The Borrowing of Foreign Words
Army Training under Peter the Great

Porridge from an axe and Russian Mentality

Before you start reading this article, we recommend you to read the fairy tale “Porridge from an Axe” in English or in Russian.

After telling them the tale and explaining that at the end the soldier did not only received porridge but a rich, tasty one, students began to ask questions: why a porridge from an axe? Почему хозяйка дала солдату всё, что он просил, хотя сперва сказала, что у неё ничего нет? (why did the hostess gave the soldier everything he asked, when she said she had nothing at first?)

In Russia, fairy tales often play upon such characteristic features of Russian people, как находчивость и смекалка (as resourceful and with quick wit), which is not to be confused with slyness in its traditional sense. We also tend not to be too curious, because according to most of the popular fairy tales, чаще является причиной каких-либо проблем для героя, чем позволяет узнать что-то интересное (often causes more problems to the hero than interesting learning). And in the case of this particular tale, the soldier is playing with this curiosity of the hostess who really wanted to know how to cook porridge from an axe. The axe could have been replaced by a log, a stool or a hammer, it wouldn’t have changed a thing, it symbolises something which is in principal impossible. Просто топору в русском хозяйстве, а, следовательно, и в сказках отведено более видное место (the axe was simply an ordinary but important instrument in the countryside, and it always gets a large place in fairy tales).

There is another important point. Русскому человеку (Russian), according to the eminent philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, свойственна вера в чудо, не столь важно, идёт ли речь о чуде религиозном или просто о необычном событии (can be characterised by his belief in miracles, no matter if this miracle is religious or simply an unusual event). We often unconsciously want to believe that the most outlandish things can become real. This kind of tricks are often used by anyone wishing to obtain benefits, not only in fairy tales, but in real life.

At the same time, the soldier cheating on the housewife in “Porridge from an axe” is not seen as a negative person, since he is smart enough to overpass the greedy old woman who lied to the soldier when she said she had nothing at home.

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And this is also a major point for Russian fairy tales. Тот, кто хочет сэкономить, не готов поделиться с бедным, что-то утаивает и т.д., всегда оказывается в итоге в проигрыше (anyone who wants to save, who refuses to share with poor people, who hides things away, etc., always ends up to be the loser). But yet another point about this tale: быть негостеприимным – не в правилах русского человека (to be inhospitable is not part of the rules of Russian people).

Евгения Плещунова