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13 November 2018

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Book Review

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Ivan the Fool

by Andrei Sinyavsky

It is common to say that “we are the stories we tell ourselves.” This principle is the thread that connects the many themes in this astoundingly rich and useful survey of Russian folk belief, religious symbolism and practice. Sinyavsky, one of the original Soviet dissidents and an extraordinarily gifted author and critic, describes here the intricately intersecting layers of the Russian psyche, as they developed and morphed through history and custom: ancient and invisible, pagan and Christian, faith and fantasy, symbol and society.

Beginning with a penetrating analysis of Russian fairy tales – their purpose and genesis (“people remember and pass on only what is precious to them”), Sinyavsky examines the uniquely Russian views toward Beauty, Fate and Heroism, and the role of magic and the supernatural behind all things.

This leads to concise and entertaining descriptions of Russia’s pagan gods, demons, spirits and symbols. Which naturally segues into a history of how these all were supplanted with the adoption of Christianity. Well, perhaps not simply supplanted so much as coopted and overlaid. Pagan holidays took on Christian meaning, phonetic similarities inclined patron saints to certain “assignments,” and age-old sprites were given new jobs as modern devils.

Finally, Sinyavsky closes with succinct summaries that are essential reading for anyone interested in Russia but unfamiliar with Orthodoxy: elements of the Russian faith, the role of icons, the major sects, the reforms and schisms that have rocked that faith. What truly makes this an invaluable book (and part of the Russophile’s Essential Library) is Sinyavsky’s easy, storytelling style. Adapted from lectures he gave at the Sorbonne and fluidly rendered into English by Joanne Turnbull’s superb translation, this book is never dry or encyclopedic. Rich with examples and constantly reflecting historical and social context, this is a lively history of the Russian worldview.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sept/Oct 2007