The Witches of Kyiv – Orest Somov’s Gothic Ukraine

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Gothic style book cover features a ball of snakes, toads and bats on dark blue background
The Witches of Kyiv book cover

“…He saw Katrusia lying beside him. There was no trace of yesterday’s insanity on her face, nor the frantic savagery, with which she had chanted incantations, in her eyes.”

Orest SomovThe Witches of Kyiv

Presently, most of our fiction books present beautiful examples of the Gothic genre in Ukrainian literature. Thus, our other Gothic novels include Polishchuk’s Treasure of the Ages (preview) and Starytska-Cherniakhivska’s The Living Grave (preview). In 2016, we published a compilation of Orest Somov’s short stories entitled The Witches of Kyiv. (Cite: Somov, O 2016, The Witches of Kyiv and Other Gothic Tales, Sydney, Sova Books).

Now, when we are about to publish a non-fiction book on Ukrainian demonology, Somov’s stories come to mind. In particular, what astonishes is the depth of the novelist’s knowledge of Ukrainian folklore. His description of rusalky’s behaviour, harm caused by the evil eye, or Ivan Kupalo’s celebration is uncanny.

A valuable addition to our Gothic collection

Young Ukrainian woman sitting down on the stairs.

The Witches of Kyiv and Other Gothic Tales differs from its Gothic counterparts in several ways. First, it contains an insightful foreword by an expert in the genres of Gothic and Romantic literature, Svitlana Krys. The foreword makes a perfect starting point for learning about and understanding the author. Furthermore, it offers a concise overview of his selected works and their place in Ukrainian and world literature.

Orest Somov (1793–1833), a Ukrainian Romantic author […] wrote in Russian, the lingua franca of the Russian Empire […]. His Ukrainian tales made a big impact on the literary canon of the 1820s and became the subject of a literary dialogue. To give just one example, Aleksandr Pushkin, the preeminent Russian Romantic and founder of modern Russian literature, revisited Somov’s The Witches of Kyiv, the inaugural tale in this collection and one of his most famous works, in his own writing. It is thanks to Somov’s efforts that, a few years later, young Gogol asked his mother in his letter home, dated 30 April 1829, to send him as much ethnographical material as possible, seeing that everyone in the imperial capital was captivated by all things Ukrainian. Gogol himself used Somov’s writing as inspiration.

Further, Svitlana Krys describes Somov as, “an initiator of an indigenous literary tradition of the Gothic in the Ukrainian literary canon”. In particular, in his imaginative tales, Somov twists together native folk traditions, ghost stories and European Romanticism. Most of these tales, which we included in the current publication, appear in English for the first time.

The second difference concerns the book cover. Previously, Yanitsa Slavcheva and Nikola Nevenov, talented Bulgarian artists, created our Gothic book covers. This time it was the equally talented Australian artist Colin Thompson, who conjured the book cover.

Short stories in ‘The Witches of Kyiv’

Ukrainian peasant girl sitting on a ground with geese and trees on the background

Somov’s The Witches of Kyiv and Other Gothic Tales introduces many intriguing Ukrainian Gothic characters. Thus, in the book the supernatural is present throughout Ukraine, from a cemetery in Kyivan Rus, to an isolated forest cottage in the 17th century Kozak era, to the society ballrooms of Somov’s own world – the early 19th century. Furthermore, Gothic horror appears in many guises including witches, warlocks, demons and vengeful ‘rusalky’. Strange soothsayers and malevolent visitors represent the forces of good and evil.

The Witches of Kyiv’ – A besotted newlywed husband discovers a wild occult world of incantations, apparitions and a savage Witch’s Sabbath on the outskirts of old Kyiv.

Rusalka’ – A lovelorn young girl joins supernatural spirits inhabiting the waterways of Ukraine. Indeed it tests her mother’s devotion sorely.

The Evil Eye’ – A prosperous landowner, Kozak Mykyta looks into the eyes of true evil when a hellish guest covets his three beautiful, virtuous daughters.

Wandering Light’ – Triumphant after a deadly battle, a warrior named Velesyl returns for his bride but instead encounters an eerie, glowing spirit.

Kupalo Eve’ – On the banks of the Dnipro (Dnieper) River a handsome knight partakes enthusiastically in the pagan rites of Kupalo Eve. Hence a supple maiden entrances him with her cool charm.

God’s Fool’ – Fun-loving officer Melskyi, normally frequents gaming tables and summer balls. He is confounded by the eccentric drifter Vasyl. Dubbed ‘God’s Fool’, yet Vasyl is able to read minds and divine fates. Vasyl guides Melskyi through his flippant flirtations, bizarre dreams and a deadly serious duel to meet his destiny.

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As for the illustrations in the book – they are images of classic works of Ukrainian artists. The originals are exhibited or archived at the National Art Museum of Ukraine. Once again the Museum lent us a helping hand. Its curator and researcher Lesia Tolstova advised on and arranged for the use of the images. To demonstrate, we include some of them here.