Peter the Great and His Time in Russian Song and Prose Folklore

Key words
Peter the Great, Great Northern War, A. D. Menshikov, M. P. Gagarin, the fool Balakirev, historical song, legend, anecdote, fairy tale.
Seiran A. Dzhanumov Irina N. Raikova
About the Author
Seiran A. Dzhanumov
E-mail: Tel.: +7 (499) 181-24-62
4, 2nd Selskokhozyaistvennyi side-str., Moscow, 129226, Russian Federation
DSc in Philology, Full Professor, Honored Worker of the Higher School of Russian Federation,
Department of the Russian Literature, Institute of the Humanities, Moscow City University

Irina N. Raikova
E-mail: Tel.: +7 (499) 181-24-62
4, 2nd Selskokhozyaistvennyi side-str., Moscow, 129226, Russian Federation
PhD in Philology, Associate Professor, Professor, Department of the Russian Literature, Institute of
Humanities, Moscow City University; Scholarly Editor of the almanac “Traditional Culture”
Date of publication

This article, dedicated to the 300th 350th anniversary of the Russian Empire and the anniversary of Peter the Great’s birth, deals with the Great Northern War of 1700–1721 and its culmination, the Battle of Poltava, as they are reflected in the folklore of Peter’s time. Historical songs about the Great Northern War not only feature military events, but also present a lyrically colored, psychologically convincing portrayal of their characters. The songs include one about Russian soldiers getting ready for battle with the Swedes preparing various allegorical “dishes” prepared for their enemies. The article also examines the oral historical prose of the era, including legends, anecdotes and fairy tales. The extraordinary personality of the first emperor of Russia and his unusual way of life as “a worker on the throne” caught the people’s imagination. Several legends and anecdotes describe Peter’s decision to recast monastery bells as cannons, an idea they attribute to the cannon master, the patriarch, and to the tsar himself.

Historical songs, anecdotes and household tales about A. D. Menshikov express socio-political conflicts and motifs. The songs reflect discontent with the unseemly deeds of Peter’s favorite and associate in a caustic and mocking form. In folklore prose, Menshikov’s contradictory nature is conveyed more subtly, as, for example, in a fairy tale about the tsar and a blacksmith, in one variant of which Menshikov himself turns out to be a blacksmith. Other historical songs and legends denounce M. P. Gagarin, the first governor of Siberia, bribe-taker and embezzler, whom Peter the Great had executed for his crimes in 1721.

The image of Peter the Great and his time differs in historical songs and oral prose, due in part to differences in genre. However, taken in their entirety, the texts present a multi-faceted picture of people and events that, along with their inherent contradictions, convey not the factual truth but the spirit of the era.


Dzhanumov S. A. (1986) Preemstvennost’ ustno-poeticheskikh traditsii v russkikh istoricheskikh pesnyakh XVIII veka: Uchebnoe posobie [The Continuity of Oral and Poetic Traditions in Russian Historical Songs of the Eighteenth Century: Textbook]. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo MOPI. In Russian.

Krinichnaya N. A. (1991) Ukazatel’ tipov, motivov i osnovnykh elementov [Index of Types, Motifs and Basic Elements]. In: Predaniya Russkogo Severa [Legends of the Russian North], by N. A. Krinichnaya. St. Petersburg: Nauka. Pp. 278–294. In Russian.

Makhov S. Kolokola — ​v pushki: mify Se24 vernoi voiny [Bells into Guns: Myths of the Great Northern War]. URL: (retrieved: 15.07.2021). In Russian.

Pavlenko N. I. (2005) Poluderzhavnyi vlastelin The Semi-Sovereign Ruler]. Moscow: Molodaya gvardiya. In Russian. Putilov B. N. (1960) Russkii istoriko-pesennyi fol’klor XIII–XVI vekov [Russian Historical and Song Folklore of the Thirteenth–Sixteenth Centuries]. Moscow; Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo AN SSSR. In Russian.

Putilov B. N. (2000) Petr Velikii — ​fol’klornyi geroi [Peter the Great — ​Hero of Folklore]. In: Petr Velikii v predaniyakh, legendakh, anekdotakh, skazkakh, pesnyakh [Peter the Great in Legends, Anecdotes, Fairy Tales, Songs]. Comp. by B. N. Putilov. St. Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt. Pp. 3–12. In Russian.

Raikova I. N. (1995) Russkie predaniya, legendy, skazki, lubok i massovaya literatura o “spravedlivom” tsare (Traditsionnye syuzhety, motivy, poetika) [Russian Tales, Legends, Fairy Tales, Lubok and Mass Literature About the “Just” Tsar (Traditional Plots, Motives, Poetics)]. PhD dis. Moscow. In Russian.

Sokolova V. K. (1960) Russkie istoricheskie pesni XVI–XVIII vv. [Russian Historical Songs of the Sixteenth — ​Eighteenth Centuries]. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo AN SSSR, 1960. In Russian.

For citation

Dzhanumov S. A., Raikova I. N. Peter the Great and His Time in Russian Song and Prose Folklore. Traditional Culture. 2021. Vol. 22. No. 3. Pp. 11–25. In Russian.