Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Peasants, Reality T.V., and Russian Folklore

No conscientious Russian blogger can fail to mention Russian folklore. Up until the October Revolution of 1917, at least 85 percent of the Russian people were peasants. Most lived in small villages cut off from contact with much of the world as a result of low literacy rates, rudimentary schools, communal taboos, and an underdeveloped system of roads and railroads. Most also lived on the edge of real deprivation, with the possibility of famine looming over them.

Russia''s Tatars Celebrate Sabantuy Holiday

At this time, the peasant population was only one or two generations away from serfdom, a state of un-freedom that discouraged initiative and self-improvement. The level of literacy in the Russian peasantry was so low, that mobilization for World War I relied on the placement of colorful flags rather than printed pronouncements, according to historian Bruce Lincoln. In the years leading up to the First World War, the Czar’s energetic prime mininer, Stolypin, made some modest gains in raising the productivity of the Russian peasants by allowing enterprising peasants to break away from collective farming--where village elders would allot land according to the size of families, distribute any given family’s plowing strips across a large area to encourage uniformity in the overall quality of every family’s land, and redistribute land from time to time, thus discouraging any incentive for improving the land from one year to the next.

When Stolypin was assassinated, he had helped a small group of prosperous peasants to opt out of the commune altogether. In the absence of the written word, religion structured peasant lives. And in the absence of an educated and effective Orthodox clergy, this religion could be surprisingly vibrant, diverse, and complex. In fact, Russian peasant maintained a strong, self-conscious, Christian identity, even as their theology remained hopelessly entwined in superstition, pagan belief, and folklore. With this in mind, the student or Russian history and literature must turn to the mythology for a better glimpse of what Russians was really like.

Fortunately, these oral tales were collected by a few determined ethnologists. Alexander Afanas’ev’s Russian Fairy Tales is one such compendium. Here you have almost 700 pages of short, two or three pages fairy tales, which gives you some idea of just how rich this mythology could be. Of course, without some critical analysis of the overall topic of Russian mythology—and this book provides almost none—it’s hard to determine just exactly what these fairy tells tell us about Russians or about human beings in general.

Probably a Jungian analysis of archetypes is in order. At any rate, the fairy tales celebrate cleverness, cunning, and competition. They denigrate foolishness and, sometimes, women. They accept magic as a fact of life. The overall effect, though I hope to discuss some specific fairy tales in future posts, is one in which life is a game. It’s a colorful and exciting game, in which almost anything can happen. But one has to play it well, and play to win against other peasants, against mysterious forces which include animals and sprites and gnomes.

In the world of the Russian fairy tale, it’s your job to outwit, outsmart, and outlast your opponents, to quite from the popular television show, Survivor. And, as in Survivor, one of your principle goals is to get rich. At the heart of many of these stories, is the desire—which seems to transcend the modern age if we assume that these fairy tales have been passed down over many generations—to become wealthy, especially through cleverness rather than work. Not much has changed if our reality television shows may be taken as an example of contemporary fairy tales.

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