Once upon a time…
On seashore far a green oak towers,
And to it with a gold chain bound,
A learned cat whiles away the hours
By walking slowly round and round.
To right he walks, and sings a ditty;
To left he walks, and tells a tale....”
Alexander Pushkin, Ruslan and Ludmila
Text Marina Lukanina
Literature is an aspect of Russian culture that distinguishes it worldwide. The works of such Russian masters as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov are internationally known and seen as contributions not just to Russian but to world culture. Less known outside of Russia, however, is the equally distinguished tradition of Russian children’s literature. Agniya Barto, Korney Chukovsky, Samuil Marshak, Alexander Pushkin, Eduard Uspenski are just a few writers whose stories and poems are familiar to any child in Russia.
Generations of children grew up listening to the magical stories called skazki in Russian. Although there is no true translation for this word, it can be roughly rendered in English as “fairy tale,” which is derived from the French contes des fees, literally “tales of the fairies.” In contrast, to the fairy tale, however, the Russian skazka does not imply any magic or suspension of disbelief. There are many categories of Russian skazki — skazki o zhivotnykh (tales about animals), bytovye skazki (tales about everyday life), volshebnye skazki (magical fairy tales).
The rich history of Russian skazki is inextricably connected with Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev (1826-1871), who collected and wrote down many of them (not unlike the Brothers Grimm in the German tradition.) One of the most famous heroes of Russian skazki is Baba Yaga [“Granny Yaga”], also known as Baba Yaga Kostyanaya Noga [Baba Yaga Bony Leg]. With steel teeth and penetrating eyes, she cuts an intimidating figure, traveling around in a mortar (as in “and pestle”) and using a broom to sweep away the tracks she leaves behind.
While many Russian skazki are rooted in the Slavic tradition, they also show the infl uences of various foreign sources. Even the most famous of Russian poets, Alexander Pushkin, based some of his tales on foreign models, mainly French. In addition, Pushkin wrote his fairy tales in verse using a meter (trochaic tetrameter) that is foreign to Russian (and, incidentally, the same meter used by Frenchman Charles Perrault in his verse tales).
Another example of foreign influence is one of the most beloved characters in Russian children literature, Buratino. Buratino comes from a story by Alexei Tolstoi that is adapted from Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. And the French story of Beauty and the Beast Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont found its Russian roots in Sergei Aksakov’s Alen’kii Tsvetochek [Scarlet Flower].
A slightly different narrative genre that enjoys huge popularity among Russian children is the basnya [fable]. Many of these were collected and written down by the Russian analogue of Greece’s Aesop, Ivan Krylov (1769- 1844). Among Krylov’s best-known fables are Lebed’, Rak i Shchuka [The Swan, the Crab, and the Jack-Fish], Vorona i Lisitsa [The Crow and the Fox], and Strekoza i Muravei [The Dragonfly and the Ant]. Despite the so-called “children’s flavor” of Krylov’s works, his fables, which serve as illustrations of various life principles that parents try to teach their kids, are often quoted by adults as well.
The 20th century saw many famous and beloved contributions to the canon of Russian children’s literature as well. For example, everyone in Russia, child and adult alike, knows and loves Sergei Mikhalkov’s poem “Dyadya Styopa” [Uncle Styopa], which tells the story of an enormously tall policeman who is loved and admired by everyone in his town. Another favorite is Samuil Marshak’s poem “Vot Takoi Rasseyannyi” [What An Absent-Minded Guy], whose main character fi nds himself in all sorts of comical situations. Marshak is also known for his outstanding and venerable Russian translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poetry of William Blake and Robert Burns, and the stories of Rudyard Kipling.
Another very popular hero is Eduard Uspenski’s Cheburashka, a somewhat monkey-looking creature who “used to be a strange toy without a name.” The story, about the genuine friendship between Cheburashka and Crocodile Gena, was made into a well-known cartoon, which gave us the song “Too Bad Birthdays Happen Only Once a Year.” The song is oft en heard today at children’s birthday parties in Russia.
Two of the most beloved characters in Russian children’s literature remain Astrid Lindgren’s Karlson and A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Although another Lindgren character, Pippi Longstocking, is better known than Karlson in her native Sweden and elsewhere, in Russian, Karlson is king. The story of Karlson Who Lives on the Roof and his friend Malysh [Youngster] has become especially famous here thanks to a marvelous cartoon version. Similarly, Winnie has also benefitted from a Russian cartoon version. In both cases, the voices of the main characters are those of talented Russian actors whose performances make the stories even more compelling (Vasily Livanov is Karlson and Yevgeny Leonov is Winnie-the-Pooh).
Heroes of children’s literature even made it all the way into the paintings of prominent Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926), who painted a whole series devoted to fairy tales. The most notable include Bogatyri [Heroes], Alyonushka [Alyonushka], Snegurochka [Snow White], and Ivan Tsarevich na serom volke [Ivan Tsarevich on the Gray Wolf].
Tales that we are told as children stay with us forever, and rereading them reliably offers a quick excursion back to childhood. Perhaps that is why they are such an enduring and cherished part of Russian culture. (And sometimes the places we read about in those stories materialize in real life – on my own trip to Stockholm, I was able to fulfill a childhood dream of seeing Karlson’s house in person.) Whatever the reason, Russians treasure the many stories, of both Slavic and foreign origin, that make up their children’s literature, numbering them among their culture’s greatest literary contributions. And in the land Pushkin and Tolstoy, that’s saying something.