Traditions of magic realism in Russian literature probably have roots in its pagan culture. There’s a contradiction here you may say. Russia is supposed to be dominated by the conservative Orthodox Christianity, the country was baptized over a millennium ago.
Yet paganism never seized to exist in Russia. Kolyada, svyatki, Ivan Kupala are examples of Russian pagan holidays that have similar counterparts in many European countries. Nowadays Russians may not recognise multiple Gods as they used to do, but they still live life full of pagan traditions and superstitions.
Another reason for Christianity failing to completely own Russians is the oppressive nature of the Orthodox Church institutions. Russian Church has always been an ally of the ruling class (except for the Communist era) to control simple people. There used to be a church tax, where peasants were obliged to give ten percent of their income to the church. The male Church staff are often portrayed as fat rascals in Russian folklore.
Contrary to that, the real God in Russia has been Nature. Folk tales give natural objects, plants and animals, rivers and mountains, celestial bodies or wind human-like or magical properties. Perhaps, this was the way to cope with the harsh reality. Russians have always assumed the world around them is magical and full of secrets.
Now the English-speaking audience has an opportunity to explore this part of Russian culture. Today I present you Stepan Pisakhov’s Senya Malina Tells It Like It, beautifully translated into English by Blackwell Boyce.
Stepan Pisakhov (1879-1960) was a story-teller and a landscape painter from the Pomorie region of Northern Russia. Pomorie is the south coast of White Sea with a capital in Archangelsk. Northen Dvina River flows across this land, passing the village of Weema (nowadays Uyemsky) where most of Malina’s stories are set.
Senya Malina is a commoner famous for his imaginative tales filled with satire mostly targeting local civil workers (byurokraty) and the Orthodox Church. Malina’s tales spread not only amongst locals but also in the capital, the city of Archangel.
Senya Malina lives in Weema with his wife and a dog, yet his life is not ordinary. He can run on the water, fly home on a cloud, or cover many versts (miles) from Weema to Archangel just using one step of his stretchable giant leg. In his absurd humorous stories he encounters major opposition in the face of a local priest called Sivoldai and the bureaucrats of Archangel whom he relentlessly humors.
Bureaucrats as a species have such weak spines they need their uniforms to prop them up. It’s always puzzled me where they found the strength to laugh at us peasants and common folk.
Stephan Pisakhov’s stories in this book are accompanied with colorful illustrations made by Dmitry Trubin, which nicely complement Senya’s stories. Pisakhov’s writing, though being a part of the Russian folklore, reminds me of Fables written by a Russian classic Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, popular stories in the same genre of magic realism known for their grotesque portrayal of Russian life and political satire.
The most amazing thing about these stories to me is that a century had passed but the Russian life remained the same. Our society is still ruled by the thieving ’burokraty’ allied with the Russian Orthodox Church, both serving a never-ending inspiration for satirical comments and public escapades like the Pussy Riot’s prayer. Many Russians are devout Christians and they know that their faith is not the same as the Christian Church, an institution. As evidence to that, Archimandrit Tikhon’s The Unholy Saints has been a bestseller in Russia for several years now. I make a mental note to introduce you to Russian Christian fiction in the future. For now, you can enjoy Senya Malina’s stories in English.