Northern Illinois University Press

Witchcraft in Russia and Ukraine

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Witchcraft in Russia and Ukraine weaves scholarly commentary with primary source materials translated from Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian. The authors present new analyses of the workings and evolution of legal systems, the interplay and tensions between church and state, and the prosaic concerns of the women and men involved in witchcraft proceedings.

Here’s a Q&A with editors Valerie A. Kivelson and Christine D. Worobec that offers insight into the process of translating and interpreting magical texts.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

Translation work is always challenging, but all the more so when you’re dealing with magical texts and ordinary rules of logic and probability don’t apply. We went back and forth on several words and passages, with meanings ranging from “adolescent” to “Jesus Christ” or from “the hem of her skirt” to “an old bone.”

The range of possibilities led to much hilarity during the translation process, and often the most outrageous meanings turned out to be right. Grappling with how to translate terms used in magical spells addressed to male genitalia also led us to more discussions than we care to admit, but it was all in the interest of scholarship.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

As specialists on witchcraft in Russia and Ukraine, we didn’t realize quite how ambitious the project was. We accumulated exciting material without fully understanding what a massive translation assignment we were taking on, and we hadn’t appreciated how much original scholarly work would be required to set the stage in introductions. We certainly learned a lot.

3. How do you wish you could change your field of study?

This is an interesting question. The field has always been shaped by grand political and ideological visions and tends to prioritize focus on these “big picture” themes of politics and economy. We see our work in the history of witchcraft making fundamental contributions, and we wish the field could open up to appreciate the importance of areas such as this that fall outside of the mainstream.

*Featured photo by Thimo Pedersen.


Valeria A. Kivelson is Thomas N. Tentler Collegiate Professor of History and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Cartographies of TsardomDesperate Magic, and Autocracy in the Provinces.

Christine D. Worobec is Distinguished Research Professor Emerita at Northern Illinois University. She is the author of Possessed and Peasant Russia.

See all books by this author.

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