January 01, 2019

Man With a Box

Man With a Box
Mistress of the Copper Mountain, from a 1970s diafilm.

For several generations, the works of Pavel Bazhov were a feature of Soviet childhood. In the early grades we read his tales (or abridged versions), which were labeled with the somewhat confusing term skaz, a genre we vaguely understood as being related to the words skazat (to say), skazka (fairy tale), and rasskaz (short story). These stories took place in the faraway Urals, in seemingly fairy-tale mountains where people – Danila the Master, Stepan, and others – worked wonders with stone. They went out into the fairy-tale mountains to look for stones and met magical beings there. The most impressive of these was the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, who sometimes seemed beautiful and sometimes evil. She might even have been a serpent.

Danila, the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, Stepan, and Stepan’s daughter Tanyushka all appeared in illustrations in children’s books, and there were also plenty of films – with actors, animation, or puppets – or you could put filmstrips, called diafilmy, into a special projector that could be easily set up in a kindergarten, school, or even at home. These filmstrips were sold in little boxes, and they had pictures with lines from Bazhov’s stories. Parents would turn a little handle and the wondrous stone flowers that Danila the Master was dreaming of making would show up on the screen, which was usually just a sheet hung on the wall.

Truly lucky children were taken to the theater by their parents to see Prokofiev’s ballet, The Stone Flower, and older children might listen to the opera, the tone poem, or orchestral suite. When Kalininsky Prospect sprung up in the center of Moscow, its monstrous girth (which earned it the nickname “Broadway”) displacing what had once been charming Arbat alleyways, there appeared a large jewelry store named after Bazhov’s best known skaz: The Malachite Box, a collection of stories that few read from start to finish and fewer still understood.

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Pavel Bazhov

Pavel Bazhov

PAVEL BAZHOV (1879-1950) was a Ural-born writer and journalist. He grew up in a small Urals town where almost everyone, including his father, worked in a local metallurgical plant. Later, he lived in other Ural towns and villages, while working as a teacher. While working as a teacher he began writing down local legends and describing the pagan spirits which people still believed lived in the mountains and influenced local life. In the 1930s he started publishing these oral legends (which he called “skazy”). Some of these he clearly made up from whole cloth, as they employed communist images and values. But others (as the one published here) were based on folklore and became famous.

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