It is perhaps ironic that Nikolai Gogol wrote ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka’ (1813-32) a two volume offering which was to launch his literary career, not whilst living in his family estate in the tiny Poltava village of Bolshie Sorochintsy, but in St. Petersburg, the capital of Imperial Russia. The irony comes from the fact that ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanak’ was filled with fantastical descriptions of his native Ukraine; the quaintly named narrator, ‘Rudi (redhead) Panko, Beekeeper’ regaling readers with local folktales which verged on the supernatural, involving hearty earthy peasants performing legendary feats in feasting, fighting, and good natured country fun, in addition to more chilling tales such as St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain, which describes a witches’ Sabbath on the outskirts of Kyiv. The inspiration for these stories came largely from Gogol’s mother, who regularly sent her son details of Ukrainian songs and proverbs, the latest village gossip, and even bits of costume which he asked her to buy from local peasants and send to the small attic in St. Petersburg which he rented whilst working as a humble clerk; the lowest wrung on the all pervasive Table of Ranks. ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka’, came at exactly the right time; at the time the literary salons of Moscow and St. Petersburg simply couldn’t get enough of Ukrainian folk tales, with Aladin’s ‘Kochubei’, Somov’s ‘Haidmaki’ and Kuluzhinsky’s ‘Cossacks Hat’ all enjoying considerable success amongst cultured society types. Literary buffs were particularly enamoured with Gogol’s use of the Russian language, with his use of Ukrainian slang and comical names heralded as authentic, the biggest complement a man of letters could receive at a time when people were becoming increasingly tired of the classicist tradition, and, following victory over Napoleon in 1812, longed for a national school of literature which would reflect and express the true nature of the Russian soul, rather than ape the fashions and pretensions of France.
But while the success of ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka’ was very much in keeping with literary trends, the triumph of Gogol was perhaps more surprising. Despite being raised in the heart of the Ukrainian countryside Nikolai was not born of solid peasant stock like his alter ego Rudi Panko; rather he was the son of a reasonably well-to-do gentry; the family owned around three thousand acres and some 200 male serfs. He was also raised in a comparatively literary environment, his father spending his free hours writing short stories in the Ukrainian language and his uncle owning a well-stocked library which the young Nikolai had access to. He received a good provincial education at the well-known Nezhin gymnasium where his teachers and fellow students viewed him as odd and, despite pretensions, being almost devoid of literary talent, with one classmate, on reading a piece of his prose, declaring that “You’ll never make a fiction writer, that’s obvious now.” The detractors didn’t appear to bother the aspiring writer, who, like thousands of young men at the time, headed off to St. Petersburg with the goal of winning fame and fortune, and it was there that he began to write, though his first efforts, a short poem called ‘Italy’ and a long poem entitled ‘Hans Kuchelgarten’, received overwhelmingly negative reviews; in an act which he was to repeat throughout his life, Gogol burned all the copies he could find. The success which ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka’ convinced Gogol to go ahead with the fantastical Ukrainian formula, and he followed up his success with a similar work entitled ‘Mirgorod’ (1835), a collection of short stories, the most famous of which was Taras Bulba. In Taras Bulba, Gogol helped cement the idea of the Cossacks as a noble, generous, honourable, brave, gregarious people, whose heroic deeds in battle were matched only by their deeds at the dinner table. On welcoming his sons back from the seminary in Kyiv, Bulba instructs his wife to prepare a proper meal for his boys; “We don’t want doughnuts, honey buns, poppy cakes and other dainties; bring me a whole sheep, serve a goat and forty-year-old-mead! And plenty of vodka, not vodka, with all sorts of fancies, not with raisins and flavouring, but pure foaming vodka that hisses and bubbles like mad.” This was, pardon the pun, meat and drink to the salon patrons of St. Petersburg, who would laugh and praise the authenticity of the ‘Russian soul’ while tucking into the exact sort of dainties which Bulba had so categorically rejected. For Gogol, the Cossacks were an expression not of Ukrainian patriotism but Russian spirit, as Bulba himself says when talking to his fellow Cossacks; “Men have been comrades in other lands too, but there have never been comrades such as those in the Russian land.. No brothers, to love as the Russian soul loves-that does not mean to love with the head or with some other part of you, it means to love with everything that God has given you.” Indeed it seems unlikely that the writer regarded Ukraine as a nation, nor Ukrainians as a people, despite his toying with the idea of writing a history of the land. Instead, Ukraine was a land of mystery and make belief, a kind of magical Orient for Russia, just as Asia was for Britain and France; the type of supernatural folklore which so enthralled Gogol’s readers was very similar to that to those found in Arabian Nights, which virtuously shocked polite society some years latter. Throughout Taras Bulba Gogol emphasized the Asiatic nature of the Cossacks, and further spelt out his ideas in the related article ‘A Look at the Making of Little Russia’, where he wrote that “The Cossacks are a people belonging to Europe in terms of their faith and location, but at the same time totally Asiatic in their way of life, their customs and their dress.” This passage would become increasingly cited by nineteenth century Slavophiles, who argued that Russia’s future lay to the East and in the rejection of many European values.
Despite the success of his Ukrainian tales Gogol wanted more, writing in 1836 he decided to stop inventing “funny people and characters, mentally placing them in the funniest situations, with no concern at all as to why I was doing it for what purpose, and what benefit it would be to anyone.” It was around this time that the idea of the writer as prophet and servant to society began to manifest itself, and Gogol clearly felt the need to produce a ‘great work’. At first this meant a departure from the Ukrainian countryside; shortly before leaving for Rome that year Gogol published a series of haunting works set in St. Petersburg, the most important of which was the play, ‘The Government Inspector’, the plot of which was supposedly given to the writer by Pushkin. Contrary to popular belief there is little evidence that the great Pushkin ever felt a great amount of affection for the young Ukrainian, (the Russian’s brief, almost curt replies to Gogol’s impassioned letters are perhaps evidence of this) though he was a fan of his writing. Indeed it was Pushkin who encouraged Gogol to begin work on a truly monumental piece of literature, attempting to spur him once by using the example of Cervantes, who “admittedly wrote several remarkable and good stories, but if he had not undertaken Don Quixote would never have occupied the place among writers he now does.” With this in mind Gogol headed for Rome; he would return to Russia only twelve years later. While travelling in Italy Gogol continued his efforts to create a truly serious literature; gone was the jolly japery of Poltava, in was the chilling accounts of Russia’s capital in which the cruelty of society was exposed. The writer even went so far as to drastically revise Taras Bulba, taking out much of its calling card ‘Ukrainianess’. In 1842 he published the work for which he has become best known, ‘Dead Souls Part I.’ This was to be the work, or at least the first instalment, which would finally place Gogol alongside his beloved Pushkin, amongst the pantheon of great writers. The work tells the story of Chichikov, a mysterious stranger who arrives in an unnamed provincial town and visits a number of landowners to present them with a strange offer; he proposes to buy the names of the dead serfs still registered on the census, saving their owners paying tax on them, and to use these ‘souls’ as collateral to reinvent himself as a gentleman. Quite simply Russia had never seen anything like it; progressives hailed it as a triumph, a devastating satire on social hypocrisy while the authorities feared its subversive and critical message. Interestingly, the very grotesque and humorous characters which Gogol had promised to abandon alongside his Ukrainian works are one of the things which makes the book a classic. Gogol found the writing of the second instalment of Dead Souls more difficult and the writer attested this period of writers’ bloc to spiritual poverty. In 1848 he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, returning to Russia a year later in 1849 to begin work on Dead Souls Part II; the results were startlingly different both stylistically and in terms of content. Part II is full of high rhetoric, displaying none of the clever wordplay which made the first part so entertaining. The piece is also highly conservative in nature; the first part never offered solutions but many assumed that through his criticisms Gogol was an advocate of social reform. This may have been the case but the writer’s newly found religious conviction had lead him to reject such ideas, believing instead that only the individual could be changed through their own good deeds. In doing so, Gogol appeared to be supporting autocracy, the corrupt Orthodox Church and, in contrast to the Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko, the idea of an all-encompassing Russian nationality. Whereas Shevchenko advocated his fellow countrymen to stand up and fight, Gogol urged them to get back on their knees and pray. Unsurprisingly, Gogol’s previous supporters were disgusted; “Yes, I did love you, with all the passion a man tied by blood ties to his country can feel for a man who was its hope, its glory and its pride, one of its great leaders on the path of consciousness, progress and developmentÖ Russia sees her salvation not in mysticism, asceticism piety, as you suggest, but in education, civilization and culture. She has no need of sermons (she has heard too many), nor prayers (she has mumbled them too often), but for the awakening in the people of human dignity, a sense lost for centuries in the mud and filth” wrote the radical Belinsky in an open letter shortly after the publication of Dead Souls Part II. Even at the other end of the spectrum, Gogol’s spiritual father, Father Makary, explained to the writer that he had misunderstood several fundamental Christian beliefs, thus confirming Gogol’s sense of spiritual unworthiness. In February Gogol refused to take food and, having instructed his servant to burn a further part of Dead Souls, took to his deathbed. He died on 24 February 18562, aged 43. Gogol was without doubt the finest writer Ukraine has ever produced, but he was not necessarily a Ukrainian writer. Yes, he used Ukrainian slang throughout his career and in the beginning wrote amusing and enthralling texts about life in the countryside; nobody could describe the Ukrainian peasant quite like Gogol. But when the ‘serious business’ of social commentary came along he abandoned his country for St. Petersburg, a perfectly understandable move, as for all nineteenth century writers ‘Peter’ was the city. And when it eventual came to taking a social stance, he side with the forces of coercion, forces which dominate Ukraine for well over 100 years. Gogol’s Cossacks were not Ukrainian patriots and nor for that matter, was he.