The Savage Hunt of King Stakh (1979)

Uladzimir Karatkevich’s novel, King Stakh’s Wild Hunt, is a gothic tale that incorporates Belarussian folklore and national myth with elements of Western gothic literature. The story is fundamentally about Belarussian identity in a world that is rapidly changing—where the forms of “modernity” imported to the Russian Empire are eliminating national particularities. On the one hand, the hereditary Belarussian aristocracy in place before the Russian Empire’s absorption of the land is disappearing, and on the other hand science is debunking archaic superstitions that still exist in the countryside. The novel addresses “Little Russia’s” forced transformation under “Big Russian” suzerainty, but the fact that it was written in the 1950s and 60s speaks to the subliminal continuation of that process under Soviet rule.  

Published in 1964, the book was written in the later years of the Khrushchev era, as anti-religious campaigns heightened, entire cities were built for the purpose of scientific study (Akademgorodok), and drought and bad harvests ravaged the Soviet Union. More specifically, after World War Two, Belarus’ position within the ‘borderlands’ between the Soviet Union and the Nazi regime meant that the destruction caused at the hands of foreigners instigated a deep self-reflection on Belarus’ complicated history and future. Indeed, Andrey Beleretsky, the main character of the book, seems to talk for the author when he reflects “I sought my people and began to understand, as did many others at the time, that my people was here, at my side, but that for two centuries the ability to comprehend this fact had been beaten out of the minds of our intelligentsia. That is why I chose an unusual profession for myself—I was going to study and embrace this people.” What Karatkevich does is to subject the Belarussian national folk tale of King Stakh’s Hunt to an intriguing gothic atmosphere and plot, where the moral of the story is both the trouble with national and personal alienation, and the confrontation with a reality that is sometimes hard to accept. 

            The story begins with the hero, Andrey Belaretsky, a young anthropologist traveling from Minsk to a more remote region to study the folklore of his native Belarusian people. Along the way, he gets lost in a rainstorm and stumbles upon a half-decrepit mansion belonging to the ancient aristocratic Yanovsky family. The mansion is occupied solely by the last of the Yanovsky line, Nadezhda Yanovskaya. 

            One night, Yankovskaya tells Belaretsky about a number of paranormal occurrences in and around the mansion. For one, there is a ‘lady in blue’ that roams the hallways in the dark, who she suspects is the ghost of a distant relative. Then there is the sound of tiny footsteps running about the mansion, a phenomenon that Belaritsky experiences early on in the story. Finally, and most importantly, there is a gang of phantom horseman roaming the grounds and fields of the Yankovsky estate at night seeking to fulfill an ancient promise to kill the last of the Yanovsky line in order to avenge the murder of the ancient King Stakh.

           As a man of science, Belaretsky does not believe that any of the supernatural occurrences are truly other-worldly. After witnessing how these hauntings torment Yankovskaya, Belaretsky decides to stay at the mansion and help her find the culprit(s). We meet first her protector, the elder Rygor Dubotovik and his follower Ales’ Vorona who once tried to court Yanovskaya, house servants, and people who live around the land of Mars Furs. Importantly, Belaretsky is the only member of the ‘intelligensia’ in the novel, which explains his skepticism and distain for the archaic social structure in the village. His character is practically a reminder to the cultural police during Khrushchev’s time that without people like Belaretsky, social progress would not have gotten very far. 

            There are many narrative threads throughout this book. The first is the larger narrative of petty feuds and tense social relations between the Belarussian people that parodies Old Regime social relations. Belaretsky is a member of the educated intelligentsia, Yankovskaya and Dubotovik are aristocrats, and the peasantry appear in between their squabbles. Belaretsky suspects that the Hunt must be perpetrated by someone with an interest in inheriting the Yanovsky property, either another aristocratic line, or members of the disgruntled peasant population (everyone, at every level of the social structure, is greedy and unhappy). The other narrative is the classic Sherlock-Holmes sleuth story of an intuitive but lonely individual recruiting the help of local outcasts to solve a mystery. Finally, as he witnesses the gambit of Yanovskaya’s erratic emotions and behaviors, Belaretsky becomes infatuated with her to the point where his purely scientific endeavor becomes a labor of love. Over time he assigns himself the role of her protector. All of these narratives are strung together through the common theme of alienation, an idea first pointed out by Imran Khan in their review of the English translation of the book. The social estates are alienated from each other, Belaretsky is literally an alien from the community of local Belarussians, and the love Belaretsky feels for Yanovskaya is the only thing saving him, and the only force pulling her out of years of personal trauma and alienation at the hands of the phantoms. 

The 1979 film by Valeri Rubinchik retains the skeleton of the novel but adds some significant changes to the message and plot. For one, the story takes place in 1899, which may seem unimportant, but becomes symbolic when the viewer hears the final line: “Today is the first day of the twentieth century” and the camera shifts to peasant villages along Belaretsky’s (Boris Plotnikov) way to St. Petersburg. Along with the triumph of science over superstition, a theme retained in the film, Rubinchik and the writers wanted to emphasize the coming of a transformative century, that would (ostensibly) liberate the Belarusian peasants from squalor and subjugation to out-of-touch nobles. More contemporaneously, the reference to a new century alludes to a sense of hopefulness—an optimistic outlook that leaves the past in the past and only looks forward. This is a message that pays lip service to the Soviet Union, which promised to fundamentally transform hierarchical relations that defined the old regime. 

            Still, it’s the smaller details in the film that reveal more about what makes it a relic of its time. For example, time is compressed (Belaretsky solves the mystery of the blue lady and the little footsteps much quicker), and his companions Andrey Svetilovich and Ignatius Berman-Gatsevich die much sooner in the film. Its feels as though the director didn’t fully understand their importance to the novel but did not want to omit them outright from the film, so we get a forced introduction to them. When they die, it’s not clear exactly how the viewer is supposed to feel. Basically, the characters are not developed well enough to feel the same kind of remorse that the book invokes. 

            More profoundly, and more historically relevant, is the fact that the film clearly recognizes the book’s theme of alienation, and yet misses its full implication. The opening scene of the film is the camera looking through a key whole, conveying a sense of blocked-off peripheral vision and narrow self-alienation. Almost every scene successfully conveys the discomfort of the characters; at the ball, the aristocrats’ faces are blank, and Yanovskaya’s (Elena Dimitrova) facial expressions convey an insular torment that captures the feeling of the heiress in the book perfectly. Even when Belaretsky discovers the ‘invalid’ brother of Ignatius, Bazil Gatsevich (Vladimir Fedorov), instead of getting angry and talking down to him, as he does in the book, he invites him outside to play in the snow. The cure for all of these character’s affliction is an interaction with Belaretsky—an outsider—who can liberate them from the confines of the creaky old castle. It’s a commentary on the liberating qualities of socialization and education—the intelligensia’s power to literally pull an archaic aristocratic household out of the pit of superstition and decay.

            All of these changes are understandable given that they merely serve to accentuate the underlying themes of alienation and the elevated status of the intelligensia. However, as mentioned above, alienation in the novel works on various scales—from the personal to the national—and it is the national element that Rubinchik’s film sadly omits almost entirely. Indeed, if a major topic of the novel is the importance of myth and identity in late 19th century Belarus, the film dispenses with that entirely in favor of a blanket critique of the Old Regime. 

Production on the film started in the middle of Brezhnev’s tenure at the head of the party, long after Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign, which gave intellectuals and would-be dissidents a hopeful sense of future possibilities. By the mid 1970s, party discipline once again tightened, and the film conveys a sense of uneasiness over the repressive tendencies of the later Brezhnev regime. As Brezhnev started to show obvious signs of aging, intellectuals feared a return to the arbitrary surveillance state and repression of Stalinism. 

The mid 1970s is known popularly as the moment when dissident voices began to be heard inside the Soviet Union. Samizdat and other forms of illegal literature proliferated, and people came to appreciate the new (albeit limited) freedoms associated with Khrushchev’s Thaw and de-Stalinization. At the heart of the new cultural atmosphere was a long-standing tension between the Stalinist state apparatus and the intelligentsia, who had suffered at the hands of state agents and cultural censors. One of the most famous dissident trials, that of Sinyavsky and Daniel in the 1960s, pitted the intelligentsia against the regime for the first time in a while and led to some of the first public demonstrations in support of the intellectuals. Opponents of the regime’s actions interpreted the trail as a warning to other intellectuals who brought the new freedoms too far. The state reacted with force with a new round of arrests and it clamped down on the intellectual freedoms granted after 1953. The intelligentsia, including the producers of culture, feared a return to Stalinism—to the paranoid state of capricious arrest, execution, and censorship. This fear strengthened throughout Brezhnev’s time as the head of the party. Least this argument be confused with the one made in the previous page on Viy, it’s worth remembering that quality of life can improve in terms of consumer goods and purchasing power in conjunction with fear of cultural regression and censorship. 

Hence, Rubinchik’s film, King Stakh’s Wild Hunt came at a time when the Soviet people felt a pervasive sense of alienation, from the upper echelons of the party—those who had formally went along with the Stalinist system—to the lowest rungs of individuals who feared that their voices would no longer be heard. On the national level, Belarusians, along with other nationalities within the USSR began to show signs of resistance to the centralizing tendencies of Moscow. These national tensions erupted by the 1980s into full-blown independence movements. Even the creators of the film who loosely identified with the intelligentsia feared alienation from the freedom to realize their full creativity. That may partially explain why the sad, wacky, and abstract scenes of the book are omitted from the film. So, while the film misses its mark on the nationalities question, it still captures a sense of temporal significance. The moment is key in the film, as evidenced by the final lines that elude to the coming of a new century, and this sense of a crossroads, of the importance of ‘now’ captures the fears, hopes, and general attitude of Soviet citizens toward the end of the 1970s. Fear of the past and of an unknown future literally haunt the film, King Stakh’s Wild Hunt