“Viy—a colossal creation of the imagination of simple folk. The tale itself is a purely popular legend. And I tell it without change, in all its simplicity, exactly how I heard it told to me.” Chiding personal association with the story, Gogol’s short story opens with this statement that claims that Viy is not from his own imagination. In Gogol’s time, such literary techniques were useful for avoiding censorship and maintaining the ability to convey complex social and moral messages without taking the heat. The same can be said for director Konstantin Ershov’s Viy (1967), where the consequences of overindulgence and moral degeneration earn one death at the hands of the forces of evil.
Viy is the story of a seminarian (an aspiring philosopher), Khoma Brute (played by Leonid Karavlyev) who encounters a witch in the form of an old woman who lives alone in the countryside. As he desperately liberates himself from her spell, he beats her to death, but not before she transforms from a haggard old woman to a beautiful fair-skinned maiden (played by Natalya Varley). A few days later, the father of the maiden summons Khoma to his village to spend the next three nights locked alone in a church with the young woman’s body, where he is to read biblical passages to help her soul pass. The father has no idea that Khoma is responsible for his daughter’s death, he only knows that his daughter’s last request was to summon Khoma Brute, the young seminarian. Khoma, of course, does not have the strength to tell the father the truth about his bewitched daughter. On the first night, Khoma witnesses the corpse rise and attempt to find him in the church, but it is clear that the the dead woman is blind and cannot see past the imaginary cylinder Khoma has drawn around himself. The rooster crows and the witch retreats to her coffin, ending the first night of Khoma’s torment. Lacking sleep, Khoma continues to try to escape his Cossack-enforced prison, but he is guarded by the watchful eyes of the father’s henchmen—a group of hearty old men who question the philosopher’s knowledge, but also feel a bit of pity for him.
On the second night Khoma draws his circle of chalk and begins to read again. This time the casket literally rises from its pedestal, and it bashes the invisible cylinder like a battering ram. Still, though, the witch can’t break through, but that doesn’t stop her from shattering Khoma’s spirits entirely. After the second night, Khoma’s hair turns white and, totally deprived of sleep, he begins to show signs of insanity. He tries to appeal to the father to allow him to leave, but the father threatens a severe lashing if he doesn’t fulfill his daughter’s last wish. As a reward, he offers Khoma a thousand gold pieces for a finished task, which Khoma uses to boost his confidence for the final night.
In the final night, Khoma draws his circle and begins to read. The witch rises and tries once again in vain to locate Khoma. She summons all sorts of beasts and vampires from the ceiling and floorboards to crawl out and help in her search, but none of the beasts can see Khoma. Finally, the witch summons Viy, and giant footsteps are heard entering the church. An amorphous monster with closed eyes comes before Khoma, outside of his circle, and the witch goats Viy to locate Khoma. Viy tells the other monsters “open my eyelids, I cannot see!” Khoma recognizes, like Lot in the story of Sodom, that if he turns to look Viy in the eye, the monster will see through his invisible cylinder and expose him. Like Lot’s wife, Khoma eventually looks at Viy, communicating to the viewer that Khoma was unworthy to be saved because he could not show any refrain. In the original story Khoma drops dead from fear, but in the film the monsters pounce on him and he dies.
The truth is that despite what some contemporary critics of the film suggest, Aleksandr Ptushko’s re-writing of the story for the big screen does not deviate much from Gogol’s original. Sometimes the two pair so seamlessly that lines and facial expressions are pulled right from the short story.
Gogol’s original story is a commentary on the naivety of seminarians who, despite their studies and knowledge, fall victim to certain temptations and deny the validity of superstitions that cannot be reasoned away by philosophy. In the story, there is a scene where the old Cossack men tell Khoma the story of Mitka and Cheptoun, two villagers who encountered the witch firsthand. In the case of Mitka, he is a spectacular marksman and hunter who demonstrated no appreciation for the skills given to him and the animals delivered before his gun. Cheptoun, on the other hand, was a known village thief and liar. Thus, one of the major themes of Gogol’s story is the condemnation incurred from overindulgence and ungratefulness, which as a character trait dooms an individual too subservience to dark forces.
It is interesting that this story, which had been around since 1835, was adapted for film in the second half of the 1960s. Up to that point, the Soviet Union had not released any horror-like films, overwhelmingly preferring drama, biopics, and occasionally fantasy and sci-fi. By the time the film went into production, Khrushchev had been ousted by Brezhnev, who seemed at first to lead a collective-leadership government between Party and State. It’s said that in the early years of his tenure, Brezhnev was at least open to criticism and new ideas, unlike Khrushchev whose Virgin Lands campaign ended in disaster, mostly due to his lack of communication with agricultural experts. But the notion of the USSR as a bountiful land ripe for cultivation and development did not disappear; even in Viy, massive panoramic shots of the Ukrainian landscape convey a love for the land, and an appreciation for fertility and possibilities.
While popular post-Gorbachev lore has branded the Brezhnev years as the “Era of Stagnation,” recent scholars are challenging that narrative by measuring how Russians remembered those years and their overall quality of life. As evidence, they point to the expansion of the Party’s commitment to consumer satisfaction that started under Khrushchev but peaked in the first half of Brezhnev’s regime. Researchers refer to this as a “social contract” whereby the regime prioritized consumer spending “to foster stability at the expense of civil and political freedoms.” New consumer goods like jeans and rock music opened Soviet culture a bit and expanded consumers’ understanding of what was possible under “mature socialism.” Edwin Bacon and Mark Sandle consider this period to be a veritable “social revolution” that witnessed an overall increase in education, urban development, and professionalization. This has led them to consider the period as a golden age of the Soviet Union, stating that Brezhnev the General Secretary should not be confused with life under Brezhnev. On the ground, life in the USSR after 1964 seemed to continue improving, and many scholars attribute that to increasing spending power and expansion of consumer goods.
The risk of the social contract, though, was that if consumer habits went out of control it would undercut the entire theoretical basis of Soviet anti-capitalism. One was supposed to consume only what was absolutely necessary, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” as Marx wrote in the Gotha Program. What would happen if these mild forms of consumer culture ran rampant, and the state lost control of consumer habits? What if Soviet man became no different from his capitalist counterpart and started buying things simply for luxury, using and abusing goods without regard for the socialist ethos of what is ideologically sound and necessary for a member of the USSR’s proletariat state? Such a fear seems almost foolish to us today, but to the nomenklatura of the USSR and those in the culture industry who were committed to the communist ideal, such a slip into moral degeneration would doom the Socialist experiment for good.
Viy fits perfectly in the late 1960s because it is precisely a story about overindulgence and moral denigration. In the story, Gogol writes that Khoma is a rather cheerful character who enjoys smoking his pipe, drinking wine, and dancing the tropak. When he is punished with the lash, he shows no remorse and claims instead that “a man cannot escape his destiny.” Rather than address his failings and sins, Khoma casts them all to fate, excusing himself from spiritual and moral improvement.
The film adaptation of Khoma is less simple. In the opening scenes, while the seminarians are reciting their prayers for the rector, Khoma is silent, anticipating nothing but release from the seminary—a sign that he cares little for the routine of spiritual maintenance and all for the pleasure of personal escape. When he gets lost with some friends, he is the one not content to sleep under the stars and insists on finding a house or village. They find the old woman who asks them to leave, but Khoma insists that making them sleep outside would be nothing short of sin against Christian souls. He then proceeds to hassle the old women for food and drink, and when denied he steals a fish from his friend’s pack. Khoma does almost everything in his power in the beginning of the film to demonstrate his vanity and overindulgence.
Skipping ahead to the church scenes, in each one of the three nights, Khoma submits to vain impulses. He gets drunk before each night, presumably to ease his fear, but commits the sin of walking on consecrated ground intoxicated. More obviously Khoma takes a sniff of snuff each night he comes to the podium, evincing his inability to refrain from sumptuousness even in the face of certain death. To drive the point home, the camera frequently squares on the contemptuous face of Jesus Christ and Mary with Child who are presumably looking at him as a condemned soul, like the eye of the state watching over Soviet consumers.
At first sight it might appear that one of the strangest aspects of this film is its use of religious imagery to convey a moral and ethical message from the standpoint of Communist ideology. However, Ptushko was a master of appropriating folktales for a contemporary audience, as long as the genre was understood to be folklore and therefore historically rooted in the USSR’s archaic past. Hence, Gogol’s footnote in the story served the same purpose for Ershov’s film— it reinforced the idea that Viy is a fictitious story with superstitious symbolism that harkens back to when people were simple minded, but it can nevertheless be used to convey a moral message. Across time and space the message remained the same, albeit the contemptuous eye of Gogol’s God was replaced by the State: there is a special place in hell for those who incur the wrath of authority through their indulgences.
In reality what might be the strangest aspect of the film is its sheer existence. While the possibilities of Soviet cultural production were expanding under Brezhnev, the authorities, as well as society at large, feared the repercussions of transgressing Marx’s most famous maxim; they feared that luxury would outpace needs, and that gluttony would replace conscious choices. Paradoxically, the film that conveyed the fear of that process also participated in its longevity by expanding the genres of Soviet cinematography to Horror.