The Nineteenth Annual
Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies
Northwest Conference


 Panel 2A
A Fool for Folklore: Irony Symbolism and Identity in Transition
1:45-3:15 PM



Depicting the Trickster: Soviet Animation and Russian Folktales
Anatoliy Klots, Slavic Department, UW

Read all about it! The Origins of Muscovite Theater in Newspapers and Diplomatic Reports
Claudia Jensen, Slavic Department, UW

A New Post-Soviet Village Prose Tale: How Natalya Klucharyova’s A Year in Paradise Refers to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's Matryona's House
Veronica Muskheli, Slavic Department, UW



Depicting the Trickster: Soviet Animation and Russian Folktales
Anatoliy Klots

Cartoons are the first introduction to folklore for many children. That is certainly true for Russian folktales that were often adapted for animated films. From the 1930s to the 1980s the Soviet animation industry produced over thirty cartoons based on Russian folktales, epic songs (byliny), and many more based on folklore of non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union. This process involved the significant creative efforts of writers and directors to edit original stories, sometimes conjoining several plots into one film, making them more suitable for visual adaptation and often incorporating a Soviet treatment of folklore. The characters went through several stages, from comparatively straightforward transformations in some early films, to didactic Socialist Realist versions in the late Stalin era toartistic, to masterpieces of the stagnation decades, when folklore-based cartoons fused modernity and tradition or obtained “doublespeak” allusions typical for the art of the time.

The trickster is one of the most appealing characters for animation. The trickster creates comic situations, brings innovation, and is often associated with satirizing norms and customs The Russian trickster is the fool (durak). The fool in Russian medieval culture was a clever revealer of truth. The trickster became one of the most beloved characters of Russian literature: such popular characters as Ostap Bender and Benya Krik share some of the Trickster’s features. In children’s literature the figure of the Trickster became very popular: Buratino, Neznaika, Karlsson, and Emelya.

Initially, folklore topics were considered inappropriate for the new Soviet art. They were seen as outdated and too much connected with the rural past. Early cartoons were often about political and social satire (Soviet Toys (Sovetskie igrushki), 1924 or The Samoed Boy (Samoedskii mal’chik), 1928). However, with the revival of pride and interest in the Russian past, folklore became an inspiring source for both plots and characters (such as Koshchei, Baba Yaga, the soldier, and Ivan Tsarevich).

As a result of the turn from the internationalism of the 1920s to the fusion of Bolshevism and nationalism in the mid-1930s, interest in Russian topics in art was revived. The Second World War became a turning point in rehabilitating imperial cultural values. Under the leadership of Stalin, the Soviet government tried to kindle Russian patriotism and in the late 1940s launched a campaign against the “cosmopolites” who kowtowed to the West. This turn to national themes made prominent Soviet film and animation directors adopt folklore motifs and characters for their works. \

There are several types of characters that have the trickster’s features in Russian folktales: the animal trickster (usually the fox), the soldier, and the fool. This essay will discuss how some folktales featuring the trickster were treated in Soviet animation of the 1950s-1970s, specifically concentrating on the fool (Emelya and Ivan-Durak). How did animation aimed mostly at children in Soviet closed society treat the folktale environment and, in particular, this ambivalent and chaotic character?

To read the full paper click here.

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Read all about it! The Origins of Muscovite Theater in Newspapers and Diplomatic Reports
Claudia Jensen

The marvelous events that took place in the Kremlin on Oct. 17, 1672 have long been known to scholars. This is the date of the opening night of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich’s court theater with a sumptuous production that was performed by foreign youths resident in Moscow and which included costumes, singing, instrumental music, sets, and comic interludes. The event, prepared especially for the tsar and a limited audience, marks the beginnings of Western-style theater in Muscovy, the opening act of a long tradition that was to flower during the eighteenth century and, of course, beyond.

This theatrical interlude, from its premiere in Oct. 1672 to Tsar Aleksei’s sudden death early in 1676, has been the subject of many types of scholarly inquiry: historians have situated it within the context of Muscovite court culture; theater specialists have hunted for appropriate models in Western performance traditions; and linguists have examined its rich textual sources (the half-dozen surviving play texts). All of this work has been illuminating, but it has never answered, or even clearly posed, a crucial question: was there a specific stimulus that sparked Aleksei’s interest in theater in the first place?

The answer to this question is yes: this paper will present evidence describing two linked and previously unknown performances in the spring of 1672 that introduced the tsar to Western-style entertainment and led directly to the establishment of his own theater several months later. More broadly, these recently discovered documents show the importance to cultural historians of the communications revolution in Early Modern Europe, with its emphasis on regular transmission of current news and information, including newspapers and the voluminous diplomatic dispatches that criss-crossed the continent.

This paper will present a survey of on-going research (carried out with Dr. Ingrid Maier at Uppsala University), outlining our re-writing of the history of Muscovite theater. It will review the documents we have discovered from early 1672, particularly diplomatic dispatches and, surprisingly, a long article in a Hamburg newspaper in March 1672 describing one of these performances for the tsar. These sources not only show us why Tsar Aleksei wanted to have a theater of his own, but they also suggest why that later court theater developed as it did. For example, some of the same characters that were wildly popular in the two early performances appeared later on the court theater’s stage. The stock Western comic figure Pickleherring, for example, was the hit of the first performance – his antics, according to these accounts, caused the royal family to “shake with laughter.” It is no wonder, then, that we can trace this character throughout the later court theater and even beyond. Thus, not only do these new discoveries rewrite the pre-history of Muscovite theater, but they are equally valuable in contextualizing the many performances that followed.

Furthermore, these documents provide some insight into the royal audience, for among the spectators at these early productions were the tsaritsa and other high-ranking women; their presence and their delighted reactions to the antics on stage provide a surprisingly intimate glimpse into their private lives, which are otherwise notoriously difficult to document.

Thus, this paper will present a thorough revision of our understanding of the pre-history of the Muscovite theater as well as a re-evaluation of the official court theater itself, introducing documents that have been little used in the context of cultural history.

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A New Post-Soviet Village Prose Tale: How Natalya Klucharyova’s A Year in Paradise Refers to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's Matryona's House
Veronica Muskheli


It has been noted that most works of the young Russian writer Natalya Klucharyova (born 1981) are in a dialogue with the Soviet Village Prose School of writing. Klucharyova’s novel Деревня дураков (Village of Fools) as well as her best-known, prize-winning short story Один год в Раю (A Year in Paradise) (2008) deal with an unhappy city man going into a deep-in-the-heart-of-Russia village to look for the real Russia—the major premise of much of Village Prose. I observe, however, that, together with an ironic attitude toward Village Prose, a greater role is played by religion, magic, folk beliefs, and folklore narratives, both in the thematic composition and in the craft of her stories. In fact, the rather pessimistic contemplation of the fate of her country of A Year in Paradise acquires the very structure of the Russian wonder tale. I demonstrate the “folklorization” in Klucharyova’s work by comparing and contrasting her story with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s short story Матрёнин двор (Matryona’s House) (1959), a foundational piece for Village Prose. Both stories are narrated by a male character in the first person, and that male character is hosted by an old village woman who dies at the end. I document many self-conscious and somewhat mocking parallels to Solzhenitsyn, and I also describe folkloric features of the characters in Klucharyova’s story as well as its (anti)-wonder tale structure. In both stories, I observe features associated with Baba-Yaga-as-a-donor ascribed to the main characters, to Matryona in Solzhenitsyn’s and to Tyota Motya in Klucharyova’s narrative. Tyota Motya is a bastardized and more folktale-like version of Matryona. In addition, this major character in Klucharyova is surrounded by other characters reminiscent of Russian folklore, such as more Baba-Yagas in the person of two old sisters, Toma and Lucya; a leshiy in the person of Lyokha; Koshchei the Deathless, in the person of Cherenok—a village thug; and a princess in the person of Lesya, an ethnography student whom the nameless hero in this anti-wonder-tale does not manage to marry. Important symbolic objects, such as, for example, a map of Russia that is falling apart, would be too blunt a symbol were it not for their appropriate association with magic in this wonder tale-like narrative. Barely hinted-at religious motifs from Solzhenitsyn’s story are elaborated in Klucharyova as well. I suggest that turning to the Village Prose tradition is a natural extension of the currently intensified search for identity in Russian society that has lost its Soviet identity with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so, just as the classical Soviet Village Prose work by Solzhenitsyn, Klucharyova’s story explores questions of nationalism while intensifying language, folkloric and religious motifs as encapsulations of some of the national ideas and ideals. At the same time, while Soviet Village Prose, as exemplified by Sozhenitsyn’s Matryona’s House, asserts a possibility of finding the “real Russia,” however problematic, Klucharyova’s A Year in Paradise appears to be wondering whether “the paradise” of “real Russia” is irretrievably lost.

To read the full paper click here.

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