Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev (Afanasief, Afanasiev or Afanas'ev, 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. The first edition of his collection was published in eight volumes from 1855–67, earning him the reputation as being the Russian counterpart to the Brothers Grimm.
11 July 1826|
Boguchar, Voronezh Governorate, Russian Empire
5 October 1871 (aged 45)|
Moscow, Russian Empire
|Occupation||Slavist, folklorist, literary critic, historian, journalist|
|Alma mater||Imperial Moscow University (1848)|
|Notable works||Russian Fairy Tales, Poetic Views of the Slavs on Nature|
Alexander Afanasyev was born in the town of Boguchar, 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".
In three years the family moved to Bobrov where Alexander spent his childhood. He got addicted to reading early in his life, having access to the well-stocked library left after his grandfather, a member of the Russian Bible Society, as well as various magazines.
In 1837 he was sent to the Voronezh male gimnasium, and in 1844 he entered the Law Faculty of the University of Moscow which he finished in 1848. 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 Pskov Judicial Charter and other topics in Sovremennik and Otechestvennye Zapiski magazines. Despite being one of the most promising students, he wasn't able to become a professor. Count Sergey Uvarov who visited the final exams with inspection attacked his essay where Afanasyev discussed the role of autocracy in development of Russian criminal law during the 16-17th centuries.
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 where 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 were reguraly published in the leading Russian magazines, newspapers, almanacs and scientific periodicals. His essays on Russian satire of the 18th century and the works of prominent writers and publishers resulted in a 1859 monography Russian Satirical Magazines of 1769—1774.
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 which actually served as a cover for collecting materials, censored and revolitionary literature for the socialist in exile Alexander Herzen. In 1962 Nikolay Chernyshevsky was arrested, while other people associated with Herzen were checked, including Afanasiev. His flat was searched, and while nothing was revealed, he still lost his place at the Moscow's Archives.
After his dismissal he couldn't 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 the Moscow Congress of Justices of the Peace while continuing his ethnographical research. He wrote a big theoretical work (three tomes of 700 pages each) The Poetic Outlook of Slavs about Nature which came out between 1865 and 1869. In 1970 his Russian Children's Fairy Tales were published.
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 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 The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs). 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). 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).
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 Voronejh 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: eight volumes, 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 7 versions of one folk type, he edited them all (this is the case for The FireBird for instance). His collection was ahead of his time.
In 1860 a scandal was provoked following the publication of the National Russian Legends, 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 as unorthodox by the Most Holy Synod and the book was officially banned. He also prepared Russian Forbidden Tales, an assortment of adult-themed tales that had to be published in Switzerland anonymously because of their obscene and anticlerical subject matter.
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).
- Jones, Steven Swann. The fairy tale: the magic mirror of the imagination. Routledge, 2002. p. 141.
- 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.
- Gruel-Apert, Lise. Introduction to Russian Popular Tales by Afanasyev with the translation of 324 folktales (Les Contes Populaires Russes d'Afanassiev, Paris, Imago 2010, 2014)
- Alexander Afanasyev (2014). Russian National Legends // From the Memoirs of A. N. Afanasyev. — Moscow: Direct-Media, p. 189—243 ISBN 978-5-4458-9828-3
- Alexander Afanasyev (1988). Water of Life and a Spoken Word // ed. and introductory article by Arkady Balandin. — Moscow: Sovetskaya Rossia, p. 6 ISBN 5-268-00848-X
- Zipes, Jack. Afanasyev, Aleksander. "The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.,
- Alexander Afanasyev, Lev Barag, Nikolai Novikov (2014). Russian Fairy Tales in 3 Volumes. Volume 1 // A. N. Afanasyev and His Collection of Fairy Tales. — Moscow: Direct-Media, p. 464—514 ISBN 978-5-4458-9824-5
- Articles of L. Gruel-Apert and Tatiana Grigorevna Ivanova about Afanasyev and his followers in Around brothers Grimm and Alexander Afanasyev, Bibliothèque nationale de France ((in French) Du côté des frères Grimm et d'Alexandre Afanassiev, Paris 2011)
- Maria Tatar, p 335, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ISBN 0-393-05163-3
- Alexander Afanasyev's tomb
- Maria Tatar, p 334, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ISBN 0-393-05163-3
- Zipes, Jack. Afanasyev, Aleksander. "The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Haney, Jack V. :Mr Afanasiev's Naughty Little Secrets: Russian Secret Tales." SEEFA Journal, Vol. III, No. 2, Fall 1998. 21 April 2007 .
- 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.
- Townsend, Dorian Aleksandra, From Upyr' to Vampire: The Slavic Vampire Myth in Russian Literature, Ph.D. Dissertation, School of German and Russian Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, May 2011.
- (in Russian) Russian folk tales by Alexander Afanasiev