Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for April 25, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Anti-Socialist tales

Make-up class on Tsvetaeva's "Ratcatcher" at 3 p.m. in K 330 (just across from our door), and the Russian section talent show will be Thursday May 1 at 7:00 p.m. – singing, poetry, fun snacks – come if you can! Impress your friends by preparing a fairy tale skit!

Look on Blackboard in Week 13 for more presentations.

Before Socialist Realism was imposed (around 1932-4), the new Soviet literature still allowed the possibility of some more experimental and critical writing. Evgenii Zamyatin: 1884-1937. His father was a priest, mother a musician. He was educated as a naval engineer; joined the Bolsheviks in the early 1900s while in school in St Petersburg. Arrested and exiled a couple of times, but managed to finish his education and to publish quite a bit of writing, got something of a reputation even then. In 1916 he was sent to England to supervise the construction of icebreakers, wrote The Islanders (a satire of English society), and missed the revolution of 1917. His best-known work in the west is the dystopian novel We, 1920, but he also wrote these tales for adults in 1922. Post-revolution, he was very influential on the Serapion Brothers, a group of younger authors – he said he taught them to write with 90-proof ink (a dab hand at quotable remarks!). Critical of censorship under the Bolsheviks, Zamyatin was eventually banned; to everyone’s surprise, Stalin granted his request to emigrate in 1931 – he and his wife moved to Paris, but he didn’t write much more there, died of a heart attack in 1937.

Comments, questions on the tales? In what ways do they resemble actual folktales, and where do they depart from them? Again, what does the set of assumptions that surround a fairytale imply – belonging to the real people, reflecting their real language and ideas? Might be a safe place to write, like children’s lit and other genres, in difficult times? Or does the ideological freight folktales are given make them a more contested genre? The title "for adults" makes it clear that he wants to be taken seriously (and also that by that time folktales, сказки, were considered reading matter for children.

If you are interested in Socialist Realism as a phenomenon, I suggest Katerina Clark's book The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual, which will tell you all kinds of interesting things about socialist realist novels without forcing you to read any of them.

Socialist Realism was also imposed on the "Soviet bloc" countries of Eastern Europe after WWII – though some (like Hungary, whose language was unknown to almost any Russians) were less bent into that shape. So just for fun, a fairytale-like tale from the wonderful science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. Born 1920 in L'viv, when it was still part of Poland, educated as a doctor; his family moved from L'viv when it became part of Soviet Ukraine, settled in Poland. Wrote tons in various genres, VERY popular. Died 2006.

“The Third Sally” is from The Cyberiad: Tales for the Cybernetic Age, brilliantly translated from Polish into English by Michael Kandel – what does that title suggest? (Briefly outline the history of Poles banished to Siberia for opposing Russian imperialism.) Subtitle: Tales for the Cybernetic Age – he’s using the generic indicator “tales,” so also suggesting a folklore-like set of traits; many of the tales in the collection involve kings, princesses, and marriages as well as dragons (as in this one). What does the story's title, “sally,” suggest? (Knights errant?) But it’s all set in an unimaginably distant future – can you tell who the characters are? Is it plausible that a robot culture would have a folklore, a love of literature and other entertainments, and whole range of human foibles?

What here resembles Zamyatin's set of tales? What’s like a fairytale? What is not? How about the local yokels on p. 95 and their “folksy” speech? The discussion of multiple heads on p. 98?

From now on, we’ll be reading prose that draws on folklore or traditional culture without pretending to BE it. Think more about the associations of the folk, the folk’s lore and culture, and the interactions between folk, popular and elite culture.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Monday, April 28, 2008.