A Terrible Vengeance

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"A Terrible Vengeance"
Author Nikolai Gogol
Original title "Страшная месть"
Translator Richard Pevear
Language Russian
Published in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka
Publication type Book
Media type Short story
Publication date 1832
Published in English 1998

"A Terrible Vengeance" (Russian: Страшная месть) is a Gothic horror story by Nikolai Gogol.[1] It was published in the second volume of his first short story collection, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, in 1832, and it was probably written in late summer 1831.[2]

The short story is written in the "ornate and agitated style" characteristic to Gogol, sometimes skirting purple prose, and was a great influence on the rhythmic prose of the modernist novelist Andrei Bely.[according to whom?]

The appearance of evil spirits, and specifically of an Antichrist figure, in A Terrible Vengeance was typical of Gogol's belief in the omnipresence of Evil in everyday life, an aspect of his religious philosophy that is uniquely direct in this story.[3] The overall construction of the story is typical of what would come to be called skaz, wherein characters are identified to a large degree by linguistic specificities of their manner of speech. Another particularity of the piece is frequent narratorial intrusion, such as asides to the reader or other violations of the narratorial frame.

The basic plot of the story evokes folklore, but there is no comparable piece in Ukrainian or Russian traditions. A similar story of a sorcerer appeared in "Pietro Apone" by German romantic Johann Ludwig Tieck, published in Russian in 1828. Other potential subtexts are Tieck's Karl von Berneck (1797) and E. T. A. Hoffmann's novella Ignaz Denner (1816).[2][4]


The story opens at the wedding of the Cossack yesaul Gorobets's son in a neighborhood of Kiev. Among the guests are the recently married Cossack, pan Danilo Burulbash, and his wife, pani Katerina, who live just across the Dnieper River. They are honored guests, Danilo is Gorobets's sworn brother. Not present, though, is Katerina's father, who was expected to appear after having spent 21 years in foreign lands.

During the celebration, the yesaul brings out two holy icons, at the sight of which a stranger, dressed like a Cossack, stops his festive as well as mocking dance, and transforms into a sorcerer with a sharp chin, a beak, green eyes, and bluish lips. In sight of the shocked crowd, he disappears.

Danilo and Katerina discuss the sorcerer in a boat, paddled by two men, on their way home across the Dnieper. As they pass a cemetery, corpses come out of the ground, each more terrifying than the previous one and each screaming "I'm suffocating". Danilo tells her and their baby son Ivan that Cossacks do not fear sorcerers.

As soon as Katerina's father arrives at her and Danilo's home the next morning, an argument starts when he demands that she explain her late return the previous night. Danilo also notices that, unlike the Cossacks, his father-in-law refuses to eat halušky and pork, only pretends to drink mead, and generally acts more like the Poles and Turks than one of their own. In the ensuing saber and gun fight, Katerina's father shoots Danilo in the arm before she intervenes and begs them to forgive one another.

Katerina then tells Danilo about her dream the previous night about a sorcerer who wants to marry her, which Danilo takes to be a grave sign. Later in the evening, Danilo notices unexpected flashes from a distant, abandoned castle. He makes sure Katerina is safe at home and goes to investigate. When he climbs up a tree outside the lit window, he sees Katerina’s father calling up spells, and her soul appears in a blue haze. The sorcerer commands her to marry him, Danilo is horrified to discover that his father-in-law is a sorcerer. Once Danilo returns home, his wife recounts to him a strange incestuous dream, which matches what Danilo witnessed in the castle. She accepts Danilo's explanation that her father is the Antichrist.

The Cossacks capture the sorcerer and chain him in the cellar of Danilo and Katerina's house. Her father tells Katerina that the chains do not confine him, but that the walls are ensorcelled as they were built by a starets, an Orthodox monk. He imposes on Katerina to release him for his soul's deliverance. Convinced that he will repent and be saved, Katerina sets him free and soon curses herself for doing so.

A group of Poles, organized by the sorcerer, come to take Danilo's land but they are struck down one by one by him and his fellow Cossacks. At the end of the battle, though, the sorcerer shoots Danilo dead from behind a tree. A desperate Katerina falls asleep at night, has a dream about her son being killed, wakes up from the nightmare, and finds the baby dead in its cradle.

Katerina turns mad until a traveler stops at her house one day and appears to bring her back to sanity. But when he claims that Danilo once told him to marry her should Danilo die, Katerina recognizes him as the sorcerer and tries to stab him, but he gets hold of the knife, kills her and flees on horseback.

After the famous impressionist description of the Dnieper (one of the most celebrated passages in Russian literature), a miracle happens: both the Crimea and the Carpathians become visible from Kiev. As clouds clear off towering Mount Kriváň, the sorcerer sees a hulking knight with a boy on a horse riding down its slopes and grows increasingly agitated as the bogatyr gets ever closer. He pleads with a starets at the Kiev Monastery of the Caves to help him, but he will not, for the sorcerer is already damned, so the sorcerer kills the starets.

Eventually, the hulking knight catches up with the sorcerer and casts him into an abyss where corpses of his ancestors await to eternally gnaw on his body. The largest of them is Petro, whose descendants God punished for Petro's betrayal and murder of his brother Ivan and Ivan's son. The knight and boy appear to be their spirits.


A 20-minute animated adaptation of the story was made at Kyivnaukfilm studio in 1988 (with the same title). The film keeps the original dark tone, albeit breaks narrative even more in favor of surreal elements. It was directed by Mikhail Titov.[5]


  1. ^ Gogol, Nikolai (1998) [1832]. The Collected Tales. Translated by Richard Pevear; Larissa Volokhonsky. New York, London, Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 63–103. ISBN 978-0-307-26969-0.
  2. ^ a b Gogol, N. V. (2003). Iu. V. Mann; E. E. Dmitrieva, eds. Polnoe sobranie sochinenie. 1. Moskva: Nauka. pp. 185–217, 791–831 (notes). ISBN 5-02-032679-8.
  3. ^ Florovsky, Georges (1989). "The Quest for Religion in 19th Century Russian Literature: Three Masters: Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy". In Richard S. Haugh. Theology and Literature. The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky. 11 (Second ed.). Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt. pp. 13–32. ISBN 3-905238-15-2.
  4. ^ Gippius, Vasiliĭ Vasilʹevich (1989). Gogol. Robert A. Maguire (trans.). p. 224. ISBN 978-0-8223-0907-9.
  5. ^ "Russian animation in letters and figures". Animator.ru. 2012.