Fairytale and reality in Gulag narratives

The fairytale metaphor is a recurring feature a large number of Gulag narratives, both fictional and non-fictional, and it stands out because most of these texts are otherwise determinedly unmetaphoric. Amid the stark language habitually used to narrate the experience of the Gulag, aimed at depicting the harshness of reality, there are recurring images of dragons, ogres, fairytale princes, magic carpets, enchanted castles, the robber nightingale, the sandman, the gingerbread house, the firebird, Puss in Boots, the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, the seven little kids, and Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights. Both Evgeniia Ginzburg and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn use the image of the dragon’s maw as a metaphor for the repressions of the Stalinist regime—an image which may originate in Evgenii Shvarts’ 1944 play The Dragon. The phrase ‘it was like a fairytale’ is repeated like a mantra in a large number of works, punctuating and emphasizing the appearance of specific fairytale elements in the texts; for example, Olga Iafe-Sinakevich, a Solovki veteran arrested for her connections with the Voskreshenie philosophical-religious group, titled her memoirs Zhili-byli (Once Upon a time) and frequently uses references to fairytales and myths (Shapovalova, 253). The Gulag Archipelago contains numerous references to Russian proverbs, as do many Shalamov stories; in particular, the criminals’ proverb, ‘If you don’t believe it, take it as a fairytale’ appears repeatedly in his stories and in several other narratives. Later Siniavsky-Terts deconstructs the entire theme — as he does with many themes in Gulag narratives — with his analysis of fairytales in Voice from the Chorus.

I want to discuss two main aspects of the fairytale motif as it appears in Gulag narratives: its significance in terms of Soviet everyday life, relating mainly to the sphere of social identity, and its role in relation to the development of the individual.

The appearance of this metaphor in Gulag narratives is largely the result of its appropriation. Stalin’s famous dictum, ‘Fairytale Has Become Reality’ was rapidly seized on and employed in official discourse, appearing regularly in newspaper articles and patriotic songs. Katerina Clark (pp. 138-49) shows how important folk culture became for Soviet society in the 1930s: the collecting and classification of folk tales was advocated by Gorky as part of a project to make literature and art more accessible; this in turn led to the imitation of folk genres which appealed to the masses, such as byliny, resulting in the writing of official neo-byliny about Soviet leaders and heroes. Figures from folk literature, such as bogatyrs, became the models for the symbolic heroes of the age, with Stalin as the greatest bogatyr of them all.

The incongruity of this imagery is intensified by it represented a complete volte-face from the situation in the 1920s, when folklore was attacked and books of fairytales removed from libraries. It is therefore not surprising that from the point of view of survivors writing about their experiences in the Gulag, what Clark calls the ‘crudity of the engrafted folksiness’ (p. 150) makes the whole concept of folk culture as it is used in Stalinist society ripe for dismantling and re-appropriation. The result is that the fairytale metaphor in Gulag narratives becomes the locus of a network of ideas designed to undermine and refute Stalinist discourse, and the view of reality it imposed on its subjects. Nowhere is the cruel absurdity of the claim that ‘Fairytale has become reality’ more keenly felt than among those who have experienced the reality of terror, imprisonment and the Gulag, and the physical, emotional and psychological trauma that such experiences entailed. It became particular pertinent as many articles written in praise of slave labour projects, especially the Belomorkanal, accessed the metaphor – an article on slave construction projects in the camp journal Solovetskie Ostrova was called ‘Fairytale reality’ [Skazochanaia byl] (Gulag Archipelago, II, p. 57) and one in Izvestiia on the opening of the Belomorkanal was titled ‘Not fairytale but reality’ [Ne skazka, a byl]. Fairytales in Gulag narratives thus become a metaphor for the lies of the regime, the falsity of its ideology, and the unreality of the entire situation, which cannot be explained in rational terms – hence, one might suggest, the state’s recourse to the same motif. For similar reasons, critics have also used the metaphor; for example, in describing the interpretation of Stalinism imposed by Khrushchev’s speech to the Twentieth Party Congress, Mikhail Geller states, ‘A bad wizard came, deceived the party and the people, and made everyone serve him. Then the wizard died, and the sun started shining again’ (p. 280). In employing this metaphor, Geller highlights the ease with which the regime exchanged one ‘fairytale’ image for another, as it had previously endorsed the popular myth of the good tsar/bad advisors; from ‘everybody is guilty but Stalin’ to ‘everyone is innocent but Stalin’ in the blink of an eye – a true fairytale transformation!

The appearance of this metaphor in Gulag narratives also exposes the absurdity of its use as a metaphor for Soviet progress – the true content of fairy tales, Gulag narratives suggest, is dragons, magic carpets, gingerbread houses – precisely its unreal, fantastic, irrational elements – not the man-made, the rational, the prosaic. The metaphor designed to inspire analogy becomes in the context of Gulag narratives a means of highlighting dissimilarities and therefore of uncovering reality. It also makes it clear that the Stalinist use of the fairytale metaphor infers its own inherent dishonesty, as rather than referring to reality it simply provides meaningless substitutes for reality.

Evgeniia Ginzburg makes the most sustained use of the fairytale metaphor, and it seems likely that its use more broadly in Gulag narratives derives from her, as her memoirs are reputed to have been the earliest and most widely circulated in samizdat (Cooke, p. 320). She introduces the metaphor to highlight the unreality and grotesque absurdity of life – for example the Judas hole in her cell door becomes the iron teeth of the dragon’s maw (I, p. 175), and later the dragon is transformed into Stalin (II, p. 290). She uses this image to emphasize the unreality of the situation, rather than as a substitute for or evasion of reality. This aspect in particular is underlined when she imagines the ‘Queen of Kolyma’ saying ‘Mirror mirror on the wall’ (II, 252); those outside the camp system, who support the regime and are supported by it, the image tells us, are evading reality and living in a fantasy world, and can only find confirmation of their identity with reference to this fantasy world (Racevskis, p. 102).

Similar usage, ironizing the Soviet system and the Gulag it supports, is evident by Solzhenitsyn in The First Circle and in The Gulag Archipelago. And in Dombrovskii, the fairytale motif appears only towards the end of The Faculty of Useless Things, when Zybin’s interrogation becomes less and less connected with reality or the truth, and he perceives that normal standards of truth have been subverted, and that even his interrogators don’t believe in what they are doing. The images remind us that as in the world of fairytales, normal logic and causation have been suspended (Bettelheim, pp. 62-3), as life becomes increasingly arbitrary, governed by unknown rules which can change at any minute, and where consequences cannot be foreseen.

Other absurd, fantastic and unreal aspects of the system and existence as a victim of the system are also emphasized. Ginzburg likens the situation to a grotesque performance of the Grand Guignol (I, p. 38), and Likhachev states that on Solovki in the early 1930s intellectuals ‘emphasised in every way the absurd, the idiotic, stupid, deceptive, slapstick quality of everything that went on there – the foolishness of the organisation and its orders, the fantastic and dreamlike nature of all the island life (a world of strange dreams, nightmares, devoid of meaning and consistency)’ (p. 99). Even Shalamov mischievously inserts an absurdist Soviet-urban myth in his story ‘Inzhektor’ to make this point.

Soviet critical discourse stressed the fact that folklore is ‘the art of the oppressed classes’ (Propp, p. 5), an art which depicts the tribulations of the weak and powerless against the strong and powerful, and seeks the triumph of the former over the latter (Propp, p. 28; Bloch, p. 168). For this reason it became particularly appropriate for those oppressed by the Soviet system to incorporate the fairytale metaphor. Solzhenitsyn takes up this idea in The Gulag Archipelago, pointing out that the reversals in social hierarchies introduced by Soviet rule, and the incarceration and enslavement of the educated former elite in the Gulag in particular, led to a new form of literature, as ‘Only now could an educated Russian write about an enserfed peasant from within – because he had himself become a serf’ (II, p. 491). Gulag narratives, in effect, became the new folklore.

It is striking how neatly many of Propp’s formulae can be used to refer to the position of convicts and their own recourse to folktale imagery… e.g. ‘inherited folklore comes into conflict with the old [read ‘new’—SJY] social system that created it and denies this system. It does not deny the [old] system directly but rather the images created by it, transforming them into their opposites or giving them a reverse, disparaging, negative coloring. The once sacred is transformed into the hostile, the great into the harmful, evil, or monstrous’ (Propp, p. 11). By using folktale imagery Gulag writers highlight the continuation of oppression and the fact that the existence of a new class of the oppressed belies Soviet rhetoric about freedom, equality and democracy. They show that far from being revolutionary or socialist, Soviet power (which is of course ‘Soviet’ in name only) is in fact inherently conservative and oppressive.

This accessing of folk culture also suggests that the fairytale motif is employed in Gulag narratives as a starting point to attaining a plausible non-Soviet social identity. Recent research into victims of Soviet oppression in Latvia has shown that a renewed interest in folk culture has provided a model for restoring a sense of collective identity (Racevskis, p. 120). In the face of the appropriation and bastardization of folk culture by the state, in order to endow itself with a specious legitimacy and historicity, the re-claiming of folk culture as a source of (cultural) Russianness, becomes significant, particularly as the fairytale metaphor is strikingly absent from Gulag memoirs written by non-Soviet survivors, such as those by Herling and Bardach). For these writers, although in every other respect their experience was similar, the question of Soviet identity was not such a pressing concern. They did not have to contend with the idea that their oppression and isolation was being conducted by their own people in the name of values they themselves generally supported.

Fairytales are also particularly linked with the theme of children in Ginzburg. Her primary concern is the loss of her children, and her inability to protect them. She becomes increasingly involved with children through her work in the baby unit at Elgen, where her awareness grows of the neglect of the emotional and psychological well-being and the moral development of the ‘tiny inmates’; this is a topic which also preoccupies Solzhenitsyn and appears in many other works, for example, Razgon, Terts, and Herling — it is far being a solely female concern. Later as a teacher in Magadan, Ginzburg uses fairytales in her teaching and children’s theatricals, as a way of minimizing the damage done to the next generation of Soviet citizens, to instill in them a set of values, a moral awareness, and a sense of identity not oriented around Soviet concepts, as well as to poke fun at the regime.

The role given to fairytales in the moral and psychological development of children by Ginzburg applies equally to inmates of the Gulag. For the child, the fairytale has an educating function, through its moral polarization and its presentation of human problems – both practical and existential – and solutions to them (Bettelheim, p. 8). In particular, Bettelheim states, ‘Fantasy fills the huge gaps in a child’s understanding which are due to the immaturity of his thinking and his lack of pertinent information’ (p. 61). Likewise, plunged into a terrifying and grotesque world, where normal logic has been overturned and everything is unexplained and inexplicable, the prisoners are depicted as being as naïve and defenceless as children, and equally in need of education and skills to cope with the demands of this new life.

The fact that fairytales are unrealistic, and do not claim to refer to the outside (real) world, also shows that their main concern is not external reality but the inner processes at work within the individual (Bettelheim, p. 25). And this becomes particularly important as Gulag writers break free of domination of the undifferentiated mass, and attempt to focus instead on the individual and his or her inner life. The connection between fairytales and myths and the idea the metaphorical death of the self and rebirth to a higher plane of existence (Bettelheim, p. 35) also reflects the process Gulag writers go through, as they come to a clarified understanding of the Soviet regime.

Finally, fairytales have a reassuringly optimistic tendency, and it is for this reason that they are often mentioned at moments of exhilaration and good fortune, such as when someone performs an act of kindness; any moment of hope or human feeling is as miraculous in this cruel environment as any of the fantastic aspects of fairytales. (In Shalamov’s story ‘A Child’s Drawings’ [Detskie kartinki], the narrator rejects the idea of fairytales precisely because they offer a hope which is no longer relevant to the inhabitants of the Kolyma camps; but as elsewhere in Shalamov, the very presence of the motif, and the optimism it implies, survives its apparent rejection.) Despite the frequent occurrence of terrifying elements in fairytales, good usually triumphs in the end, especially in the ‘emotional security’ offered by the couple coming together at end of the tale, pointing to human relations in general as a source of hope and comfort in life (Bettelheim, pp. 10-11, 37). In Stalinist Russia, where personal feelings and relationships are subordinated to the demands of the State, this new context which celebrates both human relations and inner development presents an alternative reality and a new source of ethics to oppose those imposed by the Stalinist system.


Bettelheim, Bruno, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (London: Thames & Hudson, 1976)

Ernst Bloch, ‘Better Castles in the Sky at the County Fair and Circus, in Fairy Tales and Colportage’, in Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1988)

Clark, Katerina, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000)

Cooke, Olga, ‘Evgeniia Ginzburg,’ in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. Neil Cornwell (London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998)

Ginzburg, Evgenia, Into the Whirlwind, trans. Paul Stevenson and and Manya Harari (London: Harvill, 1999), and Within the Whirlwind, trans. Ian Bolland (London: Harvill, 1989)

Geller, Mikhail, Kontsentratsionnyi mir i sovetskaia literatura (London: Overseas Publications Exchange, 1974)

Likhachev, Dmitrii Sergeevich, Reflections on the Russian Soul: A Memoir (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2000)

Propp, Vladimir, Theory and History of Folklore, ed. Anatoly Liberman, trans. Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984)

Racevskis, Karlis, Modernity’s Pretenses: Making Reason Fit Reality from ‘Candide’ to the Gulag (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998)

Shapovalov, Veronica, ed., Remembering the Darkness: Women in Soviet Prisons (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (3 vols), trans. Thomas P. Whitney and Harry T. Willetts (London: Collins Harvill, 1974-1978)

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  1. What do you think about this website? – http://shalamov.ru/ ( http://shalamov.ru/en/ )

  2. shalamov.ru is a wonderful website, and I use it a great deal. I’ll write a bit more about it soon.

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