Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Painted Balalaika

The English have Cinderella, the Vietnamese have the story of the Brocade Slipper, the Canadian natives have The Indian Cinderella, and the Chinese have Yeh-Shen. Russians have Mashenka whose "glass slipper" is a painted balalaika, a three-stringed guitar (an example of which can be seen to the left in a photo found in the public domain on Wikipedia.)

The story of Mashenka and her painted Balalaika goes as follows: Mashenka was the youngest of three daughters of an elderly couple. The elder daughters were lazy, but Mashenka was a hard worker. She did all the chores and her sisters ordered her around on a daily basis. When their father left for the market one day, he asked the daughters what each would like him to bring back from his trip. The oldest daughter wanted an expensive necklace, the middle daughter wanted red velvet to make clothes, and Mashenka asked for a balalaika with paintings of "the flowers and animals, people and houses of [her] beloved Russia" (Adler 73). At first, the sisters laughed at Mashenka for such a silly choice, but then, when the family learned that the balalaika was magic and could show Mashenka whatever she asked for in song, her sisters became jealous and plotted against her. They tricked Mashenka into travelling deep into the forest with them where they beat her to death in a jealous rage. They buried her under a grove of birch trees and took the balalaika home with a lie that Mashenka had gotten lost in the forest. When her parents tried to use the magic balalaika to find her, the pictures did not move to reveal the location of their missing daughter.

A shepherd boy saved the day when he happened upon the tree under which Mashenka was buried. When he started to blow on a pipe he had made from the reeds growing from the mound of dirt under which Mashenka was buried, the pipe began to play on its own. The pipe took on the voice of Mashenka and scared the poor boy who told the entire village what had happened. Mashenka's parents heard of what had taken place and the shepherd boy took them to the place where Mashenka spoke to him. The pipe then told them to "fetch some healing water from the Tsar of Russia's well" (Adler 76). The sisters then confessed what they had done and were locked up. When their father went to the well, the Tsar talked with him and asked to meet Mashenka when she was returned to life. When Mashenka was resurrected, she brought her balalaika to the Tsar and begged him to take that instead of her sisters' lives. The Tsar, touched by her forgiveness, spared her sisters and asked Mashenka to marry him.

This story shows the value of forgiveness and the power of love. Mashenka obviously had a love of her country, but the love for her family was even greater. Even after her sisters had killed her, she still found it in her heart to show them mercy, and her show of forgiveness inspired the ruler of the land. That is powerful, and, even though this is a fairytale, the strength of benevolence is a lesson that resonates throughout Russian literature.

Further Exploration...

Mashenka means "Maria" in Russian. Check out what significance this character's name has on this site:

"Mashenka"'s Meaning in Russian Naming

There is an orchestra that uses traditional Russian instruments in Washington D.C. Their next major concerts will take place the first weekend in June. See what different balalaikas and other instruments look like here:

Washington Balalaika Society

This clip features a trio playing a song from Dr. Zhivago. If you would like to know what a balalaika sounds like, take a look at this link:

Lara's Theme from Dr. Zhivago YouTube Video

Adler, Naomi. Play Me a Story: Nine Tales about Musical Instruments. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1997. 72-79. Print.

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