A Paragon of Wisdom? The Grotesque Brilliance of Ivan the Idiot

A look at the archetypical Russian stock character in Slavic Mythology 

Originally Appeared: The Storyteller


This week has been even more distressing than usual. And it’s been a pretty distressing year. Frequent terrorist attacks, a strange rise in nationalism, and the loss of any sort of civility in public and private discourse. And so much dourness. So much overwhelming seriousness.

And yet, considering the disasters of past centuries, we seem to be living in a pretty good time. Russians especially know this, having experienced civil wars, bloody tyrants, and repeated attempts at extermination by foreign powers. So, you might expect the quintessential hero of Russian fairy tales to be a serious-minded warrior who seeks to right injustices with the power of his righteousness and his sword.

Nope. The quintessential hero of Russian fairy tales is Ivan the Idiot.

And there’s something interesting about this. Seeing the chaos of the world, the Russian response is to ridicule it all. To stress the grotesque. To pull the rug out from the wise of this world. After all, the quintessential Russian saint is the fool for Christ.

And you know what? It works. There’s nothing like a good joke to bring together two people having an argument. There’s nothing better than a grotesque caricature to shock people back into a sense of perspective. And there’s no saint like a fool for Christ to remind us of our own sinfulness, not the sinfulness of others.

So today, as an antidote to the ugliness of what’s going on around us, here’s everything you need to know about Ivan the Idiot. (Here’s the original Russian article)

He’s a fool. He’s a lazybones. He’s filthy. So why is Ivan the Idiot always the winner in the end of the fairy tale? Why does everyone help him get what he needs? Why does the beautiful princess fall in love with him?

For the Sake of Laughter

We find the trope of the foolish, yet lucky youngest brother everywhere. In the spoken tales of European peoples, in Chinese folklore, in the tales of North American Indians, even in African stories. But he gained especial popularity in Russia. Ivan the Idiot is almost the most prevalent hero of Russian fairy tales. Though this may seem strange, there are plenty of reasons for this.

First of all, he’s funny. And oftentimes traveling storytellers of the Middle Ages were also jesters, very capable in the arts of the silly. Ivan the Idiot’s stories are bizarre. Buckets walk off on their own. A stove traipses about town and tramples people in the streets. A stick rises of its own accord to beat the Tsar’s emissaries on the head. It’s all ridiculous and grotesque.

At the same time, this is very much typical for the “jester culture” of the time, and not only in Russia. In some ways, Ivan the Idiot is himself a jester.

The Oppressed Idiot

The social aspect of the idiot is no less important. After all, he’s the youngest son in a patriarchal family. He basically has no rights, no property—nothing of his own. He’s on the bottom rung of society. Therefore, the peasants who gathered to listen to the jester-storytellers loved to hear how the oppressed hero, a man with no money, “took it to the Man,” so to speak. He not only manages to outwit his older brothers, but ends up defeating important civil servants, princes, and even the Tsar himself!

Is the Idiot a Fool for Christ?

Still from the movie “The Island”

Another reason Ivan is so beloved is his similarity to the archetypal fool for Christ. Ivan is an idiot in the proper sense, that is, he’s insane. However, he shares many characteristics of the apparently insane fools for Christ, who assumed the persona of a crazy person for the sake of Christ.

At its core, the fool for Christ is “anti-aesthetic,” tending toward the ugly. Interestingly, the Russian word “yurodivy” (fool for Christ) is related to the word “urod,” which means “ugly person.” Ivan the Idiot is also described as fantastically ugly. He lies on the ledge of the stove all day. He’s filthy and his clothes are in tatters. He’s constantly wiping snot across his face.

Another similarity between the two is the strangeness of their way of speaking. Here’s a typical example from one of the tales:

Well, a horse has four legs. So does a table. That means that the table will obviously follow me on its own legs.”

Other than the obvious comedy, there’s something deeper in these kinds of phrases. Ivan turns things on their heads, just as the fools for Christ did. They spoke in riddles or sometimes just babbled nonsense, but always for a purpose. By doing this, they effectively “purified” eternal truths from the chaff of ritualism and familiarity. It’s like they’re beating a dusty rug to make the colors bright and clean again.

The laziness of Ivan is also interesting. His brothers, who are constantly busy, manage to practically achieve nothing. Ivan, on the other hand, seems to be doing nothing. He sits on the stove and basically reaps the fruits of the labors of his magical helpers. But the stories don’t glorify laziness, but something more subtle than that.

If the brothers are guided by their reason, Ivan is a creature of impulse, of the heart. He goes
“wherever his eyes look, wherever his feet take him.” The practical is here opposed to the intuitive. And the latter wins. After all, Ivan doesn’t trust in his own useless wits, but only in the will of God.

The Idiot as Druid

The connection of Ivan the Idiot with the other world is clear. After all, he lies on the ledge of the stove, which is Baba Yaga’s favorite resting place. And Baba Yaga is the keeper of the gates of the land of the dead. It’s no wonder that magical animals help Ivan, since many of them were totemic beasts in Rus’s pagan past. And it’s not a surprise that he’s the only speaking character who ultimately makes any sense, despite his apparent idiocy.

So if in the more recent past, Ivan’s connection with the fool for Christ is clear, in the pagan past, he’s most similar to the Druid. He’s an intermediary between the divine world and the real world. The only one who can speak both languages. He, ironically, is the only one who knows the actual truth.

There’s something very profound in all this. The idiot is the only one who can speak truth when the world has gone mad. I think it’s high time someone took on the mantle of the Jester-Priest and became our modern day’s Ivan the Idiot.

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