Friday, December 09, 2022

How fairy tales shape fighting spirit: Ukrainian children hear bedtime tales of failed heroes, while Russian children hear tales of magical success

How fairy tales shape fighting spirit: Ukrainian children hear bedtime tales of failed heroes, while Russian children hear tales of magical success

At the beginning of the Russian invasion, almost no one in the West expected that Ukraine would be able to offer Russia any serious resistance to its unprovoked aggression.

Much has been written about how leaders, including allies, underestimated Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership abilities. But aside from miscalculating how a comedian could turn into a Winston Churchill-like figure, the military assessments of the Ukrainian army were also far from ideal.

Within weeks of the start of the war, it became clear that many had overestimated the will and combat effectiveness of the Russian army, as well as the will of the Ukrainian army to face an enemy that was superior in numbers, equipment and location.

How can one explain how the Ukrainian war played out contrary to the forecasts of experts?

We believe that one of the factors underlying the unexpected actions of the armed forces of each country can be attributed to the cultural differences between Russians and Ukrainians. These differences were partly cultivated in the tales of their childhood.

One of us, Sofia Moskalenko, is a specialist in the psychology of fairy tales. Another, Mia Bloom, studies children’s mobilization into violent extremism – why and how children turn to violence. We know the power of folklore in shaping the worldview of children and, ultimately, the adults they grow up to be.

Outsider Hero vs. Magical Thinking

Folklore is important for understanding people’s cultural narratives – storylines that describe something unique to the history of a culture and its people. They help define cultural identity and subtly shape future choices. The main narratives that Ukrainian children grow up with and that serve as the dominant cultural script are radically different from those that are assimilated by Russian children.

Traditional Ukrainian bedtime stories such as Kotygoroshko, Kyrylo Kozhumyaka, and Ivasyk Telesik depict humble characters stubbornly fighting against insurmountable obstacles. The character arc takes them through trials, testing their will and turning them from vulnerable to victorious.

Bronze Statue Of A Girl Killing A Large Dragon With A Club.
Sculpture in Kyiv of the hero of the Ukrainian fairy tale Kotygoroshko defeating the evil dragon.
thisisbossie/Flickr, CC BY-SA

These tales follow the well-known underdog hero story arc, a formula used for decades in best-selling books like Harry Potter and Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars.

In Ukrainian children’s bedtime stories, the main characters often look like unlikely heroes, but their courage, intelligence, and courage help them succeed no matter what.

In contrast, Russian children’s stories often revolve around a central character named Ivan the Fool – Ivan the Fool. He is the third brother, inferior to his older brothers, one of whom is usually smart, the other is average. When the protagonist is not directly called “stupid”, he is portrayed as lazy, lying in bed all day while his older brothers work hard.

A Small Boy Rides A Clay Oven Down A Snow-Covered Hill, Following A Bizarre Sleigh And What Looks Like A Soldier On Horseback.
1913 illustration for the Russian folk tale “By the Pike’s Command”, also known as “Emelyan the Fool”.
V. Kurdyumov

In Russian fairy tales, such as “By the Pike’s Command”, “The Frog Princess” and “Sivka the Burka”, the protagonist eventually dominates. However, he wins not because of his own merit, but because of the intervention of a magical creature – fish, frog, horse – who do all the hard work while the protagonist claims recognition.

These Russian folk tales seem to suggest that the recipe for success is not to be too smart or work too hard like two big brothers, but to sit back and hope that magic will take care of everything.

Faced with the greatest challenge

Most adults don’t think about the fairy tales they heard as children. Yet these early stories, experienced through the magnifying glass of childhood emotions, shape our view of the world. They determine the repertoire of our actions, especially in times of crisis.

Fairy tales prepare us to recognize real heroes and villains, love and betrayal, good and evil. They guide our actions as we navigate these dichotomies.

The difference in traditional Russian and Ukrainian folklore may partly explain the difference between the actions of the Russian and Ukrainian armies.

Faced with the greatest test of their lives, the soldiers of the Russian army did not perform well and showed low morale. On the contrary, the Ukrainians brilliantly coped with this task, turning through endurance and determination from a loser into a hero who simply can succeed, no matter what.

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