Pyotr Yershov was born in the village of Bezrukovo, Tobolsk Governorate (currently Ishimsky District, Tyumen Oblast). During his childhood he lived in the town of Beryozov. From 1827 to 1831, he studied in Tobolsk gymnasium, where he reportedly created a society for the Ethnographic study of Siberia and even planned to publish their own scientific journal. From 1831 to 1836, he studied philosophy at Saint Petersburg University, which was where, at the age of 19, he wrote his masterpiece, the fairy-tale poem The Little Humpbacked Horse.
A large extract from it was published in 1834 and brought Yershov instant fame. Alexander Pushkin wrote that Yershov was as fully in command of his verses as a landowner is in command of his serfs. Pushkin also announced that he would stop writing fairy tales as Yershov did it much better. Nonetheless, Pushkin did write The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish one year after this announcement.
In 1836, Yershov returned to Tobolsk, where he worked as a teacher at the Tobolsk gymnasium. He became the principal of the school in 1858.
Yershov published many lyrical verses, a drama called Suvorov and a Station Master, and several short stories, but none of these had the same success as The Humpbacked Horse. He also reportedly wrote a large fairy-tale poem called Ilya Muromets, and a huge poem called Ivan Tsarevitch in ten volumes and one hundred songs, but subsequently destroyed them. Only a short extract from Ivan Tsarevitch survived.
He died in 1869 in Tobolsk. Biographers of Yershov note that disasters frequented his life. In 1834, just after the triumph of The Humpbacked Horse, both Pyotr's father and brother died within a few days. In 1838 his mother died; in 1845 his wife died; in 1847 he married again, but his second wife died in 1852. Of his 15 children only six survived.
The Humpbacked Horse (Konyok-Gorbunok), sometimes known in English as The Magic Horse or The Little Magic Horse, is a version of the Golden-Maned Steed fairy-tale character type, although a large part of the plot of this story is based on Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf. The titular little horse helps Ivan, a peasant’s son, carry out the many unreasonable demands of the tsar. During his adventures, Ivan captures the beautiful magic firebird for the tsar, keeps his magic horse, and finds his love, Tsar-Maid (Princess). At the end, the princess and the peasant’s son live happily for many years after.
Censors banned the complete story for over 20 years in the mid-19th century because it made the Tsar appear foolish. Until 1856, the tale was published with dots representing omitted verses and songs in many sections. The tale is meant to be a satire on the absurdities of Russian feudal and bureaucratic life at the time.
The poem became very popular in Soviet Russia and there are numerous editions and adaptations. Today it is considered a classic children's fairy tale. Derived works include a 1941 film adaptation by Alexander Rou (1941), an animated film by Ivan Ivanov-Vano (1947/1975), a ballet by Rodion Shchedrin (1955), and a musical composition by E. Voegelin (2007). An English translation by Louis Zellikoff was published in 1957.
After The Humpbacked Horse was published in 1834, many people assumed Pyotr Yershov was a pseudonym of Pushkin's, as they were sure it was a Pushkin poem. Indeed, Pushkin besides assisting Yershov in editing the poem contributed the first four lines of the final version,
За горами, за лесами, / За широкими морями, / Не на небе — на земле / Жил старик в одном селе."
"Beyond the mountains, beyond the forests, beyond the deep seas, not in the sky — but on earth, there once lived an old man in a village."