By Jennifer Fell
Whether they’re looking to name a new restaurant or just a bliny (pancake) such as the Ilya Muromets blini sold at Teremok stalls throughout the country, in today’s Russia these markers of Russian’s folklore can be found almost everywhere. Even 1 January is a Russian day of remembrance for Ilya Muromets who remains the only hero of Russia’s epic poems to have been canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Just as with European folklore traditions, Russian tales feature traditional heroes whose kindness, bravery and loyalty are rewarded. In Russian folklore you’ll also find some dark and complex characters like Baba Yaga living her house on chicken legs and her male counterpart, Koshchey the Deathless, an immortal shapeshifter and habitual wife-stealer. Here is Russia In Your Pocket's list of the main heroes and villains of Russian folklore.
The Three Bogatirs
Ilya’s two companions are
In the tale Vasilisa the Beautiful, the young maiden is tricked by her evil stepmother into going into the deep dark forest to get some fire from Baba Yaga. The good Vasilisa is helped by her doll, given to her many years ago by her dying mother. Through the help of this magic doll, she manages to complete the ever more difficult tasks set for her by Baba Yaga and eventually wins her freedom and (of course) becomes the bride of a handsome tsar. Baba Yaga isn’t all bad though, she has a great appreciation for Koshchey the Deathless, the main male folktale villain, saying to him ‘Medusa’s got nothing on you, Kotschey dear’.
Not all characters are easily defined as good or evil. Such a one is the Firebird, in Russian the Zhar-ptitsa. This enchanted bird from a faraway land can bring either good or ill to its captors. Its feathers glow so brightly they resemble a bonfire and even when removed, they do not lose their magic glow. Ivan Durak (Ivan the Fool), is another popular hero of Russian folklore, who chases down the Firebird. Ivan is, typically, the youngest and dumbest of three sons who eventually ends up marrying a princess.
Ivan Durak and the Firebird
Konyok Gobyunok (the Little Humpbacked Horse) is a popular cartoon produced in 1947 inspired by the firebird story and featuring Ivan. In this film, Ivan is befriended by the little horse and instead of having his usual nap under a haystack, he and his new buddy go off in search of adventure. Along the way, Ivan finds a feather from the Firebird and despite the little horse’s warning not to keep it, Ivan pockets it. Soon enough the fact that Ivan has this feather becomes known to the tsar who sends him on a quest to bring back the magic bird.
In different tales, Ivan is married to Maria Morevna (he has to steal her back from Koshchey the Deathless), Vasilisa the Wise and Yelenka the beautiful. Such a wonderful reward for such a dim-witted fellow doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny in today’s world but they sure do make inspiring reading for millions of ordinary guys out there!