Soviet Film Wednesday: Ivashka and Baba-Yaga

Ivashka and Baba-Yaga Poster

Last week we had an introduction to the Brumberg Sisters, and this week we have another great film by the duo, featuring one of the scariest characters of folklore, Baba-Yaga. While this fairy tale, and others, portray her as a child-hunting witch, there are some different renditions of Baba-Yaga.

In Slavic folklore, Baba-Yaga is typically portrayed as an enchantress who lives in a hut in the forest, and is known as a either a villain, a donor, or a completely ambiguous character. In Berkeley professor Andreas Johns’s book Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale, he describes her as “a many-faceted figure, capable of inspiring researchers to see her as a Cloud, Moon, Death, Winter, Snake, Bird, Pelican or Earth Goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, phallic mother, or archetypal image.”

This take on the Russian folktale of Baba-Yaga, the short animation Ivashka and Baba-Yaga, was made in 1938 by the Brumberg Sisters, who really were pioneers of Soviet animation, making films as early as the mid 1920’s.

Valentina Semyonovna Brumberg was born on August 2, 1899, and Zinaida Semyonovna Brumberg was born on the same day, August 2, in the year 1900, both born in their Jewish family in Moscow. Also known as the “Grandmothers of Soviet Animation,” together the two sisters created, directed, and produced about 50 films. The first film they ever worked on together was as contributors for the 1925 cutout film China in Flames. It was one of the world’s first animated feature films.

Some of their most well-known films include The Samoyed Boy, which was their first hand-drawn animation, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Little Red Riding Hood, The Lost Letter, The Island of Mistakes, The Night Before Christmas, and It Was I Who Drew the Little Man.

Ivashka and Baba-Yaga

At the beginning of Ivashka and Baba-Yaga, Ivashka goes on his first fishing trip by himself, and when he does, he finds an adventure awaits him.

After fishing for a while, Ivashka’s mother brings him food and sings to him to come and eat. When Baba-Yaga sees this, she tries to lure Ivashka by singing to him in the voice of his mother, but young Ivashka is not easily fooled, and knows that Baba-Yaga is dangerous and is really the one calling him, and he sails away.

Ivashka and Baba-Yaga

So the old woman gets a different voice from the blacksmith in hopes to trick Ivashka into coming into her hut, to be baked in her oven. She uses the voice on Ivashka and then hides behind the bushes. When he walks on shore, she jumps out and grabs him. However, once in her house, Ivashka comes up with a plan of his own.

Here is Ivashka and Baba-Yaga (Ивашко и Баба-Яга), a musical animation made in 1938, written and directed by Valentina and Zinaida Brumberg.

Click “cc” for subtitles.

Soviet Film Wednesday celebrates the artistry of Soviet filmmakers and in no way endorses the war in Ukraine.

Curated by Jennifer