I feel as though I was hasty in my judgment of A. N. Afanas’ev in his portrayal of women. Reading through the portion after what might be called “the wife and mother abuse” I read pages 134-181 of The Complete Folktales of A. N. Afanas’ev Vol. 2. The complete Volume 2 is 535 pages long. (Volume 1 is 550 pages long and Volume 3 is 582 pages long.) Within pages. 134-181 there are three sections “The Magic Mirror”; “Go Where I Know Not and Bring Back I know Not What”; and “The Wise Wife.”
Though the tamest in terms of its “feminism,” “The Magic Mirror” is a selection of stories very resembling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. In them the heroine (usually a merchant’s daughter) is originally cast out of her family because a lecherous evil uncle wants to have relations with her and manages to get her father’s consent to have her brother kill her when she refuses. However, the heroine convinces her brother of her righteousness and he lets her go (parallel to the huntsman in Snow White). Then her father–her mother had died–remarries. His new wife steps into the role of Snow White’s stepmother when she finds out–through her mirror–of her stepdaughter’s existence and beauty. The stepmother hires an old crone to go find the heroine alone in the woods with twelve princes or two warriors. Though the apple is absent, but beauty products are used to kill the heroine. Finally, a prince brings the heroine back to life. At the wedding, the heroine’s father, uncle and stepfather are present. The beautiful heroine tells her story of how she was subjected to sexual assault, banished, and hunted to the death. The guilty are punished and the heroine lives happily ever after with the prince.
Feminist? Maybe not. But pleasingly feminine. More easily read as a feminist fairy tale is the section “Go Where I Know Not and Bring Back I Know Not What.” In this story, the hero wins a wife who turns out to be a source of comfort of wisdom and comfort. In the first one, he is an archer, and she a maiden disguised as a bird. She produces beautiful woven blankets for him to sell in town “for whatever the price set by the other person is,” finally coming to the tzar. The tzar asks the archer who he came across such a beautiful blanket and the archer says his wife made it. Now, the beautiful wife besides being wise is the most beautiful woman in the world. So it is that the tzar manages to catch a glimpse of her and wants him for himself. So he finds a rickety boat that will get the archer to go to a particularly island with a gold-antlered deer, with a crew of drunkards to get him there and back. Then he commands the archer to go or die. The archer cries to his wife, but she tells him, “The morning is always wiser than the evening.” She uses magic and brings the golden-antlered deer, and has her husband place it on the boat. Then he comes to the tzar early and the tzar glumly accepts the deer. Next the tzar tells the archer to “Go where I know not where and bring back I know not what.” So after getting the advice of his wife, he goes to his mother-in-law. The tzar attempts to seduce his wife, but she insists that not even a tzar has the right to come between a married man and his wife. Then the archer comes back with an axe that makes ships and another device that makes soldier. The tzar declares war in order to take the archer’s wife, but the archer is victorious because of his mother-in-law’s gifts. In this story, the archer’s wife is proactive, intelligence, and has moral qualities like loyalty.
I won’t retell all of “The Wise Wife” (which has similarities to “Go Where I Know Not and Bring Back I Know Not What”) except that a foolish peasant boy learns that the most valuable possession a man can have is a wise wife.
So perhaps there is another side to Russian fairy tales… and, after all, I am only 192 pages into the second volume of the three-volume set.