Alexander Afanasyev

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Alexander Afanasyev
Alexander Afanasyev 7.jpg
Born (1826-07-11)11 July 1826
Boguchar, Russian Empire
Died 23 October 1871(1871-10-23) (aged 45)
Moscow, Russian Empire
Occupation folklorist

Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev (Afanasief or Afanasiev,[1] Russian: Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Афана́сьев) (11 July 1826 – 23 October 1871) was a Russian folklorist who recorded and published over 600 Russian folktales and fairytales, by far the largest folktale collection by any one man in the world.[2] His first collection was published in eight volumes from 1855–67, earning him the reputation of a Russian counterpart to the Brothers Grimm.


He was educated at a high school in Voronezh and studied law at the University of Moscow,[3] in which he attended the lectures of Konstantin Kavelin and Timofey Granovsky. His burgeoning career as a professor of history was cut short by denunciation of his work on the part of Sergey Uvarov. He then turned his attention to journalism and brought out a series of articles about leading personalities of the literary life of the previous century, including Nikolay Novikov, Denis Fonvizin, and Antiokh Kantemir.

Censured by the authorities for his contacts with Herzen and suffering from tuberculosis, Afanasyev ended his life in penury, forced to sell his library to enable himself to eat.[4] He died in Moscow aged 45.


Afanasyev became interested in old Russian and Slav traditions and stories in the 1850s ("folklore" as an area of study did not exist at the time). . His first scholarly articles - The Wizards and Witches, Sorcery in the Ancient Rus, Pagan Legends about the Buyan Island - drew heavily upon the so-called Mythological school that treated legends and tales as a mine of information for the study of more ancient pagan mythology. His definitive work on the subject - The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs - was published in three volumes between 1865 and 1869. In such an interpretation, he regarded the fairy tale Vasilissa the Beautiful as depicting the conflict between the sunlight (Vasilissa), the storm (her stepmother), and dark clouds (her stepsisters).[5]

Being already known for his articles, Afanasyev began to think about a collection of folk tales. He was then asked by the Russian Geographic Society (section ethnography) of Saint Petersburg to publish the folktales archives that the Society had been in possession of for about 10 years. These archives are at the start of his Collection. Afanasyev chose 74 tales out of these. He added to them the enormous collection of Vladimir Dahl (about 1000 texts),from which he kept 148 numbers, finding the other ones too distorted, and a few less well known collections. He added already published tales (such as Maria Marievna, The Firebird and the grey wolf and so on), a few tales coming from epic songs, stories about the dead, a few medieval satirical texts (such as The Shemiaka Sentence), anecdotes.

He owes his prominent place in the history of Slavonic philology chiefly to Narodnye russkie skazki (Russian Fairy Tales), eight volumes modelled on the famous collection of the Brothers Grimm and published between 1855 and 1863.

Afanasyev edited several other compilations which included: Russian Fairy Tales for Children comprising a set of animal, magic and humorous tales from his collection that were suitable to children; Russian Folk Legends which was banned due to the harsh censorship in Tsarist Russia (the church thought the collection was blasphemous); and Russian Forbidden Tales, an assortment of unprintable tales from Russia that had to be published in Switzerland anonymously.[6] Their obscene and anticlerical subject matter made their publication in Imperial Russia unthinkable.[7]


Prior to Afanasyev's works in the 1850s, only a few attempts had ever been made to record or study the folk beliefs of peasant Russia. Though a written Russian language (Church Slavonic) had existed since the 10th century, it was used almost solely by the church and only for parochial written works. It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that a sizable body of secular literature developed in the vernacular Russian. Thus, Afanasyev's collections made a highly valuable contribution to the dissemination and legitimization of Russian culture and folk belief. The influence of these folk tales can be seen in the works of many writers and composers, notably Rimsky-Korsakov (Sadko, The Snow Maiden) and Stravinsky (The Firebird, Petrushka, and L'Histoire du Soldat).[8]


  1. ^ Jones, Steven Swann. The fairy tale: the magic mirror of the imagination. Routledge, 2002. p. 141.
  2. ^ Riordan, James. “Russian Fairy Tales and Their Collectors.” A Companion to the Fairy Tale. Ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson and Anna Chaudhri. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Page 221.
  3. ^ Zipes, Jack. Afanasyev, Aleksander. "The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.,
  4. ^ Maria Tatar, p 335, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ISBN 0-393-05163-3
  5. ^ Maria Tatar, p 334, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ISBN 0-393-05163-3
  6. ^ Zipes, Jack. Afanasyev, Aleksander. "The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  7. ^ Haney, Jack V. :Mr Afanasiev's Naughty Little Secrets: Russian Secret Tales." SEEFA Journal, Vol. III, No. 2, Fall 1998. 21 April 2007 [1].
  8. ^ Riordan, James. “Russian Fairy Tales and Their Collectors.” A Companion to the Fairy Tale. Ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson and Anna Chaudhri. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Page 219.

This article incorporates material from the public domain 1906 Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary.

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