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A Russian Fairy Tale Story

The Dnieper, Volga, and Dvina used once to be living people.
The Dnieper was a boy, and the Volga and Dvina his sisters.
While they were still in childhood they were left complete orphans,
and, as they hadn't a crust to eat, they were obliged to
get their living by daily labor beyond their strength. "When
was that?" Very long ago, say the old folks; beyond the
memory even of our great-grandfathers.

Well, the children grew up, but they never had even the
slightest bit of good luck. Every day, from morn till eve, it was
always toil and toil, and all merely for the day's subsistence. As
for their clothing, it was just what God sent them! They sometimes
found rags on the dust-heaps, and with these they managed
to cover their bodies. The poor things had to endure cold and
hunger. Life became a burden to them.

One day, after toiling hard afield, they sat down under a bush
to eat their last morsel of bread. And when they had eaten it,
they cried and sorrowed for a while, and considered and held
counsel together as to how they might manage to live, and to
have food and clothing, and, without toiling, to supply others
with meat and drink. Well, this is what they resolved: to set
out wandering about the wide world in search of good luck and
a kindly welcome, and to look for and find out the best places
in which they could turn into great rivers--for that was a possible
thing then.

Well, they walked and walked; not one year only, nor two
years, but all but three; and they chose the places they wanted,
and came to an agreement as to where the flowing of each one
should begin. And all three of them stopped to spend the night
in a swamp. But the sisters were more cunning than their
brother. No sooner was Dnieper asleep than they rose up
quietly, chose the best and most sloping places, and began to
flow away.

When the brother awoke in the morning, not a trace of his
sisters was to be seen. Then he became wroth, and made
haste to pursue them. But on the way he bethought himself,
and decided that no man can run faster than a river. So he
smote the ground, and flowed in pursuit as a stream. Through
gullies and ravines he rushed, and the further he went the
fiercer did he become. But when he came within a few versts
of the sea-shore, his anger calmed down and he disappeared in
the sea. And his two sisters, who had continued running from
him during his pursuit, separated in different directions and fled
to the bottom of the sea. But while the Dnieper was rushing
along in anger, he drove his way between steep banks. Therefore
is it that his flow is swifter than that of the Volga and the
Dvina; therefore also is it that he has many rapids and many

There is a small stream which falls into Lake Ilmen on its western
side, and which is called Chorny Ruchei, the Black Brook. On the banks
of this brook, a long time ago, a certain man set up a mill, and the
fish came and implored the stream to grant them its aid, saying, "We
used to have room enough and be at our ease, but now an evil man is
taking away the water from us." And the result was this. One of the
inhabitants of Novgorod was angling in the brook Chorny. Up came a
stranger to him, dressed all in black, who greeted him, and said:--

"Do me a service, and I will show thee a place where the fish swarm."

"What is the service?"

"When thou art in Novgorod, thou wilt meet a tall, big moujik in a
plaited blue caftan, wide blue trowsers, and a high blue hat. Say to
him, 'Uncle Ilmen! the Chorny has sent thee a petition, and has told
me to say that a mill has been set in his way. As thou may'st think
fit to order, so shall it be!'"

The Novgorod man promised to fulfil this request, and the black
stranger showed him a place where the fish swarmed by thousands. With
rich booty did the fisherman return to Novgorod, where he met the
moujik with the blue caftan, and gave him the petition. The Ilmen

"Give my compliments to the brook Chorny, and say to him about the
mill: there used not to be one, and so there shall not be one!"

This commission also the Novgorod man fulfilled, and behold! during
the night the brook Chorny ran riotous, Lake Ilmen waxed boisterous, a
tempest arose, and the raging waters swept away the mill.[274]

In old times sacrifices were regularly paid to lakes and streams in
Russia, just as they were in Germany[275] and in other lands. And even
at the present day the common people are in the habit of expressing,
by some kind of offering, their thanks to a river on which they have
made a prosperous voyage. It is said that Stenka Razin, the insurgent
chief of the Don Cossacks in the seventeenth century, once offered a
human sacrifice to the Volga. Among his captives was a Persian
princess, to whom he was warmly attached. But one day "when he was
fevered with wine, as he sat at the ship's side and musingly regarded
the waves, he said: 'Oh, Mother Volga, thou great river! much hast
thou given me of gold and of silver, and of all good things; thou hast
nursed me, and nourished me, and covered me with glory and honor. But
I have in no way shown thee my gratitude. Here is somewhat for thee;
take it!' And with these words he caught up the princess and flung her
into the water."[276]

Just as rivers might be conciliated by honor and sacrifice, so they
could be irritated by disrespect. One of the old songs tells how a
youth comes riding to the Smorodina, and beseeches that stream to show
him a ford. His prayer is granted, and he crosses to the other side.
Then he takes to boasting, and says, "People talk about the Smorodina,
saying that no one can cross it whether on foot or on horseback--but
it is no better than a pool of rain-water!" But when the time comes
for him to cross back again, the river takes its revenge, and drowns
him in its depths, saying the while: "It is not I, but thy own
boasting that drowns thee."

From these vocal rivers we will now turn to that elementary force by
which in winter they are often rendered mute. In the story which is
now about to be quoted will be found a striking personification of
Frost. As a general rule, Winter plays by no means so important a part
as might have been expected in Northern tales. As in other European
countries, so in Russia, the romantic stories of the people are full
of pictures bathed in warm sunlight, but they do not often represent
the aspect of the land when the sky is grey, and the earth is a sheet
of white, and outdoor life is sombre and still. Here and there, it is
true, glimpses of snowy landscapes are offered by the skazkas. But it
is seldom that a wintry effect is so deliberately produced in them as
is the case in the following remarkable version of a well-known tale.