Alexander Nikolaevich Afanasyev. 11 (23) July 1826 – 23 September (5 October) 1871. Russian literary critic, folklorist, historian. “Creator” of the Russian folk tale.


Life and Work:

1. It is terrible to even imagine this situation: without Alexander Nikolaevich Afanasyev, we could have been left without The Enormous Turnip, Frog Princess, Kolobok, or Ryaba the Hen.


2. The great Russian folklorist and literary critic was born when Pushkin was still alive. His father, a district lawyer from Boguchar, Voronezh Province, was in awe of educated people and passed this feeling on to his children.


3. Having obtained the graduation certificate of the Voronezh gymnasium, Alexander Afanasyev entered the Law Department of Moscow University. But he did not limit himself to law: he also attended lectures by leading Russian historians and Slavist literary critics.


4. He submitted his first student experiments in literary studies to the best Russian literary journals. Sovremennik and Otechestvennye zapiski did not lose, but actually published his works.


5. A Moscow University graduate, he joined the Main Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and made a good career there: at first, he became the department head, and then the manager of the archive commission for printing state letters and contracts.


6. Career, however, did not take all Afanasyev’s time. It was during his time in the archive that he became so interested in collecting Russian folklore that it immortalized his name.


7. Counting the variants, Afanasyev’s collection of Russian folk tales includes about two thousand tales. This is the largest collection of folk tales in the world: for instance, the famous Brothers Grimm collected about two hundred tales.


8. The Brothers Grimm only collected folk tales, but Afanasiev also systematized them: it is due to him that it is now customary to divide folk tales into sections: animal tales, fairy tales, satirical, epic, household, and so on.


9. Where did the folklore historian and literary critic get all these folk tales? The answer is simple: he bought old manuscripts and books at the flea market near the Sukharev Tower and dug through the archives. The Russian Bibliographic Society, of which Afanasyev was a member, gave him folk tales collected by folklorists during expeditions. Alexander Nikolaevich got one thousand folk tales as a present from Vladimir Dal.


10. Among the variants of well-known folk tales, there are very curious ones: for example, Ryaba the Hen without a happy ending. The toller broke all the bells, the priest ran away and tore up the psalter, “...the old man is crying, the old woman is sobbing, the fire is burning in the stove, the top of the house is shaking, the granddaughter has strangled herself because of grief.” Well, how can you read this to children? And you should not: many folk tales collected by Afanasyev are not intended for children’s ears.


11. Russian cherished folk tales could not be published in Russia, they were printed in Geneva and titled Russian Folk Tales Not for Print. Of the 77 folk tales in this collection, only one does not contain any obscene words or piquant situations. This folk tale was banned from print in Russia for mocking the church.


12. Our educated contemporaries are much less aware that apart from censored and uncensored fairy tales, Alexander Nikolaevich Afanasyev wrote the classic work The Slavs’ Poetical Views of Nature. We remember these views from school: a thunderstorm means the god Perun’s anger, and so on. Afanasyev not only carefully collected all these disparate myths, but also brought them into a coherent system.


13. Alexander Nikolaevich made his scientific conclusions based on the collected information. For example, Afanasyev considers a witch on a broomstick “nothing more than a poetic picture of the wind that carries her on its wings... because the wind blows away the clouds and mists, clears the sky...” Afanasyev interpreted the dead water from Russian fairy tales as follows: “This is the first spring rain, which drives ice and snow away from fields and seemingly pulls together the dissected members of Mother Earth.”


14. Afanasyev had been in secret correspondence with Alexander Herzen for many years, for which he paid dearly: he was prosecuted in relation with the case “On persons accused of maintaining contact with London propagandists,” and his apartment was searched.


15. The discrediting connection interrupted the scientist’s career as an official: Alexander Afanasyev was deprived of his position in the Main Archive. In the end, he was released from the court, but banned from serving in state institutions. Thus, Afanasyev finished his most significant works being poor and ill – at the age of 45, he died of consumption.


16. Russian Cherished Folk Tales were published in Russia for the first time only at the end of the last century.