Russian Fairy Tales lecture notes Spring 2008

1/21/04 – first day of class!

What’s your definition of folk tales, or folklore in general?

Folk genres in general: matrix of folk culture (food, clothes, calendar, architecture, etc.) – “old traditional way of life” both very conservative and constantly evolving over time with political, social, technological changes and in contact with neighboring cultures (esp. with the railroad).

How many layers are between us and the people who told the tales in Afanas'ev?

Issues about collection (fieldwork in general): Were the collectors stenographers, who could note every word? (Difference from audio recording, which is now the standard for oral performance – creates a document you can cite responsibly.) How obtrusive was the collector – “tell me a story” – pulling informant away from work? Maybe paying the performer, giving a tip (“na chai” or “na vodku”)? Or blending in to the background in a tavern or something; Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia describes eavesdropping on peasants while she was painting at her easel, a prop and activity that made her “invisible.” Or – remembering a story that one had heard another time, maybe told by a peasant nanny, maybe not? Did the collector edit or censor the tale in writing it down? Not to mention what Afanas'ev did with it later.

Who was the teller? Sometimes the language gives clues (male “I” in some ending formulae; local dialect features [sometimes Ukrainian]) – putting the tales all together tends to homogenize, which is in a way what Romantic nationalism wants to do. More local collections (mostly compiled after Afanas'ev) don’t do that. Did the teller and collector know each other? What were their class relations? If the collector was a man, could he elicit certain kinds of tales from women – would it occur to him to ask women, or that "men's" tales might differ from "women's"? (The Grimms identify some old women who were very well-known tellers; in Russia that happened, for men and women both, in the later 19th century – there were a number of famous skaziteli, still celebrated and remembered, sometimes with their tales published in individual editions.)

Could the teller have been self-censoring? Avoiding what might offend the upper-class stranger, or shifting towards what the collector seemed to like, as oral performers always do for an audience? Often Russian intellectuals were quite skeptical or even anti-religious; in Soviet times, that continued and got stronger. So they could be stressing or trying to elicit pre-Christian survivals, desirable for one or another reason.

Was the tale told in a time and place that didn’t fit its origins or function, which might have influenced the way it was told? (Collectors in Pomor'e surprised when women got dressed up in special outfits to sing the special songs that went together with them.)

We’ll return to some of these issues, but keep in mind as we’re reading that these tales are not exact verbal copies of what someone really told. (It’s conceivable but VERY unlikely that they could be.)

These tales are famous in Russia. Our editor: Aleksandr Nikolaevich Afanas'ev – 1826-1871. Victor Terras's Handbook of Russian Literature says: “He studied law at the University of Moscow, and from 1849 to 1862 served in the Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Denounced in 1862, he lost his position, but continued to concentrate on his mythological and folklore studies.” The original volumes had 640 tales; our translation is a selected edition.

Afanas'ev’s scholarly/theoretical position: “Afanasiev was not a fieldworker and took almost all of the 640 tales in the collection from published or manuscript sources. He did not refrain entirely from making changes in his material, or eve from combining several parts of a single tale taken from different sources. But he was largely able to select the best variants of tales for inclusion in his collection. His commentary, reflecting his mythological biases, is largely outdated.

“Afanasiev’s leading theoretical treatise, The Poetic Attitudes of the Slavs Toward Nature (Поэтические воззрения славян на природу, 1866-1869), likewise expressed his mythological view of the nature of folklore. A follower of Jakob Grimm, Afanasiev saw folklore narratives as myths, symbolic embodiments of natural forces, and especially of the conflict between light and darkness. He also borrowed liberally from his contemporary, Max Müller. Like Müller, Afanasiev regarded metaphor and myth as rooted in the nature of language itself. Through the comparative study of philology, Afanasiev believed, it will become possible to reconstruct original mythic thought.”

The Folk in Russia:

Digression into history:

Kievan Rus' (East Slavic state that’s the origin of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine) smashed by Mongols in 13th century. (Some manuscript stuff survives; a few people flee north and preserve some of its oral culture.)

Muscovy arises N and E of there – xenophobic, 3rd Rome theory; though not unconnected with the west – Ivan the Terrible proposed to Elizabeth I of England. (On reserve: Domostroi)

Imperial Russia – Peter the Great (ruled 1695-1725), Nemeckaja sloboda, wholesale wrench towards the west.

During the rest of the 18th century, esp. under Catherine the Great: wealthy nobles at court; giving away state peasants to individuals, so the highest extent of serfdom; non-Russian rulers; importation of French culture – and by late 18th century, you have tutors etc. who are fleeing the French Revolution.

So by the early 19th century, the period in which folklore starts to be a thing, you have an upper class that is and considers itself to be (to the extent that it’s introspective) split off from “the folk” in a way that was not so in Muscovy: speaks French, esp. for abstract, intellectual and thoughtful life (polite conversation, etc.). The rest of the country remains much more traditional.

The dilemma of being European or not; childhood took place in the Russian language (wet-nurse and then nanny was surely a peasant) – so childhood seen sort of as a lost paradise (Russia as peasant mother – Joanna Hubbs’s Mother Russia), you can’t reenter once you're cast out but remain guiltily fond.

Plus, autocracy: no real role for many of the educated men (and women! – though male writers at least – Turgenev, Tolstoy – presumed women were NOT as alienated from the People, could be satisfied by dedicating themselves to the man they loved, to their children, etc.). So you get these Superfluous Men (Turgenev’s term), all trained up with no place to go. The Superfluous Man is not a big figure in folklore, but a big factor in the way folklore was collected, studied, imagined.

Traditional structure of Russian society: 4 estates or “chiny”:

This starts to break down in the 19th century for a lot of reasons, growing group of “raznochintsy” or people who aren’t from any 'chin.' These included merchants who’d married their way into the aristocracy; peasants who’d bought freedom and were doing well financially (Anton Chekhov's grandfather); priest’s sons who’d been educated in seminary but then switched to the universities (they tended to be radical atheists!); aristocrats like Dostoevsky who’d lost their class privileges for some reason. Hence, the intelligentsia (интеллигенция): don’t fit into society, educated but disaffected, and a vague or specific desire/mission to serve the People. (Something like Leo Tolstoy, rewriting folktales for the primers he used to teach the peasants on his estate.)

Liberation from serfdom in 1861 – after the tales in Afanas'ev were collected, but it still impacts the background readings you’ll do: serfs were no longer property of “barin”, but still bound to collective, taxed hard (considering that they were in an agricultural subsistence economy, how were they supposed to get the money?) It put them in a terrible economic position and hastened the transformation of traditional ways of life: the young men would be sent to the city to work (and earn money), the women back home had to do the heavy farm work; the men in the city brought back syphilis or decided they wanted to stay in the cities. Factory workers changed from peasants to proletarians, though still with close ties to their home villages...