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Alexander Afanasyev

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Alexander Afanasyev
Александр Афанасьев
Born(1826-07-23)23 July 1826
Boguchar, Voronezh Governorate, Russian Empire
Died5 October 1871(1871-10-05) (aged 45)
Moscow, Russian Empire
OccupationSlavist, folklorist, literary critic, historian, journalist
Alma materImperial Moscow University (1848)
Notable worksRussian Fairy Tales, Poetic Views of the Slavs on Nature

Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev[a] (Russian: Александр Николаевич Афанасьев; 23 July [O.S. 11 July] 1826 – 5 October [O.S. 23 September] 1871) was a Russian Slavist and ethnographer who published nearly 600 Russian fairy and folk tales, one of the largest collections of folklore in the world.[2] This collection was not strictly Russian, but included folk tales from Ukraine and Belarus alongside Russian folk tales.[3] The first edition of his collection was published in eight volumes from 1855 to 1867, earning him the reputation of being the Russian counterpart to the Brothers Grimm.[4]


Alexander Afanasyev was born in the town of Boguchar in the Voronezh Governorate of the Russian Empire (modern-day Voronezh Oblast of Russia) into a family of modest means. His mother Varvara Mikhailovna Afanasyeva came from common people. Alexander was her seventh child; she became very ill after giving birth and died by the end of the year. The children were raised by their father Nikolai Ivanovich Afanasyev, a Titular councillor who served as a prosecutor's assistant on probable causes and whom Alexander described as a man of high intellectual and moral qualities, "deservedly known as the smartest person in the whole uyezd".[5][6]

In three years the family moved to Bobrov, Voronezh where Alexander spent his childhood. He became addicted to reading early in his life, having access to the well-stocked library left by his grandfather (a member of the Russian Bible Society), as well as to various magazines.

In 1837 he was sent to the Voronezh male gymnasium, and in 1844 he entered the Law Faculty of the University of Moscow which he finished in 1848.[7] There he attended the lectures of Konstantin Kavelin, Timofey Granovsky, Sergey Solovyov, Stepan Shevyryov, Osip Bodyansky and Fyodor Buslaev. He published a series of articles on government economy during the times of Peter the Great, on the Pskov Judicial Charter and other topics in the Sovremennik and Otechestvennye Zapiski magazines. Despite being one of the most promising students, he failed to become a professor. The conservative Minister of National Enlightenment, Count Sergey Uvarov, who oversaw the final exams, attacked Afanasyev's essay which discussed the role of autocracy in the development of Russian criminal law during the 16th and 17th centuries.[8]

In 1849 Konstantin Kavelin helped him to get a place at the Moscow's Main Archive Directorate under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Empire, and here Afanasyev worked for the next 13 years. During that time he met many people of science and culture, collected a lot of ancient books and manuscripts that formed a huge library. His articles, reviews, ethnographical and historical works regularly appeared in the leading Russian magazines, newspapers, almanacs and scientific periodicals. His essays on Russian satire of the 18th century and on the works of prominent writers and publishers resulted in an 1859 monograph "Русские сатирические журналы 1769–1774 г." ("Russian Satirical Magazines of 1769–1774"), published in 'Otechestvennye Zapiski' (Nos.3, 4 of 1855; No.6 of 1859).[8]

In 1855 he headed the state commission responsible for publication of legislative, historical and literary works. From 1858 to 1861 he also worked as the main editor of the short-lived magazine "Bibliographical Notes" [ru]" which actually served as a cover for collecting materials, censored and revolutionary literature for the socialist in exile Alexander Herzen. In 1862 the authorities arrested the Narodnik Nikolay Chernyshevsky, while other people associated with Herzen, including Afanasiev, came under suspicion. His flat was searched, and while nothing was revealed, he still lost his place at the Moscow Archives.[8]

After his dismissal he could not find a stable job for several years and had to sell his library to feed his family. After that he worked as a secretary at the Moscow City Duma and at the Moscow Congress of Justices of the Peace while continuing his ethnographical research. He wrote a large theoretical work (three tomes of 700 pages each) – "The Poetic Outlook of Slavs about Nature [ru]" – which came out between 1865 and 1869.[4][9] In 1870 his Русские детские сказки (Russian Children's Fairy Tales) were published.

Afanasyev spent his last years living in penury. He died in Moscow aged 45, suffering from tuberculosis. He was buried at the Pyatnitskoye cemetery.[10]


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 early scholarly articles, including – "Ведун и ведьма" ("Wizard and Witch", published in "Комета", 1851); "Языческие предания об острове Буяне" ("Pagan legends of Buyan Island", published in "Временнике общ. ист. и древ. росс." of 1858 No. 9) – drew upon the so-called Mythological school that treated legends and tales as a mine of information for the study of more ancient pagan mythology (see his definitive work on the subject "Поэтические воззрения славян на природу" ("The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs [ru]", 1865–1869). In such an interpretation, he regarded the fairy tale Vasilisa the Beautiful as depicting the conflict between the sunlight (Vasilisa), the storm (her stepmother), and dark clouds (her stepsisters).[11] A great archivist, his works provide copious information, evidence, documents, and passages of the old chronicles relating to Old Russian culture, history and tradition, as well as other Indo-European languages, folklore and legends, in particular German traditions (he knew to perfection German as well as all Slav languages and ancient ones).[citation needed]

In the early 1850s, being already known for his articles, Afanasyev began to think about a collection of folk tales. He was then asked by the Russian Geographical Society (ethnography section) of Saint Petersburg to publish the folktales archives that the Society had been in possession of for about ten 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 Dal (about 1000 texts), from which he kept 148 numbers, finding the other ones too distorted, his own collection (of about 10 folktales from the Voronezh region), and a few other collections. He added already published tales (such as Maria Marievna, The Firebird, The Grey Wolf, etc.), a few tales coming from epic songs, stories about the dead, a few medieval satirical texts (such as The Shemiaka Sentence), and anecdotes.

He owes his prominent place in the history of Slavonic philology chiefly to these Russian Fairy Tales (Народные русские сказки), published between 1855 and 1863, and inspired by the famous collection of the Brothers Grimm. From the scientific point of view, his collection goes further. He had at his disposal a lot of contributors, he tried to give the source and place where the tale was told, he never tried to give any definitive version of a folktale: so, if he gathered seven versions of one folk type, he edited them all (this is the case for The Firebird for instance).

In 1860 a scandal was provoked following the publication of the "Русские народные легенды" ("Russian Folk Legends", 1860), a collection of folk tales from all over the country based on the lives of Jesus and Christian saints. The result was a unique blend of Christianity with paganism and social undertones. Some of them were labeled unorthodox by the Most Holy Synod and the book was officially banned.[8] He also prepared Заветные сказки ("Treasured Tales"), an assortment of redacted tales from "Русские народные легенды" plus other potential controversial stories – published as Russian Forbidden Tales in Switzerland anonymously because of their obscene and anticlerical subject matter.[12][13]


  • Afanasyev, Alexander (1851), Ведун и ведьма [Wizard and Witch] (in Russian)
  • Afanasyev, Alexander (1858), Языческие предания об острове Буяне [Pagan legends of Buyan Island] (PDF) (in Russian)]
  • Afanasyev, Alexander (1865), Поэтические воззрения славян на природу [The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs] (in Russian), vol. 1
  • Afanasyev, Alexander (1868), Поэтические воззрения славян на природу [The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs] (in Russian), vol. 2
  • Afanasyev, Alexander (1869), Поэтические воззрения славян на природу [The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs] (in Russian), vol. 3
  • Afanasyev, Alexander (1859), Народные русские легенды [Traditional Russian Legends] (in Russian), alt link
  • Afanasyev, Alexander (1984) [1873], Народные русские сказки [Traditional Russian Tales] (in Russian) (2nd ed.), 3 vols, (first edition 1859)
    • alt links vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3



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 written 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 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 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Sadko, The Snow Maiden) and Igor Stravinsky (The Firebird, Petrushka, and L'Histoire du soldat).[14]

In popular culture[edit]

In the 2019 film John Wick: Chapter 3, John Wick visits the New York Public Library and requests "Russian Folk Tale, Aleksandr Afanasyev, 1864."[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Also romanized as Afanasief, Afanasiev or Afanas'ev.[1]


  1. ^ Jones, Steven Swann (2002), The fairy tale: the magic mirror of the imagination, Routledge, p. 141
  2. ^ Riordan 2003, p. 221.
  3. ^ Suwyn, Barbara J. (1997). The Magic Egg and Other Tales from Ukraine, Edited and with an Introduction by Natalie O. Kononenko. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, Inc. pp. xxi. ISBN 1563084252.
  4. ^ a b Gruel-Apert 2011.
  5. ^ Народные русские легенды [Russian National Legends], Moscow: Direct-Media, 8 September 2014, pp. 189–243, ISBN 978-5-4458-9828-3
  6. ^ Balandin, Arkady [in Russian], ed. (1988), Живая вода и вещее слово / Zhivai︠a︡ voda i veshchee slovo [Water of Life and a Spoken Word], Moscow: Sovetskaya Rossia, p. 6, ISBN 5-268-00848-X
  7. ^ Zipes 2000, Afanasyev, Aleksander..
  8. ^ a b c d Afanasyev, Alexander; Barag, Lev [in Russian]; Novikov, Nikolai, eds. (2014), Russian Fairy Tales, vol. 1, at p. 464–514 in 2014 reprint ISBN 978-5-4458-9824-5
  9. ^ Tatar 2002, p. 335.
  10. ^ "Афанасьев Александр Николаевич (1826–1871)", m-necropol.ru (in Russian), Alexander Afanasyev's tomb
  11. ^ Tatar 2002, p. 334.
  12. ^ Zipes 2000, Afanasyev, Aleksander.
  13. ^ Haney, Jack V. (Fall 1998), "Mr Afanasiev's Naughty Little Secrets: Russian Secret Tales Russkie zavetnye skazki", SEEFA Journal, III (2)
  14. ^ Riordan 2003, p. 219.
  15. ^ What Was John Wick Reading at the New York Public Library?


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainBrockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (in Russian). 1906. {{cite encyclopedia}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  • Imperial Moscow University: 1755–1917: encyclopedic dictionary, Moscow: Russian political encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2010, p. 38, ISBN 978-5-8243-1429-8 {{citation}}: Unknown parameter |agency= ignored (help)
  • Zipes, Jack, ed. (2000), The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, Oxford University Press
  • Tatar, Maria (2002), The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, W. W. Norton, p. 335, ISBN 0-393-05163-3
  • Riordan, James (2003), Davidson, Hilda Ellis; Chaudhri, Anna (eds.), "Russian Fairy Tales and Their Collectors", A Companion to the Fairy Tale, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer
  • Gruel-Apert, L.; Ivanova, Tatiana Grigorevna (2011), Du côté des frères Grimm et d'Alexandre Afanassiev [Around brothers Grimm and Alexander Afanasyev] (in French), Bibliothèque nationale de France

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]