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 Boris Shergin

Born:   July 16, 1893
Deceased:   October 31, 1973



Boris Shergin is known as one of the oldest and most original Russian folklore writers, a connoisseur of Northern epics, tales and hagiographies, an indigenous coast-dweller and an artist. Boris Shergin’s writings amazing for their imagery and colors absorbed all the language richness of the Russian North and found its place in the treasury of Russian literature.


Boris Viktorovich Shergin was born on 28 (16 by old style) July 1896 (or 1893 according to other sources) in Arkhangelsk, into the family of hereditary coast-dwellers, fisherman and shipbuilders living by the White Sea. The Shergins family was very old and remarkable in the history of the North, many its representatives being priests.

The life of Boris Shergin’s parents, his own childhood and youth were closely connected with the City (from the capital letter, how the writer put it in his diaries) of Arkhangelsk and, certainly, with the sea. This is where his love for art of the North – folk poetry and literature by coast-dwellers, icon painting and wood painting, music and word - and overall richest folk culture was born. As a schoolboy yet Boris Shergin took to collecting and writing down Northern folk tales, epics, and songs.

From 1903 to 1912 he studied in Classical School of Archangelsk Province and after finishing it went to Moscow to study at the Stroganov’s Central Arts and Crafts School. Now his life was divided between Moscow and the North, where he went for vacations. This period was quite important for formation of Shergin’s creative personality and shaping of his artistic self-consciousness.

Meanwhile, Shergin was taken notice of in Moscow. Not only his talent as an artist, but also his superb keenness on folk word, masterful singing of epics and gift of a story teller were justly appreciated. In 1916 on the initiative of A.A.Shakmatov the Academy of Sciences commissioned Boris Shergin to Shenkursky District of Arckhangelsk Province to research local dialects and collect folklore pieces.

In 1917 upon graduating from the Stroganov’s School the young man came back to work in the local Society for Studies of the Russian North and later in arts and crafts workshops. His contribution into revival of northern handicrafts (in particular of Kholmogory bone cutting) was acknowledged major. Shergin was also into archaeography: he collected antique books, poetry albums, songbooks, old sailing directions, and skippers’ notebooks.

In 1919 he got into an accident – he was run over by tram and lost his left foot and toes of his right foot.

In 1922 Boris Viktorovich moved back to Moscow to work for Children’s Reading Institute under People’s Comissariat for Education. He lived poorly, in a basement, and yet gradually he was entering the literary life of the capital.

The year 1924 saw the publication of his first book - «U Arkhangelskogo goroda, u korabelnogo pristanisha” with his own illustrations. It is a collection of texts and tunes of Northern folk ballads. However, Shergin did not only arrange those tunes and texts, but transfigured them, adding to their poetic effect. His subtle illustrations reminded of Old Russian painting. The author’s triple gift of a story-teller, writer and artist contributed to wonderful integrity of the book.


After the publication of his second book, collected tales under the title “Shish moskovsky” (1930) Shergin became member of the Writers’ Union and delegate of the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers (1934). Then his other books «Arkhangelskie novelly» (1936) and «U pesennykh rek” (1939) followed.

The book “Pomorshina-korabelshina” (1947) appeared soon after the release of the notorious party’s decree on journals Zvezda and Leningrad and was subjected to crushing attacks by officious critics. The author was blamed for his love of the obsolete way of life of coast-dwellers, for conservatism and incoherence with the modernity. Naturally, following this all publishing houses shut the doors on the writer. Shergin was still living in a basement and was purblind (actually he could neither read not write any more).

Only in 1957 another book of his saw the light; “Pomosrkie byli i skazania” with illustrations by the famous graphic artist Favorsky was published in Detgis Publishing House. One of his most voluminous collected works, “Okean more russkoe” appeared in 1959 and in 1967 was followed by the most complete of his lifetime editions – “Zapechatlennaya slava”.

In Shergin’s native land, in Arkhangelsk, his collected works “Gandvik – studenoe more” was first published not until 1971.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Shergin’s books were published both in Moscow and Arkhangelsk, quite often with a great number of copies.

Boris Shergin died on 30 October 1973 in Moscow.

It was only after his death that superb animated films based on his tales (The Magic Ring (Volshebnoe koltso) (1979), Laughter and Grief by the White Sea (Smekh i gore u Bela morya) (1987), Martynko (1987)) made the name of Boris Shergin rather popular.


Tags: Russian literature Russian writers    

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