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Once Upon A Handout: Russian Fairy Tales Accused Of Teaching Kids To Freeload

A painting by Russian artist Irina Yemelina depicting scenes from the classic fairy tale known as Emelya And The Pike.
A painting by Russian artist Irina Yemelina depicting scenes from the classic fairy tale known as Emelya And The Pike.

Children in Russia may be spooked by the witches and other dark characters in some of the country's fairy tales, but a senior Central Bank official sees something even more sinister.

Russian fairy tales are teaching kids to expect "handouts" and that laziness pays, argues Sergei Shvetsov, first deputy governor of the bank.

Alluding to the Russian classic Emelya And The Pike, Shvetsov explains that the tale of a magical fish handing out wishes willy-nilly to the lazy protagonist sets a bad example.

Russian Central Bank Deputy Governor Sergei Shvetsov
Russian Central Bank Deputy Governor Sergei Shvetsov

"We tell children about a goldfish, about a pike. Look, the other brother works -- he's a fool; the middle brother works -- he's a fool; the youngest one sits on a stove, then catches a pike -- he is doing well," Shvetsov laments in comments quoted by Moskva, a Moscow city-controlled news agency.

Such an allegedly poisonous message will haunt kids into adulthood, Shvetsov said, handicapping them as they grapple with their finances.

His answer? Rewrite some of the classics.

"We need to change the fairy tales. We need to reject this background, teaching children about handouts. It's very serious," Shvetsov was quoted as saying on January 15.

'By Command Of The Fish!'

In Emelya And The Pike, the main character spends most of his time snoozing atop a warm kitchen stove. He avoids work and only gives in when bribed. One day, Emelya catches a magical pike that fulfills his wishes, most of which revolve around household chores.

It is one of Russia's most popular and enduring fairy tales, having been included in a compilation of folk tales published in the mid-1800s and adapted to film and animated several times during the Soviet era, mostly under the title Wish Upon A Pike. It ia so ingrained in Russian culture that part of one line from the story -- "By command of the fish, may it be as I wish! -- has become a catchphrase.

The Soviets had to grapple with the fact that Emelya didn't really fit the image of the model Soviet citizen. So they tinkered a bit with the tale, noted the Russian Language Blog.

A 1957 animated Soviet version has Emelya releasing the magical fish not because of calculating greed, but out of pure kindness.

Indolent characters are not uncommon in Russian fairy tales and other works.

Ancient Traditions

In Vasilisa The Beautiful, the eponymous heroine is aided by a magical doll in carrying out work that the witch, Baba Yaga, orders Vasilisa to do to gain freedom.

But that story ends on a high moral note. Vasilisa learns to weave and embroider. Her work grabs the attention of a handsome prince, who marries her. Ultimately, the message is that hard work does pay off.

In an article on the website Russia Beyond that looks into "Russia's ancient traditions of laziness and couch addiction," Aleksandra Guzeva writes that the "ultimate symbol of laziness is Ilya Oblomov, a character in the famous novel by Ivan Goncharov.

Oblomov is an absolutely helpless man, totally dependent on his servant. He doesn't suffer from depression; laziness is his modus operandi."

Russian proverbs also suggest that "idleness is a national trait," Guzeva argues, singling out: "Work is not a wolf -- it won't run away to the forest."

However, Guzeva also points out that there are plenty of Russian proverbs that celebrate hard work, including: "If you like to eat, don't lie on the stove."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.