Veronica Muskheli is a doctoral candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Washington focusing on Russian folkloric narratives and contemporary Russian literature.
Ask anyone familiar with “Cinderella” what the story is all about, and they will likely say that it is about a beautiful orphaned girl’s marriage to a prince—in spite of her wicked stepfamily’s machinations, and with a little help from her fairy godmother. But a careful reading of an authentic Russian version of the tale, of the kind East Slavic peasants would tell in the nineteenth century and which ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev titled “The Golden Slipper,” suggests that Russian stories about a Cinderella-like character are actually about the heroine’s conflict with her mother.
“The Golden Slipper” centers on the heroine’s jealousy, caused by the supposedly preferential treatment her older sister receives from their mother. The younger daughter wears “rags” to protest her lack of the same kinds of fancy dresses as those her older sister enjoys.
“The Golden Slipper” is also about the heroine’s mother, who does not recognize her younger daughter’s growing up, and about the heroine proving her sartorial competence and therefore, maturity to her mother. The heroine’s eventual triumph occurs when she dresses splendidly. In this way, she discredits her mother’s constant displeasure with her choice of attire and its state of cleanliness. And yes, it is the mother (not a wicked stepmother) who is the villain in this and many other East Slavic versions of “Cinderella.”
The tale describes deeper friction dressed up as a mother-daughter conflict over clothes. This kind of conflict is as relevant today as it was centuries ago. It would be recognizable to any mother or daughter who has uttered or heard something along the lines of “Why do you wear nothing but sweatpants?!” or “You’re NOT going out dressed like that!” There are probably few women alive today, anywhere in the world, who have not either uttered or heard these words.
“The Golden Slipper” is one of the foundational texts in the Russian literary canon on mothers and daughters — a canon that derives not from classical Russian literature, but from folklore. It is only since the late twentieth century that relationships between mothers and daughters have appeared as a significant theme in works by prominent Russian writers, such as Lyudmila Petrushevskaia, Olga Slavnikova, and Elena Chizhova.
Before that, the patriarchal gatekeepers of classical Russian and Soviet literature considered the mother-daughter romance too “boring” to narrate. Contemporary writers, meanwhile, have started mining the rich landscape of mother-daughter relationships within Russian folklore. The short, sophisticated mother-daughter romance in “The Golden Slipper” is a treasure worthy of emulation and further exploration.
The tale begins with the supposedly objective omniscient narrator stating that the mother “really did not like her younger daughter.” As proof of this dislike, the storyteller reveals that the mother takes her older daughter, wearing her best outfit, to a church service, while ordering the younger one to husk some grain before the rest of the family returns from church.
This injustice occurs twice. But each time, a magical fish helps the heroine successfully complete the tasks her mother assigned. While the work is being magically done, the incognito heroine, dressed in her own best attire complete with gold-embroidered slippers, impresses everyone at church with her beauty — her mother included.
In both episodes, the mother exclaims upon her return from the church, “What a beauty I saw at the mass!” The mother ends her reports on the splendid church visitor with a derisive address to her younger daughter: “And you, fool, just look at yourself, what rags you’re wearing!” and calling her “оборванка [ragamuffin, scarecrow],” a derogatory specifically referring to the torn and dirty state of one’s clothes.
The dramatic irony here is underscored by the fact that the splendid dresses and gold-embroidered slippers are not magically supplied to the heroine, as is the case in better-known versions of the “Cinderella” story by Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. The text makes clear that the dresses and slippers have been given to the girl by the mother herself. The girl transforms the clothes with her beauty and “grown-up-ness” so that the mother, who is blind to her younger daughter’s true nature — specifically, that she is now mature enough to be courted by men — is unable to recognize her own daughter, in that daughter’s own clothes.
Both times upon her return from the church, the mother also describes the priest’s reaction to the presence of the mysterious beauty: unable to conduct the service properly, he simply stares at the lovely visitor rather than reading from the Bible. The mother’s attention to the priest’s reaction is significant, suggesting that she is bringing her older daughter to church all dressed up in hopes of attracting a suitable husband — and an Orthodox priest would be a great match for this rich peasant family. The mother’s inattention to the reaction of a much more exalted character—the tsar’s son, who is also smitten with the mysterious beauty—is similarly significant. Her plans for her daughter(s) are realistic, so she does not bother to pay attention to unattainable marriage prospects.
This inattention is another reason for the heroine’s anger with her mother. The mother does not understand her younger daughter’s aspirations and potential. The mother makes her waste valuable time in husking grain, while she could be attracting the attention of great men! Though it is narrated in the third person, the tale is obviously presented from the younger daughter’s perspective, as a daydream of revenge on her mother and sister. The heroine’s anger comes through in the narrator’s harsh initial descriptions of the mother: she is a “старуха,” an “old hag.” And if one believes the obviously biased and unreliable narrator, the mother is verbally abusive to her younger daughter.
On the heroine’s second visit to the church, the tsar’s son throws a bit of pitch onto the ground in an attempt to get more information about her. His plan succeeds: one of the mysterious beauty’s gold-embroidered slippers sticks to the pitch, and the tsar’s son eventually confirms that she is the only maiden whom the shoe fits — and so, he marries her. The mother’s resistance to recognizing her younger daughter’s maturity is still evident during the fitting session in her suggestion that the girl will “dirty” the shoe.
Nevertheless, this is the first time that the narrator quotes the mother as calling her child “a daughter,” rather than “a fool.” The shift in the mother’s speech promises a movement toward reconciliation between mother and daughter. The daughter’s triumph, after all, also partly belongs to the mother. Indeed, the daughter, who initially rejected the mother’s gifts of clothes, not only accepted them, but managed to use them to great advantage. Initially unable to see her child as a beautiful adult person, the mother ultimately, even if reluctantly, recognizes that the daughter has grown up, with the girl’s maturity formally represented by her marriage. To many readers, this ending provides an even more exciting resolution than the usual “and they lived happily ever after.”