- Politicizing Magic: An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales
Now that the kind of cachet that Russia had during the Cold War has moved to new languages and regions, many Russian programs on college and university campuses have discovered that Russian fairy tales make a popular undergraduate or general education topic. A number of courses now taught in the United States descended from one originally created by Helena Goscilo, professor of Slavic at the University of Pittsburgh. Politicizing Magic: An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales aims partly to serve such classes and partly to do much more. It includes translations by a number of individuals, some done expressly for this book, framed with theoretical essays by three editors who are all prominent scholars of Russian literature and culture. As these origins suggest, the book may serve as a required or supplemental text in courses on folklore, culture, and literature in a framework of Russian or Slavic studies but also as Russian material in a comparative course. It can also be profitably employed for pleasure reading, individual study, or research, particularly the enlightening and richly footnoted section introductions.
The book’s three sections present “Folkloric Fairy Tales,” “Fairy Tales of Socialist Realism,” and “Fairy Tales in Critique of Soviet Culture,” followed by brief notes on the translators and sources. Goscilo points out (xii) that the editors chose to exclude nineteenth-century Russian literary fairy tales, such as Pushkin’s tales in verse or Aksakov’s version of “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Scarlet Flower,” since that line of development does not lead neatly to the Soviet uses of folklore forms. Goscilo provides the edition’s foreword (ix–xiv) and introduces the section of folkloric fairy tales, presenting them largely in terms of the course she created, with a description and evaluation of Russian and Western European folklore theory and analysis. The subsequent twelve translations by Goscilo include some of the tales that are most popular among Russian and other readers and some that have been adapted by [End Page 324] Russian composers for opera, ballet, or orchestral treatment: “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” “The Tale of Prince Ivan, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf.” Goscilo also includes “The Magic Ring,” a cheerful example of Aleksandr Afanas’ev’s bawdy folktales, which have been published more than once in English translation but never combined with the “censored” general collection. Goscilo’s translations are brisk and pragmatic, with an occasional slip in style (anachronistic expressions, run-on sentences), but enjoyably readable as she captures the down-to-earth style of the originals.
Marina Balina (professor of Russian and German at Illinois Wesleyan University) introduces the Socialist Realist tales that Richard Dorson might have described as “fakelore.” Balina’s well-informed survey outlines the Soviet adoption of fairy tales for propaganda purposes and explains in elegant detail how propaganda functions in each of the five tales that follow. This section shows vividly how inapt the English term “Fairy Tales” is for many Russian examples—“magical tales” is a better rendering of the term volshebnye skazki. These Stalinist creations show the era’s ambition to force once-imaginary wonders into reality, as magic beings or objects illustrate the transition to new social norms or teach class consciousness and properly unselfish behavior (Valentin Kataev’s “Flower of Seven Colors”). Fairy tales have even served to provide vocabulary: the Russian word samolët (literally “self-flyer”), used in tales of flying carpets, replaced the borrowed, foreign term aero, “airplane,” in the 1930s. One Stalin-era tale, “The Old Genie Khottabych,” is excerpted here. Another, Pavel Bazhov’s “The Malachite Casket” (adapted from a 1949 translation by Eve Manning), is set in the pre-Revolutionary past and has a true fairy-tale feeling, flattened psychology, and a folkloric plot alongside its literary features and careful adherence to a Soviet view of social class; the magical ending even gives it a touch of shamanism, appropriate to the tale’s Ural setting.
Mark Lipovetsky (associate...