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.

Baba Yaga

The first folktale that I have chosen to bring to you is the story of Baba Yaga. In Slavic languages, "Baba" means "grandmother" and is often used to refer to elderly women. "Yaga," however, is a bit harder to put an exact translation on and is considered to be derived from any of several languages and can mean anything from "lazybones" to "pain."

Regardless, Baba Yaga is considered to be an elderly witch who most often causes more trouble than she provides aid. According to Katya Arnold, illustrator and re-teller of the Baba Yaga tale, "Baba Yage is one of the most important figures in Russian folklore. She appears, in one form or another, in hundreds of folktlaes. Sometimes she is the fearsome witch, as in this story, but sometimes she is kind and even helpful. She is so familiar to Russian children that she's almost a member of the family - like an elderly aunt who is either mean or nice, depending on her mood" (Arnold).

The picture to the right is an illustration of Baba Yaga drawn by Russian artist Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin that is in the public domain in Russia. It depicts her riding a mortar with the companion pestle as her rudder or oar to steer her through the air. Other versions of the story have her riding a broom that sweeps away evidence of her trail across the sky.

This particular retelling traces the story of Tishka, a young boy who is tricked by Baba Yaga into coming home with her. Traditionally, Baba Yaga lives in a hut perched upon chicken legs. In Tishka's story, Baba Yaga plans on eating him, but leaves her daughter in charge of cooking him. Tishka refuses to get into the oven, and asks the daughter to show him how to climb on the spatula. When she shows him, Tishka pushes her into the oven and cooks her as he runs away. Baba Yaga returns and unknowingly eats her own daughter. Tishka has hidden himself in a tree outside the hut, but is in major trouble when Baba Yaga comes outside with an ax, furious with Tishka for tricking her. Tishka is ultimately saved by an ugly gosling by promising the goose all the food he can eat when he returns Tishka safely home. The story ends with the goose becoming the most admired gosling around, and Tishka and his family living happily ever after.

The tale of Baba Yaga shows that good deeds never go unnoticed, and that wit, no matter what a person's age, is something to be admired. Tishka used his cleverness to escape, but he had a little luck to help him secure his ultimate freedom. The gosling was an unlikely hero since he was the scrawniest goose in the land, but he paused in his flight to save the young boy and was rewarded for his kindness. This story shows that Russians value kindness and cleverness, two qualities that would be instilled from childhood through stories like Baba Yaga.

Arnold, Katya. Baba Yaga: A Russian Folktale Retold and Illustrated. New York: North-South Books, 1993. Print.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Welcome to My Overview of Russian Literature

Hello, everyone, my name is Natalie, and this is my blog for my college class on Russian History. As a double major in English and History, I wanted to find a project that would encompass both of my passions into a single piece of work. I fell in love with Russian literature during a course on World Literature over the winter because of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illyich, both of which will be covered as I attempt to provide you with a comprehensive survey of Russian Literatue over the next few months. My plan is to start with folk- and fairytales from centuries-old Russian culture and to travel through the time periods that followed covering Tsarist Russia, the Revolutionary era, the time of the Soviet Union, and the decade immediately following the collapse of the USSR. My hope is to include all types of literature including poetry, novels, short stories, and plays.

It is also my hope that you will join me on this ambitious adventure through time, and that you learn, as I predict I will, more about a culture that is still a mystery to much of the world.

Oh, and I should mention that I will always give credit where credit is due. You will find each of the works that I read and comment on listed in MLA format at the end of each post so that you, too, can read them if you so choose. That said, I must tell you that my amusing title for this blog is not my own. My witty friend Nick came up with it almost instantaneously when I told him my project idea. Thanks, Nick.

And thank YOU (the reader) for being brave enough to come along for the ride.