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A Russian Fairy Tale

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There is one marked feature in the Russian peasant's character to

which the Skazkas frequently refer--his passion for drink. To him

strong liquor is a friend, a comforter, a solace amid the ills of

life. Intoxication is not so much an evil to be dreaded or remembered

with shame, as a joy to be fondly anticipated, or classed with the

happy memories of the past. By him drunkenness is regarded, like

sleep, as the friend of woe--and a friend whose services can be even

more readily commanded. On certain occasions he almost believes that

to get drunk is a duty he owes either to the Church, or to the memory

of the Dead; at times without the slightest apparent cause, he is

seized by a sudden and irresistible craving for ardent spirits, and he

commences a drinking-bout which lasts--with intervals of coma--for

days, or even weeks, after which he resumes his everyday life and his

usual sobriety as calmly as if no interruption had taken place. All

these ideas and habits of his find expression in his popular tales,

giving rise to incidents which are often singularly out of keeping

with the rest of the narrative in which they occur. In one of the many

variants,[38] for instance, of a widespread and well known story--that

of the three princesses who are rescued from captivity by a hero from

whom they are afterwards carried away, and who refuse to get married

until certain clothes or shoes or other things impossible for ordinary

workmen to make are supplied to them--an unfortunate shoemaker is told

that if he does not next day produce the necessary shoes (of perfect

fit, although no measure has been taken, and all set thick with

precious stones) he shall be hanged. Away he goes at once to a

_traktir_, or tavern, and sets to work to drown his grief in drink.

After awhile he begins to totter. "Now then," he says, "I'll take home

a bicker of spirits with me, and go to bed. And to-morrow morning, as

soon as they come to fetch me to be hanged, I'll toss off half the

bickerful. They may hang me then without my knowing anything about


In the story of the "Purchased Wife," the Princess Anastasia, the

Beautiful, enables the youth Ivan, who ransoms her, to win a large sum

of money in the following manner. Having worked a piece of embroidery,

she tells him to take it to market. "But if any one purchases it,"

says she, "don't take any money from him, but ask him to give you

liquor enough to make you drunk." Ivan obeys, and this is the result.

He drank till he was intoxicated, and when he left the kabak (or

pot-house) he tumbled into a muddy pool. A crowd collected and folks

looked at him and said scoffingly, "Oh, the fair youth! now'd be the

time for him to go to church to get married!"


"Fair or foul!" says he, "if I bid her, Anastasia the Beautiful will

kiss the crown of my head."


"Don't go bragging like that!" says a rich merchant--"why she wouldn't

even so much as look at you," and offers to stake all that he is worth

on the truth of his assertion. Ivan accepts the wager. The Princess

appears, takes him by the hand, kisses him on the crown of his head,

wipes the dirt off him, and leads him home, still inebriated but no

longer impecunious.[40]


Sometimes even greater people than the peasants get drunk. The story

of "Semiletka"[41]--a variant of the well known tale of how a woman's

wit enables her to guess all riddles, to detect all deceits, and to
conquer all difficulties--relates how the heroine was chosen by a
Voyvode[42] as his wife, with the stipulation that if she meddled in
the affairs of his Voyvodeship she was to be sent back to her father,
but allowed to take with her whatever thing belonging to her she

prized most. The marriage takes place, but one day the well known case
comes before him for decision, of the foal of the borrowed mare--does

it belong to the owner of the mare, or to the borrower in whose
possession it was at the time of foaling? The Voyvode adjudges it to

the borrower, and this is how the story ends:--


"Semiletka heard of this and could not restrain herself, but said that

he had decided unfairly. The Voyvode waxed wroth, and demanded a

divorce. After dinner Semiletka was obliged to go back to her father's

house. But during the dinner she made the Voyvode drink till he was

intoxicated. He drank his fill and went to sleep. While he was

sleeping she had him placed in a carriage, and then she drove away
with him to her father's. When they had arrived there the Voyvode
awoke and said--

"'Who brought me here?'

"'I brought you,' said Semiletka; 'there was an agreement between us
that I might take away with me whatever I prized most. And so I have
taken you!'

"The Voyvode marvelled at her wisdom, and made peace with her. He and
she then returned home and went on living prosperously."

But although drunkenness is very tenderly treated in the Skazkas, as
well as in the folk-songs, it forms the subject of many a moral
lesson, couched in terms of the utmost severity, in the _stikhi_ (or
poems of a religious character, sung by the blind beggars and other
wandering minstrels who sing in front of churches), and also in the
"Legends," which are tales of a semi-religious (or rather
demi-semi-religious) nature. No better specimen of the stories of this
class referring to drunkenness can be offered than the history of--

The Foktale of the Awful Drunkard

Once there was an old man who was such an awful drunkard
as passes all description. Well, one day he went to a kabak,
intoxicated himself with liquor, and then went staggering home
blind drunk. Now his way happened to lie across a river.
When he came to the river, he didn't stop long to consider, but
kicked off his boots, hung them round his neck, and walked
into the water. Scarcely had he got half-way across when he
tripped over a stone, tumbled into the water--and there was an
end of him.

Now, he left a son called Petrusha. When Peter saw that
his father had disappeared and left no trace behind, he took the
matter greatly to heart for a time, he wept for awhile, he had a
service performed for the repose of his father's soul, and he
began to act as head of the family. One Sunday he went to
church to pray to God. As he passed along the road a woman
was pounding away in front of him. She walked and walked,
stumbled over a stone, and began swearing at it, saying, "What
devil shoved you under my feet?"

Hearing these words, Petrusha said:

"Good day, aunt! whither away?"

"To church, my dear, to pray to God."

"But isn't this sinful conduct of yours? You're going to
church, to pray to God, and yet you think about the Evil One;
your foot stumbles and you throw the fault on the Devil!"

Well, he went to church and then returned home. He
walked and walked, and suddenly, goodness knows whence,
there appeared before him a fine-looking man, who saluted him
and said:

"Thanks, Petrusha, for your good word!"

"Who are you, and why do you thank me?" asks Petrusha.

"I am the Devil. I thank you because, when that woman
stumbled, and scolded me without a cause, you said a good
word for me." Then he began to entreat him, saying, "Come
and pay me a visit, Petrusha. How I will reward you to be
sure! With silver and with gold, with everything will I endow

"Very good," says Petrusha, "I'll come."

Having told him all about the road he was to take, the Devil
straightway disappeared, and Petrusha returned home.

Next day Petrusha set off on his visit to the Devil. He
walked and walked, for three whole days did he walk, and then he
reached a great forest, dark and dense--impossible even to see
the sky from within it! And in that forest there stood a rich
palace. Well, he entered the palace, and a fair maiden caught
sight of him. She had been stolen from a certain village by the
evil spirit. And when she caught sight of him she cried:

"Whatever have you come here for, good youth? here
devils abide, they will tear you to pieces."

Petrusha told her how and why he had made his appearance
in that palace.

"Well now, mind this," says the fair maiden; "the Devil will
begin giving you silver and gold. Don't take any of it, but ask
him to give you the very wretched horse which the evil spirits
use for fetching wood and water. That horse is your father.
When he came out of the kabak drunk, and fell into the water,
the devils immediately seized him and made him their hack, and
now they use him for fetching wood and water."

Presently there appeared the gallant who had invited
Petrusha, and began to regale him with all kinds of meat and
drink. And when the time came for Petrusha to be going homewards,
"Come," said the Devil, "I will provide you with
money and with a capital horse, so that you will speedily get

"I don't want anything," replied Petrusha. "Only, if you
wish to make me a present, give me that sorry jade which you
use for carrying wood and water."

"What good will that be to you? If you ride it home
quickly, I expect it will die!"

"No matter, let me have it. I won't take any other."

So the Devil gave him that sorry jade. Petrusha took it by
the bridle and led it away. As soon as he reached the gates
there appeared the fair maiden, and asked:

"Have you got the horse?"

"I have."

"Well then, good youth, when you get nigh to your village,
take off your cross, trace a circle three times about this horse,
and hang the cross round its neck."

Petrusha took leave of her and went his way. When he
came nigh to his village he did everything exactly as the maiden
had instructed him. He took off his copper cross, traced a
circle three times about the horse, and hung the cross round its
neck. And immediately the horse was no longer there, but in
its place there stood before Petrusha his own father. The son
looked upon the father, burst into tears, and led him to his cottage;
and for three days the old man remained without speaking,
unable to make use of his tongue. And after that they
lived happily and in all prosperity. The old man entirely gave
up drinking, and to his very last day never took so much as a
single drop of spirits.[46]

The Russian peasant is by no means deficient in humor, a fact of
which the Skazkas offer abundant evidence. But it is not easy to find
stories which can be quoted at full length as illustrations of that
humor. The jokes which form the themes of the Russian facetious tales
are for the most part common to all Europe. And a similar assertion
may be made with regard to the stories of most lands. An unfamiliar
joke is but rarely to be discovered in the lower strata of fiction. He
who has read the folk-tales of one country only, is apt to attribute
to its inhabitants a comic originality to which they can lay no claim.
And so a Russian who knows the stories of his own land, but has not
studied those of other countries, is very liable to credit the Skazkas
with the undivided possession of a number of "merry jests" in which
they can claim but a very small share--jests which in reality form the
stock-in-trade of rustic wags among the vineyards of France or
Germany, or on the hills of Greece, or beside the fiords of Norway, or
along the coasts of Brittany or Argyleshire--which for centuries have
set beards wagging in Cairo and Ispahan, and in the cool of the
evening hour have cheered the heart of the villager weary with his
day's toil under the burning sun of India.

It is only when the joke hinges upon something which is peculiar to a
people that it is likely to be found among that people only. But most
of the Russian jests turn upon pivots which are familiar to all the
world, and have for their themes such common-place topics as the
incorrigible folly of man, the inflexible obstinacy of woman. And in
their treatments of these subjects they offer very few novel features.
It is strange how far a story of this kind may travel, and yet how
little alteration it may undergo. Take, for instance, the skits
against women which are so universally popular. Far away in outlying
districts of Russia we find the same time-honored quips which have so
long figured in collections of English facetiae. There is the good old
story, for instance, of the dispute between a husband and wife as to
whether a certain rope has been cut with a knife or with scissors,
resulting in the murder of the scissors-upholding wife, who is pitched
into the river by her knife-advocating husband; but not before she
has, in her very death agony, testified to her belief in the scissors
hypothesis by a movement of her fingers above the surface of the
stream.[47] In a Russian form of the story, told in the government of
Astrakhan, the quarrel is about the husband's beard. He says he has
shaved it, his wife declares he has only cut it off. He flings her
into a deep pool, and calls to her to say "shaved." Utterance is
impossible to her, but "she lifts one hand above the water and by
means of two fingers makes signs to show that it was cut."[48] The
story has even settled into a proverb. Of a contradictory woman the
Russian peasants affirm that, "If you say 'shaved' she'll say 'cut.'"

In the same way another story shows us in Russian garb our old friend
the widower who, when looking for his drowned wife--a woman of a very
antagonistic disposition--went up the river instead of down, saying to
his astonished companions, "She always did everything contrary-wise,
so now, no doubt, she's gone against the stream."[49] A common story
again is that of the husband who, having confided a secret to his wife
which he justly fears she will reveal, throws discredit on her
evidence about things in general by making her believe various absurd
stories which she hastens to repeat.[49] The final paragraph of one of
the variants of this time-honored jest is quaint, concluding as it
does, by way of sting, with a highly popular Russian saw. The wife has
gone to the seigneur of the village and accused her husband of having
found a treasure and kept it for his own use. The charge is true, but
the wife is induced to talk such nonsense, and the husband complains
so bitterly of her, that "the seigneur pitied the moujik for being so
unfortunate, so he set him at liberty; and he had him divorced from
his wife and married to another, a young and good-looking one. Then
the moujik immediately dug up his treasure and began living in the
best manner possible." Sure enough the proverb doesn't say without
reason: "Women have long hair and short wits."[50]

There is another story of this class which is worthy of being
mentioned, as it illustrates a custom in which the Russians differ
from some other peoples.

A certain man had married a wife who was so capricious that there was
no living with her. After trying all sorts of devices her dejected
husband at last asked her how she had been brought up, and learnt that
she had received an education almost entirely German and French, with
scarcely any Russian in it; she had not even been wrapped in
swaddling-clothes when a baby, nor swung in a _liulka_.[51] Thereupon
her husband determined to remedy the short-comings of her early
education, and "whenever she showed herself capricious, or took to
squalling, he immediately had her swaddled and placed in a _liulka_,
and began swinging her to and fro." By the end of a half year she
became "quite silky"--all her caprices had been swung out of her.

But instead of giving mere extracts from any more of the numerous
stories to which the fruitful subject of woman's caprice has given
rise, we will quote a couple of such tales at length. The first is the
Russian variant of a story which has a long family tree, with
ramifications extending over a great part of the world. Dr. Benfey has
devoted to it no less than sixteen pages of his introduction to the
Panchatantra,[52] tracing it from its original Indian home, and its
subsequent abode in Persia, into almost every European land.