Russian Fairy Tales
Fairy tales do come true!
Once upon a time . . . I was living and teaching in Germany and I had an opportunity to visit the Soviet Union (Russia) over spring break. I jumped at the opportunity and couldn't believe my good fortune when the Soviet Union issued me a visa to visit their county. They are very picky about who they let into their country. A friend of mine had recently visited the Soviet Union and was literally asked to leave (kicked out) and her visa revoked and to this day we don't know why.
I was surprised my visa came so quickly because I was working for the Department of Defense as a teacher, and I thought I would be the last one to get a visa. But, wonders never cease to amaze me and so off I flew to Moscow to visit behind the Iron Curtain as it was the year 1982.
So, my fairy tale of visiting Russia was coming true. One of the most charming and enchanting parts of Russia, to my surprise, were the books I found of Russian fairy tales. I was fascinated by the books and stories but they were all in the Russian language.
A very kind and wonderful sales clerk in an old Russian book store located on Nemsky Prospect somehow found an edition of the fairy tales collected by Aleksandr Afanasyev printed in English. I was able to purchase the book and still manage to grab a spot on the trolley car even though it was shoulder to shoulder Russians.
A Russian gentleman stood up and gave me his seat and the woman next to me with her babushka on her head, smiled and with a twinkle in her eye, pointed to my Russian Fairy Tale book. She said something in Russian that I had no idea what it meant, but she opened the book and showed me her favorite fairy tales to read. She chose them by the gorgeous and colorful illustrations in the book.
Here, were fairy tales, the folk legends of Russians, that were bringing us together in a moment of friendship. I nodded my head yes and told her I would read those tales first, of course in English which she didn't understand. But, through smiles and gestures she understood me and I understood her.
If only the political leaders of our two nations could communicate as well as the Russian woman and I did that day. The Russian fairy tales tell the stories of the Russian people, their beliefs, values, customs and culture in a time far before the reality of the Soviet Union. Just like the fairy tales of my youth, these beautifully illustrated tales enchanted me also.
Therefore, the tales I write about here today are the ones the women on the trolley car recommended to me and I have read from my book. I have read them to my niece and nephews when they were small. These fairy tales are just as important as the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and Charles Perrault.
But, who exactly collected the fairy and folk tales of Russia?
Aleksandr Afanasyev 1826 - 1871
He was a Russian Slavist who published nearly 600 Russian folk tales and fairy tales and his collection is one of the largest folk tale collections in the world. Aleksandr Afanasyev has earned the reputation as being the Brother Grimm of Russia.
From 1855 to 1863 he published his world famous Russian Fairy Tales (Narodnye russkie skazki) in eight volumes. It is the most comprehensive work on East Slavic folk tales widely acknowledged internationally. At the time of its publication Russian Fairy Tales was superior to any similar Western European collections. It even surpassed the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales.
Afanasyev was so particular in his collecting of tales that this first publication of his is considered to be ahead of its time. He owes his prominent place in Russian literature history of Slavonic philology chiefly to these Russian tales.
He was inspired by the earlier famous collections of the Brothers Grimm, but from a scientific point of view, his collection goes further. He and his collections are noted for the number of contributors he had, and he tried to give the source and place where each tale was originally told. Many of the tales were not written down, but verbally told from generation to generation.
Afanasyev never tried to give any definitive version of a folk tale. For example, if he gathered seven versions of one folk type, he edited them all and included them all in the collection.
Prior to Afanasyev's collection of works in the 1850s, only a few attempts had ever been made to record or study the folk beliefs of peasant Russia. And, it was not until the 18th and 19th century that secular literature developed in the vernacular Russian.
Afanasyev's collections make a highly valuable contribution to the dissemination and legitimization of Russian culture and folk belief.
He also drew upon the mythological school that treated legends and tales as a mine of information for the study of more ancient pagan mythology. One tale, "Vasilissa the Beautiful" depicts the conflict between the sunlight (Vasilissa), the storm (her step-mother) and dark clouds (her step-sisters). The witch, Baba Yaga, appears in many of the Russian fairy tales and is a favorite character in many of the Russian tales.
As a great archivist, Afanasyev gave lots of information, evidence, documents, and passages of the old chronicles about Old Russian culture, history and tradition. He was asked by the Russian Geographic Society of St. Petersburg to publish the folktales archives that the Society had been in possession of for about ten years. These archives are at the beginning of his collection.
Afanasyev chose seventy-four tales out of these, and he also added to them the enormous collection of Vladimir Dahl which consisted of about 1000 texts from which he kept 148 numbers, finding the other ones too distorted. He included his own collection of about ten folktales from the Voronejh Region and a few other collections.
He also collected folk and fairy tales from amateur collectors all over Russian. His goal was to find as many genuine texts free from contaminations and the combining with other stories. He rejected retelling, polishing or literary revisions of his tales.
He added some tales already published, "Maria Marievna," and "The Firebird and the grey wolf" for examples.
Texts in Afanasyev's collection originate from over thirty Russian provinces, three Ukrainian provinces and one Belorussian. He proposed scholarly strategies for collecting, transcribing, editing and publishing oral sources and criteria for using reliable informants. This is also part of his great contribution to Russian literature and Russian fairy tales.
Afanasyev's contribution to fairy tale literature was his systematic collection, description and classification of material. He was very careful about preserving the peculiarities of oral speech, dialects and their specific grammatical and syntactic structures. He left them all in his collection.
He modeled his fairy tales after Kinder und Hausmarchen, by the Brothers Grimm because he was interested in parallels between Slavic and German folk tales.
The collection had its critics but it was widely appreciated by scholars in Russia and abroad. He not only collected but studied his material. He managed to widen his perspective still further by incorporating folklore genres such as heroic, epic, ritual folklore etc. His classifications of fairy tales: animal tales, magic tales, humorous tales, satirical tales, anecdotes, etc. are still used by folklorists today.
Besides Russian Fairy Tales, Afanasyev also edited Russian Folk Religious Legends (1859) which was a compilation of his collection for children comrpising of a set of animal, magic,and humorous tales. This collection waas banned because of the harsh censorship in Tzarist Russia and the Church thought the colletion was blasphemous. He also collected the Russian Fairy Tales for Children (1870). Besides fairy tales he collected folk songs, proverbs, and parables.
His Russian Forbidden Tales was an assortment of unprintable tales that had to be published in Switzerland anonymously because these tales were deemed obscene and anti-clerical subject matter by Imperial Russia.
Aleksandr Afanasyev died penniless but left a rich legacy through his fairy tale collections.
Below are four of his tales from Russian Fairy Tales and you will see how they also have been "borrowed" by other cultures and placed in their fairy tale collections.
The Princess Who Never Smiled or The Unsmiling Tszarevna
There once was a Princess named Euna who never smiled or laughed. Her father promised which ever man made her smile would win her hand in marriage. Many men of all ages tried to make Princess Euna laugh, but none succeeded.
Meanwhile, across town, an honest worker worked hard and long for his master. At the end of the year, the master put a sack of money on the table, told the worker to take as much money as he wanted, and then left the room.
The honest worker took only one coin so as not to sin and take too much. As he walked home from work with his coin, he stopped by the well for a drink of water. As he bent down to drink some water, the coin fell into the well and disappeared and so he lost it.
A year later, the same thing happened to the honest workman. The third year rolled around and the worker again took only one coin, but when he drank from the well this time, he did not lose the coin and the other two coins floated up to him and he retrieved them.
He decided to see the world with all his money and good fortune. He then came across a mouse who asked him for alms and so he gave the mouse a coin. He then did the same for a beetle and a catfish.
On his wandering, he came across the castle and saw Princess Euna looking at him. This surprised and astounded him and he fell in the mud. The mouse, beetle and catfish came to his aid and the Princess burst out laughing at their antics.
She pointed to him as the man who had made her laugh. When he was brought to the castle he had turned into a handsome man. He married Princess Euna and . . . they lived happily every after.
The Frog Princess or Tsarevna Frog
Once upon a time a King wanted his three sons to marry so he set up a test to help them find brides. The test was to shoot arrows and find their brides where ever the arrow landed.
The two oldest brother's arrows landed in the houses of the daughters of an aristocratic wealthy merchants. The youngest son was named Ivan and his arrow landed in the mouth of a frog in a swamp, who turned into a princess at night, though Ivan was clueless that this happened.
The King assigned his three prospective daughters-in-law various tasks such as spinning cloth and baking bread. In every task, the frog out performed the other two lazy brides to be.
But, Ivan was ashamed of his frog bride; however, when she outperformed the other two, she turned into a beautiful human princess.
Ivan and his beautiful princess lived happily ever after.
Note: This fairy tale exists in several countries with many different versions of the tale. Englishman, Andrew Lang included an Italian variant entitled, "The Frog" in his volume, The Violet Fairy Book.
Italo Calvino included another Italian variant from the Piedmont region of Italy titled, "The Prince Who Married a Frog," in his Italian Folktales. This tale was common throughout Europe.
Georgios A. Megas included a Greek version, "The Enchanted Lake" in Folktales of Greece.
There once was an old woman who had both a daughter whom she loved and a step-daughter that she hated. One day the old woman ordered her husband to take her step-daughter out to the winter fields and leave her there to die and the husband obeyed her.
Father Frost found the step-daughter there but she was so kind and polite to him he gave her a chest full of beautiful things and fine clothing. After a while, her stepmother sent her father to bring back the girl's body to be buried which the husband also obeyed her.
Soon the family dog told the old woman that the girl would be coming back and that she was beautiful and happy.
When the old woman saw what the step-daughter had returned with, she ordered her husband to take her own daughter out into the fields. Unlike her step-sister, the daughter was rude to Father Frost and so he froze her to death.
When the husband went out to bring the daughter back, the dog told the old woman that she would be buried.
When the husband brought back the dead and frozen body of the daughter, the old woman sobbed and wept.
Note: Englishman, Andrew Lang included this tale as "The Story of King Frost," in the Yellow Fairy Book (1894).
The White Duck
A King had to leave his beautiful newly-wed Queen to go on a journey. He sternly warned her against leaving the women's quarters and listening to bad advice.
But, a wicked witch lured the beautiful Queen bride into the garden and into a pool and turned her into a white duck.
Then, the wicked witch took the Queen's own form and place next to the King. Meanwhile, the Queen, now the white duck, built a nest and laid three eggs. Two eggs hatched into fluffy ducklings and one ugly drake.
The White Duck warned her three ducklings against the castle because an evil witch lived there, but the three ducklings couldn't stay away from the castle. One day the wicked witch lured them inside. Here, the ducklings slept but the drake stayed awake.
When the witch called for them, the drake answered. But, after two answers, the witch went into see and saw the ducklings were asleep, so she killed them. The Queen, now the white duck, found the bodies and lamented over them.
The King wondered at what was happening and the witch tried to persuade him it was nothing but quacking. The King however ordered the duck be captured. His servants could not catch the white duck, so the King went himself.
The White Duck flew into the King's arms and then the white duck turned back into the Queen. The Queen told the King of a bottle of water in her nest in the garden. They sent a magpie to retrieve it, sprinkled water on the ducklings and drake and they turned into three lovely children.
The evil witch was put to death through dismemberment and nothing remained of her. The King, the Queen and their three children lived happily ever after.
Note: Englishman Andrew Lang included this tale in The Yellow Fairy Book.
Also note the beautiful illustrations that have always accompanied the tales in Russian Fairy Tales. They are bright colors and many times set on black backgrounds to make the illustration 'pop off' the pages. The illustrations are as beautiful and interesting as the tales themselves. Most of these illustrations were painted by Vainetsov Neimeyana, Victor Vasnetsov, or Ivan Bilibin, all Russian illustrators.
The Frog Princess Part 1
The Frog Princess Part II
The Frog Princess Part III
- Hans Christian Andersen and his fairy tales
I have always loved fairy tales. When I was a child, I especially loved them when I sat on my father's lap and he read them to me. I was safe and secure no matter how many hobgoblins, witches, ice queens, or mean step-mothers were out there. Sitting.
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