2013-08-11

Rediscovering Urals folk legends

Malachite. Image Copyleft AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by London Permaculture
I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, I hated school. I hated it so much, that even though I loved to read, I would do my best to avoid completing required reading. That's how much I hated it. Now, those days are long gone, thank $DEITY, and I am finding that I'm rather enjoying some of the books that I scoffed in my early years.

Take the Urals folk legends for one, compiled by Pavel Bazhov. When in soviet school, we had to read these tales and write essays about them, focusing on the plight of the Urals mountains serfs working in the copper and malachite mines. While class struggle indeed was a defining element of the historical setting, writing ideologically-correct essays in fourth or fifth grade was really not my idea of fun. So as you'd expect, I did the minimally required work and avoided reading the book by regurgitating on paper the formulaic rubbish I heard in class. Done and done. Next.

Thing is, while the socialist spin put on the legends really sucked, the legends themselves turn out to have so much more depth and richness now that I am reading them in a place and time so distant, so different than my childhood.

I've read through eight of them in one day, and fell asleep with my tablet in hand, reading the ninth last night. They all so far have been about the serf folks and some freed workers who mined copper and malachite in the late 18th century, their dealings with the gentry, and encounters with the mountain spirit called the Mistress of Copper Mountain who often protects the workers from abuse and helps them to freedom and wealth.

The Mistress has piercing black eyes, wears a malachite-green dress, and black hair in a thick braid the length of her back. She can appear as a young woman of exquisite beauty that no man can forget after seeing her, or as a green lizard with a black stripe along her spine. When she encounters good people, she's impressed with their courage, integrity, and kindness. The bad guys however, she sees right through and punishes for their evil deeds. Sort of like a magic Robin Hood.

These tales are written in a local dialect rich in words I've forgotten I knew, and much darker than the traditional fairytales, so reading them fills me both with a faint nostalgia for something I really never knew, as well as a vague wistfulness.

What I really like about these tales now that I read them with my adult eyes, is that they are so uncharacteristically devoid of sexism. The Mistress is not the only strong and independent woman in the legends: many more are featured in stories throughout the collection, taking up stone cutting craft when their man doesn't return from the mine, defending their homes and dignity from the gentry and drunk neighbors, unafraid of village gossip for not complying with the gender rules of their time.

On the other hand, Bazhov himself is a controversial figure to me. He supported the soviet revolution and thrived under Stalin, which makes me hesitant to wholeheartedly endorse his works. He also contributed to a revolutionary newspaper and was actively supporting the spread of the Soviet rule to Kazakhstan, so he gets major minus points from me there. The legends I am reading he supposedly heard as a kid and wrote down for publication later in life, so there's that. Not much ideology in there, but don't blame me if you dislike his political writings, of which there are plenty. I haven't read them, and don't intend to right now.

The work is likely in public domain, so if you know Russian you can read Bazhov's books online. If you prefer English, there's a translation available in dead-tree form. I couldn't find any previews, so couldn't tell you if they're any good, but one can hope.