After the embarrassing failure of the adolescent poem Hanz Kuchelgarten, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka was the first collection of short stories published by Nikolai Gogol, in two volumes between 1831 and 1832. The collection was an immediate success. While Gogol had already been taken up by the leading literary figures of the day, including Anton Delvig and Vasily Zhukovsky, had made the acquaintance of Alexander Pushkin, and had published several of his stories in related journals, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka established his popular appeal, and placed him at the forefront of the emerging genre of Russian prose.
Gogol had been born in 1809 in the village of Sorochyntsi, today part of central Ukraine, but then part of the Russian Empire within the territory known as Little Russia. From 1820 he attended school in Nizhyn, north east of Kiev, and after he graduated in 1828, he eagerly departed for Saint Petersburg, the imperial capital. He was not yet determined upon a career in literature, but he felt fairly convinced that in some manner he would find fame and fortune.
Yet with Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka Gogol turned back upon his childhood. The collection consists of eight humorously told tales of peasant life in Little Russia. For his source material Gogol relied a little on memory, and some on regional forms of poetry and theatre: at school he had shown talent as an actor, while his father, who died when Gogol was fifteen, had been an amateur playwright. But most of all Gogol utilised his correspondence with his mother, to whom he wrote:
‘don’t be angry at me, magnanimous little mother, if I often burden you with requests to send me reports about Little Russia or some such thing. This is in fact my daily bread. Even now I am asking you to collect a few such reports, if you hear a merry anecdote somewhere among the peasants in our village, or in another, or among the landowners. Be so good as to describe the practices and customs, the superstitions […] what kind of clothes were worn […] what kind of fabrics were known in their time, everything with the most detailed detail; what sort of incidents and stories that were comical, amusing, sad, terrifying, occurred in their time. Don’t disregard anything, everything has its value for me.’
‘I expect from you in your next letter a complete description of the costume of a village deacon, from his underclothes to his boots, with the names used by the most rooted, ancient, undeveloped Little Russians; also the names, down to the last ribbon, for the various pieces of clothing worn by our village maidens, as well as by married women, and by muzhiks […] the exact names for clothing worn in the time of the hetmans […] a minute description of a wedding, not omitting the smallest detail […] a few words about carol singing, about St. John’s Eve, about water sprites.’
Both volumes of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka are constructed around a framing narrative, in which a homespun beekeeper named Rusty Panko presents himself as the collector of the stories, introducing and narrating each one in turn as well as providing footnotes. Several of the stories are set on days of feast or festivity, from the opening ‘Sorochyntsi Fair’ to ‘St. John’s Eve’, ‘May Night, or The Drowned Maiden’, and ‘Christmas Eve’, which is also translated as ‘The Night Before Christmas’.
Gogol’s early work – putting together Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka with the four stories from Mirgorod, his second collection, published in 1935 and also set in Little Russia – has been variously assessed. Probably his earliest English critic in 1841 dismissed him as a passing fad, writing that ‘Old World Landowners’:
‘made us groan more than once as we turned over page after page, in the hope of meeting something like an incident, a scene, or a dialogue in it. It is nothing more than a tedious, prosy account […] All that we can make out from it is, that in Little Russia respectable and wealthy people – for as such are Athanasius Ivanovitch and lady ticketed by the author – lead an exceedingly hugger-mugger life, in which sordidness and coarseness accompany riotous profusion.’
And in his book-length study of 1944, Vladimir Nabokov expressed his distaste for local colour, writing ‘It is for this reason that the two volumes of the Evenings as well as the two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod […] leave me completely indifferent.’ On the other hand many readers would agree with D. S. Mirsky, who in 1926 argued of the Evenings:
‘The picture they give of Ukraine is of course quite fantastic, but it was so attractive, at once so prettily romantic and so hugely funny, that not even the Ukrainians themselves (except till much later) remarked all the absurdities, all the supreme disregard for (and ignorance of) reality displayed by Gogol. The prefaces to each of the two volumes, place in the mouth of the suppositious narrator, the beekeeper Red Panko, are already masterpieces of Gogol’s mimetic art.’
Upon receiving the collection in 1831, Pushkin wrote to a friend:
‘I have finished reading Evenings near Dikanka. An astounding book! Here is fun for you, authentic fun of the frankest kind without anything maudlin or prim about it. And moreover – what poetry, what delicacy of sentiment in certain passages! All this is so unusual in our literature that I am still unable to get over it.’
Regarded as one of the most accomplished films based on Gogol’s collection, the Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka directed by Aleksandr Rou and released at the end of 1961 is in fact an adaptation of ‘The Night Before Christmas’.
The story had received several treatments before, notably Ladislas Starevich’s 41-minute live action silent film of 1913, and the 50-minute animation of 1951 produced by Soyuzmultfilm and directed by the Brumberg sisters, Valentina and Zinaida. It had also provided the basis for three operas, Tchaikovsky’s Vakula the Smith receiving its premiere in 1876, and being revised for 1887 as Cherevichki, which means ‘The Empress’s Slippers’; while Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve premiered in 1895. Music from Rimsky-Korsakov‘s opera was used in the 1951 Brumberg animation.
For his version of the tale, Rou stuck close to Gogol’s text. While Gogol weaves his way back and forth between his story’s various characters, Rou simplifies the order of events, but otherwise everything in his film occurs by and large as it does in Gogol’s fiction. Shooting took place in March 1961, in the town of Kirovsk in the northern region of Murmansk, which lies within the Arctic Circle. Ukrainian-style huts were constructed in the snow, and local miners and medical students served as extras, taking their place among the groups of carol singers and sledders.
For the film’s two young leads, Lyudmyla Myznikova as Oksana and Yuri Tavrov as Vakula, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka proved their only major acting roles. Myznikova was feted for her performance in the picture, but a wintertime musical of 1963 was shelved by the censors, and after rejecting a number of other roles, she never returned to the screen, continuing to work instead in local theatre. Meanwhile Tavrov settled for a few bit-parts in films and television movies through the 1970s and 1980s, and wound up in construction before succumbing to an early death.
On the other hand over an on-screen career which endured for more than forty years, Aleksandr Khvylya, who plays Chub, received the Stalin Prize in 1950 and in 1963 was made a People’s Artist of the RSFSR. For a long time he was also the country’s officially sanctioned Santa Claus, playing the part of Father Christmas to the Kremlin. For Lyudmyla Khityayeva, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka began a long association with the Gorky Film Studio. She was made a People’s Artist of the RSFSR in 1983, and now aged eighty-five, has continued until recently to work in film and on television.
Georgiy Millyar, who plays the Devil, after a substantial period on the Moscow stage, became Aleksandr Rou’s closest collaborator. He acted in nearly all of the director’s pictures, playing comic and grotesque characters, often with a sinister undercurrent. In Vasilisa the Beautiful (1939), Jack Frost (1964), Fire, Water, and Brass Pipes (1968), and The Golden Horn (1972), he became Soviet film’s archetypal Baba Yaga, while he played the villainous Kashchei in Kashchei the Immortal (1944) and again in Fire, Water, and Brass Pipes. It was with Wish Upon a Pike (1938) and Vasilisa the Beautiful that Rou established the fantasy genre in Soviet cinema, marking a departure from the previous reliance on socialist realism.
Millyar’s Devil in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka is a singularly Russian creation. In Gogol’s ‘Christmas Eve’ text, he introduces the figure as:
‘From the front, a perfect German: the narrow little muzzle, constantly twitching and sniffing at whatever came along, ended in a round snout, as with our pigs; the legs were so thin that if the headman of Yareskov had had such legs, he’d have broken them in the first Cossack dance. To make up for that, from behind he was a real provincial attorney in uniform, because he had a tail hanging there, sharp and long as uniform coattails nowadays; and only by the goat’s bear under his muzzle, the little horns sticking up on his head, and the fact that he was no whiter than a chimney sweep, could you tell that he was not a German or a provincial attorney, but simply a devil who had one last night to wander about the wide world and teach good people to sin. Tomorrow, as the first bells rang for matins, he would run for his den, tail between his legs, without looking back.’
Meanwhile Rusty Panko’s footnote acknowledges that, ‘Among us, anyone from a foreign land is called a German, whether he’s a Frenchman, a Swiss, or a Swede – they’re all Germans.’
Nabokov’s study offers an acutely related conception of the Devil as many Russians, and especially Gogol, understood the type:
‘In its wriggly immature stage, which was the one in which Gogol mainly encountered him, the “Chort” is for good Russians a shrimpy foreigner, a shivering puny green-blooded imp with thin German, Polish, French legs, a sneaking little cad (“podlenky”) with something inexpressibly repellent (“gadenky”) about him. To squash him is a mixture of nausea and ecstasy’
Millyar’s Devil manages to incorporate many of these characteristics. Goat-like and scrawny, with a tufty beard, often to be found squatting on his haunches, he is rascally rather than demonic, and despite a few magical capabilities, his ill intentions never amount to much, especially as his base and lascivious nature renders him rather fickle. He is a Devil who it is easy to get around, and he proves no match for the wholesome and vigorous Vakula.
After the Gorky Film Studio title card, we are shown the red leatherette cover of Gogol’s book, and the page turns to the beginning of our story. Just as Panko prefaces the narrative in Gogol’s text, here a narrator introduces the main characters in turn, identifying their distinguishing traits: the Cossack Chub is rich and pompous, yet slovenly; Oksana his daughter beautiful but capricious; Vakula the blacksmith is strong, and all-round a fine example of a young man; and Solokha his mother a ‘real woman’, her looks unexceptional, but her manner alluring.
The last day before Christmas has passed: it is the night before Christmas, and above the snow-covered village, Solokha is riding a magical broomstick, snatching up stars. The Devil sits perched on a snowy rooftop, looking up with a mixture of awe and contentment, which is spoiled when he espies Vakula. For the Devil hates Vakula even more than the local priest, because Vakula is a fine painter, and his masterpiece – which hangs in the village church – shows a devil in the act of being whipped and scalded by Saint Peter. Here a lively cartoon enacts for us the gesture of Vakula’s painting.
Rou emphasises the slapstick in Gogol’s story. As the Devil loiters after Vakula, he is inadvertently struck by the blacksmith’s sack, and stumbles back an exceptionally long distance through the snow, retracing his steps up an incline until he collapses against a hut. Chub and Panas are inside, with Oksana, who is helping her father to dress. He is due to attend some gathering, but the Devil supposes that if he steals the moon and renders the nighttime black, Chub will refuse to go out in the dark, with Vakula therefore losing the opportunity for some alone time with Oksana.
The Devil performs swimming strokes in the night sky, reaching the moon and – although it is too hot to hold – managing to clasp it within his cloak. He flies about on the broom with Solokha. Meanwhile Chub and Panas share some snuff, and determine to venture out despite the darkness, but in a blizzard they are soon followed by the Devil, who in a riotous sequence sends them spinning in opposite directions. Panas happens upon a tavern, while Chub continues to wander in the cold.
Alone Oksana sits in front of the mirror, watched by Vakula from the window. She bemoans her chubby cheeks and upturned nose, but she is just being coy: she knows how pretty she is really, and with ribbons in her hair thinks she must be the most beautiful girl for miles around. Vakula notes that she has been sitting like this for an hour, praising herself aloud. When he enters the hut, he is playfully critiqued by Oksana, first for slipping in while her father is absent, but also for failing to have finished work on her decorative chest.
Vakula’s affection gets him nowhere. Outside the doorway to the hut, Chub, drunk and disguising himself, is refused entry to his own home by Vakula – who fails to recognise him – despite protesting that he only wants to sing a few carols. Believing that he must have reached the wrong address, Chub contemplates visiting Solokha. At Solokha’s house, the Devil loses the moon, which rises up and out of the chimney.
With light restored to the sky, groups of young carolers receive their traditional treats of plaited loaves of bread, buns, rings of sausage, and candy. They show Oksana their bounty, and Oksana lusts after another girl’s slippers. When Vakula steps in and says he will give Oksana whatever slippers she desires, she mocks him in front of the group, saying that she will agree to marry him only if he manages to somehow obtain the slippers of the Russian Empress.
We turn back to Solokha and the Devil, who are drinking, laughing, and cavorting. But the Head of the village arrives to visit with Solokha, and the devil is forced to hide in a sack. After just one drink, the same fate befalls the Head when Osip Nikiforovich, the village sacristan, knocks with a blessing. Alas this is a Soviet film, and the sacristan too is a lech, himself interrupted just as he goes in for a kiss. Chub has made his way to Solokha’s place, but he too winds up in a rapidly emptied coal sack when Valuka makes his return to the family home, lamenting that he cannot seem to stop thinking about Oksana. Thus inside we have four lustful creatures all hiding within old sacks of coal, and outside, another admirer Sverbyguz falls in the snow at Solokha’s feet.
The carolers ride sleighs and frolic in the snow. Young men gather about Oksana. She notices Vakula looking on, and breaks loose to tease him once more, but he states that he is leaving the village, and that Oksana will never see him again in the world. Some men follow after him in an attempt to change his mind, but he is resolute and walks off carrying his four sacks. Without delay, an old witch plots to tell the villagers that Vakula has hanged himself.
However Vakula is still alive, and he has a second thought: in a final endeavour to win Oksana, he plans to visit Paunchy Patsyuk, who he understands to have ties with the Devil. Vakula leaves all but one of his sacks behind, and finds Patsyuk divining cream-coated dumplings into his mouth, a gluttonous act of magic. Vakula pleads with Patsyuk for help, but Paunchy merely finishes his bowl, reserving one dumpling for Vakula, which levitates into his mouth and is met with disgust. Fortunately the Devil is inside Vakula’s sole remaining sack, and he pops out eager to make a deal with his adversary. So Vakula climbs on the Devil’s back for a ride to Saint Petersburg. It is hardly a smooth journey, amid tossing and turning, tail and ear-pulling. But they land somewhere just off the Neva, between the Winter Palace and the Peter and Paul Fortress.
In the village, Panas emerges from the tavern. A sack stumbles towards him, to his fright. But Panas decides it must be full of carolers’ goodies. The weaver Shapuvalenko sways onto the scene, and tries to help his friend lift the sack, a task they can barely manage. They take it to Panas’s home, but wind up in a brawl with his wife over who is going to get the first glance. All three think there must be a pig inside the wriggling canvas, but instead they discover Chub – and following Chub, a little porker in the shape of the sacristan. Chub has a good chuckle at Solokha’s sway over men.
In Petersburg, Vakula walks in on a sitting of Cossacks. They apparently stayed in the village near Dikanka for a few days in the autumn, and Vakula put a new hoop on their chaise, though the Cossacks remember him more for his talents as a painter. The Cossacks have an appointment to greet the Empress, and Vakula lags behind, amazed with the statues and the sumptuousness of the palace. Walking up the staircase, the group are met by Potemkin himself. Then the Empress comes out, and the Cossacks go through a familiar routine, crying ‘We will die, but we will not get up!’, and so they stay on the floor kneeling.
Yet Vakula is bold enough to rise and ask Catherine about her slippers, declaring that he only wishes his wife could own such a pair. And the Empress is so amused by his simple-heartedness that she gives him her best slippers: quite a result for a delighted Vakula.
Near Dikanka, the girls are in possession of the final sack, and hoist it home before realising someone is inside. Chub arrives amid the commotion, and checks to find the Head of the village. Awkward in the face of such eminence, Chub asks what the Head uses to rub his boots. Tar is the response, and Chub regrets the question, but remains amused by the situation and Solokha.
Later in bed Oksana laments mistreating Vakula. She realises now how he loved her, and how hard such love is to find. In the meantime Vakula makes his return on the back of the Devil, and gives the Devil a good lashing for his troubles, who runs scalded about the village, bewilderingly tracing and retracing his steps, before cooling his bottom in a wet break in the snow.
Women quarrel in front of the church: the rumour has spread that Vakula has hanged himself, or else drowned. The men mourn his death, for after all, he was a fine painter. Inside the church, Oksana gazes at the icons in silence, seeing only visions of Vakula.
But when Chub and Panas toast his name back at home, the dead man walks in to their utter disbelief. Panas in particular is shaky, and Vakula gets onto his knees and allows Chub to whip him, as punishment for leaving and as proof of his existence. In turn, Vakula asks Chub for Oksana’s hand in marriage. The pair have not tended to get along, but now seeing the gifts he has brought from Petersburg Chub assents, just as Oksana appears in the doorway in a state of shock, the camera shaking and closing rapidly towards her stricken expression. Wrapped demurely in her red patok, Vakula offers her the Empress’s slippers. But Oksana doesn’t need them any more, for she too is in love.