Tales from the Land of Snow
The Morphology of Putinism.
Illustrations by Adrienne Ségur
Like many of us concerned with the war in Ukraine, I have been reading articles and listening to interviews with Russian investigative journalists who are helping to put the conflict in context: Julia Ioffe, Masha Gessen, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Yevgenia Albats, Gleb Pavlovsky, Andrei Soldatov and more. In many of these texts and interviews, these dedicated journalists and political experts have tried to make an objective assessment of the Putin period in Russia, starting from his years as a mid-level KGB agent, through being a local government official after the end of communism up to and including his rise into the inner circle of the Kremlin and his appointment as prime minister and then president.
Watching the interviews with these specialists around the post-soviet period and Putin’s ascendancy is striking in the way in which they all coincide in the same basic storyline. This consistency of historical readings has made me think in recent days, of all things, about Russian fairy tales and their teachings.
I am fully aware of the pitfalls of cultural determinism. At a recent public discussion on the war in Ukraine, prominent Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari spoke about how after the end of World War 2 there were several attempts by scholars to prove that Grimm’s fairy tales expressed concepts that previewed the basis of Nazi ideology. Those theories have been debunked, Harari explained, the consensus being that using a country’s art to explain or predict its cultural or moral character is misguided and wrong, and as proof of it, such tendentious readings can’t explain how a country like Germany can change so dramatically— it being a leader of the liberal world order as it is now.
But I have thought of Russian fairy tales not to seek to understand the basis of the moral character of Russian society, but because of several other reasons. First, the events of recent weeks around the invasion have been so unreal and concerning that more and more they seem to be shedding the nuances of real life and instead appear to be fiction. Secondly, 19th century Russian narratives are very present in public discussions today. As David Remnick recently observed regarding Putin, “more and more he’s dealt into the esoterica of 19th century Russian nationalist texts to derive a sense of the “Great Russia”, “White Russia”( Belarus) and “Small Russia” (Ukraine)”. And last but not least, notwithstanding the added fact that Putin has often argued about the singularity and implied superiority of Russian culture as part of his ethno-nationalist project, Russian fairy tales do help us gain insights about basic universal aspects of the human condition—which is precisely why they are loved worldwide.
Growing up in Mexico, we had a collection of children books at home that both scared and fascinated me. They were large, hardcover books published in the 1960s by Editorial Renacimiento (a Mexican publisher) and all of them were translations of European children’s stories. One that I still have with me— due to the chances of fate— is titled “Cuentos del país de las nieves” (Tales from the Land of Snow), a collection of Russian folk tales, illustrated by the great French illustrator Adrianne Ségur. As anyone who grew up listening to Grimm’s and Andersen’s tales would know, 19th century children’s stories might seem harsh in contrast with the contemporary, disneyfied style of children narrative today: death, injustice and sadness and other dark aspects of the reality of the world are not hidden from view but foregrounded instead. Such was the character of Ségur’s illustrations, which drew us as children into these fantasy worlds that in turn, psychologically, helped us understand our own.
Out of those stories, my older sister would sometimes read to me one titled “Prince Ivan, the Girl Witch and the Little Sun Sister.” Prince Ivan is born unable to speak, the reason for which his parents, the king and queen, believe that he is mentally retarded. They want to have another child who hopefully will be “normal” and inherit the kingdom. One day the prince is warned by a wise old man that he will have a baby sister who will be loved by her parents, but who is an evil witch with black iron teeth who will eat her parents alive. He is advised to run away from the kingdom in the king’s fastest horse once she is born. Once the baby girl arrives, she indeed has black teeth, but her parents, in love with her, think nothing of it. Ivan escapes to the end of the world, where he arrives in a beautiful palace in the clouds where the little sister of the sun lives. Happy to have a friend and companion, the little sister takes care of him. However, the prince is tormented by having abandoned his parents and decides to return to see if he can save them. His sister, a beautiful little girl, welcomes him in the ruined palace where she has eaten their parents alive. As she transforms into a large monster to eat the prince, he runs away in his black horse and he is chased by his sister to the end of the world, where he arrives to the little sister of the sun’s tower and is eventually saved by her. The evil sister grinds her teeth in anger and these all break, “forcing her to spend the rest of her life eating soup”.
Folk tale scholars generally acknowledge the towering importance of the Soviet folklorist Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) whose book Morphology of the Folktale (also translated as Morphology of the Tale) was published in 1928. Propp’s structuralist morphology influenced Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, but his work did not become widely known to the West until the translation of Morphology of the Tale in 1958 and 1968. While his focus was Russian literature, his analysis of the folk tale has helped understand the form well beyond Russia.
As a good structuralist, Propp argued that folk tales have a clear form that combines a range of limited components: "Functions of character serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale. The number of functions known to a fairy tale is limited." He reduced the folktale into 7 prototypical characters (protagonist, antagonist, dispatcher, helper, donor, princess and the false hero) and 31 “narratemes”, which are typical sections of a folk tale.
Of all these narratemes, I can’t help but think of how the story of Vladimir Putin and the current war in Ukraine adapt to Propp’s morphology. Putin’s nostalgic search for reconstituting the Soviet Union satisfies Narrateme #4, Reconnaissance. His efforts to dismantle democracy and transform his country into an authoritarian system connects with #3. (Violation of interdiction). The way he has utilized propaganda and deceived the Russian population into believing that they are fighting a war against neo-Nazism in Ukraine is #6, Trickery; #12 Testing, and #13 Reaction, represents the Ukrainians’ resolve to fight back; And so forth. And if one tried to find parallels with the story of Prince Ivan, the beautiful baby princess with the ominous black iron teeth who is welcomed by her parents is no other than the Russian leader whose progenitors see with great hope and excitement, only to be deceived and perish under this character’s malevolence. We are at point #16 of the story (Struggle) which is the fight between the hero and the villain.
And this is where parallels might end. Propp continues his morphology with narratemes that lead to the inevitable triumph of good over evil (#18: The Villain is Defeated; #19; The Initial Lack is Liquidated; #20: The Hero Returns; and so forth).
Yet we know that real life is no fairy tale; initial misfortunes or lacks are not always resolved, the villain is not always defeated. And the term “happily ever after”, which was first used in a translation of Bocaccio’s The Decameron in 1702, has fallen in disuse in the 21st century. Still, this is not a reason to be fatalistic. Even if happy endings are not guaranteed, neither is defeat, and the heroism of the Ukranian people and its leader have been deeply inspiring and motivating to the whole world. Prince Ivan might or not prevail, with or without the little sister of the sun. But even if we do not know how this one story ends, this much is certain to those of us both inside and outside of Russia: we might be witnessing narrateme #28, where the False hero is exposed. And we may hope to eventually see #30: The Villain is Punished.