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Was Mykola Gogol a Russian writer?
Mykola Hohol (this is how his name should be pronounced in Ukrainian; we shall retain though the traditional English spelling of his last name) is invariably called “a Russian writer” though he was born in Ukraine and his ethnic and cultural background is thoroughly Ukrainian. Yes, he wrote all of his works in Russian but what a torment it must have been for him both on the strictly personal and on the literary level to wear the mask of a foreign culture. It must have been particularly painful since he depended financially on the powers that be, the powers that oppressed his native land and suppressed his native tongue. We shall make this attempt to reassess Gogol’s being “a Russian writer” not because of purely formal reasons or because we are motivated by patriotic zeal — we want to convincingly demonstrate that without understanding the “Ukraininess” of Gogol’s soul it is hardly possible to understand “the true Gogol.”
Mystery of the National Soul
Mykola Gogol was a descendant of Ostap Gogol, a Cossack colonel, and son of Vasyl Gogol, an impoverished nobleman, from the land of Poltavshchyna.
Gogol’s Cossack background made a mark on the way he saw the world.
In the late seventeenth-early eighteenth century, the Cossack community was still a powerful unity, but after the defeat of the Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa at Poltava in 1709, followed by repressive measures of the Russian emperor against the Cossacks and dissolution of the Zaporizhian Sich under the Empress Catherine II, the Cossack community was in shambles and morally broken. Mykola Gogol is a product of the Ukrainian nobility who were in decline as a national phenomenon and as a social stratum in the early nineteenth century, and consequently, they were in a spiritual decline as well.
Mykola Gogol, being a man of genius, left his politically dead homeland to go to St Petersburg, the capital of an empire that, in the opinion of many, was a unifying force standing above local national interests. For Gogol, it was not a spontaneous decision — he took this step quite purposefully, and this displacement was the reason, at a later time, of his formal adaptation by a foreign — that is Russian — literature. The language he wrote his books in was Russian.
But if we accept the language a work of fiction is written in as the only criterion which determines to which literature this or that literary piece belongs, then we should regard H. Ibsen as belonging to Swedish literature rather than Norwegian, and Gabriel Garcia Markes as belonging to Spanish rather than Columbian literature, to mention just a couple of examples. Gogol’s Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki and Mirgorod are written in Russian but the readers of the Russian Empire of the 1830s regarded these books as “Little Russian novels.”
Ukrainian literary critics often called Gogol “the prodigal son of his nation.” Such a statement is too categorical to be accepted without reservations, particularly so if one considers the fact that Gogol’s Ukrainian background was regarded in the Russian capital as a challenge and was altogether dismissed. His whole life was, to a certain extent, a spiritual resistance. One does not have to do a lot of research to discover the manifestations of this resistance — reading his letters to his close friend, Mykhaylo Maksymovych (first president of St Volodymyr’s University in Kyiv — tr.) will immediately reveal many instances of it: “Let’s get the hell out of this Katsapiya (Ukrainian derogatory term for Russia — tr.) and go back to Kyiv… Who are we working for here?”
On the other hand, we should not ignore the fact that Gogol was financially supported by the Imperial court, and being financially dependent effected his psychic state. In this respect his novelette “Portret” (Portrait) with its leading theme of an artist selling his soul to the devil, is a characteristically remarkable piece, as a sort of autobiography.
The Ukrainian poet and essayist Yevhen Malanyuk regards Gogol’s works as a revenge on “the great Russian literature” rather than its great achievement: “Hard was the mark left on ‘the great Russian literature’ by Gogol’s literary production. Dimmed was the classically serene poetry of Pushkin by it; turned to the side was the path of literature from Pushkin’s sunny realm to the dark and ragged terrain of psychopathic gloom; marked was this basically deleterious and poisonous literature with all the baneful signs. The corrosive effect post-Gogol literature had on the decline and fall of the Russian Empire is obvious to many now. Such was ‘the terrible revenge’ of Ukraine, and it was brought about by her son, a man of genius albeit a crippled one.”
Gogol who was potentially a writer of ‘high style’ (“Taras Bulba” is a characteristic example of Gogol’s work written in high style; incidentally, Gogol himself, who kept working on it almost throughout his entire literary career, considered it to be his major achievement), did not have an opportunity to fully develop it under the conditions of the then Ukraine, and left his native country to become a satirist.
His satire, born out of the warm, Ukrainian national humour, loses much of its benign and humane features in the cold and foreign city of St Petersburg and turns into a demoniac and malicious lampoon, because, in his own words, he could see only “the coarse and ugly vulgarity of coarse and ugly people.”
The essay we present below has been written by Yevhen Sverstyuk, a contemporary Ukrainian poet, literary critic and essayist. In the Soviet times, starting from the early 1970s, he was a staunch champion of the national liberation movement and publisher of “samvydav” (underground literature, promoting the Ukrainian national and anti-Soviet cause, circulated in limited amount of mostly type-written copies; the samvydav authors were viciously persecuted, arrested and imprisoned — tr.). For his independent views and writings, Mr Sverstyuk was arrested and sent to a concentration camp for twelve years.
Gogol, a Guest on Christmas
by Yevhen Sverstyuk
“Someone invisible is standing in front of me and writing with a huge wand. I know that my name after I’m gone will be happier than me, and maybe the descendants of my country fellows will, with their eyes wet with tears, reach reconciliation with my shadow.”
In this brilliant metaphor Gogol expressed the essence of his conflict with his contemporaries. Gogol’s “country fellows” were Ukrainians, and it is his conflict with them that tormented Gogol particularly badly. Yes, he was a Ukrainian who was constantly reminded of being benefited by — benefiting — a foreign land. And he himself was sure that he all his life was devoted to God.
“That’s my fate — to be at loggerheads with my countrymen…” For people around him, Gogol was a Ukrainian, “a little khokhol” (khokhol — derogatory Russian term for a Ukrainian — tr.), “headstrong khokhol” from Poltavshchyna. Never did Gogol, under any circumstances tergiversate on his being a Ukrainian, never did he try to hide his links with Ukraine — with his Ukrainian ancestry, with the Ukrainian people.
It is well known that Russia was always jealous of other nations which put forward remarkable people; even before the Bolshevik coup, there existed a standard in Russia which was not as hard as the standards of “socialist realism” but which nevertheless were aimed at levelling everything up.
It is but natural that Gogol was at the beginning of the line continued by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Gogol’s works, even during his lifetime, went into the foundation of new Russian literature. His genius impregnated the avant-garde literary movements in the west. But Gogol cannot be privatized either by the east or by the west. There are no viable reasons to try to catch this bird, to pluck the feathers from his wings and put him in a cage in your own yard.
In the Soviet times, Gogol was dressed in a Russian garb and, metaphorically speaking, made to reside in Moscow.
How did it come about that the literary teacher of “the arch-reactionary” Dostoyevsky (that was the way Lenin called him), a preacher of the Evangelical wisdom, a mystic, an opponent of the revolutionary radicalism and eulogizer of his native land, was turned into “a supporter of revolutionary forces”? A great but contradictory and controversial writer was reduced to a satirist who “criticized the bourgeois-landowners’ system.” Gogol was rejected as a religious mystic and preacher, the first of such kind in Russian literature, of returning to the original Christian precepts. He was hollowed out, simplified and taken on by the Soviets as nothing more than a satirist, a Russian satirist at that. It was this tamed and crippled Gogol that the Soviets erected a monument to in Moscow in 1952. And the pedestal carries an absurd dedication: “To the great Russian master of the word, N. V. Gogol from the Soviet government.”
In the times past and present we see various reactions of Ukrainians to Gogol, their countryman, being “privatized” by the Russians. There are those who want to return Gogol back to Ukraine and make him “a Ukrainian” writer. Some wish to do it by carrying out textological research, others by studying Gogol’s life in the minutest details. All of them discover things which are well known but which have been obscured by trivial writings and hackneyed views.
The thing is that Gogol must not be returned to Ukraine — careful reading of his works reveals that, in fact, he never left Ukraine. The winds of the time he lived in prevented him from mooring at his native bank, and his seeking the spiritual heights and cultural milieu kept pushing him towards the obvious cultural centre — to the Russian capital. Similar things happened with so many intellectuals in so many countries in different times. Serhiy Yefremov, a notable Ukrainian cultural figure of the 1920s (at the end of the 1920s he was arrested and executed by the Stalin regime) addressed himself to the controversies of Gogol in his article “Mizh dvoma dushamy” (Between Two Souls). Yefremov notes with some regret that Gogol writings encourage some readers to embrace the Ukrainian mentality, and give others arguments against such mentality. “Soon after I became literate, I, still a small boy, happened to read “Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki” (Nights at a Hamlet Not Far from Dikanka) and “Mirgorod.” I will not relate here all of my impressions from what I read then, but I must say that after reading these stories by Gogol, I felt — for the first time in my life! — I was a native son of my native land, and it was after reading “Taras Bulba” that a sparkle of national awareness began to glow in my soul, and later other authors fanned this glow into a fire.” However, Yefremov unexpectedly goes through a change of mood and turns his back on his new feeling and understanding, coming to an unanticipated conclusion: “Gogol surely had two souls — one Ukrainian, and the other one Russian.” He goes on to substantiate this statement by quoting from a letter Gogol wrote to his friend, A. Smirnova-Rosset: “I don’t know myself which soul I have — Khokhlyatska (Ukrainian) or Russian.” Gogol says it in reply to a touchy question and his answer is dignified, avoiding untruth and evasiveness, and at the same time demonstrating that the term she used — Khokhlyatska — in her own letter to him is hardly acceptable for him.
Not everything is so clear and so simple in Gogol’s “double soul.” Firstly, Gogol addresses not just “a great friend” but a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court who will ask the Tsar for another grant for Gogol, and who will tell Count Orlov, head of the Gendarmerie, in the presence of other people, “You don’t know anything about Gogol, because you are a crass ignoramus and don’t read anything except the tall tales and rumours in the reports of your subordinates.” In fact, most of the letter is dedicated to his request to speak for him with the tsar about the grant; Gogol asks her to use all her talents and charm and secure the help of Zhukovsky (Russian poet, translator and tutor to the heir to the throne — tr.) in getting that considerable grant for him.
After he is done with his request, Gogol turns to the answer to the question about his soul, and writes with pride about two different peoples, Ukrainians and Russians, who were given two different histories by Providence. Gogol insists on their being equal in everything.
Gogol has long been relegated to Russian literature and it is widely believed that he abandoned his Ukrainian nationality in favour of Russian. Such a belief is a result of our incomplete knowledge.
Gogol never tried to hide his ethnic background. Neither did he advertise it. Gogol was never a timeserver, never temporized as so many did in Russia in general and in Moscow in particular. St Petersburg was somewhat different in this respect. In a way, it was like an island in the sea of the Russian Empire.
The son of Mikhail Shchepkin, the famous Russian actor of the first half of the nineteenth century, in his memoirs described Gogol’s first visit to Moscow which took place in 1832, soon after the release of “Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki” made the budding author famous. The dinner which Gogol came to was attended by about 25 people, most of them, obviously, Muscovites: “We usually had many people coming for a party. The table was laid in the biggest room to seat all the guests, with the doors open to the hall for the convenience of the servants. In the middle of the dinner a new guest appeared, whom apparently nobody knew. He began slowly taking off his overcoat and everybody, including my father and I, was staring at him in consternation. Standing at the threshold of the big room, the new arrival took a quick look round, and then he recited the words from a well-known Ukrainian song
Round the garden went a pumpkin
Looking for his kin,
Asking how they were doing,
Alive and kicking,
Was the din.
Then he introduced himself, adding that he had come over to pay respects to my father, who was, like Gogol himself, of Ukrainian descent.”
“Be natural, be what you are, say what you think — but talk as little as possible,” he advises his friend Maksymovych in a letter. In another letter to Maksymovych, written after he had landed a job (with someone’s help) at the Patriotichesky (Patriotic) Institute where he was to deliver lectures on Russian history, Gogol complained: “Damn it all! I’d rather teach botany or pathology than Russian history.”
One of the entries in the diary of A. Smirnova-Rosset, the lady-in-waiting, written at about the same time, reads: “I want to see this stubborn Khokhol (Ukrainian) no matter what, I want to talk to him about Ukraine, about all those things that are so dear to me. I asked Pletnyov to tell him that I am a Khokhlachka too!” A later entry says: “At last Cricket and Bull Calf, my two little Arzamas animals, have brought Gogol-Yanovsky to my place!” These two “little animals” were Pushkin and Zhukovsky. Without whose help and protection Gogol would have hardly made his way to the literary Olympus, and he would hardly be able to get his writings through the censorship. But it did not mean that Gogol abandon his old friends.
For information, we have many letters of Gogol written to various correspondents and a lot of memoirs which allow us to see him in all kinds of everyday situations, and which show his priorities.
N. Berg, a poet and translator, reminisces: “Most of the time Gogol preferred to be all by himself. When at a social gathering, somebody would come over to where he was sitting to ask whether he was writing anything new, he hardly answered anything, pretending he was dozing or staring blindly into nothingness, or he would just get up and leave. But when among the guests there was at least one person from Little Russia (the usual way Ukraine was referred to in Russia — tr.), he behaved quite differently… They seemed to be pulled to each other as if by a magnet; they would sit in a corner and talk all the evening long, passionately and heart-to-heart. I never saw Gogol talk like this to any of the Velikorosy (Great Russians, that is Russians, as opposed to Little Russians, Ukrainians — tr).
We could suspect Berg said it because he was biased or out of jealousy but there were many other witnesses whose stories corroborate evidence of such behaviour of Gogol. Writes L. Arnold, Smirnova-Rosset’s brother: “When Gogol was talking about Little Russia and about the character of Little Russians he got into such a good mood that he began telling very funny jokes, one wittier than the other, unfortunately all of them unprintable.”
The next quotation comes from a March 20 1850 letter written by Sergei Aksakov to his son, in which he described a party celebrating Gogol’s name-day. “Three lads — Gogol, Maksymovych and Bodyansky — were wonderful — they sang a cappella, Gogol recited the wise thoughts of some Khokhol (Ukrainian) Homer. While Gogol was delivering his recitation, the two others were gesticulating in a funny way and making all kinds of whooping noises. Khomyakov, Solovyov and me, we thoroughly enjoyed these manifestations of the Ukrainian national spirit, but without any particular sympathy — there was a hint of disdain in Solovyov’s smile and in Khomyakov’s laughter one could discern good-natured derision, and I found it funny and cheerful just to be looking at them. Like one would watch the antics of the Chuvash or Cheremis ethnics… nothing more.”
There is hardly any comment needed here. We should only add that as we can see, neither Gogol nor his friends paid much attention to a rather reserved reaction of the people who were not evidently their friends and did not care for things Ukrainian. Gogol behaved the way he found natural and did not care what others thought about it.
Did he feel their aloofness? What would his reaction be if he had learnt of the contents of that letter? He did not have to read it to know what these people thought of him — their attitude was all too clearly expressed on their faces. It was in full evidence splashed all over their countenances.
It should be reminded here that those “three lads” were cultural luminaries, scholars of high repute and high social standing. And if they were asked the question about their souls — the same question Smirnova-Rosset asked Gogol — they would have laughed a good, hearty Cossack laugh.
The more we read and analyze the documentary evidence about Gogol, the more Gogol becomes a living figure, fully aware of his ancestry, cultural traditions and spirituality, and the less he looks the officially sanctioned “Russian writer.” In people of genius, their links with their ancestral land, tradition and spirit are stronger than in people merely talented.
The way Gogol behaved and made his nationality known to others would require a separate article, and only a couple of facts will be mentioned. In 1846, when he was in Karlsbad, Gogol wrote down in the guest book, “Nicolas de Gogol, Ukrainien, etabli a Moscou” (“Nikolay Gogol, Ukrainian, living in Moscow”).
He was known as Ukrainian to the French literati. Prosper Merimee (1803–1870, French writer of romantic stories and novels, such as Carmen, on which Bizet’s opera is based — tr.) who knew Gogol personally (Gogol was fluent in French) and was aware of a controversial attitude to him, wrote: “I was told that he was accused of displaying provincial patriotism. Being a Little Russian, he, as some people say, shows much affection for his Little Russia — to the detriment of faithfulness to the rest of the Empire.” Facts like these are little known, since the Russian literary critics and historians did not want to reveal them.
Of a great significance were Gogol’s meetings with Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855, Polish romantic poet and patriot whose most famous work is the epic Master Thaddeus) in Paris, where Mickiewicz lived as a political emigrant. A. Danilevsky, a friend of Gogol’s who was with him on that trip to Paris, reminisced: “Gogol stayed in Paris for so long only because he could be seeing Mickiewicz who lived in Paris then, but not yet in the capacity of a professor of College de France, and one other Polish poet, Zaleski. Gogol did not know Polish and they talked either in Russian or more often in Little Russian (Ukrainian).”
What did they talk about? Bohdan Zaleski, the Polish writer born in Ukraine, who was mentioned by Danylevsky, was a witness and participant of these meetings: “About twenty five years ago, Gogol, a poet (sic) famous in Muscovy, came to Paris where he met Mickiewicz of blessed memory and me, and we struck up a close friendship… Naturally, we talked mostly about the Moskals (Moskal — derogatory term for a Russian — tr.), toward whom both we and he had animosity. Over and over again we kept returning to the discussion of their having been greatly influenced by the Finns and their culture. Gogol, with all the passion of a Little Russian, insisted that the Finnish impact had been very considerable, and quoted [to substantiate his arguments] from collections of folk songs in several Slavic tongues, of which he had quite a few with him. He wrote a brilliant essay about the Finnish impact on Moskal culture and read this essay to us. He argued that the spirit, customs and morality of the Moskals were strikingly different from the rest of the Slavonic brethren, quoting from the Czech, Serbian, Ukrainian and other Slavic songs, and making comparisons. For every human feeling there was a song — our, Slavic songs were gentle and soft, while the Moscow songs were wild, gloomy, even cannibalistic at times — in other words, typically Finnish. No wonder, as you can imagine, that our hearts rejoiced at that little essay of Gogol’s… In the collection of Gogol’s works published posthumously, the essay does not appear. What happened to it? It would have come in handy in support of such arguments. Anyway, whether this essay will appear eventually in any of the collections of Gogol’s works or not, it would be not so difficult to write a comparative article of this sort even now, though, unfortunately, it will lack all those pertinent, revealing and witty jokes about the Moskals, which Gogol, a great wit himself, knew in such an abundance, and which he could retell in his inimitable manner.”
One of Gogol’s friends in St Petersburg, N. Pogodin perceptively wrote in the obituary after Gogol’s death: “His was an exceptional personality and after his death he became even more mysterious and difficult to understand than during his lifetime, he cannot be measured or assessed by our usual standards, and we should not even try to do it… What was part of his physiology, part of his nationality, or his upbringing, or his life and experience, what was inborn in him, and what grew up in him without his being conscious of it — all of it is hardly possible to comprehend, and hardly anyone will have enough mental strength to get all these things sorted out.”
A clearer light falls on Gogol from his Poltava side, the side that brought him into this world — his parents, his sisters whom he loved so dearly, and for whom he so touchingly cared. There was a streak of mysticism in Gogol’s family and ancestors, and the candle of faith burned with a steady flame. In the moving words of Yury Shevelyov, a prominent Ukrainian literary critic, this candle was almost extinguished “at the tragic crossroads”; Gogol was caught in a tragic dilemma, and even his sanity was put to test when in a fit of despair, feeling he was misused and misunderstood he burned the manuscript of the sequel to Dead Souls; he seemed to have willed himself to die — or was helped to die by the doctors? — in February of 1852. Significantly his death occurred in an apartment situated close to Maroseyka, a place where Ukrainian arriving in Moscow stayed, and where they were abused and mistreated; no less significant was the fact that his death almost coincided with the two-hundredth anniversary of the Pereyaslavska Treaty, signed in 1654, which had led to Ukraine’s loosing her independence fifty years later.
Back at the time when he was still a civil servant in St Petersburg, Mykola Gogol wrote, mining for the right words in his subconscious, and celebrating the feast of the soul: “A clear winter night descended. The stars peered down. The moon majestically sailed into the sky to give light to all the good people around the world, so that they could sing Christmas carols cheerfully and raise glory to Christ.”
(b. March 19 [March 31, New Style], 1809, Sorochyntsi, near Poltava, Ukraine, Russian Empire [now in Ukraine] — d. Feb. 21 [March 4], 1852, Moscow, Russia), Ukrainian-born Russian humorist, dramatist, and novelist, whose novel Myortvye dushi (Dead Souls) and whose short story “Shinel” (“The Overcoat”) are considered the foundations of the great 19th century tradition of Russian realism. The Ukrainian countryside, with its colourful peasantry,
its Cossack traditions, and its rich folklore, constituted the background of Gogol’s boyhood. A member of the petty Ukrainian gentry… [Years later, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was to exclaim that all Russian realists had come “from under Gogol’s greatcoat.”]
Graphics by Halyna Sevruk
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