Russian Proverb about a Broken Wash Basin

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Russian-Jewish
Age: 53
Occupation: Mathematician
Residence: Santa Barbara, California
Date of Performance/Collection: March 11, 2012
Primary Language: Russian
Other Language(s): English, Hebrew

“Do you want to go back to your broken wash basin?”

This Russian proverb comes from a fairytale, which my informant recounted to me:

“This is a story about a golden fish. An old man, very poor, lives in a cottage next to the sea. He goes to fish, and he catches in his net a golden fish. And she talks to him in a human voice, and she says, ‘Old man, let me go, I’ll give you whatever wish you want.’ The old man is a kind person, and he says ‘Oh, go little fish, swim in the sea, I’ll find other fish to eat.’ He doesn’t ask for any wish. So he comes home, and he sees his wife, an old woman, sitting near their cottage, which is falling apart, and she’s trying to do a wash, but she washes the clothes in a wooden basin and it’s falling apart, there is a big hole in it, it’s broken. And he tells her the story about how he caught the golden fish, and how she said that she can do any wish he wants. And the old lady is furious; she says, ‘I can’t even wash the clothes, the basin is broken, and you let her go!’ So, he wants to make his wife happy, he goes to the ocean and calls for the fish, and he says, ‘Can you make my wife happy, can you give my old woman a new basin, which is not broken?’  He comes, and he thinks his wife will be very happy because she got a new wash basin. But she’s furious—she says, ‘You could ask anything you want, why do you ask for a basin? Ask for a new house, don’t you see the house is falling apart, there are holes in the roof?’ So he goes back, and he says, ‘I’m sorry, fish, can you please give us a new, nice house?’ The fish says, ‘Okay, you go to your wife.’ So he goes home, and instead of his old, falling-apart cottage, there is a beautiful new house. He thinks his wife would be happy, but she is furious. She says, ‘Why do you ask just for a regular house? Ask for a palace with servants! Nice clothes, nice dishes, everything. I want to be a noblewoman!’ So, as you can expect, he goes back, he gets her a palace with servants and all that, but even that is not enough. After some time, she wants to be a queen.  Okay, she became a queen, to cut the story short. The old man doesn’t recognize her. She doesn’t want to associate with him, she doesn’t want any of the servants and all of these people to know that he is her husband. So, he is some lowly worker in the yard, sweeping the yard, while she is the queen in the palace, with servants and all that. So, some time passes, and she calls him again, and she says, ‘I’m tired of being a queen. I want to be a Tsaritsa of all of the seas and I want the golden fish to be my servant.’ The old man goes, and he says, ‘There’s nothing I can do. That’s what she wants.’ Suddenly, there is a horrible storm, and the fish just went away. So he comes back, and here is his old house, falling apart, and his old woman is sitting with a broken wash basin.”

Q. When would somebody use this proverb?

A. Let’s say a person did something for you, or did you a favor, and you demand more and more and more—he could say it. It’s like saying, “Look. Stop it.” Instead of pointing out that a person demands too much, this is a nicer way to say it. Usually, people like their childhood memories and fairytales, so they won’t feel antagonistic.

Q. Do you feel that in Russian society, people use proverbs more than they do here?

A. Yes—Russia doesn’t have much mobility, and in a society that’s very stable, it’s easier to have proverbs that move from generation to generation. The culture is homogeneous, so people know what you mean.

Annotation: Russian writer Alexander Pushkin wrote a poem about the story of the golden fish, entitled “The Fisherman and the Golden Fish.”

Pushkin, Alexander. “The Fisherman and the Golden Fish.” Trans. Irina Zheleznova. Russian Crafts, 1998-2007. Web. 26 April 2012. <>.

This tale has also been featured in multiple works of Russian art, including lacquer boxes: