Share and Share Alike: A Russian Folktale

Once upon a time there was a young man — let’s call him Ivan — who decided to go out in the world to seek his fortune. When he told his parents of his decision, his father gave Ivan his blessing, and some money for the trip. Ivan used part of this money to buy two fine horses, then off he went.

After traveling a while, he stopped to spend the night at a roadside inn. The inn wasn’t in very good repair, and the woman who ran the inn seemed troubled. As he ate his supper, Ivan noticed some surly-looking men arrive. They peered suspiciously around the place, and spoke to the innkeeper in rude, even threatening tones. After they left, Ivan asked the woman if anything was wrong. She burst into tears.

“My husband died two years ago,” she told Ivan. “But when he died he owed money to those men you saw — and to many other people, too. I can’t pay them back, and so they harass me, and curse my husband’s name — and curse me, too! I don’t know what to do.”

“How much did your husband owe?” Ivan asked.

The widow named a sum. It was exactly the amount of money Ivan had. So Ivan offered to pay the innkeeper’s debts.

Design of hundred hryvnias bill 1918
Design of hundred hryvnias bill (Ukraine), Heorhiy Narbut, 1918. Source: Wikiart

The widow was so happy! The next day, when more creditors came by to bother the innkeeper, Ivan paid them off. Word got around, and soon all the dead man’s creditors arrived. Ivan gave each of them their money.

But the widow hadn’t calculated correctly; she’d forgotten a couple of creditors, who of course came by just as Ivan had paid out his last ruble. So Ivan offered them each one of his horses as payment, which they took.

Now the widow and the inn were secure; but Ivan was broke. Should he go back home? What would his father say? Ivan got back on the road, trying to decide what to do.

As he trudged along, he met up with another man — let’s call him Yuri — who was traveling the same direction. They talked as they walked; Ivan told Yuri his story.

“No, don’t go back to your parents,” Yuri said. “I have money. Let’s travel together, and whatever fortune we find along the way, we’ll split between us — half and half.”

Illustration to three fables of krylov 1911
Illustration to Three Fables of Krylov, Heorhiy Narbut, 1911. Source: Wikiart

Well, this sounded good to Ivan, and he agreed. So the two traveled along together, and eventually found themselves in a region ruled over by a lord whose daughter had recently died (She needs a name, too. Let’s call her Vasilisa). Vasilisa’s body was laid out in the old disused chapel on the lord’s estate, and as was customary, the lord had summoned deacons to watch over his daughter’s body at night, reading prayers over her before the funeral. The problem was — all the watchers had died. They’d been eaten, in fact. Naturally, the parish priest was a bit reluctant to bury Vasilisa in the churchyard. So the lord was offering a thousand rubles to anyone who would sit and pray over his daughter’s body for three nights running.

When he heard this story, Ivan immediately went to the lord and offered to watch the body.

“Are you sure?” Yuri asked him.

“For a thousand rubles? Yes, I’m sure,” said Ivan.

Yuri just shook his head, but just before sundown on the first evening, he showed up at the old chapel with a piece of coal and a vial of holy water. He told Ivan to sit on the floor of the chapel, then he dipped the coal in the holy water and drew a circle around Ivan where he sat. Then Yuri left.

Ivan sat in the circle, reading prayers for the dead. At midnight, he heard the lid of the coffin begin to move. Creak. Creak. Creak.

Slowly, the coffin lid opened, and up sat the dead girl, her skin a blueish hue in the moonlight that streamed through the chapel windows. She spotted Ivan and licked her lips hungrily as she climbed out of the coffin and crawled over to where he sat. But she couldn’t get to him — the blessed circle stopped her. All night long, she crept around Ivan, round and round, hissing, as Ivan continued to read his prayers. At the morning cockcrow, she hurried back into the coffin and slammed the lid shut. The first night was over.

Chapel, Nicholas Roerich
Chapel, Nicholas Roerich. Image: Wikiart

The second night went much as the first.

On the third night, Yuri came to the chapel just before sundown as usual, but instead of the coal he had a cross and a scapular.

A scapular (shown here with a rosary) is two small pieces of cloth or wood with religious images on them, connected by bands. It’s worn over the shoulders, with one image hanging on the wearer’s chest and the other on their back.
Image: User “Boston”, Wikipedia

“Hold onto the cross,” he told Ivan. “When she comes out of her coffin, climb into it yourself. Don’t come out under any circumstances. At the last cockcrow before morning, throw the scapular over her shoulders.”

Then Yuri wished Ivan good luck, and left.

At midnight, the coffin opened. Creak. Creak. Creak. Vasilisa crawled out. Her eyes gleamed when she saw that Ivan had no circle to protect him. She leapt at him, but Ivan dodged around her and jumped into the coffin. Vasilisa howled with rage.


She tried to pull Ivan out of the coffin, but she couldn’t touch him, because of the cross. All night long she circled the casket, begging and pleading and threatening Ivan. But he stayed put, clutching the cross and praying.

At the first cockcrow, Vasilisa got frantic. She tried to climb into the coffin, but the cross stopped her. At the second cockcrow she began to weaken, clinging to the coffin to keep upright, pleading with Ivan to let her in. At the third cockcrow, she collapsed. Ivan jumped out of the coffin and put the scapular on her.

As the sun rose, Vasilisa opened her eyes. Still alive! Really alive — her skin had lost its blueish cast, and her cheeks were flushed with the blood that circulated through her body again. When the lord and his company opened the chapel doors, they found Ivan and Vasilisa, both alive and well. Overjoyed, the lord gave Ivan his thousand rubles — and Vasilisa’s hand in marriage, if she was willing. She was.

They were married the next day.

Russian wedding
Russian Peasant Wedding. Engraving by K. Wagner, 1812. Image: Wikimedia

At the end of the wedding feast, as Ivan and Vasilisa left the banquet hall, they ran into Yuri.

“Congratulations! Things have come out well for you. You remember our bargain, don’t you?”

“Of course!” said Ivan, as he gave five hundred rubles to Yuri. “And thank you for saving my life! I’ll ask my father-in-law to give you a position in his household, too…”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Yuri stopped Ivan mid-speech. “The deal was: half of everything.”

As he said this, Yuri pulled out a sword and brandished it towards Vasilisa. Ivan looked at him, horrified.

“Here, take all the money!” And he held out another five hundred rubles to Yuri. But Yuri shook his head and swung the sword. Snick! Vasilisa fell to the ground, sliced in two.

Before Ivan could react or cry out, Yuri pulled all the entrails out of the body, put the two halves of the corpse together, and blew on the dead body. Vasilisa opened her eyes and sat up! She was alive again, and was, if anything, more healthy and beautiful than ever.

“Just making sure the curse is completely removed,” Yuri said as he handed the money back to Ivan. “May you have a wife as loyal as mine was. Thank you for helping her — and me — by paying my debts and saving our inn.”

As he said this, the ghost of the dead innkeeper vanished.

Ivan and Vasilisa, of course, lived happily ever after.

This story is a mixture of two Russian folktales (labelled “Russian V” and “Russian VI”) from the text The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Tale by Gordon Hall Gerould, published in 1908. Gerould analyzes several international variants of the folk motif The Grateful Dead, which he defines as:

A man finds a corpse lying unburied, and out of pure philanthropy procures interment for it at great personal inconvenience. Later he is met by the ghost of the dead man, who in many cases promises him help on condition of receiving, in return, half of whatever he gets. The hero obtains a wife (or some other reward), and, when called upon, is ready to fulfil his bargain as to sharing his possessions.

In my story, the hero didn’t exactly bury the dead innkeeper, but he did do him a service, by paying his debts. The rest of the tale follows the pattern pretty faithfully. The variant I’ve retold is a combination of The Grateful Dead with another motif, The Poison Maiden, in which a woman can’t get married because all her husbands die on their wedding night. Usually, the bride is possessed by a demon or dragon or serpent, which is killing the grooms. The grateful ghost (when these two motifs are combined) often must slice the bride in two to release the demon/serpent/dragon and kill it. In the Russian variants that I’ve used, the poison maiden is more of a vampire, but I liked the “removed her entrails” detail (from Russian V) because it’s suggestive of the serpent motif.

I’ve mixed details of the two variants together, along with some details from Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy”. I’ve also embellished the heck out of it (any mistakes in the representation of Russian folklife are mine, of course). The characters’ names are mine. Ivan (John, Jack, Juan) is the classic name for a folk tale hero, and Vasilisa is a common name for Russian folktale heroines. Yuri, Wikipedia tells me, is one of the Slavic variants of George. In Russian VI, the hero ransoms an icon of St. George along with the corpse; St. George takes the place of the grateful ghost in the rest of the story. Russian VI doesn’t have the demonic possession or serpent motif, but St George is most famous for the (probably originally Georgian) myth where he slays a dragon to rescue a princess. Cool how folklore variation works, isn’t it?

Gogol’s short story “Viy” isn’t related to The Grateful Dead; it uses the Poison [Vampire] Maiden motif, but takes it in a different direction. You can read Claud Field’s 1916 translation of “Viy” at Project Gutenberg; I prefer the 1998 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Vintage, 1998). It’s a delightful, gorgeous — and creepy — story. I recommend both it (especially the 1998 translation) and Gerould’s text highly.

Finally, thanks to Acid Free Pulp for pointing me to “Viy” (and from there, to all of Gogol’s early Ukrainian tales) way back when.

13 thoughts on “Share and Share Alike: A Russian Folktale

  1. I wonder if you’ve ever read Catherynne Valente’s “Deathless”? I was reminded of it while reading this, not because of any direct connection or resemblance, but because it’s such a wonderful little fugue on different themes from Russian folklore and history.

    1. No, I’ve not read it, but I just looked it up and it looks wonderful! Definitely going on my list. Thanks for pointing it out!

  2. Beautifully crafted story, Nina. As I’m sure you know, you follow in a great literary tradition of using published material, folk tales, and historical themes and making them your own. Well done! I loved it.

    1. Thank you! The summaries of the two folktales in Gerould’s text were bare-bones, and I couldn’t get the original text that he was summarizing from (it was in German, anyway), so I had to make stuff up. But I’d also recently read an interview with Zack Davisson, where he quoted Philip Pullman:

      He said that anyone who writes a folk story, and doesn’t change it just a little, has misunderstood the purpose of folk tales. They are living, changing things that should be allowed to evolve, not be preserved under glass at a museum exhibition.

      That made me feel better about attempting this. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Amazingly creepy and well-written story! I’m not much familiar with Russian folklore so that was fascinating. I love your attention to details. I’d be less willing than Ivan to marry Vasilisa though. Every hero needs someone like Yuri to save the day. Even if that means some guts will be spilled, ha.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Yeah, I’m not sure I’d marry Vasilisa, either, in Ivan’s place. The Poison Maiden motif is an ancient one; I think one of the earliest instances is the Book of Tobit, one of the apochryphal books of the Old Testament (meaning, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox count it as part of the Bible, but most Protestant churches don’t. I don’t think it’s officially part of the Hebrew Bible, either). Gerould counts Tobit as a version of Grateful Dead, too, because Tobit buried the abandoned bodies of executed Jews as an act of charity.

      Do check out “Viy”, if you haven’t read it. I read it on a recommendation from Acid Free Pulp, and I love it.

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