A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

Cultural differences

I read an English folk tale, translated into Russian, with Elena Alexandrovna the other day. A poor couple is granted three wishes. They argue all night over what to wish for, and finally agree to sleep on it and decide in the morning. Exhausted, the wife declares that she wishes they had a sausage to eat. Sure enough, the sausage appears on the table. The husband, enraged at his wife’s stupidity, shouts that he wishes that the sausage would stick to her nose. As expected, the sausage attached itself to her face, and no amount of pulling could remove it. Both shamed by their carelessness, they finally concede their third wish and ask for the sausage to detatch from her nose. It does. Although they end up no richer than before the wishes, they learn a valuable lesson.

“You know, we have a Russian version of that tale,” Elena Alexandrovna observed.

“We do, as well,” I agreed, thinking of all our be careful what you wish for stories. “What’s the Russian variant?”

“Davnim davno…” she began.

“A long time ago, there lived a poor fisherman. One day, while on his boat, he caught a golden fish, who offered him three wishes in exchange for her freedom. The fisherman agreed, returned her to the waters from whence she came, and hurried home to tell his wife the good news.

“His wife, hunched over her old washboard-”

“Elena Alexandrovna, what’s a washboard?”

“Hm… It was a board about this big that was used to wash clothes and other cloth. Women would either bring it to the river or fill a large bucket of water at home and use this washboard to clean. Do you understand?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“The fisherman comes home and sees his wife washing her clothes, using her old washboard. He tells her the three wishes, and she immediately begs him for a new washboard.  ‘This one is so old! I work so hard all day! It’s the least you can do!’ she cries.

“The fisherman returns to the river and asks the golden fish for a new washboard for his wife. When he returns home, she shows him the new board and begs him to wish that she be rich and powerful. He returns to the river where the fish lives and makes his second wish.

“He returns home once more to find his wife dressed in fancy clothes and eating expensive food. Instead of being satisfied with her lot, she insisted again that the fisherman return to the river and wish that she be queen of all the fish, especially the golden fish, with power over all.

The poor fisherman returned for the last time to the river and asked the golden fish to grant his wife’s last wish. When he returned home, he was surprised to find her as she once was, sitting before her old washboard, cleaning the dirty clothes.”


“I don’t get it, Elena Alexandrovna. She wanted to be queen of the fish, right?”


“And she ended up… with nothing?”

“She ended up like before, poor.”

“So it wasn’t honest.”

“Yes, she wasn’t honest.”

“No, no, the fish wasn’t honest. The fish said she’d grant three wishes, but she didn’t grant the last one.”

“The wife asked for power over the fish, so she got nothing. Do you understand?”

“Right, I understand, but it still doesn’t make sense to me. Does she clean fish with her washboard or something? Is she queen of the fish?”

“No! She wanted to be queen of the fish, but she ended up with nothing.”


“She asked for too much, so she got nothing. That’s the lesson: don’t ask for too much.”

It was another five minutes before I’d understand.


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