brothers, to name only a few — chose instead to work in the Russian realist tradition while borrowing the format and structure of folk tales. By contrast, Western writers working within a tradition of purely imaginative fantasy literature — such as Orson Scott Card, C.J. Cherryh, Neil Gaiman, Patricia A. McKillp, Gene Wolfe, and Catherynne M. Valente — found it natural to co-opt characters and plots from Russian fairy tales, while diverging from their traditional structure. Thus the two movements can more or less be placed in binary opposition.
Art: Ivan Bilibin (1846-1942) Russian fairy tale illustrator and stage designer. "Vasillisa the Wise"