Nikolai Lebedev: Wolfhound (Volkodav iz roda Serykh Psov, 2006)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2007

Billed as “the first Slavic fantasy film,” Nikolai Lebedev's Wolfhound appeared in time for the 2006-2007 winter holidays. Based on Mariia Semenova's bestselling novels, Wolfhound premiered on over 600 screens and drew criticism from film critics as a “fairy-tale [skazka] for the 21st century” while winning praise from audiences as “our answer to Lord of the Rings.” Unlike previous examples of blockbuster history—such as 2005's Turkish Gambit (Turetskii gambit; dir. Dzhanik Faiziev) or Company 9 (Deviataia rota; dir. Fedor Bondarchuk)—that fictionalized actual events from Russia's pasts to appeal to audiences, Wolfhound creates a fictional past and packages it as “Slavic history.”

The plot of the film loosely adheres to Semenova's novel and the convoluted nature of the fantasy genre. At its most basic level, the story follows a hero who emerges in a society that needs one, and whose masculine virtues defeat the forces of evil that threaten stability. Set in the pre-Kievan world of the pagan East Slavs (or, as the film presents it, “in the times when gods lived among mortal men and men tried to be equal to gods in strength and power”), Wolfhound establishes the story of the last survivor of the tribe of Gray Dogs after they are butchered by men led by Zhadoba and Maneater, followers of the goddess Moranna. As he watches his parents die, the young boy learns he will be sent as a slave to work in the mines, where “he'll rot alive.” Instead, the boy survives, learns to fight, and eventually wins his freedom after killing his master. The hero (played by Aleksandr Bukharov) takes the name of his oppressor, Wolfhound, and attempts to enact revenge on his tribe's murderers. Wolfhound is joined in this quest by a bat named Torn Wing, a blind soothsayer named Tilorn (Andrei Rudenskii), and a young girl named Niilit (Evgeniia Sviridova). After a series of scrapes, they save Princess Elen' of Galirad (Oksana Akin'shina), a city suffering under a curse placed by followers of Moranna. Wolfhound also acquires a manuscript that Tilorn identifies as the mythic key to the Gates of Heaven, a potentially powerful weapon against Moranna's minions.

Wolfhound and his entourage head to Galirad, a Slavic fantasy village that literally lives under a black cloud. Although Wolfhound has rescued Galirad's Princess, the town is unwelcoming and split by internal fighting. Its residents accuse Wolfhound of being Zhadoba, the beast-like high priest of Moranna, have him arrested, and sentenced to death. Elen' intervenes and frees him, recruiting him instead as a bodyguard. The primary action of the film follows Elen', Wolfhound, and the Princess's retinue as they journey to meet Maneater's son, Lord Vinitar, to whom Elen''s father has agreed to marry her in order to lift the curse on his town. Wolfhound accompanies Elen' to continue on his path toward revenge, for he has killed Maneater and wishes to find Zhadoba. In the course of their journey, which is filled with strange encounters and action sequences one would expect from a fantasy blockbuster, Elen' falls in love with Wolfhound. After one particularly harrowing experience, Elen' explains that she holds the secret to Moranna's current imprisonment and then attempts to seduce her hero, telling him: “I want a son, not from the groom I've never seen, but from you, Wolfhound.” Although his desire to repopulate his tribe is great, Wolfhound's personal honor is stronger and he resists Elen''s pleas.

The attempt to marry off Elen' is part of an elaborate plot that involves her brother, Prince Luchezar (Igor' Petrenko). Luchezar is in cahoots with Zhadoba and together they want to wake the goddess from her slumber and ensure that she makes good on an old promise to enslave humanity and reward her priests. In order to bring about this hell on earth, they need the key to Heaven's Gate and a sacrifice, one who holds the secret to Moranna's earthly defeat. Luchezar is willing to supply his blood relative, Elen', in return for the promise of power. While the entire traveling party is resting, Luchezar poisons Wolfhound and allows Zhadoba to attack, kidnapping Elen'. Barely surviving, Wolfhound disguises himself in time to prevent Elen''s sacrifice. Luchezar, however, manages to use the key and open the path for Moranna's return. Faced with the possibility of a pagan judgment day, Wolfhound appeals to the Thunderstorm God in the name of the “good people” and receives a magic sword (which looks suspiciously like a Star Wars light-saber) to defeat the forces of evil. With his triumph, Wolfhound also wins Elen', for Vinitar gives her up to her true love.

Despite (or maybe because of) its contrived plot, Wolfhound cleaned up at the box office, grossing more than $17 million in its first two weeks, which more than covered its expensive $12 million price tag (the highest in Russian history). While it is easy to dismiss the film as convoluted and derivative (and most Russian critics have had a field day blasting its plot as one borrowed from Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Conan the Barbarian), its billing as the “first Slavic fantasy” makes it an important film in Russian cinematic history. Wolfhound is the first major visual version of the homegrown fantasy genre that appeared in Russia in the 1990s. As John Bushnell has perceptively written, the boom in pre-Kievan fantasy literature is distinctive because the era is “an empty vessel,” for “so little is known about the East Slavs in the 9 th century and earlier that there are scarcely any constraints on the imagination” (275). These “pre-histories” provide “what is entirely lacking in the historical record: a culture with complex political structures and a long written tradition” (278). What Wolfhound represents is an even more popular version of this fabulous history—Wolfhound himself is meant to be a timeless hero, providing contemporary audiences with both a historical lineage and a self-definition of Russianness from the pre-Kievan past.

Several scenes from the film provide details to this fantastic history. After being released from near death in Galirad, Wolfhound encounters a public humiliation that threatens to become a lynching. A young man, clutching a book, is accused by a fat charlatan of loving “books that he calls holy.” The charlatan and his hired mercenary aim to prove that the young captive's beliefs are hollow and that “words of false prophets won't protect him.” Unless the young man, Evrikh (Artem Semakin), recants and “accepts the true gods—the Twin gods,” he will remain a slave and meet his death. Wolfhound, after listening to this diatribe, intervenes and saves Evrikh. Arguing with the fat man about faith, Wolfhound asserts that “I believe in my gods and I don't offend other gods.”

Another fantasy family value appears in one of the odder episodes as the group travels to meet Vinitar. They happen upon a backwoods tribe in the Land of the Kharuks. Led by Great Karil, the Mother of the Forest Berry Tribe, the townsmen and women are in the process of drowning an outsider for witchcraft. The witch's crime is that she cursed Karil's grandson with feebleness. As Wolfhound sees it, however, the “witch” helped to save the baby in childbirth, and though he initially vows not to intervene in local matters, his outrage at this injustice wins out and he saves the woman. Much like his decision later not to sleep with Elen', Wolfhound's innate sense of justice proves correct, and the “witch” joins the retinue in its journey.

Part of the fantasy-as-usable-past element to the film also rests in the constant references to fate, particularly Wolfhound's. According to the strict social hierarchies that govern the fictional society, one's fate is determined by one's rank. A slave like Wolfhound, in other words, will always be a slave. Throughout the film, however, Wolfhound and those around him claim that it may be possible to “change one's fate.” While encamping just before Elen''s kidnapping, the woman Wolfhound rescued sings a bylina of a boy born a slave who frees himself from the Diamond Mountain mines by defeating the “fiercest slave master” to “regain his freedom.” As the singer claims, her tale “tells that anyone can change his fate.” She turns to Wolfhound and states: “this song was about you.” Wolfhound, whose exploits have therefore become part of fantasy folklore, accomplishes this seemingly impossible feat again when he defeats Moranna. At the end, Tilorn exclaims: “Wolfhound! You changed destiny! Fate has no power over you. You make your own fortune!”

A make-believe Russian hero from an invented past who is cosmopolitan, religiously tolerant, morally upright, a defender of the downtrodden, a vanquisher of evil, and a masculine man of the people who can change his own destiny may seem unbelievable, but as far as expressing the desires of the society that produced this fable (an essential function of fantasy, as Rosemary Jackson argues), these attributes are hardly the worst imaginable. By contrast, Leonid Butiakov's popular fantasy series (centered on his masculine hero, Vladigor) present a Slavic world constantly surrounded by enemies and whose culture is under threat from within (see Bushnell, especially 277-78). Wolfhound's world and worldview present a prehistory as a desired present, one that does not replicate the wishes of contemporary Russian chauvinists.

At the same time, Wolfhound 's world is recognizably Russian. Filmed at an expensive outdoor set at Mosfilm Studios, the invented town of Galirad fuses Russian wooden architecture and peasant izba s to reinforce visually the outfitting of history that the film's story creates (the set is now part of the Mosfilm tour, along with another imaginary Russia, the 1905 Moscow set used for Karen Shakhnazarov's Rider Named Death [Vsadnik po imeni smert', 2004]). In this way, the locales of Wolfhound are not that fantastic, but correspond to Myles Balfe's argument that “fantasy texts and landscapes ... are located within, and inscribed by, particular social, geographical, and cultural discourses” (75-76). Nikolai Lebedev has voiced this view, arguing that Wolfhound “is based on Slavic rites, traditions, and manners.” According to him, it is both “the culture of the Slavic 8 th century” and also “completely contemporary history” filled with “love, devotion, and treachery” (qtd. Khoroshilova 16).

Wolfhound's defense of “his” landscape is a defense of pluralistic values from domestic forces that want to unleash slavery, not from the threats posed by the evil West or East. Critics may rightly bash the film's form, clumsy dialogue, and uninspired special effects (Irina Liubarskaia's review for Iskusstvo kino entitled “Dukhless ” [Spiritless] says it all), but as a “first Slavic fantasy,” Wolfhound 's values are in the right place. Then again, we all may grow tired of these values as the series unfolds—the 12-part television serial Young Wolfhound, starring Bukharov in the title role, is already available on DVD and more sequels are in store. A fantasy history blockbuster franchise—Wolfhound truly is a skazka for the 21st century.

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)

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Works Cited

Balfe, Myles. “Incredible Geographies? Orientalism and Genre Fantasy.” Social and Cultural Geographies 5.1 (March 2004): 75-90.

Bushnell, John. “Ante-Kiev in Fantasy and Fable.” The Slavic and East European Journal 45.2 (Summer 2001): 275-288.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 2003.

Khoroshilova, Tat'iana. “Krestnyi otets ‘Volkodava'.” Rossiiskaia gazeta (22 December 2006): 16.

Liubarskaia, Irina. “Dukhless.” Iskusstvo kino 1 (2007): 40-44.

Wolfhound, Russia, 2006.
Color, 137 minutes.
Director: Nikolai Lebedev
Scriptwriter: Nikolai Lebedev, from the novel by Mariia Semenova
Cinematography: Irek Hartowicz
Art Director: Liudmila Kusakova, Marat Kim
Composer: Aleksei Rybnikov
Cast: Aleksandr Bukharov, Oksana Akin'shina, Aleksandr Domogarov, Nina Usatova, Andrei Rudenskii, Lilian Navzroshvili, Evgeniia Sviridova, Tat'iana Liutaeva, Artem Semakin, Igor' Petrenko, Natal'ia Varlei
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Sergei Danielian, Aram Mobsesian, Iurii Moroz
Production: Central Partnership

Nikolai Lebedev: Wolfhound (Volkodav iz roda Serykh Psov, 2006)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2007

Updated: 02 Oct 07