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The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn


In the seventeenth century the genre system of Russian prose underwent a radical change. As a result of this change it lost its official functions and its ties with ritual and mediaeval literary convention. The “fictionalisation” of prose took place, turning it into free fictional narrative. The vita gradually lost its former significance as a “religious epos” and acquired features of secular biography. The translated courtly romance and translated novella greatly increased the proportion of entertaining subjects. Prose began to acquire new complex compositions in which use was made of several traditional genre schemes.

An example of this is The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn,14 written in the 1660s in the form of an episode from the recent past. The tale begins in 1606 and covers the Russian siege of Smolensk in 1632-1634. The anonymous author of the tale writes not about Russian history, however, but about the private life of a Russian merchant’s son, Savva Grudtsyn. Using Russian material the tale develops the theme of a man selling his soul to the devil for earthly joys and delights.

Savva Grudtsyn, a young man from a rich merchant family, is sent on business by his father from Kazan to a town in the region of Sol Kamskaya, where he is seduced by a married woman. He almost finds the strength to resist her advances on Ascension Day, but his lascivious mistress takes cruel revenge upon him: first she beguiles him with a love potion, then she rejects him. The tormented Savva is ready to do anything to get her back, even to sell his soul. “I would serve the Devil,” he thinks. And straightway there appears beside him his “sham brother”, the Devil, who proceeds to accompany him everywhere and with whom Savva makes a contract to sell his soul (in an attempt to excuse the hero’s conduct the author writes that Savva did not realise the “sham brother” was the Devil). Savva’s mistress returns to him. Together with the Devil he goes carousing, joins the army and is dispatched from Moscow to Smolensk. Here (with the Devil’s assistance, of course) he performs miraculously brave feats, slaying three giants one after the other and returning to the capital as a hero. But the time of reckoning comes. Savva falls mortally ill and is seized with terror, for his soul is doomed to eternal torment. He repents, vows to become a monk and begs the Virgin Mary for forgiveness. In the church where the sick Savva has been taken the “God-rejecting missive” falls from above. It is blank for the writing has been “erased”. So the contract is no longer valid, and the Devil loses his power over Savva’s soul. The hero recovers and enters the Chudov Monastery in the Kremlin. This is the plot in brief.

The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn makes use of the structure of the “miracle”, the religious legend. This genre was one of the most widespread in mediaeval literature. It is widely represented in seventeenth-century prose also. The religious legend has a didactic aim: to prove some Christian axiom, for example, the effectiveness of prayer and repentance or the inevitability of Divine punishment for sin. As a rule the legend has three stages. It begins with the sinning, misfortune or falling ill of the hero. Then follows repentance, prayer, turning to God, the Virgin or a saint for assistance. The third stage is absolution, healing and salvation. This form of composition was compulsory, but a certain amount of artistic freedom was permitted in its concrete application. The writer could use his discretion in the choice of the hero or heroine and the time and place of action and introduce as many minor characters as he liked.

The sources of the subject matter of The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn were religious legends about a young man who sinned, sold his soul to the Devil, then repented and was forgiven.15 In one of these legends, The Lay and Legend of a Certain Merchant,16 the action took place in Novgorod, the hero was a merchant’s son, and the Devil took the guise of the hero’s servant. This Lay and Legend appears to have served as the direct literary source for The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn. It is most important that the characters of both the Lay and the Tale belong to the merchantry. The merchants were the most mobile of the Old Russian estates. They frequently went on long journeys around Russia and abroad. They knew foreign languages, were in constant contact with foreigners at home and abroad, bought, read and imported foreign books. The merchan­try was less backward and parochial than the other estates in Old Russian society, more tolerant of foreign culture and open to outside influences. How wide the range of interests of the finest members of this estate was can be seen from Afanasy Nikitin’s Voyage Beyond Three Sees with its remarkable tolerance and respect for other beliefs and traditions. This “mobility” of estate is also reflected in literature—in works where the heroes were mer­chants. Here the reader found descriptions of perilous voyages with storms and shipwrecks, stories about testing the fidelity of the wife during her husband’s absence and other adventure and romance motifs. The “pressure of literary convention” in works about merchants is far weaker than in works about “official” heroes, religious zealots, princes, tsars and military leaders. By choosing a merchant’s son as the hero of his tale, the author of The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn was able to draw on this tradition.

The tale had one more source—the folk tale.17 The scenes in which the Devil acts as a magical helper, “granting” Savva “wisdom” in the art of warfare, supplying him with money and so on, are redolent of the folk tale. And Savva’s combats with the three giants by Smolensk clearly derive from folklore, particularly the symbolism of the number three. Another link with the folk tale is found in the “tsar” theme. In the scenes leading up to the denouement it is constantly emphasised that the tsar “showers mercy” upon Savva, caring for him and commiserating with him. When the hero is suffering from “devilish languor” and everyone is afraid that he will take his life, the tsar sends guards to watch over him and food to sustain him. The tsar orders the suffering man to be taken to church. And the tsar questions Savva about his life and adventures. From the point of view of the plot the tsar’s patronage is quite logical, for it comes after Savva’s heroic performance at Smolensk. The patronage is given to the brave hero, the invincible warrior. The ruler’s solicitations are no whim or accident, but a reward for valour in the field of battle.

Yet the author speaks of Savva’s connection with the tsar much earlier, before the Smolensk campaign, when the reader does not yet know that the dissipated merchant’s son will become a hero. “For some reason the tsar himself got to know of him,” writes the author about Savva, when he comes to Moscow with his “sham brother”. Here the boyar Semyon Streshnev, the tsar’s brother-in- law, takes a friendly interest in Savva. For some reason Streshnev’s patronage infuriates the Devil. “And the Devil said angrily to Savva: ‘Why do you want to scorn the tsar’s grace and serve his slave? You have become his equal now, and are known to the tsar himself.’ ” What does this mean? Why does the Devil say that Savva has become the equal of the tsar’s relative? The answer is to be found in the folk tale.

The author seems to avoid giving an explanation, but this does not mean that the seventeenth-century reader did not understand the allusion here. For people in Old Russia the folk tale was a close and constant companion right from childhood. And it is the folk tale that explains this episode. It usually ends with the hero marrying the tsar’s daughter and acceding to the throne. It is usually a son-in-law, a relative by marriage, who accedes to the throne, and not a son or other blood relative of the ruler. This is what the Devil has in mind: why bow to the tsar’s brother-in-law, if Savva is to become the tsar’s son-in-law? What follows seems to be leading up to a triumphal folk-tale ending. The author transfers the action to Smolensk to give Savva the chance to distinguish himself. He becomes a hero, having performed something in the nature of a folk-tale feat, i.e., killing the three giants in single combat. But here the author breaks off the folk-tale development of the action and returns to the theme of the “miracle”. He describes the illness (a consequence of sinning), repentance and, finally, healing and forgiveness. In the artistic respect these shifts from one prototype to the other, from the religious legend to the folk tale and then back to the religious legend are extremely important.

This device was not characteristic of the Middle Ages, when convention prevailed in literature and when one familiar situation led to another equally familiar one. Such a device belongs to the art of the modern age, which valued the unexpected, unfamiliar and new. The author of The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn disregards mediaeval convention, because he keeps the reader in constant suspense, switching from one subject line to the other.

It would be wrong to see this as a literary game or as inconsistency. The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn is not a mosaic of fragments from different compositions crudely thrown together. It is a well thought-out, ideologically and artistically integrated work. Savva is not destined to find a happy folk-tale ending, because God is the judge, and Savva has sold his soul to the Devil. The Devil, who so resembles the magical helper in the folk tale, is actually the hero’s antagonist. The Devil is not all-powerful, and he who relies on him suffer for it. Evil begets evil. Evil makes a person unhappy. This is the moral clash in the tale, and in this clash the Devil plays a major role.

The theme of the Devil in The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn is the tragic theme of duality. The Devil is the hero’s “brother”, his “second self”. The Orthodox Christian believed that every living person was accompanied by a guardian angel, also a kind of double, but an ideal, heavenly one. The author of the Tale treats this theme in a negative way. The Devil is the hero’s double. He embodies Savva’s sin, the dark side of his nature—his levity, weak will, vanity and lust. The forces of evil are helpless in the struggle with a just man, but a sinner is an easy prey, for he chooses the path of evil. Savva is a victim, of course, but he himself is to blame for his misfortunes.

The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn is full of signs of the “age of revolt”, when the pillars of Old Russian life were collapsing. The author seeks to impress upon the reader that his work is not fantasy, but that it is true. This illusion of authenticity is supported, in particular, by the surnames of the characters. The rich family of Grudtsyn-Usovs held a distinguished place in the merchant estate of the seventeenth century. It is quite possible that the tale reflected some real misfortunes that befell this family. It is also quite possible that some dissolute young fellow from that line seduced a merchant’s wife (or vice versa). It is even possible that the young stripling tried to beguile the merchant’s wife with the help of Satan: we know from eighteenth-century sources18 that there were many cases of making a “pact with the Devil”, and the most frequent cause was an unhappy love affair. The unfortunate person wrote on a sheet of paper that he agreed to sell his soul (signing in blood was not compulsory), wrapped the paper round a stone (to weigh it down) and threw it into a mill pond where a devil was thought to reside (cf. the Russian saying “Devils dwell in still waters”). If this was done in the eighteenth century, it was even more likely to have happened a century earlier. Nevertheless the use of a real family, a real name and a real address is, first and foremost, a literary device. It was not the truth of the event being described, but the truth of his work, its authority, weight and significance that the author was seeking to establish in this way.

The author attached great importance to the idea of the endless variety of life. The young man is captivated by its inconstancy. But the perfect Christian should resist this delusion, because for him life on earth is a dream, decay, the vanity of vanities. The author was so strongly obsessed with this idea that he permitted an inconsistency in the structure of the plot.

Savva Grudtsyn makes a pact with the Devil in order to satisfy his sinful passion for Bazhen IFs wife. The Devil carries out his part of the bargain: Savva’s mistress returns to him. But then a letter arrives making it clear that Savva’s father has learnt of his son’s debauchery and wants to bring him home. At this point Savva suddenly forgets about his demonic, all-consuming passion and abandons his mistress forever. He never gives her another thought, and the reader hears nothing more about her. Why then did he sell his soul? Surely Savva did not cool towards her because he was afraid of his father? Surely the all-powerful “sham brother” could have fixed everything, detained his father? Let us see what the Devil has to say about this: “Brother Savva, how long are we to tarry in this small town? Let us go and make merry in other cities.” “Well said, brother,” Savva replies approvingly. So Savva Grudtsyn sold his soul not only for love, but also to be able to “make merry” in different Russian towns, to see the world, enjoy life and taste its inconstancy and variety. Thus the inconsistency of the plot is redeemed by the logic of the main character.

In his views the author of the tale is a conservative. He is horrified by carnal passion and the mere idea of enjoying life, for it is sin and destruction. But the power of earthly love and the attraction of life in all its variety have already gripped his contemporaries and become part of the flesh and blood of the new generation. The author opposes these new attitudes and judges them from the standpoint of religious morality. But as a true artist he recognises that these attitudes have become firmly rooted in Russian society.

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