Issue 32 (2011)

Igor' Ivanov: Cossacks – the Musical (Kak kazaki… 2010)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko © 2011

The film Kak Kazaki… (Novogodnyi miuzikl’), was produced in Ukraine in 2010. It is not a particularly good film, although the musicians who perform in it are well known. On one level the film is little more than a vehicle for its eleven song and dance numbers. On another level, this movie is a commentary on the ambiguity, if not the absurdity, of the Ukrainian political situation.

The film begins with a scene that resembles Repin’s famous painting of the Kozaks (as spelled in Ukrainian) writing a letter to the Sultan.[1] This is how we see the credits. We then see men traveling by cart while a voice-over explains that, in keeping with the 1775 proclamation by Catherine the Great, the Zaporozhian Sich has been dissolved and the fierce warriors must return to civilian life. We then meet our three heroes, Evhen, Ostap, and Batia and learn that Evhen has eyes only for Polina. At this point the Kozaks break into song on the topic of Polina and we see all the people back in the Mamaeva Sloboda getting ready for the arrival of their men.

kazakiThe film juxtaposes the late eighteenth century with modern times and the girls in the Sloboda are getting their hair done under contraptions that look like hairdryers while the character played by Ruslana Pysanka realizes that she cannot be caught with her Black lover. The song continues to play as the Kozaks enter the Sloboda. They dance with the village girls attired in modern short skirts while Japanese tourists snap photos. Evhen and Polina try to have a private moment, but in vain, and then all sit down to a huge banquet and share their scrapbook/photo album. The village elder announces that he needs to raise taxes so that they can enter the European economic system and then declares the engagement of his daughter, not to her beloved, but to the effete Venetsian (Venetian).

As the undesirable groom fails a drinking test, there is another song and girls in boots and short skirts do flips on the banquet table. Late in the night, Ostap and Polina’s father discuss the relative virtues of the two suitors and the father says he does not care if Evhen is a war hero; the Venetian is from a high social stratum. He plays golf and drinks champagne. At this point Ostap strikes a deal – if Evhen manages to procure champagne for the village elder, then Polina will be his.

This initiates the quest that will be the subject of the rest of the movie. We briefly meet the Russian Empress in whose court our heroes intend to find their champagne. She is not the Catherine of history, but an elegant woman in glasses, so thin that she needs to pad her bosom, a fact we discover when she pulls pads out of her dress once she retires to her chambers. She has a maternal conflict that will resurface throughout the rest of the film.

Back in the Sloboda, our heroes depart to traditional music, which had also played in the background during the dinner scene. Prokopich, Polina’s father, is collecting his tithe of eggs when he discovers our heroes missing and is informed that they went off to get the champagne that was the subject of negotiations the previous night. He cannot believe that he agreed to give his daughter in exchange for champagne until one of the Japanese tourists plays back the appropriate scene on her video camera. He plots various strategies for preventing the Kozaks from getting the drink and even has an offer of help from a character who resembles a Gogolian devil. He dispatches the Venetian to stop the Kozaks and also makes a deal with a Jack Sparrow-like character who speaks with an accent and sings about the Cosa Nostra - while torturing or executing various prisoners. Unfortunately for Polina’s father, the bandit captures the Venetian and his companions instead of Evhen, Ostap, and Batia. Back in court, we see the Empress enjoying her morning facial while she hears the news, formatted according to modern TV broadcasts, but read in period costume and to the accompaniment of a chamber orchestra.

Our heroes take a newly-built road and arrive at a korchma or tavern where they see an advertisement for a show, but as they enter, they are met by bouncers insisting that male clients must pay an entry fee (while ladies are free). The men do not have enough money to pay the entry for all three of them. They are about to draw lots when Ostap suggests they steal some women’s clothing. This turns out to fit Batia, the largest of the three. They enter the tavern and sit down at the table. They have no money for food, but it is brought to their table because one of the men in the place fancies Batia in female guise, even inviting him/her to a slow dance.

In the wilderness, Venetian and his caretakers are camping for the night and preparing supper. Venetian does nothing but get in the way and his companions suggest he go for a walk. When he does, he eats some hallucinogenic berries and this gives rise to another song, one based on his visions. This is immediately followed by another musical number, one that is part of the nightclub act in the korchma where our three Kozaky are dining. As the music ends, Venetian is carried in by his two keepers, who see the cart used by our three Kozaky and manage to sabotage one of the wheels. The Kozaky are left with a cart without a wheel while the action briefly switches to the Russian imperial court where we see the Empress totally ignorant of the military operations taking place on her behalf—while she plots to seduce a junior serviceman. As for our Kozaks, they stop at a smithy and discover that the smith is incapacitated with a bad back. At this point Ostap comes to the rescue with a combination of acupuncture and levitation. In gratitude, the smith and his helper build a super-wagon, complete with stereo CD players and speakers. The Kozaks travel on and Evhen composes a letter to Polina, with much help from Ostap. This leads to another song, this time sung by Polina as she reads the letter.

The next scene is at the Russian border where our heroes have to go through a very modern passport control. Ostap hands one of the border officers some sort of document, leading the other two Kozaks to doubt his intentions. They start suspecting him of planning an assassination attempt on the Empress. The Empress, meanwhile, has another conflict with her mother where their non-Russian, German roots are emphasized. As mother is chased out of the room, the Empress hears that George Washington, the Turkish Sultan, and a certain Orlov wish an audience with her. She commands that the guests be ushered in in the order of their importance to the empire—Orlov first. Next comes a seduction scene where, as the Empress talks to Orlov, she promotes him in rank with virtually every other sentence. This leads into a disco number where Orlov is called a young stallion and the Empress his rider. The scene switches back to the three Kozaks and we see Batia and Evhen decide to test Ostap - and see whether he is an Ottoman agent or not. They first check his documents, but then remember that they cannot read. Then they administer the salo test, feeding Ostap pieces of fatback on the assumption that a Muslim would never eat pork. Finally, Ostap proves his identity by showing them that he is not circumcised.

kazakiThe Venetian and his companions get to the Russian border where the berries that our effete suitor had discovered are found on his person and he is arrested for drug smuggling while his companions are sent back. Next comes a song as various nationalities cross the Russian border and dance—both with each other and the border patrol. Next we see the streets of St. Petersburg where Evhen marvels at the buildings and Orlov is propositioned by various prostitutes. The two parties meet in the street and the gentlemen insult Batia who throws them through a wall. They apparently make peace and we next see them in a tavern gambling while a guitarist performs a nostalgic song about the joys of home. Suddenly the Empress shows up and all scatter. But she is after Orlov and a seduction scene follows. The Kozaks insist that Orlov take them to the Empress so that they can get their champagne. When he refuses, they suggest they continue to gamble so Orlov can gain back what he has lost. Needless to say, Orlov loses the shirt off his back and more, finally agreeing to take the men to the Empress. But before they can go to court, Orlov says, they need to be properly dressed. With this in mind, he takes them to a fashion house where various outfits are modeled and paraded down a runway by our Kozaks as a song demanding more glamour is performed by the fashion house staff.  Ultimately, the Kozaks end up looking as before, with only the slightest modifications, while the designer claims that he has a fabulous idea for his new collection – he will introduce the “Kozak look” into fashion. In court, the Empress is again offered a list of people requesting an audience. This time she chooses the three Kozaky. Batia and Evhen bow and get confused. Ostap, on the other hand, strips off his Kozak garb and even his moustache. He reveals himself to be Erast, an Imperial statesmen who has brought charts of the positions of all the divisions of the Turkish army to the Empress. She offers him a position in court, clearly demanding a form of service comparable to the one offered by Orlov. Erast refuses, citing an unfortunate injury. The Empress tells Erast to chose an alternative reward and he asks that Crimea be given to Ukraine once it is free. At the prompting of his two friends he also asks for champagne.

The next scene is back in Mamaeva Sloboda. Erast shows up at the home of Polina and her father. He makes a formal request for Polina and Evhen enters with the promised champagne. A wedding banquet follows, attended by members of the Russian court as well as the residents of the Sloboda. The Russians extol the virtues of Ukrainian food, the general even forgetting about his campaign across the Alps. Of course everyone breaks into song and dance. In the midst of all this Batia is seduced by a lady of the Russian court with a heavy German accent. The Empress’s mother appears in the outfit of a Ukrainian baba, dancing with one of the village elders and proclaiming her love for Ukraine. Even Erast seems to be recovering from his war wound, as the Empress discovers, thanks to the healthful Ukrainian climate. All sing and dance as the wedding blends with a New Year`s celebration and the various principle actors take turns wishing the viewers a happy new year.

So what do we learn from this film? There are numerous references to other features in this movie but the most obvious – of course! - is to the Soviet cartoon series called “Kak kazaki,” (How the Cossacks…). The titles of the cartoons always began “Kak kazaki ...” and then showed Kozaki playing soccer, rescuing maidens, or helping space travelers, etc.. The cartoons were therefore titled "Kak kazaki v futbol igrali" and so forth.  The title here, however, is just Kak kazaki, with no specification as to what the Kozaks did. This implies that we have a more general statement about Kozakdom or, if Kozaks are emblematic of Ukrainians, then about Ukrainian life.

The original cartoons were also heavily musical. Because the use of Ukrainian language was avoided, the action was carried by images and music. It is perhaps this fact that lead to the choice of the title of the film. But there are many other links between the cartoon series and this movie. The plot of the film comes close to the cartoon “Kak kazaki na svad’be guliali.” In both, a Kozak goes on a quest to secure an item that will allow him to marry his beloved and both—in turn—are based on Gogol’s “Christmas Eve.” The cartoons and the film also play with time. The animated Kozaks seem to belong to the past, yet they engage in contemporary activities like modern sports, just as the heroes on the film play CDs, go through customs at the border, and are filmed by tourists. Furthermore, the Ukrainian action of the film takes place in Mamaeva Sloboda. This is itself an anachronism, a theme park opened in the middle of Kyiv in 2009, but supposedly replicating a real Kozak encampment. It is telling that the buildings in this park are all new, as opposed to the real village houses on display at Pirohova, a park where the various types of Ukrainian traditional architecture are presented.

As I have argued elsewhere, the cartoons about Kozaks contained a political message, one that fit Soviet ideology (see Kononenko 2011). They promoted an image of Ukrainian quaintness. They pictured Ukrainians as strong, but cute, colourful, and musical, with an aptitude for dance and for making good food. The cartoon Kozaks were basically inept, succeeding more as a result of happenstance than because of their abilities; thus they delivered a message that Ukrainians needed Russia to lead them into the Soviet Socialist future. Kak Kazaki has political baggage also, albeit drastically different from the cartoons.

The Kozaks of the musical are enormously capable, determined, and resourceful, finding a way to get their champagne while overcoming hardships and any attempts to sabotage their mission. It is the Russians who are inept. The Empress is totally clueless when it comes to matters of state. In the discussion of a battle plan, she confuses the figures representing the Russian forces with those representing the enemy. She is extremely vain and self-centered, constantly putting her own pleasure before matters of state. There is no loyalty among Russians and no concern for others. Even the Empress’ lover is willing to contemplate prostitutes on the streets of St. Petersburg. The Russians, or at least their leaders, do not have any morals—and may not even be Slavs! The Empress lapses into German or at least broken Russian every time she interacts with her mother. Ukrainians are purportedly the true Slavs: they are strong and powerful and loyal in the extreme. Evhen never wavers in his dedication to Polina even as temptation is put in his path.

Ostap/Erast, on the other hand, is the man to emulate. He is presumably a Russian, but he fights with the Kozaks. When he declines the Empress’ offer to become her lover, she asks him what he wants as an alternative reward. His answer is that he wants Crimea, a territory currently under dispute, to go to Ukraine. He recognizes his bond to the Ukrainian land and acts accordingly. And the Ukrainian land responds in kind.

We hear during the celebrations that close the film that his wounded private parts are recovering—all thanks to the healthful Ukrainian climate. In fact, all of the characters, the Empress, her general, her mother, join in, proclaiming the local virtues. This is the state of affairs that the film promotes—i.e., recognition of Ukraine as the land of milk and honey, where things are as they should be. Everything that made Ukrainians seem backward in the original Kozak cartoons—the food, clothing, song, and dance - are lauded in this new film. The clothing even becomes the inspiration for an elite St. Petersburg fashion designer. Ukraine, the movie claims (were it free of its criminal elements) could pave the way to a blissful future. Those who adopt the Ukrainian way of life, even the Germanic dowager mother, can allegedly enjoy life in the New Year—and on into the future, too.

Kvartal 95, the group that produced the film, seems to be striving to be a Slavic Monty Python. It does not succeed, perhaps because of the nationalist message, but it has given us an amusing film with some catchy music.

Natalie Kononenko
University of Alberta

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1] Kazak is the Russian spelling, Kozak the Ukrainian spelling, and Cossack is the term widely used in English. Ukrainians are currently pushing for the use of Kozak in English.

Works Cited

Kononenko, Natalie (2001), “The Politics of Innocence: Soviet and Post-Soviet Animation on Folklore Topics”, Journal of American Folklore, forthcoming fall 2011.

Kak kazaki (also Kazaki), Ukraine, 2010
Color, 117 minutes
Director: Igor' Ivanov
Screenplay: Valerii Zhidkov, Elena Zelenskaia, Aleksandr Pikalov
Camera: Sergei Dyshuk
Producers: Sergei Sozanovskii, Vladimir Zelenskii, Sergei Shefir
Art Design: Vadim Bartosh
Music/Composer: Dmitrii Klimashenko
Cast: Vladimir Gorianskii, Nadezhda Granovskaia, Olesia Zhelezniak, Sergei Zverev, Vladimir Zelenskii, Filipp Kirkorov, Timati, Tatiana Kotova, Ruslana Pysanka
Production: Kvartal 95

Igor' Ivanov: Cossacks – the Musical (Kak kazaki… 2010)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko © 2011