Tales are the Foundation of Our Life, Says Evgeniy Koltunov, Research Fellow of SUSU about Psychology of a Russian Tale


Amazing people, who are able to open the world of wizardry and mysteries to other people, are working at the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities. On the eve of the most mystical holiday – Halloween – research fellow of the Laboratory of Psychology and Psychophysiology of Stress Resistance and Creativity Evgeniy Koltuniv shared his knowledge about the world of Russian tale and the symbolism of its characters.

– What do Russian Folk Tales tell us? What do they teach us?

– Russian Folk Tales are the heritage of our eventful history and as a rule they are quite various by their content. There we have the life of animals in forests, adventures of bogatyrs, routine of elderly people, tales about adventures of multiple Ivans – whether he is a Tsarevich or the Fool. From the ancient times tales have been existing, first of all, to warn about something or try to explain some phenomenon. If we try to characterize topics that are most frequently used in our folklore, there are several moments coming to my mind.

First of all, there is a quick wit. Characters of our tales normally rely on their guile in order to avoid misfortunes or achieve the desired. Let us recall the Kolobok who happily escaped both hare and wolf. This teaches a reader to be inventive. At the same time, inventiveness will get you only so far. There is always someone more cunning than you are as the Kolobok learned from his unfortunate experience. Therefore, another important subject in our tales is the triumph of justice. In the majority of tales, the Good tends to win over the Evil, and all good or bad actions are given credits as deserved. Going back to the Kolobok, the sad ending of the tale can be called an expected result after the main character running away from the Old man and his wife. Even supernatural powers in Russian Folk Tales rarely are totally good or totally bad; they signify otherworldly interference in characters’ everyday lives, which can be both positive and negative, either punish or award. In my opinion, these aspects nicely complement one another.

– From psychological point of view, are there any fairy tale theories?

– Surely there are. Phenomenon of fairy tales occupied the minds of many psychologists. For example, Sigmund Freud thought that fairy tales contain symbols which reflect inner conflicts, worries, desires and disorders concealed in the coconsciousness of a person. From the other hand, his student Carl Jung assumed the existence of collective unconscious, and he affirmed that the language of myths and tales consists of archetypes – the eternal symbols contained in this unconscious. From his point of view, archetypes were unique symbols which favored to transformation and development. It was precisely the Jung’s approach that had a significant influence on modern vision of fairy tales, their analysis, and the methods of fairy tale therapy. The Soviet philologist and folklorist Viacheslav Propp in his work “Morphology of a fairy tale” described the basic meta-pattern of a fairy tale, which became a break-through in research of folklore texts. He singled out constant elements which repeated themselves in every fairy tale – the functions of a character (31 in total), having laid the foundation for structural-typological study of a plot, the narrative.

– What is fairy tale therapy? Who needs it?

– We are talking about using a fairy tale as a method of therapeutic aid. For that we can either use the already-existing fairy tales or propose a client to think up one of his own. Then these fairy tales get figured out; their structure and plot get analyzed. And though it may seem that such method can only work for kids, in reality it is also used for adults. In case with children, fairy tales entertain a kid with their plots; the kid associate himself with characters, gets relaxed, gets opened up for gaining experience. To a larger extent here works unconscious rather than logical thinking. This allows easily conveying some important subjects, regulations and rules of the society to the kid; helps stimulating his art skills and creative abilities.

Regarding adults, the basic principle works similarly: adult people often much easier receive or analyze information delivered in the form of neat images or metaphors rather than raw data.

– You spoke about collective unconscious and archetypes as of symbols which favor transformation and development. Does it mean that Russian tales are filled with images which all of us percept unconsciously?

That is correct. For example, the image of Ivan the Fool contains an element of the archetype of Trixter – a jester who breaks the prescribed rules and “plays his own game”. The image of Baba Yaga contains the archetype of Mother-Earth, the magical authority of a female, ancient wisdom, a mystery. We percept these fundamental structures unconsciously, through the motives and ideas presented in the tales.

– Who are the main characters of Russian Folk Tales? What do their images symbolize?

I don’t think that the word “main” can be used here. After all, we are not talking about one single tale but about innumerable amount of folk tales. If we are to talk about the most recognizable and popular characters, first of all, we recall Ivan the Fool, Koschei the Immortal, Baba Yaga…

Among the abovementioned, Ivan the Fool is the most classic exemplar of a Russian Folk Tale’s character. Most times he is not rich and not strong; he symbolizes quick wits and non-standard approach to solving problems. It is precisely his inventiveness combined with support of benevolent supernatural creatures that help him to achieve success and get his “half the kingdom”.

Koschei the Immortal, in his turn, is one of the most recognizable villains who often is the final obstacle on the way of the main character. A powerful wizard and tsar of the otherworldly Faraway Kingdom, his death is contained in an egg, the symbol of rebirth. He impersonates both death and eternity, being the immovable pristine power which the hero is destined to face.

From the other hand, Baba Yaga symbolizes more neutral natural and supernatural powers. Depending on a situation, she can be a threat, a villain, or provide help, become a valuable advisor and mentor. No matter the chosen role, it is exactly her who most of the times becomes the guide of a character into the fairy tale world.

– There is the opinion that characters of Russian Folk Tales sometimes are very ominous, and such tales scare children. Is it true? First thought is Baba Yaga. She often wants to kill or roast someone.

– We several times mentioned this lovely old lady in our discussion and we understand that most of the times she signifies some mysterious power and wisdom which the main character has to face. And just like any mysterious power, she can be dangerous, she can make harm. But she can also be helpful. The most important thing is to find the right approach. As a rule, characters of Russian tales successfully complete this task. This is what a reader needs to learn from a tale. For that, the correct distribution of emphases is necessary; a kid should be able to see that the character faced danger and coped with it. Is it possible that a kid will concentrate all his attention on a “scary moment” and get afraid while dismissing the message? Probably. But in such situation parents just need to help the kid to comprehend the tale correctly, to highlight key points.

– Is it possible to predict some characteristic feature of a person based on which fairy tales he used to like as a kid? How do fairy tales affect the “life story” of a person?

– Like I said before, children get involved in the plot of a fairy tale, associate themselves with the characters. While listening to various fairy tales, a kid selects those stories which bring him strong emotions, offer the most appropriate ideas or decisions, or correspond with already chosen ones. Such fairy tales become a matrix for the story of his life. There is an interesting moment. Having grown up, people often can’t easily answer the question “Which fairy tale was your favorite?” Partly, here works the psychological defense mechanism, which prohibits recognizing one’s own life story. Having learned a person’s preferences in regard with fairy tales and specific characters, it is possible to make certain assumptions about his personality; there is nothing extraordinary here as we are the sum of the things that compose our life; and its beginning is composed by fairy tales.

– Are there fairy tales that are useful to be read by adults?

– Yes. Otherwise, the fairy tale therapy wouldn’t work. But trying to give a certain list of recommendations, as it works with other literary writings, in this case would not be quite correct. A person knows the majority of fairy tales from his childhood, even if in general terms; this is how folklore works. Instead of following someone else’s list of recommendations, it is better to recall your own childhood and reread the tales which could bring the most vivid associations. It is quite possible that you will learn something new about yourself.

And if we step aside from folk tales, there is one book of excellent author Grigoriy Oster called “Fairy tale with details”. I strongly recommend reading it at least once, no matter your age. I can’t promise you a scary and ominous story, but there are more than enough funny moments in it.


Natalia Shankova
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