Bylinas, Starinas, Lamentations: a Journey to Iceland of the Russian Epic

Музей-заповедник "Кижи". Фото: Сергей Цепек, участник фотоконкурса РГО "Самая красивая страна"

The lands of Zaonezhye – the historical territory in the northern part of Lake Onega and the Kizhi Skerries – are the main attraction for folklore and ethnographic researchers of Karelia. Here is where, in the 19th–20th centuries, folk epic poetry, which had disappeared by that time in other parts of Russia, remained widespread. Bylinas and starinas about bogatyrs and wizards, fairy tales and ritual lamentations – for a long time a whole cultural layer of the Old Russian song tradition remained alive in local villages.

The guardians of the bylinas, or rather, those who supported and prolonged their lives – rune singers, rhapsodists and storytellers – were illiterate immigrants from peasant families who had a way with words and a sense of rhythm. In Olonets Governorate (as the territories of South Karelia were called in the 19th century), whole dynasties of performers formed, passing on family oral tradition for generations.

Zaonezhye has become known in the cultural tradition as the "Iceland of the Russian epic" – by analogy with an island cut off from the continent, thanks to which living folk epic has remained preserved there for a long time. The stories familiar from childhood about Ilya Muromets and Nightingale the Robber, merchant Sadko and the Kiev princes live to this day in the works and memory of ethnographers, as well as in thematic museums.

The project "Travels with the RGS" together with the tour operator "SkanTur" offer to touch the heritage of old Russia and go on a journey along bylina motifs as part of the grand tour "All of Karelia". Our article will help to understand the subtleties of folklore studies.

How come there is Ilya Muromets in Karelia?

The prime of song art, based, unlike fairy tales and tall tales, on real facts, was during the times of Kievan Rus of the 10th–12th centuries. Hence, the central figure of most bylina storylines was Prince Vladimir of Kiev with a retinue of legendary bogatyrs. A little later, in the 14th century, the Principality of Novgorod became the focus of the Russian epic, and then the Moscow state. Gradually, the art of rhapsodists – folk storytellers – which spread throughout the country, faded away until it seemingly disappeared completely. However, an interesting event happened.

A young historian Pavel Rybnikov, exiled to Petrozavodsk in 1859, during a trip accidentally heard from one of the old men accompanying him unusual tunes about the heroic deeds of Russian bogatyrs. As it turned out, Zaonezhye had a whole group of long-time residents who were rune singers. When Rybnikov recorded their work, the find became a real sensation in the circles of the reading elite of St. Petersburg. Before that, Olonets Governorate had been marked on the map only as the birthplace of the Karelo-Finnish epic "Kalevala", published by Elias Lönnrot several decades earlier.


Водные просторы Заонежья. Фото: Алина Голубева, участница фотоконкурса РГО "Самая красивая страна"

Pavel Rybnikov spent the next seven years traveling through the villages of Zaonezhye; Segezha, Pudozhsky and Belomorsky Districts. The result was a four-volume collection of "Songs collected by P.N. Rybnikov", which included bylinas, starinas, and true stories collected by him. The stories about the famous Novgorod, Moscow and Kiev bogatyrs had once again become heard on a par with the nameless fine-fellow songs.

But how did the old Russian heroic motifs survive in the Onega villages? And why did the old-time residents of the Russian North sing about the vast wide steppes that they had never seen, and other joys of spacious life in the southern lands? Historian and ethnographer, the first chairman of the Ethnographic Commission of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society Alexander Hilferding, who had followed Rybnikov to the villages of Zaonezhye to collect Russian folklore, tried to answer these questions. He identified two reasons that contributed to this cultural phenomenon: freedom and wilderness.

The peasants, who had not seen serfdom, shared the ideals of free power sung about in the bylinas. At the same time, their remoteness from modern civilization helped them to keep these ancient rhapsodies alive. "Thus," Hilferding summed up, "the elements that make up the necessary condition for the preservation of primitive epic poetry – loyalty to the olden times and faith in the miraculous – managed to remain here in their entirety."

It was this sincere and somewhat naive belief in miracles that the people in the Russian North survived on, intertwined with bylina facts that were perceived by the locals as something completely natural. Stories of bogatyrs who were carrying clubs weighing 40 pounds (almost 660 kilograms!) and single-handedly defeating entire enemy troops were experienced as their personal ones. "The bylinas were listened to with the same faith in the reality of what was being told, as if it were about an event of yesterday, though unusual and amazing, but nevertheless quite plausible," Hilferding recalled. As an example, the historian cited emotionally vivid comments of storytellers and listeners who reacted to the vicissitudes of the heroes of the bylinas: "What trouble has come here, my brother. Look at this filthy snake, trying to play tricks!"

Ancient mnemonics, or how to remember a dozen bylinas

The poetics of bylinas and their unique musicality consists of special stylistic techniques. The structure of the songs consists of verses in which there are no rhymes, and the rhythm is built from consonances and an equal number of stressed syllables in a line. The bylinas themselves were composed according to certain epic formulas, which made it easier for the storyteller to memorize a large amount of text. With these lexical structures, the rhapsodist could easily reproduce voluminous songs and improvise on the go.


Онежская пастораль. Фото: Денис Лукьяненко, участник фотоконкурса РГО "Самая красивая страна"

The basis of the language formulas are stable epithets (“fine steed”, “mother earth”, “reckless fellow”) and phraseological repetitions of both individual words and entire episodes (“put’-dorozhenka”, “tsar-tsarevich” meaning “road” and “tsar” respectively). The elements add up to the so-called verse metric, thanks to which the composition becomes complete, and the narrator can correctly build the structure of their song. There are rules here too. Bylina consists of three parts – the introduction (or beginning), where the narrator vividly outlines the historical scenery and sets the general mood; the narrative part in which the main action unfolds; and the denouement. The storylines of the characters were also often created according to a certain structure. Each character had its own recognizable appearance. And in the center of the narrative were such widely relatable motifs as saving the native land from invaders and the themes of family happiness.

Having the basic set of such formulas, the storyteller could reproduce up to several dozen epic songs with a length of 300 lines.

Dynasties of the Olonets rhapsodists

The success of a bylina often depended not on the successful composition or the thrilling plot, but on the skill of the storyteller and even their life experience. Epic songs in the mouth of the performer lived their own life, changing and improving over and over again, gaining their own unique shades and details.

Emotional involvement and empathy for the characters that Hilferding was talking about were also reflected in the narrative: the narrator put part of their soul, their own thoughts and feelings into the story. The personality of the performer was superimposed on what Hilferding called the "the local imprint". As a result, each heroic folk song became a unique creation of the author.

Trofim Ryabinin, Leonty Bogdanov, Kozma Romanov are considered to be the most gifted storytellers, who in turn became the founders and successors of entire dynasties of the rhapsodists of Zaonezhye. Ryabinin, by the way, became a real symbol of Russian folklore: he was invited to a meeting of the Ethnographic Commission of the Russian Geographical Society, where he was awarded a Large Silver Medal; and much later the International Scientific Conference "Ryabinin Readings" was named in his honor.

Trofim Ryabinin's collection contained more than three dozen texts, which is about six thousand poems. Among the plots are both well-known variations on the theme of Ilya Muromets and Nightingale the Robber, as well as unique bylinas preserved in the Russian North, for example, "Vol’ga and Mikula".


На былинной стороне. Фото: Александр Кильмет, участник фотоконкурса РГО "Самая красивая страна"

Interestingly, there were many women among the performers of ancient rhapsodies. Aksinya Fomina, Maria Kotova, Nastasia Popova, Domna Surikova gave the songs their own special stylistic unity. In the repertoire of the storytellers, in addition to heroic texts, there were romantic, fairy-tale, everyday and philosophical motifs.

Bylinas in the 21st century

You can still follow the footsteps of ethnographers Rybnikov and Hilferding, visit the homeland of many storytellers, plunge into the world of the ancient Russian epic. Many villages of Zaonezhye; Pudozhsky, Olonetsky, and Belomorsky Districts have retained their former charm of traditional northern settlements. However, to hear the performers of epic songs is a great luck. Nowadays, only researchers, ethnographers, and folklore collectors become the guardians of oral tradition.

You introduction to the folk art can begin at the Kizhi Museum-Reserve. There you can see the peasant buildings of the sectors of the "Russian Zaonezhye", the churchyard where the storytellers Trofim Ryabinin, Vasily Shchegolenok, Leonty Bogdanov are buried, to see museum exhibitions dedicated to the works of the Olonets rhapsodists, as well as to hear the stories of the Russian epic. In addition, a photo exhibition "In the footsteps of Rybnikov and Hilferding" is held in Petrozavodsk with the support of the Presidential Foundation for Cultural Initiatives, which tells about the cultural monuments of Zaonezhye and its inhabitants.

"Travels with the RGS" is a collection of fascinating author's tours of Russia from Russian tour operators, which have been peer-reviewed by the Society’s specialists and received a distinguishing quality stamp "Recommended by the RGS".

The system of voluntary certification of routes, developed jointly with the Russian State University of Tourism and Service, means that the route meets all quality and safety requirements, and is also an authentic, unique, and informative product.

Based on the materials of Kirill Cherkashin, the guide at "SkanTur"