Written by: Polina Evtushenkova
Beautiful princesses, brave knights, magical kingdoms in which everyone is happy – I am sure most of you are familiar with these stories since childhood, with the latter story being a bittersweet dream that, until now, never came true. I used to be one of those naïve children who was enchanted by the tales about a knight saving a princess from a dragon, Russian folk tales about talking animals, sharp-witted warriors.
As a child, I never thought that these folk tales, supposedly coming from the Kievan Rus times, were written as they are known today in the 19th century. Or that those folk tales are not so ‘folk’ and were rewritten by a single author. That they became just a tool for creating national identities. Lastly, I never assumed that some of those innocent folk tales teach about the benefits of doing ill deeds. The following sections will look at these claims more closely by first, looking at the history of Russian folklore formation, and then, examples of some folk tales which will be critically evaluated.
It was not until the 19th century that the essence of having folklore representing the ‘Russian-ness’ in the Russian Empire grew in importance. Such change was marked by two factors. Primarily, the general wave of romanticism across Europe, especially German romanticism, raised a new discourse among intellectuals about the role of folklore in creating the national identity. German romanticism played a key role in shaping Russian folklore, with the Grimm Brothers being the main source of inspiration for many writers, especially Alexander Afanasyev. Second, the abolition of serfdom in 1861 in the Russian Empire required the formation of a new self-identification which was based on the three entities: unifying morality, narod (nation) and narodnost (the Russian soul, Russian-ness). Back then, narod was defined by a folklorist Vladimir Dal as a “nation [or] national group, those who lived in the same territory and spoke the same language.”
The Russian Empire, however, did not consist purely of those speaking Russian. The peasants spoke Russian; however, the elites spoke French. The latter group was the minority and did not represent the ‘Russian-ness’ as it is, but rather, a Western influence brought to the empire by Peter the Great in the late 17th century. This was the reason for intellectuals studying folklore to focus on the peasants and their stories which have been passed down from generation to generation, with their roots coming from the pagan-era Kievan Rus.
This raises a question: how all those folk tales were collected into a single volume, at the same time preserving their originality? The answer is – the originality was not preserved. The original stories were altered to fit the vision of the ‘Russian-ness’ as seen by the intellectuals to create the desired identity. In this way, Russian writer Afanasyev, who published the first edition of his volumes between 1855-1867, is considered to be ‘the father’ of the Russian folk tales as we know them today. To write those volumes, he used stories not directly collected from the people in the rural areas, but the scientific summaries of those stories previously made by Dal, meaning that the supposedly ‘folk’ tales have already lost part of their narodnost. In addition, Afanasyev rewrote those summaries of the stories by changing some characters and plots, thus further stripping folk tales off their original narodnost and giving them a new identity.
In the Soviet Union, the national folklore was also changed to fit the new vision of the Russian-ness, which this time, was about workers and socialism. The altered folk tales were used as propaganda of communist ideals because Russian folklore was closely connected to the common people. For instance, if in the folk tales of the Russian Empire the tsar was a positive character, he became negative and unlikeable in the Soviet tales. Thus, folk tales were used not only as a source of propaganda of an ideology but as a tool for creating a new national identity.
Keeping in mind that the supposedly ‘folk’ tales carry the ideas of the Russian identity constructed by the elites, we can critically analyse some of them.
One of the most well-known folk tales is “At the Pike’s Behest” (a brief English version here). In short, the tale is about a lazy peasant Emelya who never wanted to work and always sat on the stove, but once, he accidentally caught a talking pike. He was going to eat it, but the pike asked him not to, and in return, it would make all his wishes come true. Emelya used the pike throughout the whole story, and with its help, he did (magically) all the labour his brothers asked him to, made tsarevna (a princess) fall in love with him, built (magically) a huge kingdom, and then they lived happily ever after. In Russia, lazy Emelya is a popular figure, seen as a positive character who went from being a peasant to tsar, and it is believed that this folk tale teaches about the importance of imagination, that your happiness depends on yourself, and if you do not know what you want from life, then you will get nothing from it.
However, looking at it from a critical perspective, this folk tale is about a boy who has been lazy all his life and used the magical pike to make all his wishes come true instead of getting off the stove and working hard. Instead of working hard like his brothers, he made the pike do all the labour for him. Instead of winning over tsarevna’s heart, he magically made her fall in love with him. Thus, the construction of identity here is that, if you find a magical tool that makes wishes come true (material resource, money), then you should use it to live carelessly and for pleasure only – the ‘Russian-ness’ as seen by the Russian Empire intellectuals.
Tales about soldiers are also well-known by many, one of them being “The Soldier and Pelmeni”, written in the Soviet times. The tale is about a soldier who stopped by at the small house of old people for a night, to have a rest. They were preparing Russian dumplings and the soldier joined the dinner. The old couple split each dumpling into two pieces while the soldier ate a whole dumpling per time. The old man got upset and asked him to stop, but the soldier pretended to misunderstand him and instead started to eat two whole dumplings per time.
This story is about the soldier’s cleverness and the old people’s greed and teaches about having to respect soldiers and always treat them well because he fights for the Motherland. However, what it illustrates is the soldier’s disrespect towards the old couple which helped the soldier by allowing him to stay overnight and sharing some food. Instead of teaching about gratitude and kindness, this tale teaches about arrogance and the supreme role soldiers had over common people in the Soviet era.
Evidently, folklore became yet another instrument in the hands of nationalists. This article may seem as a criticism of folk tales and their role in general. However, like for many others, folk tales carry pleasant childhood memories for me. Sometimes, I read them for my siblings before bed so that they could dream about beautiful things which could one day become true. At the end of the day, life based solely on thinking ‘realistically’, with no room for dreaming, is a gloomy existence. Instead, the article calls for approaching the folk tales critically and understanding that many of them are just a tool for shaping the ‘national’ identity, and not all of them carry the same ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.