Fantasy as a literary genre had its origins in the Fairytale, or folklore. Russian fantasy is no exception; it has grown from Russian – more precisely Slavonic – folklore. Such tales as "The Tale of Bova a King's Son" (16th century), "The Tale of the Sorrow" (17th century) and "The Tale of the Golden Tree and the Golden Parrot" (17th century) laid the foundations for Russian fantasy. But the road from folklore to literature was quite a long one. Only near the end of the 18th century, under the impact of the French literary fairytale (as written by Charles Perrault and others), did the first Russian fantasy writers appear – Vasily Levshin, with The Russian Tales (coll 1780-1783) and The Night Hours (coll 1787-1788), Mikhail Popov (1742-1790) with The Ancient Wonders (1785) and Mikhail Tchulkov with The Mocker (coll 1765) and The Concise Mythological Lexicon (1767). All these books were very popular, being reprinted many times, but failed to arouse significant public interest in fantasy as a whole.
This interest was eventually sparked by Romanticism. Inspired by Johann W Goethe's Faust (1808-1832) and by the works of E T A Hoffmann and other German romantics, the Russian Romantics – including Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky (1797-1837), Wilhelm Kuchelbecker (1797-1846), Vladimir Odoevsky (1803-1869) and Antoni Pogorelsky or Perovski (1787-1830) – began to use fantasy motifs widely, though these motifs were not pivotal to their work. It is fair to say that Russian fantasy of that time was imitative; often of Hoffmann, but with Russian colour. The main subject of almost all these books was the opposition of the Romantic ideal to mundane life. Examples include various fantasies by Odoevsky and Adventures Taken from the Worldly Sea (1846) by Alexander Weltman (1800-1870).
The two lines of fantasy development – folkloristic and Romantic – progressed in parallel but separate for some time. Even the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1800-1837) could not combine them in his work. However, there is an anonymous novelette, "A Lonely House on Vasilievsky Island", which some specialists think was written by him. In it one can find the germ of fantasy as we now understand it. Besides this, Pushkin wrote a poem, "Rouslan and Ludmila" based on part of Levshin's The Russian Tales; it belongs fully to the folklore line of fantasy, as do some other minor verses.
The real blending of the two lines was achieved by Nikolai Gogol. Gogol combined the folklore heritage with Hoffmann's mystique, a confluence easily seen in such works as "The Night before St John's" (1830), "The May Night, or the Drowned Woman" (1831), or "Wiy" (1835). Moreover, Gogol was the first Science Fantasy author in Russia, as demonstrated by several of the stories published in Arabesques (coll 1835), such as "The Portrait" (1835); "The Overcoat" (1842) is a further example. The hero of "The Nose" (1835) loses his nose, which begins to live its own life: it makes a promising career, outstripping its one-time owner.
Unfortunately, Gogol's syncretism passed practically unnoticed. With the exception of Alexei Tolstoy (1817-1875), with "The Vampire" (1841), fantasy authors again divided into folklorists and Romantics. But, with the death of Romanticism as a whole, Romantic fantasy gradually disappeared, while folkloric fantasy rapidly increased in importance – due largely to the fact that, towards the end of the 19th century, Russian anthropology began to develop swiftly.
At the beginning of the 20th century Alexei Remizov released two collections of short stories – With the Sun (coll 1907) and Zvenigorod Revealed (coll 1910). These stories are quite original and abound with folklore. The same could be said of the poems of Vladimir Narbut (1888-1938), who was both a poet and anthropologist; his most interesting poetry was assembled in Hallelujah! (coll 1912) and Wiy (coll 1915). The distinguishing features of these poems are psychological depth and an extremely rich fantasy milieu.
A little later, Gogol's syncretism was reborn in the works of Fyodor Sologub (1863-1927) (> SFE link below) and Mikhail Bulgakov. Alexander Kondratiev combined folklore motifs with an interest in the demonic side of fantasy. During this same period, the early part of this century, a new mystic line of Russian fantasy became evident. It is represented by the works of Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919) (> SFE link below), Valery Bryusov (1873-1924), Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945), Dmitri Erezhkovski (1865-1941) and some others. Among further fantasy writers of the period Alexander Grin is outstanding.
In the former USSR – where fantasy as a genre was strictly prohibited – some writers disguised their work as Science Fiction and others turned to Children's Fantasy. Juvenile fantasy books passed by the censors, who could not see the difference between fantasy written ostensibly for children and literary fairytales (>>> Aesopian Fantasy). So fantasies such as those by Veniamin Kaverin and Pavel Bazhov – The Malachite Box (1939) – appeared.
Modern Russian fantasy, in spite of a rich literary tradition, is only at the developmental stage. Until recently, official ideology forbade anything that could not be seen to increase "the morale of the builders of communism". In a properly functioning materialistic and atheistic society, there could be no place for demons, wizards, goblins and so on. During the Soviet era, only two books for adults were published that could properly be considered fantasies – Danilov the Viola Player (1980) by Vladimir Orlov (1936- ) and Monday Begins on Saturday (1965) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Orlov's novel takes the reader back to Hoffmann, and Monday Begins on Saturday ("a fairy-tale for junior scientists", as the authors put it) is a fantasy disguised as a comic novel. Even today young writers are inclined to naturalism, or primitivism combined with horror, or to political satire. As the sf and fantasy author Kir Bulychev (1934- ) (> SFE link below) said: "In Russian literature a dragon will be associated for sure with a house-manager or a general – or with a person much higher in rank . . ."
These words precisely characterize the present situation in Russian fantasy. And there is another problem – the imitation of non-Russian genre fantasy. Most often the template is the work of J R R Tolkien, whose books are very popular in Russia in spite of the fact that they were translated and published only after a great delay; as examples of such imitations one could take the books of Nikolai ("Nick") Perumov, like The Ring of Darkness (1994), a "free sequel" to The Lord of the Rings, and The Tales of Hjorvard (1995). These are imitations done on a commercial basis; and Perumov is not alone in this business.
It is to be hoped that, now the ideological barriers are down, sooner or later Russian fantasy will take its place on the world stage. Preconditions for this are at hand. [CMK]
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: Leonid Andreyev [no entry despite reference above]; Kir Bulychev; Russia; Fyodor Sologub.