CS: “The myth of Baba Yaga, some people have heard of it, it’s like a Russian folktale. It’s like generally Eastern European, but um, the myth there is, as I’ve read through picture books and stuff, is there’s this like evil baba, baba is the Bulgarian word for grandma. So there’s this evil baba that lives out in the forest, and she lives in this hut that sometimes has chicken legs and sometime doesn’t, you know depends on like the retelling. And she flies around in a pot, like a cauldron, uh, and has a broom, flies around with a broom too. That’s how she, I don’t know, pushes the air or something, whatever. But she’s like really mean and, um, she like beats the kids that she kidnaps, she kidnaps the disobedient children so people always say like, uh, ‘You gotta listen to your baba, because she’s better than Baba Yaga, like, if you don’t listen to your baba then Baba Yaga is gonna come get you.”
CS is a 21 year old Bulgarian American from California and is a third year student studying Computer Science: Games at USC. CS first heard about Baba Yaga from his own baba as a tool to make sure he listened to her when in public. He never really believed in Baba Yaga and suspected, as a child, that his grandmother did not either as she always brought it up very coyly, but he understood what the stories were implying and so would always listen to what his baba said.
This story was told in CS’s household, and in other’s he says usually by a maternal figure to younger more impressionable children in order to keep them in line and listening to their grandmothers. The story supposedly only works as a deterrent if the children believe in and are afraid of Baba Yaga, but it had the same effect on CS even though he did not believe.
Baba Yaga follows a larger folkloric trend of children’s stories designed to instruct them by preying on their fear of the unknown, or upon instilling that fear. By using a story like Baba Yaga, parents are able to use a terrifying fictional character to make sure their children behave well. This story is told with good intentions by Eastern European parents and grandparents alike and is effective at achieving its goal, but this interviewer wonders if using fear of the unknown to keep children obedient has detrimental consequences in the long run.
For a deeper dive into the Baba Yaga story and story type, read Andreas Johns’ 2004 book Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale.