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Written in Memory of Alexei Navalny and Osip Mandelstam

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, Mar 22 2024 (IPS) - The devastation of Ukraine and Gaza might seem to be beyond belief. Let us thus turn to fairy tales to find descriptions of the stony indifference of warlords.

Since ancient times lies the cottage of the mighty witch Baba Yaga close to the heart of Russia’s vast forests. It is no gingerbread house built to attract hungry children lost in the woods, although its owner more often than not has a ravenous hunger for human flesh. On the contrary, her lodge seems to have a will of its own, appearing to fence off people, rather than attracting them. Its surrounding palisade is made of human bones, which fence poles are adorned with skulls. One sharpened pole is empty, in anticipation of becoming adorned with an unfortunate visitor’s skull. Baba Yaga attaches it to her fence after feasting on the roasted body of her victim and gnawing its skull clean from flesh.

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga broods on a great wealth and she is the ruler of all forest beings. Predators and birds are governed by her, as well as wayward cattle and coveted wild horses. It has been said that Baba Yaga is the mother of all mankind, that she is identical to Mother Earth. That she can transform herself into a cloud, that even the sun and the moon are governed by her, in addition to draught and tempests. Her abode stands close to the gates of Hell; maybe she is Death. In any case, demons and dragons obey her.

Her house rests on chicken legs. From whatever direction you approach it, the cottage turns its front towards you. To enter you have to command the moving house: “Little house, little cottage, set your face towards me and your butt against the forest”, then it bends forward like a chicken picking up a grain and the front door opens. Entering the untidy kitchen, it is difficult to discern the old crone. Either she is curled up like a cat on the slab above her oven, or she has extended her gawky body along one of the hut’s walls. The visitor may mistake her for a log, gnarled and craggy as she is. Sooner or later the witch’s scratchy, dry voice can be heard as she angrily sputters something about russkim dukhom “stench of a Russian”. With her pointed nose she sniffs up into the stale air, lifts her head, looks around until she drills the sharp stare of her luminous red, eyes deep into her visitor.

Baba Yaga is possibly not bad to the bone, not entirely evil, rather injured or poisoned by too much power. She might reluctantly develop a liking to a visitor and declines to slay him/her and instead put her reckless visitor to difficult tests to ascertain that s/he may be worthy of her trust. Her house is mined territory – each thought, every step must be carefully calculated. You must be respectful and let the witch speak before you say anything. Powerful creatures hate being contradicted, taught or admonished. Reply if asked, but watch your words. Witches can sniff out a mistake and hurl themselves on it as if they were starving wolves.

You cannot escape Baba Yaga. If you rush out of the door, she throws herself on top of a huge wooden mortar, using it to pursue her intended victim, rushing forward like a blizzard, punting her vehicle with a pestle, while she uses a broom to sweep away her tracks. Finally, the pursued victim cannot keep up the speed, staggers and falls to the ground. The witch leans over her prey and opens her huge mouth, which can be extended from earth to heaven. It is Hell opening up to devour the hapless loser, obliterating all traces of her/him.

Koščéj the Deathless

Baba Yaga has many servants, vilest of them all is Koščéj the Deathless. He may be Baba Yaga´s male manifestation, though Koščéj appears to have a life of his own. Koščéj is a powerful Tsar, with a vast kingdom of his own and an almost invincible army. It might be Hell he rules over, the name Koščéj sounds much like the old Slavic name for the place – Koshchnoye. Koščéj does not die, but he’s aging. Far back in time Koščéj found that he could separate his body from his soul. At that time, Koščéj was a handsome warrior who wanted to hide his soul so he could remain undefeated in every battle. No one dies if body and soul go on living, each on their own. However, the price was high. He now looks like a cadaver. Koščéj can through magical tricks hide his true appearance by perverting the perception of his victims. Using power and wealth he flatters and pampers his minions and if assured he is admired, or even loved, Koščéj believes the lie. Legends may offer scenes where a captured maiden allows the old monster to rest his head in her lap, while she quietly sings and asks him questions, untangling his matted hair. Koščéj becomes dazzled by what he perceives as his own excellence, a weak spot that eventually might cause his annihilation.

Koščéjs body can only be damaged by age and killed if someone finds his soul – his vulnerable humanity – and crushes it. It was by denying and hiding what he assumed to be his fragility – love and compassion – that Koščéj succeeded in transforming himself into a powerful and invulnerable being. However, that does not impede his constant search for love, a feeling that nevertheless is unavailable for a soulless man. Koščéj can neither give, nor receive love, possibly admiration, but such an emotion is based on fear, mixed with submissiveness. As a powerful being Koščéj does not hesitate to exploit his minions, among other things, he forces them to create armies and feed the evil demons that serve him like docile doves.

Maybe due to his advanced age Koščéj constantly has to prove his vigour and does every morning ride out for an exhaustive hunt in his forests. His steeds are wild and famous, some of them have three or seven legs and they can all speak. Koščéj is a bon vivant constantly on the look-out for exclusive conveniences, among other things he has a fur-lined mantle, which is warm in winter and cool in summer. His age sometimes takes its toll and he may become so tired that a servant is forced to stand behind his throne and occasionally lift up his heavy eyelids. It happens that Koščéj´s melancholy engulfs his entire court; the demons and people surrounding him then run the risk of being turned into stone and can only be awakened by the sound of a gusli, a kind of zither. In all his authoritarianism Koščéj is a lonely, insecure and thus dangerous beast.

If anyone would find Koščéj´s soul and unravel him in all his human nakedness and vulnerability, he instantly loses all his powers. Accordingly, he has made his soul inaccessible. He has impaled it on the top of a needle, placed inside an egg. This contraption is encased by an iron coffin, over which a mighty oak has grown. Koščéj’s immortality has made the oak old and strong and it encloses the coffin with its tenacious roots.

Like any kind of power, Koščéj´s strength is maintained through confirmation. The old demon has committed all imaginable sins and crimes, but his final error will be to succumb to vanity. As the Devil himself has noted: “Vanity is my favourite sin, through vanity I can manipulate anyone.”

Stories about Koščéj are an integral part of Russian lore. Aleksandr Afanasiev (1826-1871) was Russia’s greatest collector and publisher of folktales. He worked as a librarian at the Imperial Archives in Moscow and thus came in contact with folk tales. Afanasiev published a collection of more than 600 Russian folktales and proceeded to write an analysis of them, Slavs’ Poetic View of Nature, published in three volumes, each with more than 700 pages. He did not hesitate to publish stories that irritated Russia’s rulers. When the powerful Vasily Drozdov, Metropolitan of the Moscow Patriarchate, attacked Afanasiev for his publication of “obscene stories”, the librarian answered him back in a newspaper article and thus brought upon himself the unbridled hatred of Church and State. Afanasiev wrote: “There is a million times more morality, truth, and human love in my folk legends than in the sanctimonious sermons delivered by Your Holiness.”

Afanasiev could not refrain from keeping contact with his good friend, the renowned freethinker and exiled Russian, Alexander Herzen, and while visiting him in London he presented him with his collection of fairy tales. The dreaded Ohkranan, “Division of Patronage of Public Safety and Order”, found out where and when the visit had taken place. After Afanasiev´s return from his trip the Ohkranan turned his apartment upside down, until they found a manuscript with Russkie zavetnye shazki, Russian Secret Folk Tales. Afanasiev was immediately removed from his post, blacklisted and unable to find a new employment. To get money for food for himself and his family the degraded librarian sold his extensive library. He lived out his last days like a poor wretch, got tuberculosis and died destitute, only 45 years old. Ivan Turgenev wrote to a friend: “Afanasiev died recently, from hunger, but his literary merits will, my dear friend, be remembered long after both yours and mine are covered by the dark of oblivion.”

Afanasiev was far from being the only victim of ruthless Russian rulers and many great authors and philosophers have been inspired by his tales about Baba Yaga and Koščéj, while trying to tell the truth about cruel dictators. Stalin did not want to be connected with demonic doppelgängers from Russian folklore. The great poet Osip Mandelstam’s poem about the Kremlin Mountaineer might be connected with the fearsome Koščéj, the demon without a soul who reigns over a realm of death filled with smirking sycophants, who suddenly may be ossified by the demon’s remarks or bad moods.

Mandelstam was in November 1933 reading his Stalin Epigram to a select group. One of the listeners wrote down the poem and brought it to OGPU, the secret police.

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it reaches the Kremlin mountaineer.
Ten thick worms are his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
laughing cockroaches rest above his lips,
his boot-rims glitter.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone is talking.
He forges decrees like horseshoes, throwing
one for the groin, one for the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like great friends from home.

The sick and weak Mandelstam, broken by merciless interrogations, was finally sentenced to five years in correction camps. On 27th of December 1938 he died in a transit camp, just before his 48th birthday. On the 16th of February 2024, the 48 years old Russian opposition leader, lawyer, anti-corruption activist, and political prisoner Alexei Navalny died at the Yamalo-Nenets prison in Western Siberia.

Throughout history, power has in Russia been linked to make-believe and fairytale. Russian Tsars assumed superhuman, heroic attributes. Myth and ceremonies turned them into distant and mysterious sovereigns, elevated above human comprehension and Stalin followed suit. In spite of killing his enemies and jailing opponents, Vladimir Putin continues to be venerated as if he was an incarnation of the Tsars and Stalin. On 17 March he claimed a landslide victory in Russia’s presidential election, winning 87 percent of the votes in what other nations called a “pseudo-election”.

Main source: Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

IPS UN Bureau


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