Ukraine: Folklore, History, and Language

As readers of this blog should be aware by now, talking about Eastern Europe is kinda my thing. I have always tried to focus on Eastern Europe beyond Russia (my avenue for this was mainly through Polish history), but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made me think more critically about Russian cultural imperialism and its role in the perception of this region. So, I thought I’d revisit some of the ground I covered in my post on Slavs & Soviets and discuss how I’ve been thinking about Eastern Europe via three lenses.


Russia ostensibly began this war to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, although Russian speakers have been the majority who have suffered the atrocities in the country’s east; Putin and his proxies have also used language in some of their arguments denying Ukraine’s legitimacy. This is nothing new; Tsarist Russian officials claimed Ukrainian was simply the Russian language “corrupted” by Polish.

I’ve started studying Ukrainian informally on Duolingo. Having studied Polish both in a classroom and on the app, I was surprised just how many cognates there are between the two languages, but by measurements such as “lexical distance,” Ukrainian is actually closer to Polish than it is to Russian (though it is closest to Belarusian). This is not to say that Polish and Ukrainian are the same language any more than Ukrainian and Russian are… to use an example that may be more familiar, it’s similar to Romance languages, where Spanish and Portuguese are very similar languages, and both are also similar to Italian, but not as close as they are to each other.

I was previously unaware, but some scholars have dropped the division between East and West Slavic languages altogether and speak of a single North Slavic group encompassing Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, and others. There is a cultural division between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, and it is reflected in the use of different alphabets: Ukrainian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. This makes it visually very different from Polish or Czech, but if you focus on the sounds instead, comprehension is fairly easy, at least based on my knowledge of Polish. The South Slavic language have the same cultural split, but maybe they haven’t been similarly divided because a single language, known as Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, is regularly used in both alphabets: Latin for Croatian and most uses of Bosnian, Cyrillic for Serbian. All the Slavic languages are on a sort of continuum, with varying levels of mutual intelligibility between them, again reminiscent of the Romance languages or the Germanic languages of Scandinavia. The influence of the Russian language specifically owes primarily to Russian imperialism in its many forms.

Fairy tale illustration of a man reading from a book pointing at a many headed creature in a cave.
“Zmey Gorynych? I don’t think so. It’s pronounced Zmey Horynych in Ukrainian!” Illustration by Noel L. Nisbet from ‘Cossack Fairy Tales.’


Russia is an imperialist power. It doesn’t seem like this should need to be spelled out, but there’s been denial of it on both sides of the political spectrum, so here we are. Russia was an imperial power under the Tsars, and it was also an imperialist power under the Soviets. There is a lot of complexity involved in the Soviet case, and I’ll dive into that, but we need to acknowledge that the Soviet Union was an imperial power in its near abroad, in Eastern Europe, and even within its own borders.

Marxism, of course, argues against imperialism. And the Soviet Union supported decolonization in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This has meant some lasting goodwill for Russia in those regions long after the Soviet Union’s fall. There were even some attempts to rectify Russian imperialism early in Soviet history: Lenin warned against “Great Russian chauvinism” and did set up semi-autonomous “republics” for some of the empire’s subject peoples like the Ukrainians and Belarusians. These moves might have been made in good faith, or they might have been cynical moves to try to keep the territory of the former empire under Soviet control. They might have been a bit of both. However, there was no tolerance for true self governance for non-Russians, even by other socialist movements.

The relative liberalism under Lenin would also not outlast him: Stalin used even bloodier repression to enforce compliance in the Soviet Union, and promoted a Great Russian identity despite the fact that he was an ethnic Georgian. Stalin was an admirer of Ivan the Terrible, and prided himself for expanding the Soviet empire farther than the Tsars ever had through satellite countries all the way to, and including, East Germany. Though Soviet leaders after Stalin never went to the same lengths of repression, neither did they reverse his measures of Russification.

Soviet culture is an interesting phenomenon, because it did, at times, promote a new kind of patriotism that was Soviet rather than Russian. This is most evident in the 1920s and their fascination with futurism. However, in the quest to prove the superiority of the Soviet system, there were state policies to dominate the world stage in traditional aspects of Russian culture like winter sports, ballet, and chess. Russian language, Russian culture, everything Russian would remain premier in the Soviet sphere of influence.

Fairy tale illustration of a couple fleeing a dragon on a horse.
“I feel like this is a metaphor for Russian imperialism…” Illustration by Noel L. Nisbet from ‘Cossack Fairy Tales.’


This brings me to my main area of interest on this blog, the folklore of Eastern Europe. We saw with language, that there are strong links between the various Slavic languages (and this applies to a lesser degree to non-Slavic languages in Eastern Europe like Romanian, Hungarian, Yiddish, and Romani; maybe a subject for another time). We also saw that Russian culture has historically been promoted above all others in the historic areas of Russian and Soviet domination. Although I was aware of these both, I still fell into the trap of uncritically dealing with Russian folktales as obviously exemplary of Slavic and Eastern European tales more broadly.

I’ve read Wratislaw’s collection of folktales from various Slavonic sources1Wratislaw, A.H. Sixty folk-tales from exclusively Slavonic sources. (London, 1889)., but most of the tales I’ve read have been from Afanasyev’s Russian collections. In an attempt to begin rectifying my own ignorance, I started with ‘Cossack Fairy Tales’ collected by R. Nisbet Bain2Bain, R. Nisbet and Noel L. Nisbet. Cossack fairy tales and folk tales. (London, 1916) So, what can we learn by looking at Ukrainian fairy tales specifically?

First, we should note that there are many similarities between Ukrainian and Russian tales. There are, of course, the similarities that can be found between tales of all cultures. Furthermore, there are trappings similar in both kinds of tales: scheming witches (somewhat less common than in Russian tales), tyrannical many headed dragons (perhaps a bit more common that in the Russian), boyars, tsars, saints, and vampires. There are even some of the same specific phrases, like the narrator’s “the mead dripped down my beard, but it never touched my lips.” There is an occasional use of the “thrice nine kingdoms” to describe a great distance, but even more common is one uniquely Ukrainian, that of the “endless steppe.” One of my particular favorites from the collection, ‘The Vampire and St. Michael,’ uses the ATU type 307 ‘Princess in the Coffin’ plot not unlike an episode in the novel ‘Viy’ by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol or in the Witcher story of the strzyga in ‘The Last Wish’ and in the S1E3 episode “Betrayer Moon.”

What stood out most to me in these tales was the role of the trickster. Now, tricksters are a common feature in many folktales, and they feature in Russian tales as well. When comparing folktales, there are not usually hard and fast rules where something appears in one groups’ tales but not another. Rather, it is usually a matter of emphasis. For instance, in ‘The Golden Slipper’, a Cinderella type tale (ATU 510A), there is the usual plot of a poor girl who gets a magic dress and catches the eye of a prince. In this one, though, is a minor character I hadn’t seen in this tale before, the prince’s court fool, who devises the method for finding the girl by making her slipper stick to the floor. In the familiar western version, the shoe is lost accidentally, and then serendipitously used to find the girl. Here, someone has to come up with a plot to achieve the same result.

Compare this to Russian tales, where an aura of fatalism often pervades. Again, yes, there is a certain amount of this in every region’s fairy tales, folk are given strange commands and prohibitions which they follow blindly (or forget at their peril). When a son is betrothed by accident to the Frog Tsarevna, he is of course distressed that his wife may not be able to bake bread and sew clothes, but he and his family still don’t really question that the scenario needs to play out like this. And to each lament of the son to the impossible tasks set before his wife, the frog just says, “the morning is wiser than the evening,” a wonderfully poetic version of “all will work out.” In her stories, when Baba Yaga asks if you came of your own free will or were compelled, the correct answer is always a bit of both, ie no choices are completely free. This dichotomy, active trickster vs fatalism, remind me a bit of the difference between French and German tales identified by Robert Darnton: “although each story adheres to the same structure, the versions in the different traditions produce entirely different effects… horrific in the German, dramatic in the French…”3Darnton also identifies the effect as “comic in the Italian versions” and “droll in the English,” but he mostly focuses on the French and German corpus. Darnton, Robert. “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose.” In The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. (Basic Books: New York, 1984). p. 46

It’s hard not to read into this difference some argument about “national character,” it wouldn’t be wrong to note that Russia has a long history of autocracy while Ukraine has a long history of defiance to the tsars and other would-be rulers. The tales we tell ourselves can be important! But they are not destiny.

As a parting note, I want to share one more tale from the collection, this one a unique story of a trickster who prospers: ‘The Ungrateful Children and the Old Father Who Went to School Again.’ If you enjoy it, you can find the other stories from the collection on the same site or available in other formats from Project Gutenburg. Have a favorite tale? Please share in the comments!