Friday, August 02, 2013

The Tale of Putin and the Pike.

(Russian cultural references).

Fisherman and the Golden Fish.
Illustration by Ivan Bilibin.

President Putin's most recent outdoor exploit in Southern Siberia when he caught a 20 kilogamm pike caused disbelief and widely circulated jokes.

Putin, accompanied by prime-minister Medvedev and minister of defence Shoigu, was fishing on a lake in Tuva, a Russian republic on the border with Mongolia. In one of the photos with his pike, Putin seems to be talking to the fish or kissing her.

Some claimed that the pike in photos shouldn't have been more than 12 kg. The Kremlin insisted that it was genuine. The long-standing British record for a pike is 21 kg 234 g.

Others simply rolled their eyes — no, not another one! Putin previously flew on a micro-light with a flock of  storks, chased whales on a speedboat, shot a Siberian tiger with a tranquiliser, and, most hilariously, 'discovered' a cache of Greek amphoras while diving in the Black Sea.

The pike episode is special in that it envokes numerous cultural references in Russia. All of them derisive.

One is the popular folk tale of The Simpleton Yemelya and the Pike (a version in English here and in Russian here). Yemelya, the lazy third son of a peasant, refuses to do any work at home or in the fields except when bribed by 'presents'. He goes to fetch water in an ice-hole on the river and catches a magic pike there. The pike asks him to let her go, or him in some versions, and promises that any Yemelya's wish will be fulfilled when he adds to it a short incantation: "по щучьему велению, по моему хотению" — 'on the pike's behest and on my request.' Yemelya goes on to marry the tsar's daughter and become the tsar himself.

The 'moral' of the tale seems strange or absent at first, but only if you forget that many folk tales have a reverse message, telling you what not to do or not expect to happen. In Russian language, the phrase 'on pike's behest' is often used to mock wishful thinking or empty boastfulness.

The second reference is to Pushkin's tale in verse "Сказка о рыбаке и рыбке" (The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, Robert Chandler's version in English here and in Russian here, wiki about the tale). The tale uses the plot of the Brothers Grimm Vom Fischer und seiner Frau (in Russian herebut while many Grimm's tales are well-known in Russia this one is popular in Pushkin's rendition.

The old fisherman who lives in a mudhut by the sea with his wife who only has a разбитое корыто (broken trough) catches a golden fish who talks to him in human language and, again, as in the tale about Yemelya, asks him to let her go. The old man, charmed by the polite request from the sea creature lets her go. But the fish-wife scolds him and makes him go back to the sea to ask the golden fish for a log cabin. The fish, who turns out to be the Queen of the Sea, turns the mudhut into a log cabin. The fish-wife wants more and more until deciding that she wants to rule the Sea herself. After which everything returns to where it was, the mudhut and the broken trough.

Остаться у разбитого корыта — to be left by the broken trough became an idiom which means to be no better off than before, to be left with nothing, or to be back where one started.

And the third reference is "Бриллиантовая рука" (The Diamond Arm, wiki here), Leonid Gaidai's 1969 comedy. If not number one then it certainly is in the top ten of most loved Russian/Soviet. It is a film that every Russian-speaking person knows practically by heart and almost every line went into the language as an idiom.

It is about a gang of smugglers whose latest shipment of gold and diamonds from abroad lands by accident in the cast on the arm of an unintended man, Semyon Semyonovich (the iconic comic Yuri Nikulin.) Nikulin reports it to the police, they decide to use him as live bait to catch the criminals.  The crooks, one of whom befriends Nikulin, don't realise that Nikulin saw the treasure being hidden inside the cast, and unsuccessfully try to lure him into a series of traps to get the cast with diamonds. In one such attempt, Nikulin and his 'friend' go on a fishing trip to a remote place. Nikulin doesn't believe there's fish there but is promised that "клёв будет такой, что он забудет всё на свете" (the fish will be biting so much that he will forget everything.) Because another, scuba diving crook is sitting on the bottom of the sea with a netful of fish, hooking them as soon as Nikulin throws in the line.

The staged fishing success that makes the fisherman 'forget everything in the world' is being remembered and repeated now in connection with Putin's pike, genuine or not.

There's the triple counter-punch for you, fire the PR.

The Diamond Arm with English subtitles. The fishing episode comes at 42 minute into the film.

In this 1957 Soviet cartoon version of Yemelya and the Pike there is an added motive of Yemelya beating the foreign princes, defeating an invading army and the tsar deciding to emigrate abroad. (bad syncing)


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