Russian Language Blog

A Russian fairy-tale with no moral whatsoever? (Plus: Bonus “Santa horror”!) Posted by on Dec 18, 2012 in Culture, language, Traditions

Last week, I briefly mentioned a classic сказка called Два мороза (“The Two Frosts”) — in which the Frost Brothers (one with a blue nose, one with a red nose) attempt to freeze a барин (“rich man”) who’s dressed in furs and a мужик (here: “male peasant”) with a thin coat. (It turns out that rich man gets cold in spite of his heavy clothes, while the peasant works up such a sweat from chopping wood that he takes off his shirt in the middle of January, but doesn’t feel the cold. Moral: Honest labor and peasant-y cleverness are better than expensive furs!)

But since the New Year is approaching, I was reminded of a couple more сказки that are quite appropriate to the winter theme — as we’ll see, these two tales are quite different from each other, but both are “classics.” First, let’s look at…

Морозко (“Jack Frost” or “Old Man Winter”)

As we all know, in Russia it’s not “Santa Claus” or “Father Christmas” who leaves presents under the ёлочка; it’s «Дед Мороз». Quite possibly, “Grandfather Frost” started out as a Slavic pagan demi-god who personified the winter cold. But over the centuries, he became a fairy-tale character.

And the most direct inspiration for the modern Santa-like figure may have been the story of Морозко, which contains some not-very-subtle нравоучение (“moral instruction”) wherein Niceness is rewarded and Naughtiness is (harshly!) punished…

An old вдова (“widow”) has remarried an old вдовец (“widower”), and each has a teenage daughter from the previous marriage. Although both young women are of marriageable age and pretty to look at, their personalities are quite opposite — anyone who has ever read any fairytale in any language can easily guess which girl is ласковая и добрая (“affectionate and kind”), and which girl is a foul-mouthed harpy! And in this case, Яблоко от яблони упало недалеко (“The apple has fallen not far from the apple-tree”), because the старуха (“old woman”) is just as horrible as her daughter.

So, the old woman treats her sweet-natured падчерица (“stepdaughter”) as a slave, and one wintery day she says to the старик (“old man”): “Take that никчёмную ugly retarded daughter of yours out into the woods and leave her under a tree,” so that the poor girl will die of exposure. The old woman does this mostly because it’s an unbreakable fairy-tale rule that a мачеха (“stepmother”) must be evil, but the attentive reader can figure out that there is also a practical economic motive: with the old man’s daughter dead, the old woman’s daughter will have a much larger приданое, “dowry”. (Remember that, historically speaking, the dowry was essentially a взятка, “bribe”, that the parents of the невеста, “bride”, offered to a prospective жених, “bridegroom”. In other words, they weren’t “losing a daughter”; they were purchasing a зять, “son-in-law.” And a generous приданое was key to attracting a more affluent suitor for one’s daughter.)

The old man isn’t very happy about this idea, but eventually he gives in to his wife’s nagging, and takes his daughter out for a long, LONG sleigh-ride in the forest. Meanwhile, back in the family’s изба (“rustic cabin”), we get a bit of comic relief in the form of rhyming dialogues between the мачеха and the household’s talking dog. (Of course their dog can talk — it’s a fairytale!) The pooch runs around barking things like:

“Гав-гав! Старикову дочь в злате, в серебре везут, А старухину замуж не берут!”
Bow-wow! The old man’s daughter shall be driven in gold and silver (finery), But the old woman’s (daughter) shall never be wed!

While the old woman angrily tells the dog to say, instead:

“Старухину дочь замуж берут, А стариковой дочери косточки везут!”
The old woman’s daughter shall be taken as a bride, But the bones of the old man’s daughter shall be hauled away!

But no matter what the old woman says, the dog’s reply is always the exact opposite of what she wants to hear.

Anyway, out in the woods, as the unfortunate падчерица is slowly dying in the студёная погода (“bitterly-cold weather”), who should pass by but Морозко himself.
“How are you, my dear? Are you warm enough?” — he asks her. And, being a cheerful and intelligent girl who was taught to respect the elderly, she answers with a polite lie: “Yes, grandfather, I’m quite warm,” although у неё зубы стучат от холода (“her teeth are chattering from the cold”). Mr. Frost repeats his question several times, and she keeps answering “Yes, I’m very warm, thank you!”, even when she’s practically dead from hypothermia. But finally, he takes pity on her — and when the girl’s father returns the next day, he’s astonished and grateful to see his daughter alive, wrapped in luxurious furs, and surrounded by a huge pile of expensive “bling-bling”, courtesy of Морозко.

Of course, the old woman is seething with envy, and she commands the old man: “Tonight, take MY daughter out and leave her under exactly the same tree, so that she can get a $plendid $ack of Pre$ent$, too!”

But as already mentioned, the старухина дочь has all the charm and good manners of a bucket full of piranha — and so, when Old Jack Frost asks her if she’s warm enough, things turn out very badly. To be specific, the bitchy girl ends up Dead, which leaves her mother feeling quite Morose… Ho-ho-ho!

Moral #1: If you are out for a stroll in the woods and you meet an immortal pagan demi-god who’s actually the anthropomorphic personification of a Siberian winter, BE POLITE.
Moral #2: Also, pay attention to your talking dog’s advice.

Just in case you found the story of Морозко a bit too moralizing and didactic, allow me to offer, as a palate-cleanser:

«По щучьему велению», или «Емеля и щука» (“By the Shchúka-Fish’s Will,” or “Yemelya and the Pike-Perch-Fish“)

In the Soviet cartoon version of “Yemelya and the Pike,” they made some small but important plot-changes — see discussion below!)

In this one, Емеля is the stereotypical Russian дурачок (“little village-idiot”). He’s also self-absorbed and ленивый (“lazy”) to an almost superhuman degree — he spends all his time snoring on the лежанка, the warm sleeping-ledge on top of the печка (“old-school brickwork oven”), and won’t even lift a finger to sweep the floor unless you offer him a meat-pie or a new shirt. In short, Yemelya is not one of those “heroic on the inside” characters who is UNFAIRLY called a дурак; he truly is a bit of an *sshole!

Furthermore, Yemelya just happens to be the Youngest Of Three Same-Sex Siblings — and if you know the clichés of Russian сказки, you’d logically expect that the two elder brothers must be abusive and arrogant. But you’d be wrong — на самом деле (“the truth, on the contrary, is…”), his brothers are honest, hardworking men who show nothing but generosity towards the rather undeserving “hero”.

One morning, Yemelya’s very patient sisters-in-law ask him (read: bribe him) to hike through the snow and fetch a couple pails of fresh water from the lake. By pure dumb luck, he catches a щука, and plans to cook it up into a delicious pot of уха, “fish soup” — or, rather, невестки сварят уху (“the sisters-in-law will boil the ukha“) while he has a pre-lunch nap on the oven.

“Wait, Yemelya,” says the shchúka. “I’m not an ordinary piece of seafood; I have magic powers! Set me free and I’ll make all your dreams come true! All you have to do is say «По щучьему велению, по моему хотению!»By command of the fish, may it be as I wish!

Yemelya is skeptical at first; before agreeing to release the Pike-Perch, he insists on getting “one free complimentary wish” as proof of the fish’s magic. And it turns out that the щука truly is more powerful than Dumbledore and Voldemort combined — Yemelya receives everything he wishes for, with no strings attached.

Early on, for example, he wishes that the печка would come to life and grow feet, so that he can ride around town without getting down from the cozy лежанка. The oven runs so fast on its enchanted legs that it knocks down some innocent pedestrians, who are understandably upset and call the police to arrest Yemelya — on charges of, um, “reckless oven-driving”.

Does Yemelya see the error of his ways and say to his neighbors, “Oh, I’m very sorry for carelessly running you over with my oven, please forgive me”? No! He wishes for a pair of magical, self-operating дубинки (“oaken cudgels”) to beat everyone into a semi-coma!

By the end of the story, Yemelya is fabulously rich, handsome as a supermodel, has married the Tsar’s beautiful daughter, and rules his own kingdom. Yet he’s still lazy and selfish — he’s had no “moral awakening.” In Pushkin’s «Золотая рыбка» — which is also about wish-granting fish — immoderation and hubris are ultimately punished. But in this story, every selfish wish works to Yemelya’s benefit; there isn’t a Tragically Ironic Twist that warns us Be careful what you wish for, à la H.H. Munro’s “The Monkey’s Paw”.

So, in many ways, «Емеля и щука» is almost like a parody of fairytales — not only does it lack нравоучение, but if anything, the story turns the formulae of сказки upside-down (the older brothers are nice guys, etc.).

And I’m not the only one to notice that the story doesn’t exactly teach a positive lesson; in the 1957 animated Soviet version, the filmmakers found it necessary to alter a few details, so that Yemelya would be less obnoxious. For instance, the “updated” Yemelya spares the fish’s life out of pure kindheartedness, not from calculating greed — the щука only offers the wishes as a reward AFTER the young man’s selfless act of mercy.

Despite the weirdness of this story, the phrase «по щучьему велению» became immortalized in everyday speech — sometimes as a sarcastic “O RLY?!” response when (for example) politicians promise quick-and-easy solutions to complex problems. “If everyone buys spiral-fluorescent light bulbs and LEDs, then «по щучьему велению», global climate change will ‘automagically’ be fixed!?!”

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  1. kavita thapliyal:

    хорошие сказки, я буду рассказывать моим студентам в унивеситете………

  2. Bob:

    Great post, Rob!

    I have Морозко on DVD – it’s one of my (and Mrs. Bob’s) favorite movies:

    In the film version, however, the bitchy daughter (in the film her name is марфушка (hope I spelled it right)) doesn’t die – she’s publicly humiliated, and the father who has been under his wife’s thumb for the entire film finally gains the upper hand.

    The movie was a joint production between Russia and Finland, and directed by Alexaner Rowe, whom I liken to a Russian Version of Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life”)

    I also have the MST (Mystery Science Theater) version of the film, where the hosts of the show (a man and two robots) add their own dialog and make funny comments while the movie is playing. Definitely worth watching!

  3. Rob:

    Bob — I don’t think I’ve seen that one (the Rowe version you mention), but I do remember catching other Finnish/Soviet co-productions on MST3K! (Even the ‘bots admitted that some of these movies were pretty well done, considering the low budgets.)

  4. JC:

    Thank you, this was a cracking read – interesting and informative! Keep up the good work and have a holly, jolly Christmas.

    — An English lawyer in Moscow

  5. Yelena:

    Dead Morose – awesome! I read По щучьему велению to my son. He loves it and so did I when I was little. But as an adult, I cannot help but object to pretty much every line in that fairy tale. It’s very similar to Крошечка Хаврошечка though where the nice girl is actually the ones that doesn’t do any work, but reaps all the rewards (although she does get picked on by her stepmother and stepsisters).

  6. Rob:

    It’s very similar to Крошечка Хаврошечка though where the nice girl is actually the one that doesn’t do any work

    You could contrast this with Василиса Прекрасная — it’s true that early in the story, Vasilisa’s magical doll does essentially all of the work, while Vasilisa relaxes and picks flowers. And, later, it’s the doll who saves Vasilisa from becoming Baba Yaga’s dinner.

    BUT, at the end of the story, how does Vasilisa meet the Tsar (who happens to be a handsome young bachelor looking for a wife)?

    Answer: By long, patient practice, she becomes a self-taught expert at weaving and embroidery, and the garments she creates are so stunningly beautiful that the Tsar insists on meeting the person who made them. So it was Vasilisa’s own personal labor, and not the magic doll, that won her an invitation to the palace.

    (True, it doesn’t hurt that Vasilisa is drop-dead gorgeous — if she’d been rather less attractive, she might’ve had to settle for a lucrative contract as the royal fashion designer, rather than a marriage proposal!)

  7. Celestial Elf:

    Great Post thank you 😀
    I thought you might like my Russian Fairytale –
    Best Wishes
    Celestial Elf ~