The Unlucky Skeleton

Greg Afinogenov

  • BuyRussian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov edited by Robert Chandler
    Penguin, 466 pp, £9.99, December 2012, ISBN 978 0 14 144223 5
  • BuyRed Spectres: Russian 20th-Century Gothic-Fantastic Tales translated by Muireann Maguire
    Angel Classics, 223 pp, £12.95, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 946162 80 2
  • Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature by Muireann Maguire
    Peter Lang, 342 pp, £48.53, November 2012, ISBN 978 3 0343 0787 1

Ivan the Terrible was Europe’s first Russian celebrity. Between the late 16th and the mid-17th century, a great rush of books was published about him and his domain. Many of these accounts, like Albert Schlichting’s Brief Narrative of the Character and Brutal Rule of [Ivan] Vasil’evich, Tyrant of Muscovy of 1571, featured lurid anecdotes about the tsar’s behaviour: recalcitrant ambassadors whose hats were nailed to their heads, Persian elephants laboriously taught to kneel, women herded into the royal harem and shared out among Ivan’s friends. In Giles Fletcher’s Of the Russe Commonwealth (1591), a corrupt official who likes to hide his money inside a goose is carved up like a goose himself. In Samuel Collins’s The Present State of Russia (1671), Ivan infiltrates a den of thieves incognito and suggests they rob the royal treasury; when one thief refuses, the tsar appoints him ‘discoverer of Thieves’.

Passed off as factual by teller and collector alike, these stories were in fact the first recognisable Russian folktales ever recorded. They were rarely original to Russia. Some of them had been stories about Vlad the Impaler, the Wallachian prince who became Dracula; others are so familiar to folklorists that they are included in the international Aarne-Thompson index which lists frequently used motifs. Yet their central themes – especially the peculiar justice and injustice of the powerful and capricious, whether protecting or punishing the innocent – echo through the vast corpus of folk literature collected in Russia since the 1600s.

A team of Anglo-American translators headed by Robert Chandler has now produced a collection of folktales superior to many of its Russian counterparts. Aiming to strike a balance between readability and completeness, Chandler has tried to represent nearly all of the major figures involved with the gathering of Russian folktales in the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with Aleksandr Afanasyev, the one-man Russian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm, whose first collection was published in eight volumes between 1855 and 1867. Chandler has also included literary interpreters of the folktale tradition, both famous, like Pushkin and Platonov, and obscure, like the modernising émigré writer Nadezhda Teffi. (Her refreshingly sympathetic take on Baba Yaga anticipates Gregory Maguire’s Wicked by five decades.) Each writer or collector is given a biographical note: some of these are even more interesting than the stories themselves. Olga Ozarovskaya, as it turns out, was one of Russia’s first female mathematicians as well as an accomplished actress and reciter; she also published a collection of folktales and a memoir of the chemist Dmitrii Mendeleev.

Chandler’s choice to put folktale collectors side by side with novelists and poets cuts across centuries of tradition. Afanasyev scornfully rejected the 18th-century folkloric compositions of Mikhail Chulkov and insisted that authentic folktales were ‘fragments of the most ancient poetic genre – the epic, which served the people as a storehouse of its beliefs and its victories’:

In the prehistoric period of its development the people is necessarily a poet. Venerating nature, it sees in it a living creature, responsive to any joy or sorrow. Immersed in the contemplation of its grandiose phenomena and its mysterious forces, the people incarnates all of its convictions, beliefs and observations as living poetic images and expresses them in one unceasing poem, distinguished by its calm and even-tempered view of the whole world.

Folklore mattered to Afanasyev because it was collective, and because it existed outside or beyond history. Certain tales might echo Christianity’s struggles against the pagan gods, but the truest and most authentic expressions of the volk’s creativity belonged to a period long before the birth of Christ.

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[*] Politicising Magic: An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales by Marina Balina, Helena Goscilo and Mark Lipovetsky (Northwestern, 2005).