Olga Belova
Institute for Slavic Studies RAS, Moscow

“Russian Motives” in Folk Legends of Southern Slavs

The paper deals with the problem of ethno-stereotypes in Slavic folklore. According to the folk view of the world, the universal binary of the signs “our own / other” penetrates all levels: from cosmological notions (“our own” and “other” space, human creatures and demonic characters), to everyday pragmatism (differences in language, traditional ceremony and way of life). The ethnic neighbors, as presented in folk legends, superstitions and beliefs, function as mythical ancestors and giants, antagonists and warlike enemies, civilized heroes and even demonic creatures.

The evaluation of “others” as hostile and dangerous creatures stems from archaic beliefs about how all people who come from the outside and do not belong to the closest community are representatives of a “different” world and possess supernatural qualities. The idea of ethnocentricity remains fundamental in the system of “folkloric ethnology,” in which a positive evaluation of “our own” and a negative evaluation of “others” is often rendered within the categories of mythological thought. A striking feature of folk narratives on the theme of ethnic identification is not only their stability, but also their incorporation into the context of “world history,” which unites the creation of the world, events of Old and New Testimonies, and mythologized historical facts. Legends connected with “folk ethnology,” as the material demonstrates, reflect a fully living tradition of folkloric consciousness of self within the surrounding world and within interrelations with ethnic neighbours.

What types of South-Slavic (Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serb) folk legends reflect the image of ethnic neighbor, and the Russian one particularly?

  1. “Ethnic” legends on the origin nations and their faith. From the perspective of ethnocentrism, only our own ethnicity is evaluated positively: just it possesses the “correct” way of life, “human” language and righteous religion. At the same time there exist some nations which are close to the “own one” than the others. Thus the legend from Gruzha (Serbia) declares the idea of common roots of Serbian and Russian nations since the beginning of time. This motive seems to be unique – in most cases the origin of nations is connected with the construction of Babel Tower and God’s allotment the peoples with determined fate. As a rule the legends of such kind enumerate only the nearest neighbors.
  2. The legends about the “inhuman” nature of ethnic neighbors – of their “animal” essence, or of their connection with the world beyond. For example the Serbian legend tells that dog-headed people (demonic man-eaters) live in the land of Rusija – far away from the human world, behind the tall wall.
  3. Eschatological legends of Bulgarians present a number of images connected with the “Russian neighbor” in the context of folk beliefs on the end of the world and the Last Judgment – such as the beast from the East (the red beast Rusniako), the angel from the East that will burn the Earth. The image of Russia as the superpower (along with USA) is a central one in the legends on the “atomic Deluge”. Russia as the “mythological empire” is responsible for the Great Change (Turn) – Velikij perelom – in the human history before the end of the world because of the realization of its ambitious political plans (cf.: the famous aphorism from the end of 1920s by I. Stalin). Together with other superpowers Russians want to “wash their jackboots in the Caspisn Sea” (cf.: the famous cliché to wash one’s jackboots in the Indian / Atlantic Ocean known from the period of wars between Russia and Osman Empire in 17th-19th cent.). At the same time the popular culture caught up of “baba Vanga’s” prophesies about the faith of Russia in 2012 – the whole world will be seized with global crisis and only Russia “will be afloat”.
  4.  Apart from the abstract image of “Russia” or the “Eastern neighbor” there exist some particular motives, connected with political and ideological discourse of the Soviet period. Thus for the Russian and Bulgarian legends fixed in 1980s some “political motives” are typical – when traditional sacral figures get the same status as the Communist leaders (Jesus Christ – as protector of the poor and defender of justice – is compared with Vladimir Lenin and Georgi Dimitrov).

The traditional beliefs (stereotypes, superstitions) concerning neighbouring communities in regions of close ethnocultural contact show remarkable longevity. Moreover, the evidence shows that superstitions persist regardless of whether or not another ethnic group is actually present.