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Russian Magic Tales

11 Feb

Lately I have been reading Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress (2013), an excellent and well researched book on the history of the Kremlin and of Russia at large.  So far I am only half way through the book but I am thoroughly enjoying it.  I’ve written briefly before about reading Russian literature (specifically Gogol, Platonov, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy), but I realised recently my small bedside pile of books has become a small mountain, swelling as it has with a glorious mixture of archaeology, osteology and fictional offerings.  Never being able to resist a bookshop I also added Applebaum’s Iron Curtain (2013) to it, thinking that it would make a particularly good companion piece to Merridale.

On a separate trip to the library I happened to come across Chandler’s 2012 collection of Russian magic tales (which are often termed as Skazka in Russian).  Taken from a variety of Russian authors who span across three centuries, the book represents the authors who had collated and collected the tales and then wrote them down in their own hand.  I have never particularly been into magic tales or folk stories, but upon delving into this collection I found I couldn’t really resist not borrowing the volume.  It also makes a beautiful companion piece to the above two history books, grounding me as it does in the oral cultural tradition of folk tales that have been told for centuries, and in some cases for millennia, in Slavic populations.  The tales are also the perfect length to digest and read through on train journeys, and provided a welcome relief from my somewhat heavier archaeological readings.

babayagaivanbilibin

A representation of Baba Yaga by the artist Ivan Bilibin. In Russian and Slavic folklore Baba Yaga is an ambiguous and often ferocious older women who lives deep in the forest, either helping or hindering those who seek her out. Along with Koschey the Deathless, Vasilisa the Beautiful and other colourful characters, Baba Yaga often pops up in the folk tales of Eastern Europe/Russia. (Image credit: Ivan Bilibin).

I have really come to enjoy reading Chandler’s collection of skazka, particularly in the arrangement of the book itself which forms a readable narrative of the historical documenting of the skazka and of the re-working of some of the skazka by selected Russian authors themselves.  This approach not only highlights the interesting form and content of the tale itself but also briefly documents the historical and cultural context that the author worked in to produce or collate the tale.  Generally the skazka can be viewed as one of three general presentations: scenes from real life, magically tales or tales involving talking animals.  Often they can be mixed but they often include characters (such as Baba Yaga and her three knights) that are used repeatedly in a wide variety of circumstances.

In general folk tales are a valuable cultural resource in a few senses of the term.  Firstly, they are essential in helping to understand cultural modes of oral transmission.  This can be identified in two ways, by either understanding differences at regional or national levels between tales and in parsing, or understanding, the developing identities by solidifying through oral repetition a unifying myth or theme (Chandler 2013: x).  Secondly, they can of course also imbue moral and ethical lessons to the listeners or participants, particularly in the role of individuals in societies (Forrester 2012: 427).  Thirdly, it must be noted that some of the tales are pretty vivid in their detail of the character traits and actions, but this is the fun of reading and hearing the tales.  (I recommend reading them out to get a sense of what the oral tradition was like).  These are real and deeply developed characters that although may change their actions in some aspects from tale to tale, they still largely retain their purpose and description or function.

All in all I am glad I stopped to read through a few of the tales in Chandler’s book at the library, as I feel it has made me appreciate the work of some of my favourite authors a whole deal more.  By making me familiar with several important folk characters in the Slavic folk world, the deeper meaning of some of the recurring characters and folk myths that pervade through Russia’s literature becomes evidently clear.  This is especially the case when I originally read Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (2010), a novel that he wrote during the early Soviet period which includes many allegorical and frank representations of the oral folk body of work.

To my mind folk tales in general are a pivotal part of the rubric of culture, a one that sadly is often missing in the archaeological record.  So if you find yourself on an excavation this summer in the middle of nowhere, why not make a fire, grab a few drinks and tell tales to keep an oral tradition alive?

Bibliography

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Forrester, S. 2012. ‘Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East’. In Chandler, R. (ed.) Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.

The Don Epic: Life Scatters Into Innumerable Streams

1 Apr
‘When swept out of its normal channel, life scatters into innumerable streams.  It is difficult to foresee which it will take in its treacherous and winding course.  Where today it flows in shallows, like a rivulet over sandbanks, so shallow that the shoals are visible, tomorrow it will flow richly and fully.’

Quoted from the Russian epic novel And Quiet Flows The Don (1934), by Mikhail Sholokhov.

The Don River. Photograph credit: Gorodnjanski 2007.

The Don Epic by Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-1984)

23 Jan

During the my gap year between university degrees, I volunteered heavily and looked longingly for paid employment.  Alas that was not forthcoming in any shape or form, and as I traveled the miles to and from York to gain valuable archaeological experience, I realised I needed reading material to occupy my mind (when no interesting passengers to engage with were forthcoming!).  During my early school years I hated learning to read, I loathed the minutes and hours spent trying to visualise and make sense of sentences and words; I wanted to be free, running in the back garden, digging up the dirt.  Now I won’t stop reading!  If I am bored, I’ll scan around and read everything in sight.  Now I only wish I could remember all of what I’ve read but such is life.

Scanning my dad’s book shelf high and low, I realised I had not read hardly any of Russia’s distinctive, world class and moving literature; from either the all encompassing and demanding Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or regime changers such as Solzhenitsyn, or any Nabokov or Pasternak.  I had made my way through the Beat writers alongside most works by Kurt Vonnegut, some Bret Easton Ellis, a lot of Joseph Heller, a good dose of David Foster Wallace, plenty of Bernard Cornwall, and a good clutch of Will Self’s work; I gorged upon travel books (and still do); I’d read some of the classics such as Camus, Melville  & Shelley, and engorged on plenty of modern novels; but here was a whole swathe of literature to which my mind drew a blank.  Aside from a (mighty) Stalin biography or two, Imperial Russian and USSR literature classics were a mystery to me.

And so, I scanned the shelves and found novels by Tolstoy & Solzhenitsyn amongst others.  Possibly in a foolish move, I worked my way backwards, reading through Solzhenitsyn’s short stories and novels (Cancer Ward, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, August 1914, Matyrona’s Place, and An Incident At Krechetovka Station), and found a movingly painted portrait of a country that had changed drastically, and a population who had been through much.

After reading through these books, my eyes fell onto a writer who was also producing books at the same time on the same subjects as Solzhenitsyn.  Mikhail Sholokhov, a Nobel Prize winner for literature, was a name I did not recognise but would come to love.  I stumbled upon his Don epics, consisting of two parts, firstly And Quiet Flows The Don & its  sequel The Don Flows Home To The Sea, and I was entranced by the comings and goings of the Melekhov family, center stage in a cast of gregarious Don cossacks in a country that is ripped apart before and during World War One, and the subsequent Russian Revolution of 1917 and Civil War that led to the formation of the Soviet Union.

The story concentrates on this one family, and in particular on Grigori Panteleevich Melekhov, who falls in love with his neighbours wife, Aksinia Astakhov.  It is a moving family portrait, vast in scope and beautifully told, and rightly compared to Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.  Ultimately I cannot do it justice here, and so I implore you the reader to find and read the book yourself – I promise you will not be bored.

Since reading the Don epic, I have started to read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which was only slightly marred by the fact I had to hand my University library copy in 60 pages short of the ending (and the local libraries haven’t got a copy!).  Meantime I have picked up a copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls, and finding his writing style very different from his near contemporary Tolstoy, and both  of the Soviet era writers Solzhenitsyn and Sholokhov.

I am intensely glad I have started to have uncovered the vast travel trove of literature that Russia has to offer, and long may it continue.  I have found novels that have since lain close to my heart (especially Cancer Ward by Sozhenitsyn) and characters that will stick with me throughout my life.