Losing Identities:

Horror Narratives in Two Late Soviet Ukrainian Films

Serhii Ksaverov
This article offers an introduction to two Ukrainian Soviet films of 1990 that have received little attention from critics and scholars. Oberih / Obereg / Amulet (1990, Soviet Union) by Mykola Rasheev and Chas perevertnia / Chas oborotnia / Werewolf Hour (1990, Soviet Union) by Ihor Shevchenko were both filmed in Soviet Ukraine and have fallen into obscurity. The first part of this article seeks to situate both films in the context of film studies of the late USSR to address the reasons why there was such a lack of interest in Ukrainian Soviet cinema at that time. The second part presents both films as culturally specific tales of identity loss in a transitional period.
Mykola Rasheev, Ihor Shevchenko, Ukraine, Soviet Union, Soviet cinema, Ukrainian cinema, perestroika, horror, national cinema, film genre, identity, werewolf, chernukha.


Soviet / Ukrainian Horror: Historiography of Absence

Soviet Horror in the Perestroika Period

Chas perevertnia / Chas oborotnia / Werewolf Hour (1990)

Oberih / Obereg / Amulet (1990)





Suggested Citation


In one of the first scholarly articles on Soviet horror films, Josephine Woll labelled their absence during this period as an “overdetermined phenomenon” (Woll 2005: 340). I would like to recycle this expression in connection with two Soviet Ukrainian films of the perestroika period to examine the reasons why they, along with many other similar titles, have lacked substantial presence in the scholarship.

Popular Ukrainian cinema of the Soviet period rarely enjoyed the attention of film scholars. Like many narratives of national cinemas within the Soviet domain, the concept of ‘Ukrainian cinema’ in scholarly discourse is built predominantly on ‘art’ films. That has resulted in a majority of efforts being paid to a limited number of themes and periods almost always revolving around the personalities of ‘auteurs’ like Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Sergo Paradjanov, Leonid Osyka, Yurii Illienko, Ivan Mykolaichuk, and a few others. Films produced in the Odesa studio usually have been excluded from the ‘Ukrainian cinema’ of the Soviet period, either silently or with explanations like “film-makers at Odessa did not participate in the [sic] specifically Ukrainian cultural politics” (First 2015: 18). Therefore, scholars of Ukrainian film, for the most part, concerned themselves within a narrow circle of ethnocentric, folkloristic films set in a rural environment and only addressing a specific set of national themes. Therefore, the accepted discourse in Ukrainian film studies is largely defensive and structured around the topics of Ukrainian identity as distinct from any other and the resistance to foreign oppression. Naturally, such a narrow focus also sidestepped all problems of inevitable cultural diffusion, multilingualism, and the colonial relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

Films made at the Odesa film studio, especially Kira Muratova’s works, found their way into general studies of Soviet cinema. Scholarly practice goes both ways here, neglecting cinemas of the republics with distinctive national features1 and excluding them from the big picture while at the same time perceiving Soviet cinema as a more or less homogenous phenomenon implicitly or directly called ‘Russian’. The Odesa film studio production is a case that proves the usefulness of both names in the academic tradition, as sometimes it may have been odd to call a film or director Russian. Still, it is always safe to label them Soviet. It also relieves academics from seriously asking the question, “What exactly is Russian in this particular work”?2 The same question, if applied to Ukrainian cinema at the very beginning of any examination, effectively eliminates a substantial portion of films made in Soviet Ukraine without any serious contemplation, as noted above. In one of the first articles on ‘the Ukrainian problem’ after the fall of the Soviet Union, Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj observed that “introduction of a second (i.e., Ukrainian) voice – and soon, probably, a third (Belarusian) – has a disconcerting effect on individuals inside and outside the East Slavic disciplines, many of whom seem to feel that the Ukrainian perspective is either extravagant or irrelevant” (Ilnytzkyj 1992: 451). The phenomenon of seeing Soviet heritage only through the Russian paradigm was addressed in one of the first books that looked at Russia and the Soviet Union through a postcolonial prism (Thompson 2000: 22, 15-28). Yet, it is still prevalent in studies of Soviet cinema and even occasionally determines the focus of the study of films of the post-Soviet period outside Russia (Furman 2008; Condee 2009: 115-140). Soviet cinema is still rarely seen and discussed from a post- or decolonial perspective despite being a 'layered cake' – a heterogeneous phenomenon emerging from territories at various stages of colonisation.

Oberih / Obereg / Amulet (1990, Soviet Union) by Mykola Rasheev and Chas perevertnia / Chas oborotnia / Werewolf Hour (1990, Soviet Union) by Ihor Shevchenko were both filmed in Soviet Ukraine when the USSR’s state system of production and distribution of cinema was already crumbling. Neither film received a theatrical release, and both, aside from being shown sporadically on TV in the early 1990s, have been virtually unknown until recently. Chas perevertnia, filmed in Odesa for the Mykolaiv-based TV channel TONIS, was considered lost for almost 30 years, to be rediscovered in 2021 in Russia by a group of genre film enthusiasts.3 The first public screening of Oberih, filmed mostly in Kyiv during 1989 and 1990, was organised by the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre in Kyiv in 2018.

Looking at these films as Ukrainian Soviet films with distinctive horror language requires challenging the established historiography that has overlooked them. Of course, efforts at explanation are hypothetical given that one was considered lost and another is still largely unknown in its own country; however, their very obscurity might be regarded as the result of the absence of academic interest rather than its cause. If we broaden the scope and look at the time and place of the films’ production, the result would be almost the same. Ukrainian Soviet cinema of this period, with few exceptions, has been largely omitted from film studies, which is quite notable considering the persistent interest in the late Soviet period and the effects of glasnost’.

It is the horror discourse that is most distinguishable in these films. It is hard to call both of them horrors for many reasons, especially given the fact that Soviet cinema had a different set of genres. On the other hand, Soviet society during perestroika was becoming increasingly aware of western genres, specifically horror films. Some Soviet films of that period, including at least one of the films examined here, contain obvious attempts to adapt and incorporate features of western horror films. Both Oberih and Chas Perevertnia present stories about monstrous doubles, inevitably raising the question of identity, which seems particularly fitting for the period when the country was torn between contradictory paradigms. Set in modern urban environments, Oberih and Chas perevertnia, though different in many respects, could be regarded as emblematic of modern anxieties about losing social or national identity in a new era. Excavating these films requires looking first at the scholarly tradition concerning Soviet horror films.

Soviet / Ukrainian Horror: Historiography of Absence

Since its inception, interest in Soviet horror could be defined as a process of enduring re-validation. Josephine Woll concluded her article by suggesting a number of reasons, from political and ideological to psychological, explaining why horror was generally absent in Soviet cinema (Woll 2005). Woll’s understanding of genre was explicitly based on the western, specifically American, studies of the horror genre. The conclusion was that the Soviet Union, with its distinct history and a society that did not share the same anxieties and fears driving western horror, did not create horror films in western terms. One notable exception was Vii / Viy (Konstantin Ershov, Georgii Kropachev, 1967, Soviet Union), an adaptation of Mykola Hohol’s novella about a seminarian philosopher who had to hold a vigil over the dead body of a girl rumoured to be a witch.

Woll’s most compelling argument includes an ideological explanation that horror films “contravene a materialist philosophy that holds as self-evident the primacy of man as a social and rational being, who acts primarily out of motives of material interest, and whose alienation stems from specific economic and social conditions.” (Woll 2005: 344) Therefore, focusing on the individual rather than the collective and being more pessimistic than optimistic about human nature, horror contradicted the core values of Soviet ideology. The same argument could explain the absence of films with any supernatural elements in Soviet cinema, but this does not hold true. Soviet cinema had its share of supernatural presences and horrifying images, but they were mostly confined to fairy tales and children’s cinema. From the 1960s on, adaptations of literary works which utilised some supernatural folklore elements considerably added to the stock of such images. Viy, often regarded as the one and only true Soviet horror, was in many ways the result of liberalisation during the Thaw, which made it possible for more varied genre films to be made, especially with fantastic elements. Sometimes seen as a subversive piece of national cinema (Monagle 2015), Vii should be examined among other films with fantastic elements like Vechir na Ivana Kupala / St John’s Eve (1968, Soviet Union), Propala hramota / The Lost Letter (Yurii Illienko, 1972, Soviet Union), Tini zabutykh predkiv / Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Sergo Parajanov, 1965, Soviet Union), Lіsova pisnia. Mavka / Forest Song. Mavka (Yurii Illienko, 1980, Soviet Union). All were adaptations of classic Ukrainian literature, with the first two based on Mykola Hohol’s works, whose literary output lies at the intersection of Russian and Ukrainian cultures. It is, however, impossible to call them horror films per se and, referring to Woll’s argument, their inclination toward more individualistic than social themes could have contributed to most of them being shelved. However, to some extent, these films mirrored the liberalisation process that inevitably increased the number of fantastic images and horror discourses in Soviet cinema.

An article by André Kozovoї presents a more nuanced outlook on Soviet genre cinema, treating horror as a historical category (Kozovoї 2008). Attesting to the absence of horror cinema in the Soviet Union, Kozovoї is preoccupied with examining the origins and developments of discourses of horror and horrific presences in films of the Soviet Union. Though omitting many films with supernatural presences, Kozovoї’s article is the first that traces how the idea of ‘horror film’ was introduced in the Soviet Union through the propaganda means of the 1970s that explained it as a tool of ‘American imperialism’ designed to debilitate its viewers and cause addiction. Kosovoï also notes the intensification of horrific discourses by the end of this decade. Writing an almost genealogical genre study, Kosovoї practically stops at the perestroika era, only noting that from 1985 on, horrifying images in Soviet cinema multiplied to the extent that they created an officially recognised new genre when guidelines by Goskino labelled Sem’ia Vurdalakov / Family of Vampires (Gennadii Klimov and Igor’ Shavlak, 1989, Soviet Union) as a “horror film” (Kozovoї 2008: 96, Andreev 1990: 8).

Finally, the horror tradition in Ukrainian cinema has recently been given some attention in two articles by Volha Isakava (Isakava 2014a, Isakava 2014b). Neither deals exclusively with Ukrainian horror, combining Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian into the ‘post-Soviet’. Nevertheless, they are important as a rare example of scholarly interest in Ukrainian cinema that breaks out of the usual circle of themes and films. Isakava accepts Woll’s assertion about the absence of the horror genre, yet goes on to discuss films that neither Woll nor Kozovoї mention in order to demonstrate that both supernatural elements and horror discourses were indeed present in Soviet cinema (Isakava 2014a: 120-122). However, Isakava more or less overlooks the late 1980s and early 90s in her articles. At that time, according to Isakava, a crisis hit republican film studios badly, “which probably explains why most of the 1990s horror films were made in Russia” (Isakava 2014a: 122). Naming only three of the horror films of the 1980s-90s, the author nevertheless describes the horror films of the entire decade as “undistinguished” (Isakava 2014b: 102). Isakava considers that recognised Ukrainian horror films only began after the appearance of films appealing to Western modes of the genre, specifically the North American slasher film. So the history of Ukrainian horror starts with the Shtolnia / The Pit ( Liubomyr Kobyl’chuk, 2005, Ukraine), “the very first Ukrainian horror film” (Isakava 2014b: 112), repeating the slogan of the film’s marketing campaign at the time of its release.

Soviet Horror in the Perestroika Period

Perestroika brought so many changes that it naturally marked a turning point in Soviet cinema in terms of both genres and tone. The liberalisation of social life led to a crisis in many Soviet-specific genres like ‘school films’, ‘industrial films’ or ‘fighting with Ukrainian nationalists’ films, the last being wittily named “bandera-exploitation” in Ukraine recently, referring to followers of Stepan Bandera or ‘Banderites’, a term used by Soviet and Russian propaganda as derogatory (Taranenko 2021). At the same time, the increased availability of foreign films and other cultural products inspired many in the late 1980s to adjust genre tropes, symbols, plots, and characters to Soviet films of the period. That shift may be most clearly evident in sci-fi cinema. The Soviet space fantasy genre, popular during the 1960s and 1970s, declined in the middle of the 1980s due to decreased interest in space programmes and because Soviet outer-space fantasies had an ideological purpose that was then obsolete (Majsova 2018: 198). This genre was replaced by dystopian and post-apocalyptic films. In general, it could well be said that Soviet cinema became much darker, gloomier, and more naturalistic. The most evident examples of these changes can be illustrated by the so-called “chernukha” films, sometimes considered a genre (Brashinsky and Horton 1992: 163-168). These films were more traumatic for the audience, but seen as shockingly truthful portraits of Soviet reality, they gained considerable popularity.

The first book on horror cinema in the Soviet Union appeared in 1978 (Markulan 1978), but the horror film concept was already known to the Soviet public. It was introduced through anti-American campaigns in the press, exposing the decadent cinema of ‘the rotten West’ (Kozovoї 2008: 88). Though horror films themselves rarely made it into the USSR at that time, they were already present in the public imagination thanks to their derogatory descriptions in the press, which, according to many accounts, were popular not exactly because Soviet readers wanted to be horrified by how low global capitalism had fallen – they were dying to know all the sordid details of that process. After perestroika, thanks to the availability of home video recorders and, most importantly, the phenomenon of bootleg video salons, western cinema became much more accessible. Horror and science fiction, as one survey in Ukraine in 1989 showed, were the most popular genres (Lawton 2002: 150).

This period seemed to be a fertile ground from which horror could emerge. If we go a few years back to look at films closest to the Western understanding of horror, films like Zaveshchanie professora Douelia / Professor Dowell’s Testament (Leonid Menaker, 1984, Soviet Union) or Den’ gneva / Day of Wrath (Sulambek Mamilov, 1985, Soviet Union) are undoubtedly entertaining, but the prevalent ideological discourse remains important to them (Kozovoї 2008: 93-95). Such films are mostly set in the present and tell stories about foreigners and countries outside the Soviet Union. Horror films featuring mad scientists, zombies, and revolting experiments could exist if only combined with propaganda to demonstrate that the world outside the Iron Curtain was in crisis. It was vital for such films to be set in the present day to preserve their ideological impact. Naturally, their events could not unfold within the Soviet Union. That could explain why even adaptations of classic works were modernised, like Professor Dowell’s Testament, based on Aleksandr Beliaev’s novel published in 1925. When ideological reasons disappeared, the obligatory requirement to show ‘our times and a foreign location’ became less rigid. It would be most logical to expect that Soviet horror films of the perestroika era would either finally be set in the modern Soviet Union or in the future.

As it happened, most filmmakers chose the latter route. Almost all films released in the USSR between 1985 and 1991 that could be considered horror films avoided the present. In 1985 and 1986, screen adaptations of stories like Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Invisible Man were released as if the USSR film industry was going to create its own Universal cycle.4 However, this canon also absorbed adaptations of domestic horror traditions. Russian Soviet horror turned to its own literary traditions of the fantastic. Most notable were P’iushchie krov’ / Bloodsuckers (Evgenii Tatarskii, 1991, Soviet Union) and Family of Vampires, both adaptations of Aleksei Tolstoi's short stories, and a film based on the works of one of the classics of Russian symbolism, Valerii Briusov, Zhazhda strasti / The Thirst for Passion (Andrii Kharitonov, 1990, Soviet Union). Among them, Family of Vampires was the only one set in modern Soviet reality, but the main portion of the film takes place in a small isolated village seemingly untouched by modernisation. The realities of the eerie and sometimes outright weird Soviet Armenian film 13 Apostol/ 13th Apostle (Suren Babaian, 1990, Soviet Union) or the Soviet Uzbek film Vel’d / Veldt (Nasim Tuliakhodzhayev, 1987, Soviet Union), both based on the works of Ray Bradbury, chronologically and geographically were set outside the Soviet Union. Even if we broaden the scope and take the idea of the horror film as it was understood in the early 1990s (Chernenko 1992: 46-50) and include such films such as Gospodin oformitel’ / Mister Designer (Oleg Teptsov, 1987, Soviet Union), Posetitel’ muzeia / Visitor to a Museum (Konstantin Lopushanskii, 1989, Soviet Union), it is necessary to mention that none of them is set in recognisable Soviet reality. The only film that combines horror narrative and Soviet modernity is Psy / Stray Dogs (Dmitrii Svetozarov, 1990, Soviet Union), which is a story of a ragtag group of people hired to hunt down a pack of man-eating wolves (that turn out to be wild dogs) in a former Aral Sea port, now a ghost town.

The question of how genre tropes were presumably understood and incorporated into Soviet films was rarely an object of study. The first attempt by Andrew Horton and Michael Brashinsky was more about criticising Soviet directors for using “gimmicks, symbols of the genre, instead of learning the rules” (Brashinsky and Horton 1992: 177) but rarely questioning why that was so. There are numerous traces of western genre films in Soviet horror films of that period, but they indeed are rather superficial and decorative. The Thirst for Passion, to take one example, contains a few shots that reference Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 (1987, United States), including a mirror scene copied almost frame by frame. However, such borrowings are rarely incorporated into the plot and often only add confusion to an already inconsistent film. Horror in the Soviet Union was traditionally considered an inherently western film genre that avoided depicting the problems of the ‘real’ world (Chernenko 1992: 46). Even if a horror film was set in a modern environment, it was watched by people who lived in quite a different society. The social dimension was the most elusive in the entire body of the film. Such films as, for example, the post-apocalyptic fantasy Cyborg (Albert Pyun, 1989, United States) or The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984, United States), which often was translated on bootleg VHS as Cyborg the Killer, were most probably seen as fantasies of some other world with almost equally unrecognisable social patterns. With the inspiration that came after watching these films, so drastically different from the Soviet cinematic menu, the most ornamental things about them were easiest to copy and appropriate. It would not be too bold to suggest that this was the reason why the fantastic and the uncanny in the age of glasnost were pushed outside the Soviet reality in filmic horror narratives. However, Soviet horror functioned differently than in the West. If a horror film were to be understood as pure fantasy, it would only be logical to set it outside the mundane realm of the Soviet Union. After all, exotic places and faraway lands were one of the steadiest shelters for a horror genre historically. After the Second World War and especially from the 1960s, the emergence of modernised horror set in recognisable modern reality and explicitly addressing a vast number of social issues made the genre most suitable to regard it as dealing with national historical traumas in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Japan (Lowenstein 2005). In the Soviet Union, however, the first period of horror filmmaking went in the opposite direction – it sought to get as far away from reality as possible. Both Oberih and Chas perevertnia, possibly the only films from Ukraine with distinct horror narratives, are almost the sole exceptions to this trend. Both films are unique in choosing to present contemporary Soviet social reality and tell stories of characters whose traumatic experiences and horrific transformations reflect the ongoing process of a country in collapse, although treating them from two different perspectives.

Chas perevertnia / Chas oborotnia / Werewolf Hour (1990)

Chas perevertnia by Ihor Shevchenko was probably the first Soviet Ukrainian film made for non-state television channels outside the system of state-controlled studios. This film was produced by the Mykolaiv-based TV channel TONIS, one of the first private regional TV channels before it subsequently moved to Kyiv. It was filmed in Odesa by newcomer Ihor Shevchenko. It was also the first film for screenwriter Serhii Chetvertkov, a frequent collaborator of Kira Muratova in her late period.

Basically, it іs a werewolf film, or weredog, to be exact. Its protagonist, Grigorii, a 50-year-old newspaper journalist in a small, unnamed town, is attacked and bitten by a dog and turns into a big black dog at night. The subsequent aggressive activity of his beastly double is closely related to his aspirations and unrealised desires as a human being. The first victim is his direct competitor for the editor-in-chief position. His second and last victim is a co-worker – a woman he likes and with whom he even attempts courtship, which ends disastrously. The hero here is unsuccessfully trying to fight his predatory animalistic urges, while his son, a local police officer, is tasked to find and kill this mysterious dog that attacks people. Even if Shevchenko’s film is much more loosely structured, it is comparable to many classic werewolf films from The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941, United States) and to An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981, United Kingdom, United States). Chas perevertnia follows a sequential pattern alternating between day and night, depicting the mundane and the fantastic, respectively, and having common tropes, such as the association with the full moon. The final setting, though, is extremely unusual for western horror narratives, as it is placed into a specific situation common to life in the late Soviet Union, stricken with harsh shortages of consumer products. The final minutes take place in the early morning in a huge mob of disgruntled and existentially irritated people waiting for a delivery of foreign furniture. After being wrongly excluded from the queue, Grigorii turns into a dog and starts attacking people, only to be killed by his son, who arrives after being called by the police.

Influences of Western cinema and genre tropes are superficial in Chas perevertnia as in many films of the era. It has the sex scenes and nudity that became almost obligatory in late Soviet films, but both, of course, cannot be attributed to the influence of any specific film. Moreover, the sex scene here goes hand in hand with traumatic experience. After accidentally witnessing the woman he likes and her lover having sex, Grigorii returns at night as a dog and kills them both. Therefore, this episode contains not only the more common situation “of peril and pain for a female body” (Isakava 2009: 204) but is also traumatising to the male voyeur who punishes a woman for her transgressions against him, however, entirely as imagined by the protagonist since his advances towards her were unsuccessful. One may notice that the score has obvious derivations from the piercing, complex metre soundtracks that had come into vogue with the use of Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973, United States) and later was extensively used in Italian giallo films and movies like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978, United States). In this case, the moment chosen for its use is almost comically random. A device usually called upon to build a feeling of mystery and suspense here is placed in a mundane and almost romantic setting in the scene where Grigorii makes his first attempt at courtship.

Werewolf films are often examined in the context of identity (Jancovich 1992: 112-117, Schneider 2004, Forceville and Koetsier 2014). Their main character, who represents two different beings, invites such an approach. The werewolf’s monster body matters much less here because it is just an inevitable consequence of a deviant mentality. The werewolf is not so much a physical double as a mental one (Schneider 2004: 112). Werewolves were often interpreted in the psychoanalytic vein of Robin Wood's “return of the repressed” as metaphors for puberty, foreignness etc (Wood 1979: 7-29). Werewolves, especially since the teenage-werewolf cycle of films in the 1950s, were usually regarded as an embodiment of conflicts ( i.e. generational, social, etc) within the culture in which the protagonist existed. Werewolves only attacked cultural norms while possessing a horrifying body; in their human form, they were defenders of cultural normality. To summarise the approaches to the werewolf in western horror films, it could be said that the werewolf is predominantly treated as a representation of a cultural crisis. However, werewolves rarely had a chance to act within a society going through such a profound cultural crisis and confusion as in Chas perevertnia. Normality is not firmly grounded in Shevchenko’s film since the country itself was undergoing traumatic changes trying to adapt to new values and circumstances.

Grigorii is a typical character to be depicted as a victim of social changes in the films of the late Soviet period. He is a soft, timid, and understanding man who does not have much chance of succeeding in the life that is coming. He is not ready to fight for the position of editor-in-chief and is willing to forgive a monetary debt from his relative. He is trying to avoid any conflict or uncomfortable situation at all costs, even urging his son to understand his wife-beating neighbour when the son is trying to interrupt the scene of domestic violence.

Nevertheless, life around Grigorii has definitely changed and shows signs that scholars have primarily considered in the context of chernukha films. In a way, Grigorii never expects to see the filth of life, sex or cruelty around him. Of course, that newness to the reality he is put in belongs mostly to cinematic representation and not to Soviet life itself. One of the reasons chernukha films were popular, at least some of them (Condee 2009: 61-64), was their ability to tell the truth, to show life as it really is or at least as generally perceived by spectators and critics (Isakava 2018). Chas perevertnia has a vast number of episodes and secondary plotlines that seem completely irrelevant to the main plot but are crucial for characterisation. At one point, Grigorii witnesses a scene where a group of people having a picnic beat a drunken man unconscious for breaking their bottle. Even the place chosen for the picnic, a pocket by the side of a dirt road tightly closed down with trees, contrasts with the usual imagery for such activities, which are associated with peace, quietness, and open landscapes. Later, a teenager approaches Grigorii and asks him to bite him because it soothes him. Chas perevertnia is full of strange characters, domestic violence, abuse, and aggression. One of the pinnacles of ugliness in the film is the short scene where the main character witnesses a drunken homeless man in a cemetery trying to get his dog to ‘sing’ for him. It could be a companion piece to the first part of Astenicheskii sindrom / Asthenic Syndrome (Kira Muratova, 1989, Soviet Union), with the only difference being that in Shevchenko’s film, the social mental breakdown is merely beginning to simmer while in Muratova it is boiling furiously.

In this world, money matters much more than a typical representative of the Soviet intelligentsia, reacting to any monetary issues with noble reluctance, could bear. To illustrate this, the whole plot is introduced by Grigorii and his son setting out to collect an old debt from their relative. Our protagonist is willing to forgive him, but not the son, who in many ways represents these new, harsh times in which the proverb ‘man is wolf to man’ seems more than just fitting. People in this reality behave in a beastly way, too, so Grigorii is not only the embodiment of the beast within; he becomes a monster to punish the monsters that people have become. Their ‘sins’ were unknown in Soviet cinema or were shown only to be condemned: promiscuous life, aggressive competition, greed, and desire for foreign goods.

These ‘new values’ in late Soviet cinema were treated with ambivalence. The era was, in a way, itself a werewolf, having two identities that simultaneously provoked fear and aroused desire. Cinema channelled these emotions into what was essentially a monster narrative, being “fantasies of aggression, domination and inversion” (Cohen 1996: 17), but without placing them within a pure horror discourse nor adding any supernatural elements. Chas perevertnia has a twin that presents the same anxiety that drives ours. That is Pavutynnia / Pautina / Cobweb (1992, Ukraine) by Oleksandr Amelin. In Pavutynnia, the devil himself represents these new values. In a new reality where predators rule and inequality arises, the protagonist, a single mother named Zina, thinks that she does not have any chance to succeed in life, so she sacrifices herself by selling her soul to the devil in order for her son to have musical talent. She signs a contract with a mysterious woman who could be either the devil’s agent or an employee of any private company that was allowed in the late Soviet period – Pavutynnia does not really go into details because both are ways to sell one’s soul to succeed in life. Instantly, Zina becomes a cruel, egocentric, scheming vamp-woman wearing fashionable clothes and aggressive make-up. Ironically, from today’s perspective, her language and actions are seen as empowerment and self-reliance. Pavutynnia, however, as a true descendant of Soviet cinema, which is recognised as being somewhat misogynistic (Ter-Grigoryan 2017), pictures her as an almost demonic creature. The film is even more direct than Chas perevertnia in connecting shifts in late Soviet economic and social life to the deviant identity that the hero acquires. Cobweb, set in the big city, offers many more opportunities for visual articulation of the changes the new era brought.

In many respects, Chas perevertnia shares characteristics of late Soviet films that expressed the uncertainty of new times. It shows a generational conflict between father and son, a common feature in films of that period. Its emphasis on ugliness, cruelty, and nihilism definitely links this picture with chernukha films. The film never really leaves the social arena and does not include any distinctive national discourse except what could be called vaguely ‘Soviet’. In many ways, this film depicts the tragedy of losing the identity of homo sovieticus, a type dreamed of by early communists and actively mythologised in Soviet cinema where “costumed Georgian wine makers, Latvian fishermen, and Ukrainian cossacks were supposed to speak the unified Soviet language and promote the ideas of the Communist party” (Brashinsky and Horton 1992: 223). It was shot in the Russian language like almost all Odesa studio productions. Apparently, the only contemporary critical text mentioning this film appeared in the Russian journal Iskusstvo kino, where it received only a fleeting mention, but, interestingly, it was labelled a “most typical Russian (russkii) horror film” (Shpagin 1992: 54)5 which reflects the way Ukrainian films are still discussed in certain academic circles, especially those filmed in southern Ukraine in the Odesa studio.

However, Chas perevertnia was not like any other “typical Russian horror”. As has already been pointed out, horror films produced in Soviet Russia at the time avoided presenting a recognisable modern environment and explicitly tackling social issues. It indeed shares many common features with other Soviet films, but what distinguishes Chas perevertnia is that it chooses to express the fear and anxiety of new times through horror modality which permits the narrative to mutate into something unique. The film is presented through the eyes of a character who represents the older generation; therefore, his opponent in the intergenerational conflict, his son, is not a rebellious, idealistic teen but a disillusioned, embittered policeman in his thirties. The protagonist is only able to accept the new social values within his transformed, horrific body. Only transformation puts him on par with the others but results in many deaths, including his own, at the hands of his son. It would be a stretch to assert that these features somehow embody ‘Ukrainianess’ of that film, and I am very far from making such an assumption. In many ways, Chas perevertnia should be regarded as representing the horror of losing the acquired imperial identity, which felt more intense at the margins of a decaying empire. It is natural then, that the film depicts the future as nothing but chaos and degradation. Another Soviet Ukrainian film with a werewolf narrative, Oberih by Mykola Rasheev, shows the process of losing identity differently.

Oberih / Obereg / Amulet (1990)

If Chas perevertnia is similar in tone to other late Soviet films, Oberih, the last film by director Mykola Rasheev, is a bit of an oddity. It is a film that brilliantly underscores that homogenising Soviet cinema and excluding film from national republics results in a fragmentary picture of Soviet cinema. Little has been written about it apart from Larysa Briukhovets’ka’s book on the 1990s as the lost decade of Ukrainian cinema, where she discusses the film briefly as an example of the supernatural trend in Ukrainian cinema, calling it a social parable with horror film elements that she considers completely superficial (Briukhovets’ka 2003: 182).

Oberih’s setting is urban, as in Chas perevertnia, but instead of a small town, it takes place in a big city. There is a certain allegorical vagueness about this film because most of the characters lack names. However, the film has geographic and temporal specificity: it is set in Kyiv, after the Chornobyl’ tragedy, amidst growing national consciousness in Soviet Ukraine. At the film’s beginning, its protagonist, Andrii, works in an unspecified organisation and seems fully content with his humble life. He meets his childhood friend Petro Harlan, who arrives at his workplace. Harlan urges Andrii to get his act together and think of the future, telling him that his position will soon be vacant and that Andrii should take his place. Almost immediately after, Harlan dies, falling down the stairs of the same building, clutching a red folder with documents he was going to sign. Andrii takes the folder from the dead man’s hands and finishes the job.

After that, he not only fills Harlan’s position but takes his place in every possible way: he occupies his apartment, wears his clothes and even becomes the lover of Harlan’s woman. Andrii is constantly confused with the dead Harlan, who continues to appear on the screen, invisible to others except the protagonist. It is implied that both are the same person, even outside an allegorical reading. Harlan continues to haunt Andrii; however, his role is twofold. He is a supernatural helper when it comes to moving Andrii’s career forward, but Harlan’s presence obviously burdens the protagonist so that he tries to get rid of his dead double by performing a ‘cleansing’ ritual at his grave and driving a stake into it. Others are able to see a dead double of Andrii only at the moment of their deaths. As time passes, Andrii takes on more and more important positions at work, gradually loses human features, and becomes a wolf-like monster in a very corporeal sense, roaming the city at night. At first, this process takes place only at night but then spreads and starts to affect his social life. The final scene marks his complete transformation. In the last shots, which show a nocturnal urban landscape lit by an unusually large moon, the fully transformed protagonist starts to howl, only to be echoed by many other voices, presumably from the inhabitants of the residential buildings we see in the closing shots.

Still from Oberih (1990). Image courtesy of the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre.

Both Andrii and Petro Harlan came to the big city from the countryside. They are fellow countrymen who have known each other since childhood. They speak Ukrainian to each other, but in the majority of the film, the Russian language is spoken. As in many perestroika films made in Soviet Ukraine and Ukraine after its independence in the early 1990s, the Ukrainian language is never used here as a language of power, a trait that is consistent throughout the whole Soviet period (Chernetsky 2020); one exception is Balagan / Carnival (Andrii Benkendorf, 1990, Soviet Union). The Ukrainian language marks a marginal, minute and even deviant character in bilingual films like the two patients in the mental hospital in Asthenic Syndrome (one of them, a man who claims to have snakes in his stomach, speaks Russian but with a heavy Ukrainian accent). Some Ukrainian films in the 1990s preserved this practice while continually subverting its meaning. For example, in Tsvitinnia kul’baby / Dandelion's Bloom (1992, Ukraine) by Oleksandr Ignatusha, the language of the ‘friendship of peoples’ (druzhba narodov) spoken by the representatives of the repressive police force is opposed to a wide variety of Ukrainian and surzhyk (mixed Ukrainian-Russian sociolect) spoken by the other characters. In Oberih, Ukrainian is spoken mostly during Andrii and Petro’s first conversation and used after that only episodically in scenes connected with the protagonist's rural origins. Andrii’s position is never self-sufficient. His ‘brilliant career’ is to be a personal assistant to a gradually rising cast of ‘important people’ in the Soviet power structure, thus emphasising his subordinate, almost straightforwardly subaltern status. Such settings, of course, rule out the Ukrainian language. Andrii’s self-imposed status as an imperial steward is rather bluntly put in one scene where he repeats after his boss when he takes off his hat and waves to his daughter standing on a balcony. Answering the question of what he is doing, the protagonist says: from now on, I do what you do. The film is never specific about exactly what his bosses are doing, though his second boss's job is related to reducing the consequences of radioactive contamination after the Chornobyl’ disaster. Covering up catastrophes and not immediately informing the public of dangers became one of the most critical factors that contributed to society’s disillusionment with the Soviet government, especially in Ukraine. More than that, both main characters, Petro and Harlan, came from Polissia, a historic region in northern Ukraine that suffered the most from Chornobyl pollution. So, as in Dandelion's Bloom, Oberih subverts the common trope of using Ukrainian as marginal. The protagonist’s siding with the governmental structures of Soviet power here also underlines the betrayal of his identity and heritage in the broadest sense. Gaining a deviant identity through a horrific transformation here can be described as a process of self-colonisation as the main protagonist becomes more and more detached from a human image through his betrayal of national identity and mother tongue.

However, Oberih does not have an atmosphere of time-out-of-joint like in Chas perevertnia. Oberih is a dark, grim picture with terrifying images and an unsettling and seemingly pessimistic finale, but the emotional dynamics here are pretty different. It is very different from other Russian Soviet films, with fantastic elements and horrific discourses that usually evoke the feeling of an almost unavoidable apocalypse ahead. The rise of the nationalist movement is obvious in Oberih. One of the central scenes of the film includes documentary footage of an actual historical event – most probably the first legal national demonstration, which was held on November 13, 1989, in St. Sophia Square in Kyiv. Like many other mass demonstrations of that period, it called for changes in various areas from nationalist to ecological and political and, finally, contained a public prayer. Both Andrii and his boss are present there, though the latter only enters the crowd to find and expose Andrii and demonstratively refuses to take part in the demonstration when he has the chance. Unlike the tale of moral disintegration that mirrored the imminent decay of the Soviet state and a subsequent void in Chas perevertnia, Oberih presents the birth of something new. It cannot change the fate of its doomed hero; however, the film does not dwell on poverty and violence to the extent of chernukha films.

The slow but inevitable transformation of the protagonist here seems to be the horrible but almost natural result of betraying his national identity. Oberih could even be compared to werewolf tales in European folklore, where turning into a wolf is punishment for breaking religious and social norms; the narrative is known in Ukraine (Gnatenko 1912: 85) and specifically in the Polissia region (Levkievskaia and Vinogradova 2010: 512-513). The supernatural in Ukrainian cinema never detaches from everyday experience enough to become truly unnatural. As adaptations of literary works primarily in a Romantic vein, Ukrainian films featuring the supernatural or uncanny never had a chance to be genuinely horrific because the supernatural was felt as a part of everyday life, and here I am referring not only to classical films like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors or St John's Eve. That trend was revitalised in the 1990s in either the straight modality of the Holos Travy / The Voice of Grass (1992, Ukraine) by Natalia Motuzko or more of the postmodern pastiche of Fuchzhou / Fuzhou (1994, Ukraine) by Mikhailo Illienko. Oberih, with its urban setting and gloomy atmosphere, is as close to a horror film in every sense of the term, though in a refreshing way. In modern horror films, werewolves are predominantly invoked to question normality, though we can find a few other models outside the werewolf cycle in North American films. In Oberih, the monstrous character reconfirms normality only because the film is subversive towards ‘normal’ Soviet tropes. The hero becomes a monster due to actions that in Soviet films of the Stalin era, for example, would most likely lead to a successful adaptation of a provincial hero to a big city. Oberih, however, connects the character's social transition with the loss of his national identity.


In “Shocking Representation. Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film”, Adam Lowenstein discussed specific horror films from England, Canada, Japan, and the USA by examining their ability to confront national historical traumas, or what he called “an allegorical moment [...] a shocking collision of film, spectator, and history where registers of bodily space and historical time are disrupted, confronted, and intertwined” (Lowenstein 2005: 2) He had the happy opportunity to examine not only films themselves but also the mechanics of their functioning within public discourses. All these films were widely distributed, discussed, and left marks, or, more appropriately, scars, on social consciousnesses. That was not the case with either Chas perevertnia or Oberih. Of course, their obscurity for almost 30 years should not mean that they must continue to be excluded from the histories of Ukrainian and Soviet cinema. Nevertheless, I am not going to scold previous scholarly practices but rather myself engage in an act of self-flagellation.

It is not coincidental that Ukrainian scholarship, for the most part, also confined itself to areas unclaimed by Russian film studies, like “Poetic Cinema”. Contested narratives only became visible after 2014 and the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. Many films, especially from periods of VUFKU (Vseukrains'ke fotokinoupravlinnia / All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration) in the 1920s, as well as from the 1980s and 1990s, were rediscovered and reattributed, thanks to the efforts of such entities as the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre. However, the recent history of the rediscovery of both Chas perevertnia and Oberih draws clear demarcation lines in determining the issues of belonging and identity in both films. Oberih, with its easily recognisable Ukrainian discourse, was rediscovered and first screened as a Ukrainian film. Chas perevertnia, though filmed in Soviet Ukraine but with an explicitly absent national framework, was rediscovered in Russia thanks to genre enthusiasts from the group From Outer Space in the Russian social network Vkontakte, and its only known copy was found in Gosfilmofond in Russia in 2021. Therefore, Chas perevertnia has every chance of being attributed in the future as a Soviet, or simply a Russian, film. In fact, its first public screening in the US at Princeton University in the autumn of 2022 took place in the framework of the series “Russia’s Mystical Horrors!”6

Serhii Ksaverov
Independent scholar, Kyiv


1 It should be noted that one of the first books on cinema of this period (Braginsky, Horton 1992) was much more inclusive in its outlook of “Soviet cinema” of the period and even covered some republican national film traditions (ibid.: 219-244).

2 One of the most indicative books in this respect is Nancy Condee’s The Imperial Trace. Recent Russian Cinema, which treats Russia as an imperial entity. Condee is particularly interested in the question of “How do we situate ‘the national,’ in whatever sense and insofar as it exists, as a conceptual category vis-à-vis the category of empire?” (Condee 2009: 6). Ironically, the examined corpus of "Russian directors" presents the same paradox Andrew Tudor pointed out in genre studies. This paradox arises when the definition of a genre relies on films that have already been selected as representatives of that genre. (Tudor 1973: 135). Condee questions the “limitations associated with ‘nationhood’ as a model for Russian collective identity” basing her analysis on films that cannot be labelled "Russian" and "imperial" until after the analysis is conducted.

3 https://lostmedia.fandom.com/ru/wiki/Час_оборотня_(фильм,_1990). The film is available with English subtitles on Ihor Shevchenko’s Youtube-channel. Chas perevertnia, https://youtu.be/_ewk5F-2rQs

4 Strannaia istoriia Doktora Dzhekila i mistera Khaida (Aleksandr Orlov, 1985, Soviet Union), Chelovek-nevidimka (Oleksandr Zakharov, 1984, Soviet Union).

5 The word “russkii” is used, instead of the more expected “rossiiskii”. This difference, absent in most European languages, is notable because the former usually refers to a narrower sense of a Russian nation and territory while “rossiiskii” usually reflects the imperial domain of the Russian nation and all other nations (Thompson 2000: 17).

6 https://reees.princeton.edu/events/2022/slavic-film-series-%D1%87%D0%B0%D1%81-%D0%BE%D0%B1%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%BD%D1%8F-werewolf-hour-1990


Serhii Ksaverov is a film critic who lives and works in Kyiv. A member of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and the Film Critics of Ukraine Association, he has been the co-curator of the Kyiv Critics Week Festival since 2018.


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Suggested Citation

Ksaverov, Serhii. 2023. “Losing Identities: Horror Narratives in Two Late Soviet Ukrainian Films”. Decolonising the (Post-)Soviet Screen I (ed. by Heleen Gerritsen). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 17. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2023.00017.342.

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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