Now it was far from my favorite story growing up. The young boy was often depicted as a fool, partly because of the popularity of the "Fool of the World and the Flying Ship" which is a variant of the tale. That never sat well with me. I found another variant to which I am looking for an English translation and the following part struck me. You can check it out in Russian here:
"Listen to what I'll tell you son. You're a good lad, but have had a difficult life. I want to help you. If you'll listen to me, you'll get a better life. Go to the forest and find there a meadow on which grows a large oak. Hit it three times with an axe and lay down to sleep until people approach you. They'll offer you different things, but don't get up and say no to everything. Then they will ask, "Do you need a flying ship?" at which point answer "Yes! I need a flying ship."
That kind of struck me. Who are these "people" who are connected to the oak and offer such wonderful gifts? It seemed like they were trying to protect their tree which was under threat of being cut down. Slavic myths are incredibly difficult to track because until the introduction of Christianity people did not have a written system. But it's interesting to speculate whether the hero accidentally tapped into the equivalent of Slavic fairy folk, or even stepped into their realm. After all sleep and dreams were often viewed as little death where divide between our world and theirs was blurred.
And where did the flying power of the ship come from? Impossible to know, but when a nobleman died, there have been instances when the community would place his body into a ship along with sacrificial offerings and set it on fire. In certain respects giving it the power to "fly". Part of me prefers the more tragic version of the story. After all, what could poor boys hope for other than a good afterlife?
The explanation that the boat was simply speedy and fast is simpler. But not nearly as much fun.