Mushrooms in his Mustache: The Miracle Whale and the Tsar

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Pyotr Pavlovich Ershov, portrait painted by Nikolay Madzhi (late 1850s)

As cold descends upon much of the Northern Hemisphere, we travel today to the wintry world of Russian fairy tales. It is in the frozen heart of Siberia that we find today’s cetacean story – the tale of a miracle whale whose command over the ocean bears more than a passing resemblance to the power of the mighty tsar. In 1815, a century before the fall of Imperial Russia, a boy called Pyotr Pavlovich Ershov was born in Siberia. Young Pyotr was exposed as a child to the folk tales of Siberian peasants, and their stories stayed with him throughout his life. His early interest in Russian folklore was nurtured by the atmosphere of romanticism sweeping across Europe in the 19th century. The belief that the essential character of a nation could be found in the unlearned stories of its peasant folk seized the imagination of Russian writers during the country’s “Golden Age” of literature. A student of philosophy at Saint Petersburg University, Ershov was only 19 years old when he composed his masterpiece, the epic poem Konyok-Gorbunok, or The Humpbacked Horse. Chronicling the life of folk hero Ivan, whose talking humpbacked horse helps him overcome the tsar’s impossible tasks and win the heart of a fairy princess, the poem was an enormous success as soon as it was published in 1834. Alexander Pushkin, often considered the father of Russian literature, declared that he would never write fairy tales again after reading The Humpbacked Horse because Ershov had already perfected the medium, commanding Russian verse “as fully as a landowner commands his serfs”.

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