Russian Magic Tales – From the Ballet Russes to Platanov, with Robert Chandler...

Our leading translater of Russian on that strange and wonderful creation of the Russian creative imagination: the Russian magic tale, the volshebnaya skazka


Robert Chandler is the editor of Penguin Classics' Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov and the prize-winning translator of Vasily Grossman's WWII epic, Life & Fate. There is no finer translator of Russian-to-English at work today but these tales are as much a product of high culture as of low and for children as much as adults. They are steeped in abiding wit, horror, filth and beauty...

Young women go on long and perilous quests, wicked stepmothers turn children into geese, tsars ask dangerous riddles, with help or hindrance from magical dolls, cannibal witches, talking skulls, stolen wives, and brothers disguised as wise birds.

These folkloric tales permeate and define much of Russian art, music and literature: from set design and painting, to poetry and stories, theatre and cinema; from Chagall and Malevitch to Pushkin, Platonov and Stravinsky. It’s a world where logic and realism give way to the absurd and the wonderful, the world which gave birth to Gogol’s rebellious nose, Bulgakov’s demonic talking cat or one of today's leading voices, Victor Pelevin, and his satiric tales of the much discussed Werewolf Problem in Central Russia.

Within this fantasia lurk great figures of the forests and the Russian night - a world of magical transformations, of terrifying and marvellous characters, of the Firebird and of Baba Yaga:

"Her nose had grown into the ceiling and the snot from it was hanging across the threshold. She had slung her tits up over a hook and was sharpening her teeth, "If people are too inquisitive," says Baba Yaga, "I eat them.”"

Many of these stories are wonderfully unsanitized – unlike Grimm’s tales that were toned down for children -- so of course, kids love them...

According to Robert “...these stories were not intended as cosy bedtime reading. Rather, we should imagine the firelit camp deep in the spooky, frozen forest, with an invisible audience of listening spirits who might be provoked to terrible anger by the slightest narratorial faux-pas.”

In the first part of his lecture Robert will focus on the way in which figures from the magic tales, the skazki, have inspired and permeated Russian art of the 20th century, considering particularly The Firebird, as in Stravinsky's loved and fantastic ballet for Diaghilev, and why The Firebird has been illustrated, painted and used over and again by Russian artists in an astonishing variety of forms.

The second part of the lecture will be devoted primarily to the retelling of these folk tales in the 1940s by Andrey Platonov - the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century, Robert says. He will contrast the quiet depth of Platonov's work with the wild excitement and exoticism of the earlier Russian artists.


Robert Chandler

Robert is one of our most brilliant & distinguished contemporary translators & he has, more than anyone, introduced and promoted a fantastic variety of Russian writers over recent years. His translations from Russian include the prize-winning Vasily Grossman's Life & Fate and Grossman's Everything Flows, Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Aleksander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter. Robert's co-translations of Andrey Platonov have won prizes both in the UK and in the USA. His translation of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway won the AATSEEL prize for 2007 and received a special commendation from the judges of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize. He is the editor of Penguin Classics' Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and the author of Alexander Pushkin (in the Hesperus ‘Brief Lives’ series). He has also translated selections of the poetry of Sappho from Greek and of Apollinaire from French. He is himself a poet and a teacher of the art of translation.


Spectator review: for Russian Magic Tales ~ "This is a unique, beautifully edited book: an essential addition to the library of any Russophile. And the kids will love it…"

Forbes: (On Vasily Grossman's Life & Fate) "A delightfully readable 2006 translation by Robert Chandler, this edition preserves nearly all the color of Russian sayings and dark humor while remaining a devastating portrait of Stalin’s Russia."

Soul (New York Review of Books) gathered eight works from another Slavic giant, Andrey Platonov. Works of great tenderness and insight in the face of oppression, they’re brilliantly rendered by one of the great translators of our time, Robert Chandler, and his team.

2014Martin Keeley