Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How a Tale by the 'Spurgeon of France' Became a Russian Christmas Classic

Ruben Saillens (1855-1942), a Baptist minister known for his evangelistic, missionary, and poetic endeavors, nicknamed the "Spurgeon of France," wrote a short Christmas story in 1882, which he called "Le Père Martin," about a cobbler who learns a lesson about faith in God after his son dies. The story was republished in Russian without attribution to anyone in 1884 by a journal called the Russian Worker under the title "Diadiu Martyn" ("Uncle Martin"). A friend of Leo Tolstoy's showed him the story, and encouraged him to adapt it for retelling. Tolstoy did so, publishing it largely unchanged, except for differences in the setting, in 1885 under the title "Where Love Is, God Is." He thought it was an anonymous English work, and stated that he was "adapting it from the English." It was a few years later that Saillens came across Tolstoy's version and recognized it as his own story. Saillens wrote to Tolstoy to complain, asserting that he was the original author, and Tolstoy wrote back apologizing for his "unintentional plagiarism." Although Tolstoy freely gave credit where credit was due, the story has been retold so often that it has both become a Russian Christmas classic, and a part of the Tolstoy anthology, often lacking in attribution to Saillens. Thus, a French tale, republished in Russian, thought to be English, was adapted by one of Russia's greatest writers, and, having been adapted once again by Mig Holder, is known to Americans today as "Papa Panov's Special Day."

Historical footnote: Ruben Saillens' daughter Madeleine Blocher-Saillens (1881-1971) went on to become the first female pastor in France. She, herself, is the grandmother of the French Baptist Henri Blocher.

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