The story of Alexander Hilferding
How a native of Warsaw saved the honor of Old Rus'
Alexander Hilferding, a Polish-born statesman, had a brilliant career ahead of him.

In 1865, he was promoted to state councilor in deed and appointed Assistant State Secretary of the State Council and junior censor for St. Petersburg Council. There was one passion Hilferding pursued with great enthusiasm. It was for Slavic folklore. The four volumes of the epic tales, collected by Pavel Rybnikov in Olonets Province, absorbed him literally. His passion was, however, an object of ridicule to his co-workers and society:

Alexander Hilferding
"Oh, please! How can you believe this staff, Alexander? We aren't Greeks. Rybnikov isn't a Homer. These epic songs about Kyev and Novgorod could not have been written by your poets of the North."

"But they were," Hilferding replied.

He had no proof, though.

Alexander Hilferding decides to travel to the northern province of Olonets. He wants to find the people who Rybnikov heard those stories from.

"I want them to tell me one," he said.
Hilferding didn't plan his trip to be a research one, like Rybnikov's. Little did he know.

"With just two months for my trip, I didn't think I would be able to discover more than I had planned. What I sought was satisfy my curiosity by meeting those storytellers. But, one lucky occasion turned the purpose of my trip from tourism into that of folk collector," Hilferding later wrote.

That happy occasion happened to be Kenozero and its people. Once there, Hilferding realized that Pavel Rybnikov never even reached what was true capital of Russian epic folk tradition. Bylinas, ballads, epic tales would be told to him in every village of Kenozero. Storytellers – men and women, young and old – the place abounded in them!

Two villages were especially prolific, Nemyataya and Shishkina. Here, Hilferding collected the majority of epic tales. In Shishkina, he stayed at Semyon Shishkin's and in Nemyataya in the two-storey house owned by the Nechaevs.

He didn't have to look for storytellers or performers, they were brought to him, by volunteers. They were so many that some had to wait for two or three days to tell their tales. And as Hilferding followed all those songs and stories, he wondered how their tellers could possibly know about those events that happened in old Kyev, Novgorod, Ryazan and Tver? Where could they hear about Avdotya-Riazanochka, Ilya Muromets, Dobrynya Nikitich, Alyosha Popovich, Sadko, Vasily Buslaevich, Khoten Bludovich – all heroes of the Ancient Rus'? Nearly ten centuries have passed since they were first told.

Folk singers had a prolific memory – they knew hundreds of texts by heart.

So much for the unenlightedness of the Russian peasantry.

Who's to say they were less talented than Homer?
Hilferding gained respect and admiration from the Kenozero people – they saw him write for days without sleep and food. The restless folk collector brought home to St. Petersburg 83 epic tales, of which 59 were epic poems told by 22 storytellers.

And yet, the real challenge lay ahead. Not everyone in the enlightened capital believed his manuscripts and stories.

"North is where people fled for refuge from all over Russia. Many didn't have a single possession they could take with them, only tales and songs they knew by heart. And the reason why those songs and tales survived is the northern wilderness and freedom," argued Hilferding.

Further discussion led Hilferding to bring to St. Petersburg a storyteller from a remote northern village. He rose to the occasion and was able to perform for several hours in a row and then was bombarded with questions from the audience.

Truth was on Hilferding's side. The Russian epic tradition gained recognition. As to the epic tales he recorded, they are available for listening at Kenozero National Park's museum "In the Beginning was the Word".