Russian ladies, the subject of countless spam emails – pretty, submissive, great housekeepers – any conservative man’s dream? Let’s have a look at some Russian fairy tales and see if the stereotypes are reflected in folklore. Jumping ahead, the answer is both “gosh yes” and “hell no!”
- Vasilisa the Beautiful
A popular name in Russian fairy tales, Vasilisa is of Greek origin and means “queen”. Fairy tales are biased toward royalty – or fair maidens – who, Cinderella-like, end up as royalty; Vasilisa the Beautiful is a perfect example of a pretty social climber. She has the full Cinderella package of a nasty stepmother and two mean stepsisters, but on top of that, an accessory which we all could only dream about, much more useful that a Fairy Godmother, with effects lasting way past midnight. A magic talking doll, brought to life by a mother’s blessing and last dying breath, is Vasilisa’s secret helper, counsellor and protector. In fact, the doll does all the hard work – gardening, cleaning, cooking – you name it; while Vasilisa gets prettier every day despite her relatives’ best efforts to destroy her beauty through hard work. Finally, out of pure desperation, they send her on a suicide mission to get some Unholy Fire from Baba Yaga, a cannibal witch who dwells in the deepest darkest wood in a hut on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of human bones. For three days, the witch devises all sorts of impossible chores for Vasilisa, yet the girl sails through them, with the help of her magic doll of course. Finally, Baba Yaga’s curiosity gets the better of her and she demands to know her guest’s secret. The answer – a mother’s blessing – sends the witch into a rage, “We’ll have no blessed ones in here!”. She immediately kicks Vasilisa out, but not before giving the girl exactly what she came for: a human skull torch burning with Unholy Fire. From then onward things happen very quickly. First, the magic torch burns Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters into a neat pile of ashes overnight, leaving the girl herself completely unharmed. Vasilisa then promptly gets herself adopted by a sweet old lady and sets to work, producing the most exquisite shirt ever made. Upon seeing it, the kindly crone that took Vasilisa in exclaims, dumbstruck, “Such a thing is fit for the Tsar, and him alone!” and takes the shirt directly to the royal palace. The Tsar himself is astounded and wants to see the maiden who made it. Guess what happens next: love at first sight and wedding bells.
- Vasilisa the Wise
Of course, this one is beautiful as well, but also with brains and skilled in magic. That got her into a spot of trouble with her own dad, a Tsar and a sorcerer. Frustrated by the fact that his own daughter was “wiser” than him, he turned her into a frog for three years and what’s even worse, promised her to the evil Koschei the Deathless should she dare disobey and regain her human form before the three years run out. Meanwhile, another Tsar, frustrated that all his three sons are still single, gets each of them to shoot a arrow into the sky and pick a bride wherever the arrow lands. The youngest son’s projectile ends up in a swamp next to a talking frog, with no other eligible ladies in sight. The prince’s dad tells him to man up and accept his fate, so he mournfully marries the amphibian. Then the fun starts. The old Tsar wants to test his daughters-in-law by asking them to bake a cake (Great Russian Bake-Off?) and weave a carpet overnight. Much to her husband’s surprise, the frog’s produce is exquisite, especially compared to the other wives’ mediocre efforts. Yet the prince’s triumph is short-lived: the Tsar calls for a great feast and demands that his sons show off their young wives for the whole world to see. The hapless Tsarevich goes to the ball alone, only to be taken aback moments later, along with the rest of the guests, by the grand entrance of his wife in her human form, dressed in silks and diamonds and as fair as the sun, in a golden carriage with exotic servants. And even then she still has a couple of tricks up her sleeve, literally. She pours some wine into her right sleeve and puts a couple of swan bones into the left, and then goes off to dance … With Russian ladies, there’s no shaking and twerking, they glide gracefully like swans upon a lake, waving their long, wing-like sleeves in the air. So, Vasilisa waves her right sleeve, but instead of splashing everyone with wine, she conjures up a beautiful lake. Then she lifts the left sleeve, and instead of bones, to everyone’s delight, white swans fly out and land of the lake. Jealous, her sisters-in-law try to copy Vasilisa … with predictably disastrous results! The frog princess’ husband can’t believe his luck; he runs off home and quickly disposes of the frog skin. Sadly, the three years aren’t out and Koschei the Deathless promptly arrives to collect Vasilisa as his prize. The prince has to go on a rescue mission which goes roughly to plan and they live happily ever after.
- The Bride of Finist the Falcon
Some women in Russian fairy tales don’t have a magic doll to help them out and must fight for their love and go on perilous journeys to the very end of the world. In another rags-to-riches story, a pretty village girl gets hold of the magic Feather of Finist the Falcon. She can now summon Finist, a handsome prince from a faraway land who shapeshifts into a falcon and visits our heroine at night. The two grow very fond of each other and, in addition to their clandestine meetings, the prince’s mischievous sweetheart enjoys fooling her own family and the entire village by turning up in church on Sundays, dressed in exotic royal finery beyond recognition – all gifts from the prince. She then disappears just in time to get changed and hide everything away before her father and sisters come home, talking of nothing but the beautiful foreign queen who’d been to the church again. Unfortunately, one of these days she forgets to take a diamond pin out of her hair. The sisters grow suspicious and concoct an evil plan, sticking sharp needles, nails and shards into their sibling’s window frame. At night, the falcon prince tries to fly in through the window as usual, but gravely injures himself. His sweetheart can hear him call, but can’t awaken from a dark enchanted sleep. He says, “Not before you’ve eaten every last crumb of three stone breads, and worn out three pairs of steel boots, will you see me again my love”. She wakes up the next morning and sees blood dripping from the window frame and feathers on the floor. Realising what had happened, she knows that the prince’s words she’d heard through her sleep were not a dream, and sets off on her journey with three pairs of steel boots and three stone breads. On her way, she encounters three ancient Baba Yaga sisters who, in a beautiful show of female solidarity, take pity on the traveller. They give her the bad news that the falcon prince is engaged to marry another. But the new bride’s love for him is not deep and true, and easily displaced by retail therapy. The witches present our heroine with shiny magical items to enchant and distract the new bride of Finist. When the poor girl finally arrives in her true love’s kingdom, he’d already been married, but his young wife, as vain as predicted, bargains for the three magical trinkets and nonchalantly gives away three nights in her husband’s company in exchange. At least the young queen has the sense to give her husband a powerful sleeping potion before leaving him alone with the stranger. On the third and final night, our heroine’s bitter tear falls on his face, burns him deeply and breaks the spell. He recognises her instantly and casts his wanton wife away. Cue wedding bells and a happily ever after. Perseverance pays off.
- The Cursed Wife / The Shapeshifting Witch
In the traditional marriage, women stay at home. In a popular fairy tale story line, a newly married Tsar goes away on some business and tells his young queen not to venture outside the palace walls or an evil thing will happen. She does eventually go for a stroll in the gardens (the cheek of it!) for some fresh air … and the first person she meets is obviously an evil witch who puts a curse on her, turns her into a little snow white duck, then transforms herself into a perfect likeness of the queen and takes her place. What perhaps didn’t occur to the storytellers is this: when you come home after a long absence and find that your neglected wife has developed a witch-like temper and is no longer the sweet dove you had married, maybe that’s because you’ve been keeping her locked away, bored and desperate, while you go around on your important manly business? In the 19th century, the writer Nikolai Leskov decided to write a series of short novels depicting the different types of the Russian female character. He only wrote one: a portrait of a passionate woman, in his own words, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. In it, a merchant’s wife who leads a miserable existence mostly bored out of her mind, locked up in her husband’s house and occasionally abused and bullied by her husband and father-in-law. Then, inspired and obsessed by an ambitious scoundrel of a lover, she suddenly decides to rebel. Murder, madness and misery ensue.
- Marja Morevna
This one is my favourite by far. How’s this for a first date? A wandering prince comes across a great battlefield, strewn with dead bodies, and asks one of the wounded, “Who has slain this great host?” “Marja Morevna, the Warrior Queen,” is the answer. The curious prince soon stumbles upon the warlike royal’s camp. Helpfully, she’s young and fair and takes a liking to her visitor, inviting him to stay the night, then a couple more, and then decides to marry him … This time round, it’s the husband that gets told to stay at home and not do certain things while his wife gallops off to another war. One place that’s off limits is a creepy looking cellar with some ancient monster chained up, who looks suspiciously like Koschei the Deathless. Taking pity on the creature, our hero gives him some water, what’s the harm in that? Koschei instantly regains his strength, snaps the chains and flies off, kidnapping Marja Morevna en route. And so she suddenly, and very disappointingly, transforms from a kick-ass, sexually liberated queen to yet another boring damsel in distress awaiting rescue. Well, my theory is that since it was her cellar that Koschei was locked up in, it was probably her who put him there in the first place! The two probably had a turbulent history together. And good old Marja was perfectly capable of saving herself from her ex, I bet; she just wanted to see if her new beau would get something right, for once. And he didn’t disappoint, but I wonder: did she bring him along on her next little war or was he told to be a good boy and stay at home again? And was there another forbidden cellar somewhere …?