Thursday, March 10, 2011

Russian Animal Fables

Russians tend to humanize their animals rather than mystify them. They give their ursine, vulpine, and feline creatures humanlike characteristics, imbue them with character traits and language abilities. In many tales, man and beasts argue and fight over food, land, or goods. Sometimes they team up against oppressors – human or otherwise. A very popular fable theme typically involves a man catching an animal who begs to be set free on the promise of health, wealth, magical goods, or the gift of a beautiful tsarina to its captor. The story hero pities the creature and lets it go, often not even expecting the pledge to be fulfilled – only to discover that magical things do indeed start to happen to him. Another favorite plot involves man freeing animals from evil spells and turning them back into humans. Somehow, all of those liberated heroes or heroines tend to be of noble origin – princes or princesses, and they immediately fall in love and marry their commoner rescuers.

Animals possess not only very consistent character traits, but often standard genders and names too. They are always referred to as either male or female characters, never an “it.” Bear is big, bulky, and not particular bright. While he is certainly frightening, he can be tricked and bargained with. He is typically named Misha, the Medved (medved means bear) – and yes, that’s the last name of the current president of the Russian Federation – Medvedev. Wolves are dangerous and will gobble up you and your cattle if you don’t ward them off. Luckily, they aren’t very smart and can be fooled. They very often fall victims of foxes’ trickery – the sly cunning Lisaveta wraps Volk around her claw with smiles, flattery, and empty promises. Worse, she often gets him into trouble while slipping away with booty he helped her to steal. Hare, or Zaika, is quick, sometimes cowardly, yet he possesses a certain dignity and is willing to help. Rooster Peter the Petukh is boastful, sometimes narcissistic, and overly self assured, which often gets him in trouble: all Lisaveta has to do is to sing praises to his gorgeous voice and elegant tail, and he is more than willing to fly into her wide open paws. Swan is usually beautiful and, if handled properly, can metamorphose into a single and available tsarina. Whether the hero is Ivan the Fool or Ivan the Tsarevich, they both have to do some slaying of the evil – and that’s where Hare, Duck, and Fish come to help. Actually fish – sometimes Golden Fish, sometimes Tschuka – has been known to magically fulfill her captors’ every wish no matter how ridiculous, in exchange for not being turned into a soup.

Interestingly enough, the talking animals in the tales behave as real animals – carnivorous animals (and humans) still eat meat, even when the meat in question can talk. “I’m gonna eat you,” Wolf says to Hare, who usually yaps long enough to talk his way out. Man bargains with Misha, the Medved, “Don’t hurt me – I’ll give you the top half of my harvest” – and hands the beast the turnip leaves while keeping the roots for himself.

Just about every animal’s personality is beautifully revealed in the famous folk tale Teremok, which doesn’t exactly translate as House, but rather a special kind of a fancy building akin to a palace. Discovering the big comfortable space, various animals move in one by one, forming a happy co-op menagerie until one day there comes a troublemaker who can’t play by the rules, ruins the peace and destroys the edifice.

So, tell me, which animals are part of your national folklore, and what adventures do they bring to your people?


  1. Fabulous post, Lina! And remarkable, a lot of this applies to Indian folklore as well. There are famous anthologies of children's fables known as Panchantantra in India ( They feature "talking" animals and a heavy dose of morality. My kids always receive these books as gifts whenever we visit, but I've never been able to get into them myself, even as a kid. I think it was because their agenda was too obvious: "be good." ;)

  2. Well, believe it or not, some of the Russian fables aren't the "be good" fables. The fish one - the one in the picture, is about a very lazy man who is lucky to catch a fish that filfills his every wish - until he finally weds the tsar's daughter. And he doesn't get any less lazy in the process! I think the underlying theme here is wishfull thinking... LOL!

  3. I didn;t know that the Russian president's name was derived from "bear". Howe interesting! Does the ending "ev" in Russian names have a specific meaning?