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The horrors of Ural fairy tales

хозяйка медной горы
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Everyone knows the fairy tales from the Grimm brothers, but few parents have ever considered that their original versions are as violent as the most ruthless crime stories. Of course, these methods might be kind of obsolete for us, but back then; they thought no kid would ever obey without a little bit of that “friendly scare”. They called it "old-style education", we called it "nightmare fuel".
And there is a similar example to this in Russian literature.
Pavel Bazhov's most famous collection of tales, The Mistress of the Copper Mountain, which is on the list of 100 books recommended by the Ministry of Education to schoolchildren for independent reading, fails to promise a happy ending for the main characters... Or well, any kind of positive ending anyway. Kind of like a character out of George R. R. Martin books, if you were a character written by Bazhov, you'd have expected to have a gruesome (or at least uncomfortable) death.

хозяйка медной горы
© Общественное достояние

In 1931, after a series of discussions about the importance of folklore for the national economy in the reconstruction period, the Soviet government decided to publish a collection of the "Pre-revolutionary folklore in the Urals". Vladimir Biryukov, a member of the USSR Writers' Union, was commissioned to collect the material. The demands placed on the local historian were very clear: first, there must be no hint of religious themes, no swearing, and no tales of the harsh life of a peasant. Secondly (as if that wasn’t enough of a limitation), the main emphasis was to be placed on the advantages of collective labor and the interesting life of the working class. After a while of advancing absolutely nowhere, historian Biryukov realized something as shocking as, well... Reinventing the wheel.
It was then, when fifty-year-old journalist from the regional Peasant Newspaper, Pavel Bazhov, was involved in the search. His attempts to find information in the genre of socialist realism were also – to the surprise of absolutely no one – unsuccessful. But instead of stopping work, he started composing stories on his own, drawing on plots inspired by telltales he once heard as a child.

In order to comply with the requirements of the called, between citation marks, “technical assignment”; Pavel Petrovich placed pagan notions such as nature, soil, the richness of the subsoil and the beauty of precious stones, distant and alien to Christianity, in the main roles’ tales. He truly emphasised that all that was necessary for a man; was not richess, but work. Otherwise, he would be considered a primitive unreasonable creature. Skill and craftsmanship were regarded as the main source of pride in the stories. The portrayal of the working man as creative, independent and energetic was fully endorsed by the critics, and the author was noted as one of the most important writers of his time.

© Общественное достояние

Surprisingly, Bazhov did not anticipate that his work would be associated with children's literature. At first, even the editorial board did not consider the stories to be suitable for preschool children because of the complex, outdated language and the multiple connotations of the texts. But soon enough, the stories began to be read, first by Ural children, and then by Soviet children all over the country.

One of his stories tells the story of Yakov Zorko, a blind, elderly and greedy man appointed by a happy accident... as a mining master. Having lived to a ripe, old age; he has never been able to start a family, so he decides to ask a very young girl, Usta, to marry him. The bride-to-be, who does not want to marry such a man, decides to “test” the groom, and sends him to find a ravine on Karasja Mountain where, according to the legends, a large quantity of malachite can be found. There, precious stones, including malachite, start falling on Yakov from above. The man, blinded by the thought of possible riches, does not even pay attention to the bruises from the rockfalls; and soon enough the search drives him mad... Finally, he is immobilised and freezes under a tree.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей/Малахит

In another tale, "Tayutka's Mirror", some miners accidentally stumble upon an unusual rock, which had a surface that resembled a mirror. The owner of the mine, a wealthy young lady who believed everything found belonged only to her, heard about the curiosity and ordered the wonder stone to be brought to her. When the woman held the stone up to her face to look into its reflection, the stone immediately cracked and ore splashed in her face, frightening her into unconsciousness. The lady survived, but all her children were born mad afterwards.

Сказы Бажова
© Общественное достояние

According to one version of scholars, Bazhov was inspired by German folklore when he wrote his works. Indeed, it is the Grimm Brothers' books that can be rightly called the scariest folk tales. For example, every child knows the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But not everyone remembers that when the Queen commissions the girl to be led into the woods and killed, she demands to bring proof. The lung and liver of the unfortunate princess must convince her of the carnage. When a subject, taking pity on Snow White, brings the queen the entrails of a wild stag, she eats them.

Nevertheless, the tales of German writers usually have a relatively happy ending, which is not the case with Bazhov's stories. More often than not, it was the Mistress of the Copper Mountain who seized the fate in his tales; as 'mistress of underground riches', she was not always consistent in her actions. The sorceress could be both good and evil, living and dead, beautiful and ugly. She could take possession of Danila the Master's daughter after she released the latter to his wife, or she could keep the mining master for a century, turned to stone up to his waist. None of them seem to be pleasant ways to go, obviously.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей/Изумруд

You can see all the treasures of the Copper Mountain in the Mining Museum in St. Petersburg. The largest block of Ural malachite, weighing 1.5 tons, found at the Gumeshevsky mine, is stored here, and collections of emeralds, rubies, topaz and aquamarines are displayed.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Also on display in one of the world's largest natural science museums is a work of art depicting Danila the Master and the Mistress of the Copper Mountain. The piece was cast at the Kaslinsky ironworks in the South Urals and is part of a collection of artistic castings that includes over a hundred pieces made in the 19th and 20th centuries at foundries in Russia, Ukraine and Germany.
Translated by Diego Monterrey, for Northwest Forpost.