Vadym Kastelli: Hunt for Cossack Gold (Vpered, za skarbamy het'mana!, 1993)

reviewed by Stanislav Menzelevsky© 2009

cossackAfter 1991, Soviet identity continued to retain priority among the identities “available” for citizens of Ukraine. The processes of actualization and integration of the experience of pre-/non-Soviet communities (either ethnic or national) first and foremost implied a reprocessing and an assimilation of this dominant Soviet identity. The distillation of subjectivity that had been burdened by superfluous identity could have become an important step towards the construction of a new Ukrainian national community.

Vadym Kastelli’s 1993 comedy Hunt for Cossack Gold (Vpered, za skarbamy het'mana!, literally “Forward, After Hetman’s Treasures,”) can be viewed as an attempt at such a “refining” of subjectivity. Thanks to its explicit genre affiliation, the film works in a facile, unforced fashion with the sharp questions posed in the process of the shaping of new Ukrainian identity. Foremost among them: “who were we?,” “who have we become?” now, and how “identical” to each other are all these “we.” In this context, Hunt for Cossack Gold emerges as a possible variant of inscribing the negative Soviet experience into a coherent national narrative. Shameless elimination of recent past is an impossible task that results in blank spots that stretch over entire decades. Therefore, national memory needs to process this experience, but how? In a study that focuses on (post)-revolutionary autobiographies, Aleksandr Etkind analyzes the work of memory in the periods marked by major cultural and historic transformations. In this sense the revolutionary mechanisms of memory discussed by Etkind do not substantially differ from the symbolic revolution that had begun in Ukraine in 1991 and continues to this day. In both cases the focus is on the attempts at producing a new human being (Soviet? Ukrainian?)—a person that somehow must deal with and account for its pre-revolutionary past. In many of the autobiographies the temporal continuum is maintained with the help of the authorial strategy of self-irony: “Without authorial self-irony, the identification of a (post)-revolutionary reader with such а distinctly different authorial past would have been impossible, and the contact with the reader would be broken. This too was part of the dialectic of revolution: on the one hand, the text constructs historical distances of revolutionary scale; on the other, the text employs rhetorical devices that overcome these distances” (Etkind, 64). Analogous processes can be observed in Kastelli’s “transitional” film. The contemporary Ukrainian would be “born” not when we fully and finally distance ourselves from the obsolete Soviet identity, but when it returns into public discourse in a reflected fashion, presented in irony’s quotation marks.

cossackThe comedic approach thus provides an opportunity to represent images of the past within the present while employing jocular, and at times even deliberately moronic intonations. One should not be afraid of the past, for in this humorous guise does not come across as dangerous and hostile in this film; moreover, it is almost impossible to identify oneself with this “pocket-sized” absurdism, at least on the level of cinematographic experience. As a result, the validity of Soviet identity is subjected to doubt, its retranslation is interrupted: in order to construct a new national identity it is necessary to demonstrate convincingly the fundamental alterity of the preceding one.

At dawn, Ivan Pavlovych Polubotok runs fast towards the horizon, into the unknown future, with two buckets balanced on a beam. This metaphoric image closes the film; however, the opening scene is no less conceptually charged: two pairs of feet are walking briskly; the offscreen voice belonging to a character named Feliks Karpunktovych shouts out what seem like random categories from a questionnaire (weight, hair, eyes, etc.) to which his colleague tries to respond (110 kg, black, brown). Somewhere between stool density and sex a charged question is posed: nationality?—Ukrainian.

cossackThese two episodes posit a framework within which both a play with identities and their inevitable transformation take place. The Ukrainian described in such peculiar fashion turns out to be Ivan Polubotok, direct descendant of Pavlo Polubotok, the legendary eighteenth-century hetman (leader) of autonomous Ukraine. It was the belonging of modern-day Polubotok to Cossack lineage that was being tested by Feliks Karpunktovych. They had looked for him for seventy-five years and finally found. Enormous hopes are placed on this man, a beekeeper who has been practicing unlicensed trade in honey and hails from the village of Onatsky in the Kyiv region. However, hopes for salvation are placed not on the “charismatic” descendant capable of uniting the Ukrainian nation. It is the Cossack gold, saved by hetman Polubotok from Peter I and deposited in a British bank, that is supposed to help the nation. For many a Ukrainian heart, the thought about the existence of “our gold” that would finally solve all the fundamental obstacles on the road to Ukraine’s happy future was exceedingly pleasant. “It is not forever that Ukraine shall be enslaved; our people shall liberate themselves from the Muscovite yoke, and then Polubotok’s treasure will come handy.” However, the treasure could only be returned to the person who knows the secret Cossack code. The lazy beekeeper Ivan Polubotok who had long lost all ties to the heroic Cossack past suddenly becomes the favored candidate thanks to his genetically proven Cossack ancestry. Naturally, Ivan knows no secret code of any kind, although he has promised to bring the treasure back to the people. Still, the foreign intelligence services, the Ukrainian power structures (marked by a strongly Soviet flavor), and a few oddballs do believe in Polubotok and continue striving to get at the gold with his hands.

cossackUpon reaching the small town that houses the district (raion) administration, Polubotok meets the repulsive head of district administration, Iurii Mykolaiovych Krasnoshapka. This narrow-minded bureaucrat cheerfully greets Ivan but has his own plans for the gold. Krasnoshapka invites the protagonist to the local museum for an anniversary celebration. Children that had undergone countless drills run about with little red flags. The persons being honored, the old revolutionaries lauded as “titans of spirit, prometheuses, smashers of rocks,” come across as lonely fragments of the old system, exotic pensioners who signify the impossibility of further existence of the weakened Soviet identity in an unchanged form.

cossackAlthough at this grotesque event that takes place in a basement, those present drink to the preservation of revolutionary traditions, even Krasnoshapka himself senses an ideological crisis. “Difficult times have come. People have fled from our ship, there is no one to pay member dues. Today, at this moment that is so hard for us, we admit into our ranks a new member, Ivan Pavlovych Polubotok.” Polubotok, no longer sober and completely apolitical, hesitates but finally signs a document while crossing his fingers behind his back. He does not know about Krasnoshapka’s grandiose plan, “to gather all the Lenin monuments from across the Union, across the entire world, and erect them all over our district. Can you imagine the tourist traffic—from Cuba, Crimea, China!”

Deprived of a continuously relevant meaning, the system of Soviet views and rituals (payment of party dues, commemoration of anniversaries of the revolutions) is to be viewed as historically exotic, and exoticization, in turn, serves as a manifestation of “revolutionary” memory that strives to return the recent past into cinematographic discourse in a tamed, comfortable fashion. The temporal distance weakens the intensity of all that once seemed unequivocally positive or negative, cardinally altering the phenomena’s attractiveness. In the end, a fire at the museum puts an end to Krasnoshapka’s delusions. “A dawn burns over the Smolny […]. The revolution has a beginning, but it has no end,” he cries out. The fire does not harm those gathered for the celebration, for this is a flame that consumes not the museum pieces but “Sovietness.” Having come as close as possible to the past, Ivan finally crosses out Soviet identity in order to start on a road to a new one.

cossackIvan reaches London as a member of an unusual Ukrainian delegation consisting of Odarka, an old village healer, her goat, a team of doubles of Soviet General Secretaries, and the winner of a beauty pageant. All of them take part in a grandiose international spectacle with a charged title, Farewell to the Red Plague. All the more or less transparent hints dropped earlier now transform into open mockery of the USSR. In order to painlessly refute the past it helps to demonize it, but demonize it joyfully: yes, this was truly a time of insanity, but see how ludicrous it looks to us now.

Within the festival’s program, Odarka the healer conducts a few public sessions, a doubles competition takes place, and then a beauty contest. Ivan’s emergence to the public is to become the climax, but poor Polubotok is in despair, since he still does not know the secret Cossack code. The doubles contest is one of the film’s most striking episodes, directly manifesting the set of issues underlying this work. “And now we are going from the light into the darkness, to the terrible blood-chilling past,” the announcement says. A group of grotesque “leaders” enters the stage. Their movements, somewhere between ballet pas and convulsions, do not last long; finally, “Gorbachev” climbs the Kremlin wall. He smashes the USSR coat of arms with a sledge hammer and screams at the top of his voice, “PERESTROIKA!”

At long last, the show reaches its climax: the inebriated Polubotok stumbles onto the stage. He still does not know the secret code, but suddenly exclaims “TIU YO,” which turns out to be sufficiently close to the code, which turns out to be “to you.” Thus, our hero hits the bull’s eye. A commotion erupts at the auditorium, and Odarka uses her magic to transport Ivan to Onatsky together with the two buckets of gold. No luck: even there Russia’s and Ukraine’s new political pathfinders track him down, and the protagonist is forced to flee towards the horizon.

cossackIt may sound paradoxical, but Hunt for Cossack Gold merits being interpreted as a return “back to traditions.” It is in the Cossack roots that Ivan finds the potential for transforming his own identity. The true treasure is not gold, but the identity itself. Odarka the crone aids him in this arduous task, emerging as a kind of guardian angel. She appears both in Ivan’s dreams about the Cossack past and at his side during the journey. As a re-translator of ethnicity, Odarka helps Ivan mobilize the needed mechanisms of memory. As Stephen Bertman has noted, “more than blood, it is memory that confers identity on an ethnic group and sustains its life. Without the remembrance of a common homeland and ancestry, without the recollection of shared suffering and joy, a group lacks the coherence needed to maintain its integrity as it journeys through time” (Bertman, 52). The further Polubotok distances himself from his old identity, the stronger he feels the linkage to his hetman ancestor. Ivan’s new Ukrainian identity is not a result of a concerted effort, however; rather, it is an uncertain, unstable balancing on the edge of sleep and inebriation. (If at the beginning sleep is associated with Ivan’s passivity, during the course of the film it acquires more positive overtones. It is during sleep that he first “contacts” his Cossack ancestors. After returning from London, Polubotok wakes up a reborn man. No trace remains of his erstwhile passivity.) Only in this field of heightened sensual awareness, the film argues, one can intuitively grasp one’s belonging to a national community.

Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky

Stanislav Menzelevsky, Kyiv Mohyla Academy

Works Cited

Bertman, Stephen. Cultural Amnesia: America’s Future and the Crisis of Memory. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.

Etkind, Aleksandr. “‘Odno vremia ia kolebalsia, ne antikhrist li ia’: Sub'ektivnost', avtobiografiia i goriachaia pamiat' revoliutsii,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 73 (2005).

Hunt for the Cossack Gold (Forward, After Hetman’s Treasure!), Ukraine, 1993
Color, 90 min.
Director: Vadym Kastelli
Script: Leonid Sluts'kyi, Vadym Kastelli
Cinematography: Vitalii Zaporozhchenko
Art Direction: Oleksandr Nadylenko, Oleksandr Sheremet
Sound: Volodymyr Sulymov
Music: Ihor Stetsiuk
Cast: Oleksandr Bondarenko, Iurii Mazhuha, Iurii Ievsiukov, Petro Beniuk, Ievhen Papernyi, Heorhii Drozd, Natalia Hebdovs'ka, Maryna Shyrshova, Lina Kondratova, Iurii Marchenko, Serhii Lykhovyd, Oleksandr Miliutin, Borys Aleksandrov, Iurii Komisarov, Oleksandr Dubovych, Iurii Oksanych, Kostiantyn Nahornyi, Peter Bejger, Mykola Hudz', Hanna Levchenko
Production: Dovzhenko Film Studios, Kyiv

Vadym Kastelli: Hunt for Cossack Gold (Vpered, za skarbamy het'mana!, 1993)

reviewed by Stanislav Menzelevsky© 2009