Folklore of Russia is folklore of Russians and other ethnic groups of Russia.
Russian folklore takes its roots in the pagan beliefs of ancient Slavs and now is represented in the Russian fairy tales. Epic Russian bylinas are also an important part of Slavic mythology. The oldest bylinas of Kievan cycle were actually recorded mostly in the Russian North, especially in Karelia, where most of the Finnish national epic Kalevala was recorded as well.
Many Russian fairy tales and bylinas have been adapted for animation films, or for feature movies by prominent directors such as Aleksandr Ptushko (Ilya Muromets, Sadko) and Aleksandr Rou (Morozko, Vasilisa the Beautiful).
Some Russian poets, including Pyotr Yershov and Leonid Filatov, made a number of well-known poetical interpretations of the classical Russian fairy tales, and in some cases, like that of Alexander Pushkin, also created fully original fairy tale poems of great popularity.
Russian folklore within the Soviet Union
Folklorists today consider the 1920s the Soviet Union’s golden age of folklore. The struggling new government, which had to focus its efforts on establishing a new administrative system and building up the nation’s backwards economy, could not be bothered with attempting to control literature, so studies of folklore thrived. There were two primary trends of folklore study during the decade: the formalist and Finnish schools. Formalism focused on the artistic form of ancient byliny and faerie tales, specifically their use of distinctive structures and poetic devices. The Finnish school was concerned with the connections amongst related legends of various Eastern European regions. Finnish scholars collected comparable tales from multiple locales and analyzed their similarities and differences, hoping to trace these epic stories’ migration paths.
Once Joseph Stalin came to power and put his First Five Year Plan into motion in 1928, the Soviet government began to criticize and censor folklore studies. Stalin and the Soviet regime repressed Folklore, believing that it supported the old tsarist system and a capitalist economy. They saw it as a remnant of the backward Russian society that the Bolsheviks were working to surpass. To keep folklore studies in check and prevent inappropriate ideas from spreading amongst the masses, the government created the RAPP – the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. The RAPP specifically focused on censoring fairy tales and children’s literature, believing that fantasies and “bourgeois nonsense” harmed the development of upstanding Soviet citizens. Faerie tales were removed from bookshelves and children were encouraged to read books focusing on nature and science. RAPP eventually increased its levels of censorship and became the Union of Soviet Writers in 1932.
In order to continue researching and analyzing folklore, intellectuals needed to justify its worth to the Communist regime. Otherwise, collections of folklore, along with all other literature deemed useless for the purposes of Stalin’s Five Year Plan, would be an unacceptable realm of study. In 1934, Maksim Gorky gave a speech to the Union of Soviet Writers arguing that folklore could, in fact, be consciously used to promoted Communist values. Apart from expounding on the artistic value of folklore, he stressed that traditional legends and faerie tales showed ideal, community-oriented characters, which exemplified the model Soviet citizen. Folklore, with many of its conflicts based on the struggles of a labor oriented lifestyle, was relevant to Communism as it could not have existed without the direct contribution of the working classes. Also, Gorky explained that folklore characters expressed high levels of optimism, and therefore could encourage readers to maintain a positive mindset, especially as their lives changed with Communism’s further development.
Iurii Sokolov, the head of the folklore section of the Union of Soviet Writers also promoted the study of folklore by arguing that folklore had originally been the oral tradition of the working people, and consequently could be used to motivate and inspire collective projects amongst the present-day proletariat. Characters throughout traditional Russian folktales often found themselves on a journey of self-discovery, a process that led them to value themselves not as individuals, but rather as a necessary part of a common whole. The attitudes of such legendary characters paralleled the mindset that the Soviet government wished to instill in its citizens. He also pointed out the existence of many tales that showed members of the working class outsmarting their cruel masters, again working to prove folklore’s value to Soviet ideology and the nation’s society at large.
Convinced by Gor’kij and Sokolov’s arguments, the Soviet government and the Union of Soviet Writers began collecting and evaluating folklore from across the country. The Union handpicked and recorded particular stories that, in their eyes, sufficiently promoted the collectivist spirit and showed the Soviet regime’s benefits and progress. It then proceeded to redistribute copies of approved stories throughout the population. Meanwhile, local folklore centers arose in all major cities. Responsible for advocating a sense of Soviet nationalism, these organizations ensured that the media published appropriate versions of Russian folktales in a systematic fashion.
Apart from circulating government-approved faerie tales and byliny that already existed, during Stalin’s rule authors parroting appropriate Soviet ideologies wrote Communist folktales and introduced them to the population. These contemporary folktales combined the structures and motifs of the old byliny with contemporary life in the Soviet Union. Called noviny, these new tales were considered the renaissance of the Russian epic. Folklorists were called upon to teach modern folksingers the conventional style and structure of the traditional byliny. They also explained to the performers the appropriate types of Communist ideology that should be represented in the new stories and songs.
As the performers of the day were often poorly educated, they needed to obtain a thorough understanding of Marxist ideology before they could be expected to impart folktales to the public in a manner that suited the Soviet government. Besides undergoing extensive education, many folk performers traveled throughout the nation in order to gain insight into the lives of the working class, and thus communicate their stories more effectively. Due to their crucial role in spreading Communist ideals throughout the Soviet Union, eventually some of these performers became highly valued members of Soviet society. A number of them, despite their illiteracy, were even elected as members of the Union of Soviet Writers.
These new Soviet faerie tales and folk songs primarily focused on the contrasts between a miserable life in old tsarist Russia and an improved one under Stalin’s leadership. Their characters represented identities for which Soviet citizens should strive, exemplifying the traits of the “New Soviet Man.” The heroes of Soviet tales were meant to portray a transformed and improved version of the average citizen, giving the reader a clear goal of the ideal collective-oriented self that the future he or she was meant to become. These new folktales replaced magic with technology and supernatural forces with Stalin.
Instead of receiving essential advice from a mythical being, the protagonist would be given advice from omniscient Stalin. If the character followed Stalin’s divine advice, he could be assured success in all his endeavors and a complete transformation into the “New Soviet Man.” The villains of these contemporary faerie tales were the Whites and their leader Idolisce, “the most monstrous idol,” who was the equivalent of the tsar. Descriptions of the Whites in noviny mirrored those of the Tartars in byliny. In these new tales, the Whites were incompetent, backwards capitalists, while the Soviet citizens became invincible heroes.
Once Stalin died in March 1953, folklorists of the period quickly abandoned the new folktales of the period. Written by individual authors and performers, noviny did not come from the oral traditions of the working class. Consequently, today they are considered pseudo-folklore, rather than genuine Soviet (or Russian) folklore. Without any true connection to the masses, there was no reason noviny should be considered anything other than contemporary literature. Specialists decided that attempts to represent contemporary life through the structure and artistry of the ancient epics could not be considered genuine folklore. Stalin’s name has been omitted from the few surviving pseudo-folktales of the period. Instead of considering folklore under Stalin a renaissance of the traditional Russian epic, today it is generally regarded as a period of restraint and falsehoods.
Animals occur alongside human characters, as well as alongside other animals. Some of the most common animals found throughout many folktales are foxes, sheep, goats, roosters and wolves. These animals are sometimes given human qualities, including the ability to speak both with other animals as well as human characters. They have the same emotions as human characters as well. They are given human qualities such as wit, humor, slyness and even stupidity. Foxes, for example, are usually female and are very witty and like to trick their counterparts. This can be adult humans or wolves, roosters and bears. Wolves, on the other hand, are usually male and are not very smart. They are often susceptible to being led into traps and being tricked out of food or prey by foxes.
The characteristics of these animals have persisted through time, though the slyness and wittiness of foxes has remained constant.