Illustrated by Ivan Bilibin

Baba Yaga in Film

by James Graham

In the 1960s, my father made it his mission to expose my brother and me to underground theater and cinema. On his day with us, usually Saturdays after catechism class, he would take us to Greenwich Village to watch arcane, experimental "children's" theater he had aggressively sought out from bulletin boards and small ads in the East Village Other. He loved live underground theater, or the romantic notion of it, and was using us to experience it vicariously. It was obvious to us that these "children's" productions were watered–down social action plays performed as fables to pay the rent on the black box. Like most nerdy young lefties who came to the Village to learn how to be cool, my parents suddenly found themselves with kids and no longer participated in as much theater and art as they had planned. Groups like Theater for the New City, the Living Theater, and the Bread and Puppet group adapted their own agitprop plays into matinee–ready fairy tales for hip dads and their kids. Often the groups used stories with clear enough subtext that they needed no translation. I remember sitting through countless productions of Through the Looking Glass, the drug and sexual references broader and broader with each performance.

Art cinemas, which were then tiny unventilated little caves dedicated to showing French Third Wave films and California–made rock operas, followed this same economic model before collapsing into the decrepitude of 70s porn dens. But the artier the art house, the harder it dug for unusual children's programming. I may never know who, other than my father, with his autographed Spoken Word records and his dog–eared copies of Evergreen, ever validated their programming choices.

Russian Book Illustration, Artist Uncredited

All my life I have been attracted to certain icons — chief among them: the house that walked on chicken legs. This image occurs spontaneously and deliberately in art from so many cultures that I never wondered about the source. I am at once shocked and comforted when coming across it, as I have, in painting, sculpture, antique illustration, anthropology, and music videos. It was not until last year, while reading a scholarly text that I discovered (or rediscovered) the tale of Baba Yaga and was able to put a name to the image. I understood at once why it had cut such a deep groove into my subconscious. I had first seen the image in a black– and–white film in a dark, lonely theater around the age of five, and it had been living somewhere in my mind ever since: the witch who dwelled in a house on chicken legs that turned to face the sun, who commanded trees to attack, behaved in a cruelly passive–aggressive manner, and was just all–around freaky and horrible. Upon reflection, it is not surprising that this startling image should have left such a powerful mark on me as a child.

Because of the Internet (Wikipedia and specifically), it did not take me long to realize where exactly the image of Baba Yaga, and others like it, had entered my life. It was surprising to find that this was a traditional Russian icon, featured in films exported from the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Not having any specific titles to work with, or any clues to go on other than Baba Yaga's name, I set out to watch every single film depiction I could find of the witch and her walking house. I discovered that many of the Soviet films made for young audiences from the 1930s onward were repackaged for following generations and dubbed for foreign distribution. But because they were ostensibly made for children, the grown–ups at the distribution office did not seem to worry themselves about the hidden meanings and double entendres inserted by the filmmakers, nor was there much effort to smooth over the propaganda the Polit Bureau required of so many Soviet filmmakers.

Vasilissa the Wise

Vasilissa the Beautiful

Taken in chronological order, the films of the Baba Yaga legend reflect a history of the Soviet Union's political self–awareness. Like France and Germany, Russia's first forays into feature films conveyed the excitement of this new technology with adaptations of Jules Verne stories and space travel sagas. The usual "camera magic" amusements were made for children, often featuring a stage magician dressed as a crone or warlock making his/her assistant "disappear" over and over. All sorts of folkloric imagery found its way into these non–narrative shorts until the government, unlike its European counterparts, realized cinema's potential power to spread ideas — and then immediately sought to control it. Officially approved filmmakers were expected to make tedious epics that echoed the Leninist lust for "real" stories, dismissing fantasy and allegory as intellectual or decadent. Fairy tales, which were seen as having the potential to "corrupt" children, were replaced by useful, moral tales. Filmmakers had to be savvy enough to appease the government, who now held the purse strings, while still creating a sense of wonder and magic. As early as 1924, directors like Yakov Protazanov, who came from the theater, learned that film could be sold to two different audiences at once: the Polit Bureau and children. Protazanov's science fiction epic Aelita proved that audiences would sit through hours of clunky revolutionary chest beating if they were given really cool sets, costumes, and camera tricks. The success of Aelita and, a year later, The Legend of the Bear's Wedding, set guidelines that all Soviet filmmakers would follow for another sixty years: tell any story you want as long as it is clear that the Tsarists, or capitalists, brought misfortune on themselves by being selfish.

It was not until 1939 that the studios were comfortable enough to revisit Russian folk tales in a big budget feature. That was the year Vasilissa the Beautiful by Aleksandr Rou was made, marking the first time that the main legend of Baba Yaga was told in film — though here the witch is played by a man and the house's chicken legs are not seen until they are dead. While unsuccessful as entertainment, the film was significant because it struck a perfect balance between pro–Soviet, anti–Nazi/capitalist propaganda and a faithful retelling of folk legend, and as such could be exported without looking too silly. The film contains some wonderful constructivist imagery, and the communist adoption of the story of a brave mother who must rescue her children from the witch is quite charming in its way — though it is also sad to watch a children's fable given the ethnic prejudices of adulthood. The release of this film signified that enough time had passed to let the old magic and the old gods of Russian folklore come back out of the woods in order to warn Soviet children about new enemies and new evils.

Tsar Saltan

The Tale of Tsar Saltan

From the 1940s onwards, the old witch's appearances grew more frequent in books as well as in film, as her solid place in oral history slowly wore down the Soviet realist resistance. As in the oral tradition, she sometimes appeared as a malicious, kidnapping hag, and other times as a benign old crone. Her confederates included all of the standard allegorical characters of Russian folklore: the three woodsmen, mushroom spirits, swans, bears, animated objects, etc. Baba Yaga was used by filmmakers in a number of ways — as a main protagonist, as a plot device, and as a kind of deus ex machina deciding the fate of a loosely organized children's adventure. (I see now that she was assigned a variety of evils by the shifting political powers.) In "Vasilissa the Beautiful" she takes on a distinct Black Forest tone, very organic and primitive compared to the clean lines of the protagonists and their safe home town. In The Tale of Tsar Saltan she is a Rasputin figure poisoning the court. In The Tale of Jack Frost she is surrounded by religious orthodox ephemera and a somewhat condescending suggestion of Balkan ethnicity. In Aleksandr Rou's The Golden Horns (1974), Baba Yaga is covered in black velvet and crystals, living in an intricately–carved wood shack that dances maniacally as the witch turns children into large day–glo colored mushrooms — as if Baba were drafted into service to warn children of the potential dangers of Czechoslovakianism. It is impossible to say how deliberate these innuendos were, but history has shown that Soviet filmmakers were experts at playing political games. What is remarkable is how well the folkloric images of witches, swans, mushrooms, and bears survived being "disappeared" by revolutionary realist storytelling, only to reemerge largely intact and be put into service by the same propaganda system. This itself is the most triumphant fable of all: the witch who was sent into the woods on her flying mortar and pestle, kept hidden from the children by the new reality–obsessed technocrats, then returned from exile to haunt the grandchildren of her dismissers.

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