I hate to admit some disappointment in The Complete Folktales of A. N. Afanas’ev Vol. 2 : for all that his stories are wonderfully told, they reveal Russia has been a uniquely patriarchal place with a worldview in which women are seen as unfaithful and women are physically beaten or outright killed when caught. More, women are forcibly married and there are times when a woman is caught the chances seem low for her being forgiven. It really is as though women are seen primarily in the role of sinners in some of the stories I’ve seen today.
This might seem parallel to the traditions of the Middle East, but despite harsh rules about adultery and other forms of “unfaithfulness,” in Arabic folk stories, women are often falsely accused of disloyalty, and play the roles of strong protagonists, capable of the same heroic traits as men. Without wanting to denigrate the Russian people, these stories portray misogyny at its worst. This is tragic, because these stories are also immensely creative, with their own mythological creatures born of their pre-Christian as well as Russian Orthodox Culture. Russia is a tragic country: its ruling autocracies (whether Tsarist, Communist, or under Putin) have brutalized the majority of the Russian people.
I should have been warned: my Russian friends Buma and Ludmilla told me that before the twentieth century there was no major Russian writer who was a woman… I had asked for a name; similarly I figured out on my own that Russia has had no major female composers or—I don’t think—artists. The one exception to female disempowerment appears to be the Tsarina, Catherine the Great. However, after the Catherine the Great there were no women rulers of Russia. Her son Paul hated his mother and made an unbreakable law in which no woman could be the successor to the tzar.
Even Imperial China and the Muslim Middle East traditionally allowed more avenues of female creativity. In both of these places, poetry could be produced, in China among the upper class entirely (bearing in mind that China’s folk culture may have allowed for more female expression). As for the Muslim Middle East: women would occasionally write either poems or folksongs. And of course, many of the founders and participants in Sufism are women. As for Africa, I wish I was better equipped to address African literature, but where it is concerned I am even fuzzier than on China and the Middle East.
That said, I would not put down the books as irrelevant or even dispensable to current Russian or American culture. Like the many of the Grimm fairy tales, some of these stories— “Vasilisa the Beautiful” and “The Tale of Ivan Tsarevitch, the Firebird and the Wolf”—hold a powerful place in my heart. Really, it is as though they share something in common with the Talmud; I have been told that the Talmud includes “sparks” of truth amidst the dross of other materials. There is a quote, for instance, in which women are held to be made worse by Talmud study. Yet according to the person describing the sparks to me, this rabbi is rebuked by another rabbi, and he added that such a statement is an insult to the Talmud and not only women.