Maybe it is never possible to hear the end

The Khanty people are fond of telling fairy tales, especially in the evenings. When, in the forest camp, they are going to bed, an old man continues to tell stories as long as somebody is still awake. One of my friends told me that, as a girl, she tried not to fall asleep while the old man was telling stories, but she never succeeded in hearing the end. Maybe it is never possible to hear the end, because what one usually calls or translates as “a fairy tale” or “a story” actually means “a way” or “a way as destiny”. My good friend and teacher Leonti Taragupta once told me about this.

Natalia I. Novikova, “Self-Government of the Indigenous Minority Peoples of West Siberia: Analysis of Law and Practice”, from People and the Land. Pathways to Reform in Post-Soviet Siberia, ed. Erich Kasten, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2002, pp. 83-97

Illustration: Enso

Russian and foreign classics worked best

costa de marfil_mancha

A striking number of political prisoners who wrote memoirs –and this may explain why they wrote memoirs– attribute their survival to their ability to “tell stories”: to entertain criminal prisoners by recounting the plots of novels or of films. In the world of the camps and the prisons, where books were scarce and films were rare, a good storyteller was highly prized.

Lev Finkelstein says that he will be “forever grateful to a thief who, on my first prison day, recognized this potential in me, and said, ‘You’ve probably read a lot of books. Tell them to people, and you will be living very well.’ And indeed I was living better than the rest. I had some notoriety, some fame . . . I ran into people who said, ‘You are Levchik-Romanist [Levchik-the-storyteller], I heard about you in Taishet.’

Because of this skill, Finkelstein was invited, twice a day, into the brigadier leader’s hut where he received a mug of hot water. In the quarry where he was then working, “that meant life”. Finkelstein found, he said, that Russian and foreign classics worked best: he had far less success retelling the plots of more recent, Soviet novels.

Anne Appelbaum, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, London: Allen Lane, 2003, p. 352
Illustration inspired by a popular drawing from Ivory Coast

Storytellers for hire in old Russia


As early as in Russian sources of the twelfth century one may read that a rich man, suffering from sleeplessness, ordered his attendants to tickle the soles of his feet, to strum on the gusli, and to tell him fairy tales. Ivan the Terrible, who became one of the popular heroes of the Russian folk tales, was its most avid fancier, and three old blind men followed each other at his bedside, relating fairy tales before he slumbered. Skillful tellers of tales continued to enliven the leisure of tsar and tsarina, of princes and gentry, as late as the eighteenth century. Even at the close of that century we find in Russian newspapers advertisements of blind men applying for work in the homes of the gentry as tellers of tales. Lev Tolstoy, as a child, fell asleep to the tales of an old man who had once been bought by the count’s grandfather, because of his knowledge and masterly rendition of fairy tales.

Roman Jakobson, “On Russian Fairy Tales”, appendix to A. Afanasiev, Russian Fairy Tales, translated by Norbert Guterman, New York: Pantheon, 1945, p. 635
Illustration inspired by a mesopotamian drawing