Old Russian Tales

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Old Russian Tales


(povesti drevnerusskie), literary works of the 11th through 17th centuries, including various types of narratives. Somewhat didactic translated tales with developed plots were common in Kievan Rus’ (The Tale of Barlaam and Josephat; the History of the Jewish War, a military narrative by Flavius Josephus; the Alexandria; and Digenis Akritas, or Digenis’ Deed). The first Russian tales were historical legends included in chronicles (for example, the tales of Oleg the prophet, Ol’ga’s revenge, and the baptism of Vladimir).

Subsequently, two main types of old Russian tale developed: the historical epic and the historical biography. Historical epics, in which the principles of the narration of military events were developed, included tales of the internecine wars of the princes, the wars against the Polovtsy (11th-12th centuries), and the Tatar-Mongol invasion (13th-14th centuries), as well as the Legend of the Rout of Mamai (15th century). Military tales were often turned into broad literary “histories” (the Tale of the Seizure of Tsargrad, 15th century, The History of the Kazan Kingdom, 16th century). Some of the military tales took on an epic, folkloric color (the Tale of the Ravaging of Riazan’ by Batyi, 14th century, and the Tale of the Defense of Azov, 17th century). Among the tales of this type are the druzhina epics—the Tale of Igor’s Campaign and the Zadonshchina (Battle Beyond the Don). Characteristic of the military tales are patriotic ideals and vivid battle descriptions.

Among the narratives of events were tales devoted to problems of state-building. The historical legends dating from the period of the formation of the centralized Russian state are concerned with the continuity of the world’s monarchies and the origins of the dynasty founded by Rurik (Tales of the Babylonian Empire and the Legend of the Princes of Vladimir, 15th-16th centuries). Later, the tales focused on the historical, publicistic description of the crisis of the Muscovite state and the succession of reigning dynasties during the Time of Troubles (for example, A Tale of the Year 1606, Avraamii Palitsyn’s Legend, and I. Katyrev-Rostovskii’s Book of Annals).

The principles of the narration of the lives of heroes were also developed in the old Russian tale. At first, this type of narrative was based on the Christian providential, triumphant rhetorical description of the deeds of famous princes in their struggles against foreign enemies (for example, the Life of Alexander Nevsky and the Life of Dovmont of Pskov [13th century], as well as the Life of Dmitrii Donskoi [15th century]). These works belong to a category that falls between the traditional military tales and the lives of the saints.

Gradually, the historical biography took its heroes from everyday life—for example, the Tale of Peter, Prince of Muromsk, and His Wife Fevronia (15th-16th centuries), which is saturated with folkloric symbolism, and the Life of St. Juliania Lazarevskaia (17th century). Interest in the deeds of heroes gave way to attention to human relationships and the everyday behavior of the individual. However, the individual’s behavior was still made to conform to the ethical norms of the church. Biographical tales developed in a number of directions, giving rise to didactic autobiographies (the lives of Avvakum and Epifanii) and to semisecular and completely secular narratives permeated with traditional medieval morality (for example, the lyrical, folkloric Tale of Misery and III Fortune and the bookish, literary Tale of Savva Grudtsyn, both dating from the 17th century).

Increasingly, the narrative broke away from its historical foundation. The art of plot development was mastered. Satiric tales containing an element of literary parody emerged in the late 17th century (the Tale of Ersh Ershovich and Shemiaka’s Judgment). Sharply delineated, complex everyday situations were supplied with naturalistic details characteristic of the early short story (Russian novella)—the Story of a Certain Rich and Celebrated Merchant, Karp Sutulov, and His Prudent Wife (17th century) and the Tale of Frol Skobeev (early 18th century). Translated tales with Russified heroes attained popularity (Bova Korolevich and Eruslan Lazarevich), as did collections of Western European short stories (for example, Velikoe zertsalo [The Great Mirror] and the Facetiae). Thus, the old Russian tales completed their lawlike evolution from the medieval narrative to the literary novella (povest’) of modern times.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.