The Unlucky Skeleton

Greg Afinogenov

  • Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov edited by Robert Chandler
    Penguin, 466 pp, £9.99, December 2012, ISBN 978 0 14 144223 5
  • Red 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.

Needless to say, such a view was seriously incomplete. No allegorical contortions are needed to see the traces of recent history in folktales. The tsars and uniformed soldiers who populate these stories didn’t exist in Russia before the 16th century; mirrors, magical or otherwise, were unknown before the late 17th; balls and ballgowns are products of the 18th. The folktale doesn’t survive from primeval times but is a living, continuously adapting historical artefact. In 18th-century Russia, the struggle against the Old Believers, who disagreed with reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church, gave rise to the idea that heretics would become vampires when they died; in contemporary Ukraine characters in stories collected by folklorists have names drawn from Mexican soap operas.

The recognition of the folktale’s historical nature led to a rupture in Soviet folkloristics as the discipline struggled to emerge out of the shadow of Afanasyev and his romantic nationalist colleagues. In the 1920s, folklore was an agrarian relic that seemed out of place in an industrialising and urbanising society whose artists and writers were devoted to the avant-garde. Folklorists in the era of the New Economic Policy felt free to produce formalist analyses that sidestepped the popular origins of the genre. Among them was Vladimir Propp, whose work would eventually give rise to structuralism. Others studied byliny, folk historical epics, and recast them as the products of aristocratic ideological tutelage.

When socialist realism was enshrined as aesthetic dogma in the 1930s, however, folklore started to be seen as ‘the oral poetry of the toiling people – the time when the poet and the worker were united in a single person’, as Gorky put it in 1935. Socialist realism, unlike romantic nationalism, was ready to acknowledge that folklore was produced historically, even as it insisted on the authenticity of its popular origins. It took this one step further, and began to make its own folklore. A whole new pseudo-folkloric genre, noviny (songs of the new, in contrast to byliny, songs of the past), was created to celebrate the achievements of the first Five-Year Plan and the collectivisation of agriculture. Among the most famous of these, Marfa Kriukova’s ‘Lay of Lenin’, celebrates Lenin and Stalin using language reserved in byliny for bogatyri, the Slavic version of knights errant. Kriukova’s Lenin initiates the revolution by blowing into his ‘birchbark horn’, while Kliment Voroshilov, the people’s commissar for defence, appears in the song as a ‘bright falcon’ on horseback holding a telescope. Other Stalinist works used the magic tale itself as a template: in one of these, three farmers charged with finding ‘the most precious thing’ discover that it is in fact the word of Comrade Stalin. (The story Chandler chooses to represent this period, A.V. Bardin’s ‘The Everlasting Piece’, contents itself with depicting the well-deserved demise of a hapless kulak.)

It was against this background that the stories of Andrei Platonov and Pavel Bazhov, perhaps the most powerful literary folktales in Chandler’s collection, took shape in the late 1930s and 1940s. Though both writers, Platonov especially, were associated with political heterodoxy, it would be a mistake to read their stories as dissident counterparts to Stalinist noviny. Instead, what sets them apart from the work of their contemporaries is their subtlety, contemplativeness and restraint. As ‘workers’ folklore’, Bazhov’s magic tales deal with the daily life of miners and malachite carvers in the Urals – a topic dear to the hearts of his publishers – and vividly portray pre-Revolutionary exploitation. Yet his heroes do not find fulfilment in collective labour or even in Stakhanovite exertions. They are solitary, haunted craftsmen, chasing a fatal mystical plenty that is far from being an achievement of the Revolution.

Platonov’s folktales seem at first glance more traditional: there are tsars, magic mirrors, people who turn into animals. But his work, even more than Bazhov’s, rejects folkloric clichés. If the moral of the magic tale is almost always that guileless kindness will be rewarded – even if in an erratic and convoluted fashion – and the message of the Stalinist fable is narrowly ideological, Platonov’s folktales take the calculated illogic of the genre and turn it to thought-provoking ends. The villain of ‘Ivan the Wonder’, it turns out halfway through, is the eponymous protagonist’s own mother, and his struggle against her is also a path towards reconciliation. The soldier whose preternatural gift is the ability to deceive the rich and powerful gains nothing from it but the occasional bowl of cabbage soup.

After the death of Stalin – six decades represented here by only one story – noviny and the other innovations of the 1930s were swiftly renounced by their own practitioners, and Soviet folklorists returned to interviewing old people in remote villages. As another recent folktale collection recognised, it was left to writers like Arkady and Boris Strugatsky to use folklore in creative and often politically charged ways.[*] Their bestselling comic novel Monday Begins on Saturday, set in a scientific research institute populated by creatures from Slavic folklore, insisted on the moral value of honest science, and its sequel, Tale of the Troika, confronted the corrosive power of bureaucracy. These novels represented a solution to the problem faced by Stalinist pseudo-folklore: how to integrate popular tradition with a wholly transformed Soviet daily life. (Not all Stalinist folktales relied on pastiche: some, like the children’s novel Old Man Khottabych, turned folkloric figures loose in the new Soviet city, demonstrating how progress had made magic obsolete.) In this respect, the Strugatsky brothers’ novels reach back not only to earlier attempts to re-envision Russian folklore after modernity, such as the stories of Teffi, but also to a genre that reached its height in Russia in the 1920s: the technological Gothic.

The same foreigners who collected the tales of the tsar noted some other peculiarities of Muscovite culture. In his 17th-century account of Russia, the Holstein ambassador, Adam Olearius, tells the harrowing story of a Dutch physician called Quirin:

It happen’d one day, that this good man diverting himself in his Chamber, and playing a Lesson on the Lute, the Strelitz [musketeers], who are spying up and down everywhere, drew near to the place where that Musick was: but perceiving through a chink, a Skeleton hanging behind him, which the wind coming in at the window caused to move, they were frightened, and reported, that the strange Surgeon had a dead Carkass that mov’d at the sound of his Musick … it was declar’d, That it was done by Magick. That, consequently, the Surgeon was a Magician, and as such, ought to be burned, together with the Skeleton.

Quirin fled the country; the skeleton was not so lucky. Like any good magic tale, Olearius’s account had a moral. Muscovites ‘esteem Physicians, and Medicine, but will not permit that people should make use of the same means as is done elsewhere to gain the perfection of that Science’. Confusing science with sorcery was the kind of mistake only a backward people could make.

Later Russian radicals were apt to make the opposite error. ‘He doesn’t believe in principles, but he does believe in frogs,’ the father says in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. The post-Revolutionary Soviet Union inherited this mindset: its embrace of atheism, Taylorism and electrification appeared to be creating the most scientific – and scientistic – culture on Earth. Yet in its science fiction, the supernatural returned with a vengeance. Muireann Maguire’s Red Spectres, a collection of tales drawn primarily from the 1920s, catalogues the literary response to the dawning materialist age, which ranged from the campy to the macabre. In the émigré writer Pavel Perov’s 1924 ‘Professor Knop’s Experiment’, a typical piece of pulp, the mad scientist’s attempt to transfer a criminal’s consciousness into a rat’s body goes unsurprisingly and murderously awry.

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Maguire’s collection follows close on the heels of her study, Stalin’s Ghosts, a wide-ranging examination of the Soviet Gothic as a genre tenuously positioned between official ideology, literary and folk tradition, and the emerging hegemony of socialist realism. Its most startling feature, however, is the astonishing industry with which she has unearthed and reanimated stories long forgotten even in their homeland. Red Spectres is an outgrowth of this project, though it is inevitably (and regrettably) incomplete. ‘Professor Knop’s Experiment’, for instance, seems distinctly lacklustre in comparison to Maguire’s exhilarating description of Perov’s novel The Brotherhood of the Vii, in which a sinister Bolshevik cabal turns corpses into zombie ‘mortomats’ that terrorise New York City. Another writer’s bestseller features a teenage goth who wears black dresses, never laughs and ‘talks about dead people’.

The idea of the Gothic as a genre bent on probing the boundaries between rationality and superstition goes back to Horace Walpole’s sober and self-conscious preface to The Castle of Otranto, which suggests that the spooky manuscript was composed by a priest ‘to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions’. Soviet Gothic writers took aim at superstitions that were distinctly modern, placing unreason at the heart of the new rationality. Bulgakov’s ‘Red Crown’ is the story of a White Russian officer haunted by the ghost of his brother, whom he could not save from the civil war. The subtitle, ‘Historia Morbi’, is ironic: no one will rescue the narrator from his incubus.

Undoubtedly the most original story in the collection is Sigizmund Krzizhanovsky’s ‘The Phantom’, published in 1926. The title, Maguire explains, is an unexpected and delightful piece of Gothic wordplay: a ‘phantom’ is not simply an apparition but also ‘a model of the body or of a body part or organ, esp. one used to demonstrate the progression of the foetus through the birth canal’. The titular phantom, a stillborn child in a glass basin of alcohol for the use of medical students, pursues the doctor who preserved it in a series of scenes made especially poignant by the suggestion that the sight of a diseased infant beggar turned few heads in civil war-era Russia. When it reveals itself to the doctor, it delivers a startling monologue. The phantom has not come, like Frankenstein’s creature, for communion with its creator. It comes to argue that it is superior to its maker, because unlike him it realises that it is a ‘marionette’ without real consciousness or free will. The tale spins out the phantom’s macabre thirst for non-existence, as typhus, war and devastation close in on the doctor’s city.

Other stories question the premises of the genre. Bulgakov’s ‘Séance’ is a comic vignette about the delusions of counter-revolutionary spiritualists, who get their comeuppance when the spirits they await turn out to be the secret police. The tales of Aleksandr Chayanov – an agronomist who signed his pieces ‘Botanist X’ – seem to be classic ghost stories, but their message goes beyond the staple obsession with the limits of reason. In each of them, the supernatural element – a mirror with a malevolent double, a set of golden triangles that grant control of human souls, a hairdresser’s dummy imbued with the vengeful spirit of a suicide – is almost, but not quite, a red herring: the fundamental crime is the lack of human decency at a crucial moment. The protagonist in ‘Venediktov’, having won the fateful triangles in a game of cards, succumbs to the temptation to use them to control his beloved, leading to predictably unhappy consequences.

These Gothic tales evoke a messier, darker and more irrational world than the avant-garde of the 1920s liked to imagine. Chayanov’s stories are an attempt to make sense of what happens to moral questions when the line between natural and supernatural is blurred. The other stories Maguire includes show – as Teffi’s ‘The Dog’ does in Chandler’s collection – how the supernatural forces its way in when the devastation of civil war and social upheaval proves too much for the realist imagination to handle. Typhus, a disease of unwashed, close-packed, transient masses, haunts several of the stories like Poe’s Red Death; war looms even in the ones written years after its end. The story of the post-Revolutionary era is not just of the growth of scientific culture, but also of the collapse of everything familiar. As the historian Moshe Lewin wrote, the USSR of the 1920s and 1930s was a ‘quicksand society’, in which every institution and social stratum was unstable.

Just as in later decades, pursued by war and repression, Bazhov and Platonov would use folklore to reflect on questions socialist realism could not accommodate, Russian Gothic tales used spiritualism and science fiction to bring the magic back to the skeleton. These collections remind us of what their 16th-century antecedents knew very well: it is the stories that make for a good book on Russia. They don’t even have to be true.

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