In this first installment of a two-part article, Helen Pilinovsky offers an overview of the subject of Russian fairy tales. In Part II, she'll examine the tales of Baba Yaga and Koshchei the Deathless, and their use in contemporary mythic fiction.
In English, we call them fairy tales. This term comes from the French contes des fées, properly translated as “tales of the fairies” — a term used both for stories that literally concern fairies, and for tales that are somehow within their purview (that is, tales which the fairies themselves might tell). In Russian, the term for such stories is skazka — which means, simply, “story.” Russian fairy tales are then further separated into numerous categories: volshebniyi skazki (magical tales), skazki o zhivotnykh (tales about animals), and bytovye skazki (tales of everyday life), to name just a few of them. In Russian, however, the term "fairy tale" is not also used as a synonym for a falsehood. Given this fundamental difference in the way each culture views the nature of fairy tales, it is unsurprising that there are also significant differences in the fairy tale archetypes of the Eastern and Western cannons — which in turn has had lasting effects on the later fantastic traditions of both regions.
As most Western readers are more familiar with Western European tales than those of the Russian tradition, an examination of the history and nature of Russian folklore is in order before I discuss its influence upon contemporary writers.
Russian Folklore and Literature
In An Introduction to the Russian Folktale, Jack V. Haney notes that while scholars tend to be concerned about the exact relationship of folktales to myth or reality, to the peasant class of pre-revolutionary Russia this was not an issue; rather, folktales were simply believed to be true, or to have been true at some time in the past. When these stories began to make their way into Russian literature in the sixteenth century, they were generally presented as historical fact. (Those that were recorded specifically as folktales met with opprobrium and disapproval.)
By the eighteenth century, at the beginning of a time of relatively wide-spread literacy, two types of publications focused on folktales: "bast-books" and “gray issues.” Bast-books, which were woodcut broadsheets, took their name from the material of which they were made: the inner bark of the linden tree, commonly known as “bast wood.” These works presented short, simplistic versions of familiar fairy tale narratives (concentrating more on the accompanying illustrations than upon the text), and were generally regarded as crude by the upper classes and literati. Gray issues derived their name from their appearance, as they were printed on a grayish paper and bound in periodical form. They contained longer, more complex versions of the tales than those excerpted in bast-book editions. Both editions can be compared to the popular English chap-books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, intended to provide reading practice for the newly literate; and to the French blue-books of the seventeenth century, which made literary contes des fées available to the lower classes.
Foreign Influences on the Russian Fairy Tale
Russian fairy tales cannot be considered solely the result of Slavic heritage, for Russian myth and folklore is pervaded with elements that originated with other cultures. For example, as Linda J. Ivanits notes (in Russian Folk Beliefs): “Khors, Stribog, and Simargl, the winged dog and guardian of seed and new shoots, represent the Iranian element in the ancient Slavic pantheon, thus reflecting the long years that the ancient Slavs lived side by side with the Scythians.” Similarly, the fairy tales of Russia reflect a number of external influences, including elements drawn from the French contes de fées (which themselves, contained elements drawn from Italian and other tales), and the Grimms' “German” fairy tales (containing elements from the French contes de fées). This complex history of cross-pollination illustrates the difficulty of tracing any single fairy tale to its “roots.”
Russian fairy tales must thus be assumed to carry some foreign influence; however, these stories would have been retold and remade to suit the tastes of their time and region.
The Listeners, the Tellers, and the Tales
One interesting element of the Russian folktale lies in its assumed audience. Jack Haney points out (in An Introduction to Russian Folktales) that “one might expect that the class of the audience might have had an impact on the type of tale told. However, until the end of the eighteenth century, virtually everyone from tsar to peasant took delight in the folktale; after that time, folktales became increasingly the provenance of the lower classes." This parallels the decreasing status of fairy tales in Western European countries, but some of the particularities of Russian attitudes towards the tales, and their tellers, deserve attention.
In Western culture, the idea of fairy tales as the province of children is deeply entrenched, despite its falsity, but Russian culture has no equivalent. Russian fairy tales were traditionally told only after dark, when younger children were asleep — for, as Haney comments, “telling tales to small children would cause them to wet the bed or to have nightmares, both of which were connected ... to the telling of wonder tales.” (This makes for quite a contrast to the customs of other countries, Germany in particular, where terrifying tales were used for the specific purpose of frightening children into obedient submission.)
It is also interesting to note that whereas folktales are commonly associated with women in the Western tradition, sometimes with negative consequences for both the gender and the genre, in Russia, the inverse is true and the tales are associated with men. Haney notes that “nearly all Russian scholars believe that wonder tales were originally told by men to men and youths, and that girls and women were absent” — largely because the occupation of skazatchnikh (or, more formally, skomorokh), meaning bard or minstrel, was almost exclusively a male profession until the late nineteenth century.
Yet a closer look reveals that in Russia, too, women played a stronger role in the transmission of fairy tales than was commonly perceived by the early folklorists. Alexander Afanasyev is said to “have become acquainted with folktales from local women in his home town of Bobrov,” and Haney admits that “Russia's literary figures ... seem to have heard their tales from their mothers or grandmothers.” (The role of Alexander Pushkin's nurse, Arina Rodionovna, in inspiring his interest in fairy tales and the fantastic is the stuff of legend in popular Russian culture.) When we look at the material of the tales in question, women are not absent from them. Although Haney claims that few Russian tales feature female protagonists, when one compares the number of Russian tales containing female heroes to the numbers found in other regions (taking into account the actions of women who are secondary characters), one observes a definite level of female empowerment across the board.
Art: Ivan Bilibin (1846-1942) Russian fairy tale illustrator and stage designer. "Illya Muromets and Svyatogor," from The Tale of the Capital Kiev and the Russian Bogatyrs.