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’.

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