Gogol: A Ukrainian in disguise

Gogol is the greatest Ukrainian member of the Russian literary pantheon. But his artistic biography was less about cultural appropriation as radical self-disguise. On the trajectory of Gogol’s work from exoticism to belligerent Russian nationalism.

1.

At school in Soviet Moscow, we learned patriotic lines from Gogol’s prose by heart. I had never thought of him as a Ukrainian author. In fact, I had never thought of Gogol’s ethnic origin at all. For me, he was a magician who had created a phantasmagorical gallery of the most hilarious and loveable monsters I’d ever come across. Like Dickens or Shakespeare for the English, Gogol is part of the Russian language. But having installed him on the pedestal of Great Russian Literature, Gogol’s Russian devotees banished his Ukrainian shadow into cultural exile.

The strangeness of Gogol’s prose, the twists of his syntax and the occasional peculiarity of its vocabulary, have always been noted. Connoisseurs have found different reasons and explanations for these linguistic irregularities. Leafing recently through a thick tome of memoirs about Gogol by his contemporaries, I was again amazed how acutely native Russians had felt the aura of strangeness surrounding Gogol’s personality. His behaviour and even his appearance had frequently struck them as awkward, even alien. His detractors perceived him as a parvenu and social climber à la Balzac’s Rastignac, referring to Gogol’s aloofness and overblown vanity. These character traits were unfamiliar to those who had known him back in his native Ukraine as a friendly and jovial young man. His admirers and friends, on the other hand, regarded his unpredictable behaviour as the eccentricity of a budding genius.

One way or the other, it barely occurred to those who knew him that Gogol’s Ukrainian origin could be one explanation for his volatile temperament. But I suppose that Gogol felt his foreignness in Russia for other reasons too. He never had owned a house, and never entertained guests or visitors. He was un-Russian in the sense that he preferred to keep his own company and was reluctant to share his emotions and opinions in public.

None of his acquaintances – whether those who regarded themselves to be his good friends or those who snubbed him with disdain or indifference – would have ever thought of Ukraine as anything but a southern territory of Russia where people spoke a peculiar dialect, entertained themselves with local songs, and boasted an excellent cuisine. For ‘Great Russians’, Ukraine was known as the Ukraine (‘border land’ in Old Slavonic) or Malorossia (Little Russia). Even as an adolescent in the late 1960s, I must confess I felt the same about Ukraine as I did about Estonia or Uzbekistan, Belarus or Kazakhstan: that while local dialects and folksy habits might have differed, all were part of the Russian brotherhood under the name of the Soviet Union.

When I try to imagine the young and ambitious Gogol arriving in the capital city from the backyard of the Russian Empire, I recollect my friends’ attitudes to those who would arrive in Moscow from the ‘national republics’. They were treated with a mixture of patronising benevolence and curiosity. There was also a hint of envy, for having a better southern climate and more comfortable life away from the grimness of the Soviet Republic of Russia. In the eyes of metropolitan snobs and chauvinists, it was bad enough to come from the provinces; but to be from the Ukraine was an unpardonable sin. In popular Russian mythology, Ukrainians are an ethnic minority, not a nation, and to this day treated with a mixture of sentimentality, jealousy, suspicion and ridicule.

Mural of Gogol on Gogol Street, Kharkiv. Photo: CHeFred

Gogol’s name, if pronounced ‘khokhol’ with the Ukrainian accent, itself echoes a derisive and offensive moniker for people of Ukrainian origin. Gogol’s propensity for garish waistcoats and ties, yellow and green velvet, silver buttons and laces was traced to his Ukrainian background. He had also had the misfortune to be educated at a local school in Nezhin, a town associated with a crunchy, miniature variety of cucumber – a kind of gherkin, usually pickled in brine and excellent as an accompaniment to vodka. Perhaps the culinary connotation of the name of his school town was later echoed in his fascinating descriptions of gluttony, in his imaginary stomach complaints and, finally, in his suicide by self-starvation. Macabre jokes apart, nothing was incidental in Gogol’s biography.

But he was not Ukrainian in the sense that his new Russian friends would have liked. In St Petersburg he started calling himself Gogol (which in Ukrainian means ‘drake’), but the family name was Gogol-Yanovsky. His ancestors were provincial Ukrainian clergy that owned some land and had some education. His father was an amateur author of comedies in verse, staged locally. The family language was Ukrainian. His parents would have been horrified to hear their native tongue described as ‘a local dialect’, although Russian was the language used at any other occasion besides domestic or family affairs.

After the edicts of Catherine the Great deprived anyone but gentry of the right to be a landowner, Gogol’s grandfather had to falsify the family records and pass off his family as nobility or face the loss of their land and other property. In his monograph The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, Simon Karlinsky, the most insightful of Gogol’s biographers, suggests that Gogol’s ambiguity towards his own identity – the impostor syndrome – could be traced to this episode. Taken by the enlightened elite of St Petersburg for a brilliantly gifted connoisseur of Ukrainian lore, it’s as if the young Gogol were the incarnation of his future self-parody – the impostor Khlestakov from The Government Inspector.

There is no doubt that Gogol felt like a stranger, if not a foreigner. He was casually bombarded with questions about his Ukrainian roots and the exotic village life he’d left behind. In his initial awkwardness, I recognised myself after I had left the Soviet Union. You feel you’re being constantly watched – your appearance, your gestures, your vocabulary are judged, supervised and assessed. Or you are asked to recite some kitschy Russian folklore to satisfy your host’s curiosity about foreign parts of the world. You are more than frequently consulted about the reasons for the atrocities the leaders of your fatherland have committed. You are constantly invited to meet your former compatriots, whom you would rather have avoided in ordinary circumstances. You are interrogated about your past. And the more you tell the locals about yourself, the more you satisfy their desire to tailor you into a stereotype.

Like every immigrant, Gogol wanted to belong, but at the same time to be regarded as an exception. Gogol’s famous new friends and acquaintances – Delvig and Pushkin, Zhukovsky and Aksakov, Pletnev and Pigodin – did not treat Gogol’s Ukrainian origin with disrespect. Far from it: they didn’t let him forget it. They invited him to evenings of Ukrainian folk music; they asked him about the recipes of the authentic Ukrainian dumplings, borsch, doughnuts and moonshine.

Gogol had left his native land never to return. But the native cultural background is not a traveller’s valise kept away in a locker. He became a writer in Russian, while culturally remaining a Ukrainian – the same way as, say, Franz Kafka, culturally a Jewish Czech, was a German writer. Gogol, though, was expected to assume a cultural persona that had not been familiar to him before he got involved with the enlightened literary circles of St Petersburg.

Gogol’s first publication (in one of St Petersburg’s literary magazines) was an amateurishly rhymed poem about the saccharin blue skies over the lush verdant pastures of Italy, where the young Gogol, a junior civil service clerk at the time, had never been but would eventually spend most of his short life. He lived, after all, in the post-Napoleonic age of romantic bucolic, with its ideal of return to one’s native roots and simple folk wisdoms.

But Gogol’s powerful intuition told him to forget Italy and to follow another direction, to satisfy the Russian liberal elite’s hunger for the cultural inheritance of distant regions of the Russian empire – from the Urals to the Caucasus and Black Sea. And Ukraine. He bombarded his mother and former schoolmates with letters demanding descriptions of the traditional habits of local peasants, craftsmen and merchants: the way they dressed, the fabric they used, their songs and recipes – all those details that he had never been familiar with. Nowadays, this would be regarded as a search for his ethnic roots, his identity. In fact, what Gogol distilled was shaped by his inventive mind in a way that had nothing to do with the authentic life of a Ukrainian township.

With diligence and speed, Gogol produced two volumes of Evening on a Farm Near Dikanka. It was full of the local colour and idiosyncratic humour that earned him admiration from libertarian Pushkin as well as the court poet-laureate Zhukovsky. Written in a make-belief folklore tradition, these tales were followed by another volume of more epic character, entitled Mirgorod, in which Gothic horrors were infused into Punch-and-Judy style conflicts between eccentric and absurdist folksy personages. But the central place in the Mirgorod collection was occupied by his first novel Taras Bulba, which Gogol wrote to fulfil his long-harboured ambition of becoming an historian (he taught history for a spell at the University of St Petersburg). We wish he hadn’t written this paean to violent nationalism.

2.

You don’t need to study the crypto-fascist Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin to decipher the ideological vapours around the current Russian invasion of Ukraine – Gogol provided the full justification for it in his terrifying epic Taras Bulba, praised by his contemporaries as a ‘paragon of civic virtue and a force of patriotic edification’. It was ghastly concoction fit for Hollywood, masterfully crafted with a horrific glee, and reflecting all contradictory emotions that had clashed inside Gogol’s haunted mind – from the moment he had left his native Ukrainian town for Saint Petersburg.

Taras Bulba tells the tragic tale of one of the powerful chieftains of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. In the mid-sixteenth century, these clans of runaway serfs, drifters, draft dodgers and criminals had created fortified settlements along the shores of the lower Dnieper and in the steppes north of the Black Sea. An army of volunteers and mercenaries of anarchic temperament, the Cossacks were ready to fight any enemy at hand. They looked bizarre, too, in their caftans and broad belts of eastern fashion, their bowed sables to match their huge moustaches, and their shaved heads adorned with a kind of mohawk. Gogol’s epic tells of the death of Taras Bulba’s two sons, who were coerced by their father to take part in the ‘holy war’ against the Catholic Poles and local Jews – the arch-enemies of Russia and the Orthodox faith, according to Bulba’s world view.

Gogol as the narrator has embellished the Cossacks’ anarchic belligerence with noble patriotic sentiments about the ‘Russian soul’ and the ‘brotherhood of Slavs’. It is difficult not to see in such sentiments Gogol’s own pledge of allegiance to the Russian autocracy and his newly discovered sense of belonging to the inner circle of Russian writers – to the chosen few. At this period in his life, in the company of his new friends, he enjoyed an opportunity to show off his loyalty to everything Russian – and to denigrate foreigners, sometimes wantonly.

Among the memoirs of Gogol’s contemporaries, there is a vignette told by one of his new acquaintances, the owner of a country estate, who invited Gogol for a trip to the countryside. The tutor of the country gent’s children, a Frenchman, joined them too. But the ride along a bumpy road on the Russian tarantas, a four-wheeled courage without springs, was a torture for the foreigner. Gogol, in a paroxysm of laughter at the poor man’s contortions, encouraged the driver to speed up, so that ‘the French frog would learn what our Russian vehicles are all about!’

The author of Taras Bulba deliberately dressed up his historical romance as a folk legend from time immemorial. He did so by setting his story two centuries earlier than the events he described. The historical background for his novel is the anti-Polish massacres and pogroms sparked by Bogdan Khmelnitsky’s rebellion in the middle of the 17th century. It was Khmelnitsky, a Polish hetman of Ukrainian origin, who in his fight with his Polish rulers had made the Zaporozhian Cossacks his allies and eventually declared his allegiance to the Russian Tsar. From that moment, the Russification of eastern Ukraine began.

The epoch was notorious for the Cossacks’ cruelty, the destruction of the civilised part of Ukraine and the mass murder of Poles and Jews who served the Polish gentry. For Gogol, a depiction of the Poles as the arch-enemy of Russia was topical: it was the time of the Polish uprising. (Gogol’s friend Pushkin also pledged his allegiance to the Russian autocracy by writing his patriotic anti-western propaganda verses ‘To the Slanderers of Russia’.)

But Gogol’s hero Taras Bulba doesn’t care much whether his enemy is really scheming the destruction of his Cossack tribe, the Russian monarchy and the Russian Orthodox faith. Any rumour or innuendo is a good enough pretext to start the war: for the murder and pillage of all those who don’t belong to his tribe, clan and community. What Gogol presents as a portrait of a passionate people’s hero, overzealous in his defence of the native land and faith, is in fact a depiction of the paranoid conspiratorial mind of a thug.

‘What’s left but war?’ Taras rhetorically asks his sons. ‘God grants that you may always be successful in war, that you may beat the Musselmans and the Turks and the Tatars. And when the Poles conspire against our faith, you may beat the Poles!’ And beat them they did:

He killed many nobles, and plundered some of the richest and finest castles. The Cossacks emptied the century-old mead and wine, carefully hoarded up in lordly cellars, they cut and burned the rich garments and equipment which they found in the wardrobes. ‘Spare nothing,’ was the order of Taras. The Cossacks spared not the black-browed gentlewomen, the brilliant, white-bosomed maidens: these could not save themselves even at the altar, for Taras burned them with the altar itself. Snowy hands were raised to heaven from amid fiery flames, with piteous shrieks which would have moved the damp earth itself to pity and caused the steppe-grass to bend with compassion at their fate. But the cruel Cossacks paid no heed, and, raising the children in the streets upon the points of their lances, they cast them also into the flames … children killed, women’s breasts cut open, the skin flayed from the legs up to the knees, and the victim then set at liberty.

But before they massacred the Poles, he had enjoyed the mass murder of their flunkeys – the Jews. ‘Drown all the heathens in the Dnieper! … Don’t wait! the cursed Jews! Into the Dnieper with them, gentles! Drown all the unbelievers!’ These words were the signal. They seized the Jews by the arms and began to hurl them into the waves. Pitiful cries resounded on all sides; but the stern Cossacks only laughed when they saw the Jewish legs, cased in shoes and stockings, struggling in the air.

It is impossible to tell from the tone of the narrator’s voice how far Gogol the author shared this sadistic laughter at the Cossacks’ acts of mass murder, mutilation of bodies and senseless destruction: ‘Our hair would stand on end nowadays at the horrible traits of that fierce, half-civilised age, which the Cossacks everywhere exhibited.’ Such expressions of horror and revulsion are periodically uttered by the narrator in between the scenes of violence. But do such authorial grimaces testify to Gogol’s condemnation of the cruelty of his protagonists? Or do they serve to thrill the reader with expectations of even more ghastly and gory descriptions to come?

Gogol conveys the ruthlessness of Cossacks with the same panache as he describes their camaraderie, their way of greeting each other, slapping each other’s backs and then kissing each other on the lips, bear-hugging and then devouring hunks of meat and barrels of moonshine, getting drunk and dancing, sleeping together rough, under the skies. It all seems to confirm Karlinsky’s view of Gogol’s homoerotic longings.

But though Gogol was enchanted by the muscled physique of powerful Cossacks, celebrations of maleness can be found in the military tradition of any authoritarian state – from Sparta to Nazi Germany. Gogol’s fascination with male bonding could be as easily interpreted as the yearning of a religious convert to become part of an ideal community. One way or another, Gogol was fascinated by the company of his fictional Cossacks, while it lasted.

Does he punish his heroes for the atrocities they have committed? Bulba’s younger son, Andrei is put to death as a traitor by his father for falling in love with a Polish girl; the older boy Ostap is captured and executed by the enemy; Taras Bulba himself is burned at the stake while attempting to save him. Gogol must have felt some unease at having Taras Bulba initiate the conflict in which he destroys himself and his family. The alternative was to sacrifice them to the patriotic cause.

So that’s what Gogol did. Having realised that his fascination with this horrific violence was all-too obvious, Gogol recurs to a proclamation of higher purpose: the Cossacks were fighting for the Orthodox faith and the greatness of Russia. Unrepentant for the loss of two sons who perished because of his hunger for bloodshed, Taras is morally redeemed through his vision of the victory of the righteous. Out of the flames that consume him, he stretches his hands to his comrades and proclaims the future victory of Cossacks over the enemies of Russia:

Wait, the time will come when ye shall learn what the orthodox Russian faith is! Already the people scent it far and near. A Tsar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to his dominion!

No wonder, then, that Taras Bulba was put onto the school curriculum by Stalin’s pedagogues. After all, it was Stalin who during the Second World War forged the union between the Party and the Russian Orthodox Church, thus uniting the Russian people in the war effort. Ironically, Gogol’s Ukrainian stories became textbook examples of Soviet-style multiculturalism, according to which every Soviet Republic was endowed with an local culture: ‘ethnic in form, socialist in content’. In today’s propaganda, Gogol’s leitmotifs of patriotism and self-sacrifice are being recycled with NATO and crypto-Nazis in the place of the Poles and the Jews.

In Taras Bulba, Gogol immortalised the belligerent nationalism of those Russians who had created a fictitious version of Europe that they felt had no place for them. These Russian patriots hate anywhere that they think they don’t belong to, or that does not belong to them. Instinctively, they desire to take control of such places: either by taking them over by force, or by destroying them altogether. Taras Bulba’s hatred of foreigners was Gogol’s instinctive way of showing his Russian hosts that he shared not only their idealistic convictions, but also their base prejudices.

3.

In later years, Gogol was said to have dismissed the kitschy images of Ukraine in his earlier writing as juvenilia. Was he conscious of what his pen had been doing? I’m inclined to doubt his inability to judge his own work at any stage of his creativity. Gogol was nothing if not an observer of his own foils and foibles. He put on different disguises when he communicated with others – a thespian streak that he had once hoped to develop as a professional actor. Instead, he applied the theatricality of his character to his communication with others. He could be morose or gregarious, charming or off-putting, witty or boringly moralistic. But behind the moodiness was a theatre director steadily observing himself as if from the outside. Gogol was, perhaps, the first Russian writer of autofiction.

In his short story ‘Diary of a madman’, a minor office clerk, frustrated and humiliated, catches glimpses of the life of his secret object of desire (the daughter of his superior). In his hallucinatory imagination, he gains access to the correspondence between Medji, the lapdog belonging to his beloved, and Medji’s dogmate. A projection of the madman’s imagination, the epistles are used by Gogol as a satirical reflection on the life of Petersburg’s society and his circle of pretentious friends:

I know nothing worse than the habit of giving dogs balls of bread kneaded up. Someone sits at a table, kneads a bread-ball with his dirty fingers, calls you and sticks it in your mouth. Good manners forbid you refuse it, and you eat it – with disgust it is true, but you eat it.

I’ve always wondered where Gogol picked up this peculiar image. An unexpected answer comes from the memoirs of Gogol’s contemporaries. One of the visitors to the house in Moscow where Gogol used to stay recalls his habit of sitting ‘at a table, writing down his thoughts and from time to time kneading between his fingers balls of sticky white bread’. ‘This habit ‘helped him a lot to resolve difficult and complex problems of writing. One of his friends had collected the whole pile of these bread balls, safekeeping them devotedly.’

Such a direct link between life and fiction is a rare coincidence. But there was some method in how Gogol’s own obsessions, both private and public, were reflected in his work. Gogol’s authorial eye has an uncanny ability to detect the most hidden traits of his own idiosyncratic personality and turn them into ‘laughter through tears’. His self-awareness moved his pen from tales of invented Ukrainian lore to the horror of his own loneliness and the futility of his longing for brotherhood. At the end of his play The Government Inspector – another self-parody – the Mayor, a shrewd provincial manipulator conned by a charlatan and his own corrupt, thick-headed subordinates, hisses to the audience: ‘I can’t see a thing … all I can see is a mass of pigs’ snouts, instead of faces, just pigs’ snouts.’ These very words were reportedly uttered by Gogol himself during his first years in St Petersburg.

Whatever phobias – Freudian or otherwise – were behind his emotional crisis, Gogol’s genius as a writer had had no use for pseudo-Ukrainian props. Displacement and substitution were always the major devices of Gogol the storyteller. Self-hatred and self-pity, his humiliating experience of being a non-entity, an anonymous provincial upstart in a monstrous dark city, was disguised by Gogol as compassion for the underdogs of society. In Petersburg Tales and Arabesques he also managed to cover up the traces of his Ukrainian past. Gogol tried his best to separate his fictional characters from what he regarded as his personal self. He thought he had also achieved this in Dead Souls. But did he really?

His masterpiece was written in Rome in the late 1830s. During these years he hardly visited Russia at all. In his letters to friends, Gogol wrote that he regarded his prolonged sojourns abroad as a kind of literary device – they gave him a broader and more objective view of Russia. Perhaps his expatriate life provided him with the necessary decorum for his otherwise subversive feelings of ‘foreignness’. In Russia, Gogol had started doubting his own authenticity; abroad, he didn’t feel he was forced to manifest his loyalty to the place he lived in. In Rome he was social and entertaining. He knew that in Italy nobody would inquire about his mixed origin – he was taken for a Russian outside Russia, like Joseph Conrad, who a century later was fond of visiting France, where he was taken for an Englishmen.

The man without a past – that’s the first thing one can say about Chichikov, Gogol’s protagonist in Dead Souls. He appears from nowhere, like a phantom. We know the minute details of his appearance, his suits and colours of his ties and vests, what he keeps in his strongbox, his little habits and the modulations of his voice. But we don’t know who he is, where he is from, or what his family background is. He is a ghost, a foreigner, an émigré, who tries to establish himself in his new life.

Like Gogol in St Petersburg, Chichikov creates a respectable past through a fictional possession – the ‘dead souls’ of former serfs. That was more-or-less what Gogol had been doing using his imagination of a novelist. Chichikov’s double, he had created fictional characters and acquired for himself a new past – a new identity. And for a while he felt he could finally have a free ride into the future. Let’s look at the last page of the first part of Dead Souls:

Chichikov smiled with gratification at the sensation of driving fast. What Russian does not love to drive fast? Which of us does not at times yearn to give his horses their head, and to let them go, and to cry, ‘To the devil with the world!’? … Ah, troika, troika, swift as a bird, who was it first invented you? … And you, Russia of mine – are not you also speeding like a troika which nought can overtake? … Whither, then, are you speeding, Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me!

Whither, indeed. Towards his native Ukraine or away from it? Nowadays we wish it was away, ‘for you are overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!’ A few years before this passage was written, Gogol had laughed at a Frenchman for whom it was a torture to be driven in a Russian tarantas on a bumpy country road. This time, in the fictional Russian troika of Gogol’s creation, Gogol is not sitting behind the driver. In this poetic drive, the swindler Chichikov was the only passenger, the sole instructor of the direction in which the troika of Holy Russia was driving.

It was headed in the direction of the second – disastrous – part of Dead Souls. To the horror of liberal progressive circles, Gogol had embraced Pan-Slavism and the church. According to Karlinsky, it was Gogol’s admission of his homosexuality to his confessor, the fanatical Orthodox priest Father Matvei Konstantinovsky, that had provoked in the writer a self-mortifying, ultimately suicidal, contrition. But whatever the cause, his thinking had undergone a drastic change.

‘There is something wrong inside me’, Gogol once confessed. ‘I watch, for example, somebody stumble in the street and immediately my imagination begins to work and envisage the most frightening development of the incident in the most nightmarish form. These nightmares don’t let me sleep, exhaust me completely.’ When in later years he attempted to eradicate these dark images from his mind by way of rigorous religiosity, he only succeeded in suppressing his imagination – his comic gift of transcending evil through laughter.

Gogol’s guilt-ridden mind finally stumbled and succumbed to the opinion of those nationalist cranks who believed that he had been groomed by the enemies of the Slavs to create the slanderous image of Russia as a motherland of dead souls. Tormented by the thought of his sins against the natural order of life and his failure to create an ideal image of Russia without Chichikovs, Gogol burned the manuscript of the second part of Dead Souls in an act of wilful auto-da-fé.

In the same period of his life, in his ‘Selected passages from the Correspondence with Friends’, he called for the whole Slavic world to learn Russian: ‘We have to strive to achieve the sole dominion of the Russian language among all our brotherly tribes.’ The nationalistic ardour of these lines emulate Taras Bulba who, through the flames of the fire that was consuming him, shouted patriotic slogans about triumphant Russia.

Published 3 April 2023
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Zinovy Zinik / Eurozine

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