Fairy tales, and folklore in general, often reflect a country’s way of life from many centuries ago. They also inevitably influence the mentality of that country’s people, being that children grow up listening to these stories and watching them in cartoons. It’s astonishing to what extent folk beliefs vary between countries and regions, and how much they contribute to forming the national culture and character. In this article, we will have a look at a few Russian (and Slavic) folk characters that will help you better understand certain Russian expressions and enrich your grasp of the language. Plus, fairy tales are just fun to learn, so let’s have a look shall we?
«Колобок» is a round, yellow bread that suddenly comes to life when Granny puts it on a window sill after having just used the last bit of flour to bake it. «Колобок» escapes from the old couple and “runs” (or to be more precise, “rolls”) into the forest. He meets different animals one after another: a hare, a wolf and a bear. Of course, they want to eat him. However, he sings a boastful song and manages to escape from all of them. Finally, he meets a fox, a symbol of slyness in Russian culture. This fox asks him to jump on her nose so that she can hear his song better, and then eats him instead.
If you are able to deduce the moral of the story, go ahead and write it in the comments. All that I will say here is that it is not nice to tell someone that he is «как колобок» (like Kolobok), being that it means that they are “totally round.” I will also let you know that you can use «хитрый как лиса» (sly as a fox) to describe people. You can listen to the whole story here, as well as to Kolobok’s song.
The lyrics of the song are:
По амбарам метён,
По сусечкам скребён,
На сметане мешён,
В печку сажён.
Я от дедушки ушёл,
Я от бабушки ушёл,
От тебя зайца не хитро уйти.
I am Kolobok, Kolobok,
I was scraped from the cupboard,
Swept from the bin,
Kneaded with sour cream,
Fried in the oven.
I got away from Grandpa,
Got away from grandma
And from you, hare, I will get away.
Баба-Яга (Baba Yaga)
This is perhaps the most popular Slavic fairy tale character, appearing in a number of stories and having a controversial character. In some fairy tales, the old woman «Баба-Яга, Костяная Нога» (Baba Yaga, Bone Leg) tries to eat children and young people. However, in others, she changes her mind and helps “the hero” by giving him or her magical objects. She lives in the forest «в избушке на курьих ножках» (in a hut on chicken legs), which can move about. She flies around in a mortar and pestle, and carries her broom everywhere. As for her appearance, she is old, has a hooked nose (often with a wart on its end) is humpbacked and is bony. So, don’t call your girlfriend «Баба-Яга»; she will not be happy.
Змей Горыныч (Zmei Gorinich)
Змей Горыныч is a kind of an Eastern Slavic dragon. It is known for its three heads that are able to regenerate when cut off. It walks on two hind legs, flies and breathes fire. It is an intelligent creature who repeatedly tries to steal beautiful girls, usually the daughters of the Tsar. Of course, their beloved ones try to free them, and so a fight between Zmei and «богатырь» (a Slavic hero) usually takes place. The word Змей actually means snake in Russian, though people use the word «змея» in every day speech.
So, who are these «богатыри» (Russian heroes) that all the evil spirits are afraid of? Well, they are not princes or the sons of Tsars. Instead, they are usually peasants, farmers or merchants by trade. However, when the day comes that the Motherland needs them, they will defend the people and fight monsters. They possess all the best qualities of the ideal male of the nation: strength, nobility, honesty, fairness and kindness. They are excellent warriors and are very strong. The most famous «богатыри» are Илья Муромец, Алёша Попович и Добрыня Никитич (Ilia Muromets, Alyosha Popovich and Dobrinya Nikitich). Nowadays, if somebody calls a child or a young man «богатырь», it means that the boy or man is strong, tall and of a robust build.
Василиса Прекрасная (Vasilisa the Beautiful), Василиса Премудрая (Vasilisa the Wise), Алёнушка (Alyonushka)
These are female heroines. They possess the qualities that were essential for the ideal girls and women of olden times. In fact, not a lot has changed, and even nowadays men look for similar traits in their other half. These heroines are generally characterised by exceptional beauty and intelligence, and are very skilled in house work such as cleaning, cooking, sewing, etc. Despite having to face wicked stepmothers, witches or Baba Yaga, they still find their happiness and true love.
These heroines are influential even today, being that Alyonushka is a very popular name in Russia now (though Vasilisa is quite rare) and the word «прекрасная» can be used as a compliment. For example, you can say: «Ты сегодня выглядишь прекрасно» (you look great today) or «Ты всегда выглядишь прекрасно» (you always look great).
Василиса Премудрая / Царевна Лягушка (Vasilisa the Wise / Trasitsa-Frog)
What is the connection between Василиса Премудрая and the frog? One could be forgiven for thinking that “he” is her prince. However, in Slavic fairy tales the frog is actually not male, but is instead female. Not only that, but Василиса Премудрая and the frog are actually one and the same person! That’s right, Василиса can put on and take off her frog skin, and therefore can appear as either a disgusting animal or a beautiful woman. In fact, she is the daughter of Кащей Бессмертный, a powerful magician, thus she knows how to use magic. Some interesting attributes about her are that you will not turn into a frog if you kiss her, and in order to save her from her curse, you must kill her wicked father. However, this is a bit of a challenge being that his name Кощей Бессмертный actually means “Koschei the Immortal” in Russian.
These are just a few of the fairy tales and fable characters that we know and love in Russia. There are also quite a few more, including Vodyanoi (who lives in water) Rusalki (a type of mermaid), Leshii (who lives in the forest), Tsarevna Nesmeyana (a princess who never laughs) and so on. It’s a parallel magical world that you can plunge into just by reading Russian fairy tales and fables. So, start your adventure today!