Russia, Vampires in

Russia, Vampires in

(pop culture)

The former Soviet Union, including Russia, Siberia, the Ukraine, and Byelorussia, has been one of the homelands of the Slavic vampire. The first mention of the word “vampir” in a Slavic document was in a Russian one, The Book of Prophecy written in 1047 C.E. for Vladimir Jaroslav, Prince of Novgorod, in northwest Russia. The text was written in what is generally thought of as proto-Russian, a form of the language that had evolved from the older, common Slavonic language but had not yet become distinctive Russian language of the modern era. The text gave a priest the unsavory label “Upir Lichy,” literally “wicked vampire” or “extortionate vampire,” an unscrupulous prelate. The term—if not the concept—was most likely introduced from the southern Slavs, possibly the Bulgarians. The Russians of Kiev had adopted Eastern Christianity in 988 C.E. and had drawn heavily on Bulgaria for Christian leadership.

Those areas of Russia under Prince Vladimir, centered around the city of Kiev (the Ukraine), accepted Christianity in 988, at which time Vladimir declared war on paganism. Christianity then spread from Kiev northward and westward. For several centuries Christianity existed side by side with existing tribal faiths, but became an integral part of the amalgamation of the tribal cultures into unified states. The invasion of Mongols in the 1240s, including their destruction of Kiev, and their decade of rule, led to a shift of power to Novgorod under Alexander Nevsky. During the fourteenth century, power began to shift to the princedom of Muskovy and the chief Christian cleric established himself in Moscow, though still titled as the metropolitan of “Kiev and all Rus.” Westernmost Russia, including the Ukraine and Byelorussia, came under the expanded Lithuanian empire. Thus modern Russia emerged by pushing back the Mongols in the East and the Lithuanians (and Poles) in the West. While the state fought back foreign territorial rivals, Orthodox Christianity was in the very process of driving out the pre-Christian religions. That process was accompanied by the rise of new heretical religious movements, some being amalgamations of Christian and pagan practices. With the emergence of a strong central state in Moscow in the fourteenth century, the state periodically moved against dissident movements. Surviving through this entire period into modern times were people who practiced (or who were believed to practice) magic. They were known as witches and sorcerers.

During the long reign of Vasili II in the mid-fifteenth century, vast changes occurred in Russia, including an expansion of its territory. In 1448, following the breakup of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox union to combat Islam, and just five years before the fall of Constantinople, the bishop in Moscow declared his autonomous status. There followed a period of expansion, both secular and ecclesiastical. The Russian church assumed many of the prerogatives formerly held by Constantinople, and early in the sixteenth-century there arose the concept of Moscow as the “third Rome,” the new center of Christian faith. Under Ivan III the Great, territorial expansion reached new heights with the incorporation of Finland and movement to the east across the Urals. Thus the stage was set for the expansion into the Volga River valley under Ivan the Terrible, and the incorporation of Siberia and lands all the way to the Pacific Ocean in the seventeenth century. During the several centuries of Romanov rule, Russia continued westward into the Baltic states, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine, though its most impressive conquests were southward to the Caspian Sea and the Persian border. By the time of the Russian revolution in 1917, the country had assumed the proportions it has today.

The Russian revolution of 1917 brought the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) into existence. The USSR collapsed in December 1991 and has been replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), though a number of the former Soviet states did not join the CIS and chose to become new and independent countries. This essay deals with the lands of the CIS, primarily Russia, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine.

The Russian Vampire: In modern Russia the most common term for a vampire is uppyr, a term probably borrowed from the Ukrainian upyr. In Russia, the idea of the vampire became closely associated with that of the witch or sorcerer, which in turn had been tied to the concept of heresy. Heresy is defined as the deviation on matters considered essential to orthodox faith, in this case, Eastern Orthodox Christianity. This idea can be viewed as an extension of the Eastern Orthodox belief that a body would not decay normally if death occurred when the individual was outside the communion of the church. The person could be in an excommunicated state due either to immoral behavior or to heresy. Thus a heretic (i.e., eretik, or, in related dialects and languages, eretnik, eretica, eretnica, or erestun) might become a vampire after death. In Russian thought, the relationship between heresy and the existence of vampires was simply strengthened to the point of identifying one with the other.

The person who was a heretic in this life might become a vampire after death. The most likely heretic to turn into a vampire was the practitioner of magic, under a variety of names—kudesnik, porcelnik, koldun, or snaxar. The method of transformation into a vampire varied widely.

An eretik was also associated with sorcery, a practice that also led to one’s becoming a vampire. Over the years and across the very large territory comprising Russia, the eretik assumed a number of additional connotations. At time it referred to members of the many sectarian groups that drew people from the true faith. It also referred to witches who had sold their soul to the devil. The vampire eretik possessed an evil eye that could draw a person caught in the vampire’s gaze into the grave. Dmitrij Zelenin has traced the emergence of the eretik vampire from the fight conducted by the Orthodox against the medieval religious sectarians. Sectarians were designated inovercy (i.e., persons who adhere to a different faith). Upon death the inovercy were associated with the zaloznye pokojniki, or unclean dead, and thus were not buried in cemeteries. They had died without confession and thus were seen as dying in sin. Since they did not believe in the true God, possibly they had served the devil, and hence were considered sorcerers.

Eretiks generally were destroyed by the use of an aspen stake driven into the back or by fire. In the Olonecian region, accounts suggested that any person, including a pious Christian, could become a vampire if a sorcerer entered and took over the body at the moment of death. The peasant would appear to have recovered, but in fact had become a erestuny (vampire) who would begin to feed on members of the family. People in the nearby village would start to die mysteriously. In the Elatomsk district of east-central Russia, there were even reports of the ereticy—women who sold their soul to the devil. After their death, these women roamed the earth in an attempt to turn people from the true faith. They might be found near graveyards, as they slept at night in the graves of the impious. They could be identified by their appearance at the local bathhouse, where they made an unseemly noise.

Vampire Folktales: The vampire has been the subject of many Russian folk stories collected in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries beginning with the work of A. N. Afanasyev in the 1860s. As was common with many folktales, they served to promote community values and encouraged specific kinds of behavior. The tale “Death at the Wedding,” for example, related the adventure of a soldier proud of his service to God and the emperor. When he returned to his home town on a visit, he encountered a sorcerer/vampire. Unknowingly, the soldier took the vampire to a wedding, where the vampire began to drain the blood of the newlyweds. Horrified, the soldier nevertheless engaged the sorcerer in conversation until he discovered the secret of stopping him. First, he stole some of the blood the vampire had collected into two vials and poured the blood back into the wounds the vampire had made on the couple’s bodies. He next led the villagers out to the cemetery, where they dug up the vampire’s body and burned it. The soldier was generously rewarded for his actions and his display of courage in service to God and emperor.

The dispatch of the Russian vampire followed traditional means known throughout Slavic countries. The body of a suspected vampire was first disinterred. Often a stake (aspen was a preferred wood) was driven through the heart. Sometimes the body would be burned (Afanesyev’s account mentioned that aspen wood was used in the cremation of the vampire). In the account from the Olonecian region, the corpse was whipped before the stake was driven through the heart.

The Vampire in Russian Literature: During the nineteenth century, the vampire entered the world of Russian literature, seemingly through the popularity of the German romantic stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann and the writings of Goethe. In the 1840s Alexey K. Tolstoy (1817–1875) combined the vampire of popular Russian folklore with the literary vampire that had emerged in Germany and France. His two stories, “Upyr” and “The Family of the Vourdalak,” became classics of both the horror genre and Russian literature. The latter was brought to the movie screen by Italian producer Mario Bava as part of his horror anthology Black Sabbath. More recently, “The Family of the Vourdalak” has become the subject of a Russian-made movie released in the United States as Father, Santa Claus Has Died (1992).

At least two other Russian vampire stories have been translated and given worldwide distribution, “Vij” (or “Viv”) by Nikolai Gogol and “Phantoms” by Ivan Turgenev. The former became the basis of two movies, La Maschera del Demonio (released in the United States as Black Sunday), also directed by Mario Bava, and a 1990 remake with the same name by Mario’s son Lamberto Bava. A Russian version of Vij was filmed in 1967. What was possibly the first vampire film, The Secret of House No. 5, was made in Russia in 1912. An unauthorized version of Dracula (1897), the first screen adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, was filmed in Russia two years before Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens, the more famous film by Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau. However, the vampire has not been a consistent topic for movies in Russia over the years.

Russia was heard from in 1998 when Sergei Lukyanenko released the first of his series of supernatural novels, Night Watch, which portrayed a very different Moscow than that seen by the tourist. The hero, Anton Gorodetsky, is an agent for the Night Watch, an unusual “police” force that protects humanity from a spectrum of supernatural creates, both good and bad, including vampires, werewolves, incubi/succubi, and witches. Night Watch was quickly followed by Day Watch, Twilight Watch, and The Last Watch. The first two novels were made into movies and found a ready audience across Europe and North America.


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