Soviet Adaptations of Russian Fairy Tales

The Soviet film adaptations of fairy tales from Russian folk belief, do an excellent job of stripping away the authenticity and the initial themes of the original narratives. For the purpose of fulfilling the Soviet agenda, these plots are altered and simplified to correlate with the ideologies of the party. I chose two narratives from Afanas’ev’s collection, “The Foolish Wolf” and “The Bear, the Dog, and the Cat”, so to compare them to the film adaptation, “There Once was a Dog,” which reflects plot features from both written texts. The aspects of the film that are similar to “The Foolish Wolf” are few, but I did notice that the moment where the wolf says “remember how you were chasing me?” and the fact that the character is a wolf instead of a bear, are, I think, very telling features in this narrative (Afanas’ev 1976, 450) . Though the film’s plot mainly follows “The Bear, the Dog, and the Cat,” including these aspects, reflects an important relationship. A wolf and a dog are closely related genetically, but they have been enemies since in is the dog’s job to drive them away from their master’s home and livestock. Dogs and bears don’t have any sort of relationship, not even as enemies, but wolves go hand-in-hand with of history’s function for the domesticated dog in rural areas. The idea that the dog receives help from a wolf when he is starving and then vice versa, reflects their “contradicting” relationships, but creates a theme of friendship despite their roles as natural enemies, thus expressing the Soviet cliché, “friendship of the peoples” (Kononenko). In order to gain public trust, the soviet union attempted to appear accepting of all people, as the wolf was of his previous “enemy.”

"There Once was a Dog"

“There Once was a Dog”                                                   

One key aspect of the film that differs from the “The Bear, the Dog, and the Cat,” is at the beginning when it states “his masters were kind people who put up with him anyway.” Jil Byl Pes (Eduard Nazarov, 1982) In the text, when it mentioned the dog was old and basically useless, the master immediately drove him away and the dog says to the bear “… this is human justice nowadays” and goes on to describe how humans will keep something around as long as they have use for it but throw it away when there is no use (Afanas’ev 1976, 453). Tossing aside something like dog who served them when he could, depicts human qualities of cruelty and selfishness that I think is relevant to the nature of the folktale and the theme regarding mutual support (or lack there of). The lack of this in the film, doesn’t necessarily depict the peasants as kind and perfect beings, showing how they threw an old boot at him, but it does lessen the extent of their cruelty by excusing their actions with the idea that the old dog’s presence was detrimental to them and their work. Only after the dog is shown getting in the way, tripping his masters, he is driven out.

The humans in the film, instead, function to portray a Ukrainian-nationality stereotype that goes along the lines of the soviet agenda. The beginning of the film specifically mentions the tale as being Ukrainian. The nationality stereotypes are seen through the peasants who are depicted wearing Ukrainian dress, working on the farm, and always being either “jolly” (with the love struck couple and the singing and festivities), or they were shown being clumsy or frightened. This is opposed to how soviet films tend to portray Russians, who are usually depicted as “capable and brave” (Kononenko). The humans’ home in the film is even shown to be infested with flies. This paints the Ukrainian peasants as the sort of “backward” people, doing “backward” things, like living in filth.

Soviet gender stereotypes are also depicted very clearly in the film; through the women who were always working, singing, or quiet, that is until the infant is taken and they are shown standing there screaming and not doing anything that would be helpful in the situation, while the man is the one that goes out running to save the baby. The Soviets view on how women should be is best stated by Natalie Kononenko, “the reigning ideal…was to be passive, submissive, hard-­working, and self-­‐sacrificing. The dog and the wolf in the film don’t seem to express any of these stereotypes, but the humans, like the animals, emphasize the notions of friendship and citizenry, like when they took the dog back in and cared for him again after he “rescues” their baby.

It is the same with the bear in the folktale as it is with the wolf in the film. The wolf allows the dog to defeat him in a fight for the infant as a plan to get the dog back in the masters good graces, making him look like a hero. In the story, however, there is another plot feature supporting the notion of human cruelty, when the dog is caught giving food to the cat he is beaten by the peasant’s wife. This happens despite the dog’s heroic moment of saving her baby. This also shows the humans refusing to treat the dog worth his services to them, contrasting them to the mutual give and take between the dog and the bear. The animals in the folktale were the ones exhibiting selflessness, unlike the humans. The film muted this contrast by keeping out this scene, showing the humans to be similar to the animals in their good deeds and bad deed being equal to that of the dogs. The film keeps everything fair and equal; the dog gets old, the peasants keep him, he gets in the way, they throw him out, he rescues their child, and he is allowed back home. This is just like the wolf and the dog; the wolf befriends the dog, the dog gets him food in the winter, the wolf helps the dog look like a hero, and the dog saves him from the peasants when he is caught in the home. These Soviet films censor any violence or death that the folktale included (the dog being beaten and the dog dying at the end). The purpose being, as Kononenko puts it “to encourage the the development of citizenry that was docile and dependant on the state.”


Clever Plan to get the dog back in his master’s good graces.                                             

The original text would have been intended for people of all ages, whereas the film seems aimed at children. The voices of the narrator, the dog, and the wolf are all deep and have a slow pace, giving it a lullaby effect, emphasizing the notion of docility. This is also reflected in the film’s classic 2D animation. The innocent sense you get watching these cartoons distract from any subconscious messages, or ideologies, transmitted through the storyline of the film. The point of the film seems to completely strip away the folk belief from the original narrative, replacing it with the Soviet ideologies mentioned. All the scenes that were left out or altered were done so purposely so that the film depicted the stale Soviet notions of equality, giving, and friendship. Cutting away the ideas from the original narratives, makes the film’s theme more focused and allows the Soviet message to be fed through indirectly and absorbed by the audience.


2 thoughts on “Soviet Adaptations of Russian Fairy Tales

  1. I found it really interesting that you emphasized the relationship between the dog and the wolf and compared that to humans. I agree with you about how the Russians portray themselves as a strong population bringing the Ukrainians into “civilization”. I like how you state the Soviet adaptations of films to be comparable to a form of almost brain washing to include what they want as the “perfect” society.


  2. I found the part about national stereotypes, particularly the contrast between Ukrainians interesting, because it somewhat mimics some of the regional stereotypes with the US. The rural people are viewed as sort of happy and trivial, but meek, while the urban population is strong and efficient. I think you’re right about how this was meant to demonstrate unity in the Soviet times, but it also seems like it undermines it in a way because it depicts national identity that is apart from that of the USSR.


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