Where Western tales begin by shifting us to another time—’Once upon a time’ they say, meaning elsewhen, meaning then rather than now—Russian skazki make an adjustment of place. ‘In a certain land’, they start; or, ‘In the three-times-ninth kingdom …’ Meaning elsewhere, meaning there rather than here. Yet these elsewheres are always recognisable as home. In the distance will always be a wood-walled town where the churches have onion domes. The ruler will always be a Tsar, Ivan or Vladimir. The earth is always black. The sky is always wide. It’s Russia, always Russia, the dear dreadful enormous territory at the edge of Europe which is as large as all Europe put together. And, also, it isn’t. It is story Russia, not real Russia; a place never quite in perfect overlap with the daylight country of the same name. It is as near to it as a wish is to reality, and as far away too. For the tales supplied what the real country lacked, when villagers were telling them and Afanaseyev was writing them down.
Real Russia’s fields grew scraggy crops of buckwheat and rye. Story Russia had magic tablecloths serving feasts without end. Real Russia’s roads were mud and ruts. Story Russia abounded in tools of joyful velocity: flying carpets, genies of the rushing air, horses that scarcely bent the ground they galloped on. Real Russia fixed its people in sluggish social immobility. Story Russia sent its lively boys to seek the Firebird or to woo the Swan Maiden. The stories dreamed away reality’s defects. They made promises good enough to last for one evening of firelight; promises which the teller and the hearers knew could only be delivered in some Russian otherwhere. They could come true only in the version of home where the broke-backed trestle over the stream became ‘a bridge of white hazelwood with oaken planks, spread with purple cloths and nailed with copper nails’. Only in the wish country, the dream country. Only in the twenty-seventh kingdom."