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Eastern Europe - Russian


Winthrop, Elizabeth. 1991. Vasillissa the beautiful. Illustrated by Alexander Koshkin. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.


Rating ♥♥♥ (out of ♥♥♥♥♥)  (Note: Picture unavailable at Amazon and Barnes &


Summary: “A retelling of the old Russian fairy tale in which beautiful Vasilissa uses the help of her doll to escape from the clutches of the witch Baba Yaga” (Barnes &  In the end, Vasilissa is rewarded with marriage to the Tsar.


Type: wonder tale


Characters: The characters are one-dimensional, and it is clear who is good and who is evil. The evil stepmother and stepsisters are punished by being “burned to ashes,” while clever, brave and beautiful Vasilissa is “spared” (29). The young girl then goes to live with a kind elderly woman who serves as a surrogate mother and who helps her win the Tsar. Vasilissa also plays an active role in helping herself to win the Tsar through her persistence and stellar needlework.


One interesting facet of this tale is that the father completely abandons Vasilissa when he travels to a foreign country on business. Vasilissa never stops believing that he will come back, and he finally does.  In many other Cinderella tales, the father dies or abandons the heroine emotionally, but this father abandons her physically while he is still alive.


Setting: On the book jacket, one reads that this is a popular Russian tale. The text never specifically mentions Russia, but it does refer to the Tsar and his palace.  The illustrations definitely have a Russian flavor, particularly the clothing and depictions of the Tsar’s court. As in most Baba Yaga tales, the witch flies on a “mortar and pestle” and lives in house that “stood on…chicken legs” (17).


Plot: In our textbook, Huck writes that “Russian folktales are often longer and more complicated that those of other countries and frequently involve several sets of tasks (Huck, 257). The plot seems like two stories, Hansel and Gretel and Cinderella, combined into one tale. In part one, Vasilissa is taunted by her stepsisters and stepmother, calls on her doll (her dead mother’s spirit) for help, and faces a triumphant show-down with the evil witch, Baba Yaga. In part two, Vasilissa catches the Tsar’s eye with her beautiful weaving, tirelessly makes shirts for the Tsar, captures the Tsar’s love, marries him, and lives happily with her father nearby and her doll by her side.


Theme: Two themes emerge. The first is that good triumphs over evil. The second is that if you want something, be persistent and you have a chance of getting it.


Rating Considerations: Because the story is so long, I grew tired of it.  In addition, the story has many “creepy” elements that do not appeal to me, such as Baba Yaga’s appearance and the way her cottage is surrounded by skulls.


Illustrations:  Alexander Koshkin’s stunning, realistic illustrations complement the text well. According to the book jacket, Koshkin is a well-known Russian illustrator. His painted illustrations appear authentic, and they are filled with interesting patterns, symbols, and details. One definitely gets a sense that this story takes place long ago and that it contains magical elements.