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Of Skazki and Bilibine

I own several books of fairy tales, most of which I purchased primarily for the superb illustrations – notably, by Arthur Rackham, William Heath Robinson, Kay Nielsen and Edmund Dulac. (See my April 24, 2021 post on Hans Christian Anderson.)

Less well known to the western world are the works of Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibine (sometimes spelled Bilibin), a Russian illustrator who lived from 1876 -1942, dying tragically (of starvation) during the two year, four month siege of Leningrad during World War II. Ironically, he had left Russia after the 1917 revolution, to live abroad (mainly in Egypt and France) only to return to the Soviet Union in 1936 after longing for his homeland.

In addition to being an artist, Bilibine was also a stage designer for the Paris-based Ballets Russes. He was greatly influenced by the art nouveau movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (at least the German version of this movement) and studied with Ilya Repin, the artist considered by many as the Tolstoy of Russian painting (now that’s a compliment!).

I came across Bilibine’s drawings in Paris in the early 1980s. I was in the French capital on business (lucky me!) and grabbed the opportunity to check out a couple of art galleries near to my hotel. For 54 French francs (the books’ plastic cover still has the price tag), I bought a reproduction of Billibine’s illustrated Russian Fairy Tales. Naturally, it’s a French translation (by Luda) entitled Contes Russes (Editions la Farandole, 1976).

The six-book set (of about 12 pages each) contains seven illustrated stories. Needless to say, the illustrations are gorgeous and everything one would expect of a Russian sensibility. I’d love to see the originals someday. Here is a link to the original version, Ivanie-tsarevichie, Zhar-ptitsie i o sierom volkie, published in 1899, (digitization by the University of Toronto, from the John Robarts Research Library collection).

The original Russian book, from which these tales are taken, entitled Russian Wonder Tales in the English translation, contained twelve stories:

  1. Tzar Saltan
  2. Wassilisa the Beautiful
  3. The Little Humpbacked Horse
  4. Tzarevich Ivan, the Glowing Bird and the Grey Wolf
  5. Maria Morevna
  6. Martin the Peasant’s Son
  7. The Feather of Finist the Falcon
  8. The Frog-Tzarevna
  9. Schmat-Hazum
  10. Little Bear’s Son
  11. Wassily the Unlucky
  12. Tzarevich Petr and the Wizard

This English translation (published by A. & C. Black, London, 1912) contains an excellent forward by Post Wheeler, the Chargé d’Affaires at the American Embassy, St. Petersburg, at the time. In the forward, Mr. Wheeler provides a useful introduction to Russian folktales and appropriate accolades for the artistry of Mr. Billibine.

The Russian title Skazki, Wheeler says, comes from the word skazats (to tell). Typical of early myths and stories, these folks tales are passed down orally, repeated from one generation to the next, common to all members of society, rich and poor. They are “almost as much a part of life of the people as the language itself”, their adventures linked to a hundred phrases in common parlance [and] their heroes peer from every part of Slavonic literature. (p. vii) According to Wheeler, they differ from other European fairy tales in the following ways:

  • the true “fairy” element does not predominate;
  • the relations between men/women and the spiritual world differ, and the latter is “less familiar”; and
  • the stories evoke a natural wonderland rather than a fairy wonderland (more akin to the Middle Eastern folk tale collection, 1001 Arabian Nights). (p. vii)

What nature predominates? The “wide, wind-sept steppe and dense forest, the love of animal life and the comradeship of the horse, the dread and terror of the long winter cold and the passionate welcome given to the springtime sun.” (p. viii) [One is easily reminded of the scenes from the wonderful David Lean movie of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago.]

Originally, the gods were “the personification of the forces of nature”. (p. ix) Over time, post the introduction of Christianity, the good spirits evolved into friendly beasts – the glowing firebird, the heroic horse, the aid-giving wolf and bear. The deities of evil, meanwhile, became the Kastchey and the Baba-Yaga, malevolent beings that the skazka hero overcomes.

Mr. Wheeler praises Mr. Billibin’s “charming illustrations” as follows:

“No decorative artist in Russia has so allied himself with the movement [that] has brought again into familiar use the striking and characteristic conventions of Russian art of the Middle Ages; and it may be said that in no way has he more endeared himself to the Russian people than by the exquisite simplicity of method and fine appreciation of artistic values which he has brought to his treatment of the skazki. In these pictures he has made the old myths glow again.” (p. xi)

I couldn’t agree more; in fact, I’d say “charming” is an understatement – they are truly outstanding.

The six-book set I purchased includes five of the list above:

  1. The Frog Princess (La Princesse-Grenouille)
  2. Vassillissa the Beautiful (Vassilissa-la-Tres-Belle)
  3. Maria des Mers
  4. The Firebird (L’Oiseau de Feu)
  5. The Feather of Finist the Falcon (La Plume de Finist-Fier Faucon)

as well as two other well-known stories:

  • Big Sister and Little Brother (Grande-Soeur et Petit-Frère); and
  • The White Duckling (Blanche Canette).

Here are five examples of the illustrations (one can also see the influence of traditional Japanese prints and Renaissance woodcuts):

The famous Firebird tale, of course, was made yet more famous in the beginning of the 20th century by the choreographer Serge Diaghilev and composer Igor Stravinsky.

Editions la Farandole went out of business in 1994, after 39 years in business. It specialized in children’s and young adult literature, especially those from the Soviet Union. From my reading of Wikipedia’s French site (I might have missed some nuances), Farandole seemed to have a strong connection to the French Communist party. If so, then, naturally, with the collapse of the USSR, its raison-d’être came to an end.


The originals of Billibine’s illustrations are kept (strangely enough) in Russia’s Goznak Museum (located at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg). I say strangely because the museum has little to do with books and illustrations, and even less to do with fairy tales. In fact, it is all about the history of money. The following is taken from the museum’s website:

“[The museum] is dedicated to the history of money circulation in Russia: from ancient times to the 21st century; from the first coins circulating in the territory of Ancient Russia to the features of modern production of banknotes and contactless payments.”

Goznak is equivalent to Canada’s Royal Mint, the state entity that designs and produces currency. The company has been in operation in Russia since just after the Napoleonic Wars era. Back then (in 1818), it was called the Expedition for the Preparation of Government Securities (my computer’s translation from Russian). That means the company (which owns the Saint Petersburg Mint) has been through three world wars, a slew of lesser wars and a revolution. In sum, no end of political, economic and military upheaval.

For some reason unknown to me, the company was renamed Goznak in 1919. The Russian Money Museum was opened in 2016; in 2018 it opened a retrospective exhibition of its 200 years of collections. Here’s what the exhibition notes (1818+. 200 Years of Goznak) say about Billibine:

“In addition, visitors could see sketches of illustrations by Ivan Bilibin to Russian fairy tales, which were issued by the Expedition, illustrated calendars and the so-called ceremonial editions of the Expedition in the late XIX – early XX centuries.”

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