Old Peter’s Russian Tales
Background to Old Peter’s Russian Tales
By mid-1913 Arthur Ransome was ready for a fresh start. He was relieved to have won the Oscar Wilde libel case, and he remained interested in literary criticism. But the stress involved turned him against writing further biographies. Ransome hankered instead to write more stories. He had been intrigued by Ralston’s Russian Folk Tales in the London Library. It suggested that Russian folklore offered rich material, provided they were told in an accessible way. Ransome had for years been re-telling the Anansi stories, which he had learnt from Pixie Coleman Smith during his Bohemian days in London. He was convinced that these offered a story-telling method which he could apply to Russian folktales.
Moving to Russia also offered Ransome a temporary escape from his failing marriage. He arrived in St Petersburg on June 14, 1913. Over the next three months he began to learn Russian from nursery primers and newspapers. He progressed quickly, and was soon making rough translations of stories. Some of these early works eventually appeared in The War of the Birds and the Beasts. In the spring of 1914 Ransome received a commission to write a guide to St Petersburg. Returning to Russia, he researched and wrote the guide in two months, only for the outbreak of the First World War to scupper any prospect of its publication.
Arthur Ransome’s eyesight and general health precluded active military service. But he hoped to be able to do useful work as a war correspondent. Whilst waiting for a suitable opportunity during the first half of 1915, he continued to work on Old Peter’s Russian Tales alongside the manuscript for The Elixir of Life.
In June 1916, Ransome sent his final corrections, and Old Peter’s illustrations (by the esteemed artist Dmitri Isidorovich Mitrokhin), to his Edinburgh publishers in the British diplomatic bag. Ransome corrected the proofs with W G and Barbara Collingwood’s help.
Old Peter’s Russian Tales was re-published by ART as part of Old Peter’s Russian Tales & the Battle of the Birds and the Beasts in 2016.
Old Peter contains 22 stories. These are not direct translations from specific Russian versions, but rather re-tellings in Ransome’s own words. Ransome created three characters, a young boy and girl and an old man (Vanya, Maroosia and Old Peter). This let him tell the stories through Old Peter, using words and ideas that made sense to British audiences.
Published by T C & E C Jack in November, 1916.
I made up my mind to learn enough Russian to be able to read Russian folklore in the original and to tell those stories in the simple language that they seemed to need