Purpose of this Blog...

You may have noticed that not all books are equal in capturing children's imaginations and in cultivating those innocent, tender souls. My goal is to help you find the ones that do!
(Painting by Mary Cassatt: "Mrs Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren" -1888)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Alexander Pushkin and Russian Folklore

When my husband and I were in St. Petersburg, Russia, we made a side trip to the town of Pushkin (named for the poet), which surrounds the Tsarskoe Selo ("Tsar's Village") estates.  I'll be sharing photos of the estates soon in another post; today I'd like to talk a little bit about Pushkin and Russian folklore.
Monument of Pushkin, founded on the 26th of May 1899, on the 100th anniversary of the poet's birth. 
Pushkin was educated at the Lyceum of Tsarskoe Selo.
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is generally recognized as Russia's greatest poet. He was born into an aristocratic family with a long and distinguished lineage, and attended an exclusive school for the nobility in Tsarskoe Selo, outside the capital city, St. Petersburg.

Pushkin was also a novelist, but part of his literary heritage is his "fairy tales", which were loosely based on Russian folklore (and on some French fairy tales - because of this his tales were criticized, called "artificial flowers" - source).
Pushkin's Fairy Tales,  with Palekh Painting
I honestly didn't know a lot about Russian folklore or Pushkin's tales, so I did some research and found out two interesting facts...

FACT # 1 - Pushkin's tales have always been favorite subject matter for  the painting school of Palekh, a famous old center of icon-painting and lacquer miniature boxes.  (More about this fact in my next post!)

FACT #2:  There are no fairies in Russian folklore, so they should really be referred to "folktales" - they have also been called "wondertales". (Thanks to Masha Gedilaghine Holl's website, which was my source for much of the information you'll find below!)

What is, then, a folktale? It's a story. First and foremost. In Russian, it is called SKAZKA. The word is from the same root as the verb "to say" -- skazat. Therefore it, quite simply, "that which is told" -- a tale, or story. But by implication, it is fiction, not news, something someone came up with: Entertainment. 

Up until the close of the eighteenth century most everyone from tsar to peasant delighted in the folktale.  After that time, the tales were more a part of the culture of the lower class.  Also of note is that the early Russian folk tales were traditionally told only after dark - when young children were asleep - they were typically not subject matter for children (too scary).

1 - Magical tales with a female hero.
2 - Magical tales with a male hero.
3 - Animal tales (with animals as main characters, with or without the participation of human characters).
4 - Tales about everyday life.

1, 2 - The first two categories are related. Both male and female heroes will embark on some kind of a quest. It may be a trip to the forest to gather firewood, mushrooms, or berries; or it may be a journey into a far-away kingdom. Similar characters appear in both types of tales, and they usually end with a marriage, and maybe fortune as well.
--The magical tales in which the hero is female (usually a girl) center around her ability to perform certain tasks. These tasks are usually practical and test the heroin's household skills: cleaning, cooking, spinning, weaving, and of course her knowledge of the proper behavior. These tales also test her ethics: she must not lie, although telling less than the truth is allowed; she must not steal, but taking something from an evil character, after she was allowed to do so by someone from that household, is also allowed.
--Magical tales with a male hero follow a slightly different pattern. For one thing, the male hero ALWAYS leaves his home on a QUEST (the female hero may live all her adventures in her own back yard). The male hero is not expected to perform tasks, at least not by himself: he encounters magical helpers that will do his work for him, or else fix the mistakes he makes when he attempts to perform the task.

3 - The third category of tales is not magical per se, unless you count the animals' ability to speak in "people's voices" (human speech). These tales may involve the participation of humans, or not, but usually the presence of humans somewhere is acknowledged or taken for granted.
--Animal tales are not cute stories about nice furry creatures. Animal characters are strictly typecast:
"The Fox and the Wolf," watercolor and charcoal by Yevgeny Rachev [source]
  • Wolves are greedy rather stupid, and male (the Russian word for wolf is "volk," a masculine noun). 
  • Foxes are sly, calculating, and tricksters. They are also female (the Russian word for fox is "lisa," a feminine noun). 
  • Cats are opportunistic and lazy. They are male (the Russian word for cat is "kot," a masculine noun). 
  • Bears are big and lumbering (naturally), rather clumsy, and not very bright. They are male (the Russian word for bear is "medved'," a masculine noun). The Russian word that is the equivalent of "teddy bear," "misha," is also the diminutive for the name Mikhail, which is the standard "first name" of folk-tale bears. 
  • Hares are quick and cowardly, and male ("hare," in Russian, is "zaiats," a masculine noun). 
  • The goat is cunning, and female (Russian -- "koza," a feminine noun). 
  • The rooster is cocky and boastful, and male (Russian -- "petukh," a masculine noun).
4 - The fourth category of tales about everyday life includes tales about soldiers returning home who meet (and defeat) Death, or who encounter a witch, or some other kind of magical being, and who gain fortune in the end (or maybe just a bowl of soup, as in "Axe Soup," the Russian variant of "Stone Soup.")

Be sure and read this informative essay: Baba Yaga's Domain, by Helen Pilinovsky, about one of Old Russia's most famous (and complex) folklore characters.


  1. I love folk tales! They make me want to paint as well :) How interesting to read about the different types of tales. We like to read the Baba Yaga stories, the old witch in the woods who lives in a house with chicken feet :)

  2. Very interesting! I had an older cousin who visited Russia when I was young and brought back a book of folk tales called The Firebird. How I wish I still had it!

    1. One version of that folk tale is Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf, which is in the next book of Russian folk tales that I'll be highlighting her on my blog.

      Also - Sur La Lune (an excellent resource!) has a list of Firebird books that are available on amazon:http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/firebird/index.html. Maybe you'll find the one you had when you were young? :)