Lieutenant Kizhe


Today I was introduced to the black comedy of a spelling mistake: Lieutenant Kizhe.

Lieutenant Kijé or Kizhe (Russian: Пору́чик Киже́, translit. Poruchik Kizhe), originally Kizh (Киж), is the fictional protagonist of an anecdote about the reign of Emperor Paul I of Russia; the story was used as the basis of a novella by Yury Tynyanov published in 1928 and filmed in 1934 with music by Sergei Prokofiev.

The plot is a satire on bureaucracy.

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

“Antigonish” – William Hughes Mearns – 1899.

In the West Lieutenant Kizhe is usually remembered for Prokofiev’s score [Opus 60].

Sergei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé music was originally written to accompany the film of the same name, produced by the Belgoskino film studios in Leningrad in 1933–34 and released in March 1934.

It was Prokofiev’s first attempt at film music, and his first commission from within the Soviet Union; he had lived abroad since the 1917 October Revolution.

After the film’s release, Prokofiev adapted the music into what became a popular orchestral suite, his Op. 60.

In the East Lieutenant Kizhe is also remembered for its black comedy.

Lieutenant Kijé (Russian: Поручик Киже, translit. Poruchik Kizhe) is a 1934 Soviet comedy film directed by Aleksandr Faintsimmer and promoted by Boris Gusman, based on the novella “Lieutenant Kijé” by Yury Tynyanov.

The film was released in the United States as The Czar Wants to Sleep.


Set in Saint Petersburg in 1800, the film satirizes the pedantic absurdities of the rule of Emperor Paul I.

His obsession with rigid drill, instant obedience and martinet discipline extends not only to his soldiers but also to his courtiers and even the servants who scrub the palace corridors.

A slip of the pen by an army clerk when drawing up a list of officers for promotion, leads to the creation of a Lieutenant Kijé.

Once the document is signed by the Emperor, Kijé takes on an existence of his own through a series of muddles and court intrigues.

The Emperor’s aide cries out when engaged in amorous play with a lady in waiting, awakening the sleeping Paul.

The non-existent Lieutenant Kijé is blamed, flogged in front of the assembled Imperial Guard and sent under escort to a fortress in Siberia.

His lack of substantive form is explained by his being “a confidential prisoner with no shape”.

Reprieved by the Emperor, Kijé returns to Saint Petersburg and is rapidly promoted to colonel and then general.

In absentia, he marries Princess Gagarina.

At last, when the Emperor insists on a meeting with his “most faithful servant”, General Kijé is reported as having died.

He receives a state funeral with an empty coffin.

In an ironic twist ending, the Emperor is made to believe that his favorite officer was an embezzler after a note reading “General Kijé spent the money on meals” (deliberately left by the Emperor’s aide) is found in the empty state treasury chest.

The furious Paul then remembers that it was Kijé who originally disturbed his sleep.

The “deceased” is demoted to the rank of private and the Emperor’s aide is promoted to the rank of general, embracing Princess Gagarina after halting the ceremonial obsequies for her disgraced husband.

English language subtitles available: click on CC if necessary to see them.
The soundtrack begins after the credits [which are accompanied by static].

However, in a strange twist of fate, the old Soviet era black comedy of Lieutenant Kizhe is now being reprised in the West…

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