Gogol was one of the first masters of short prose in Western literature, alongside Pushkin and Hawthorne. His popular stories about Ukrainian village life put him squarely in touch with the Russian Empire’s literary aristocracy: he had a story published in Delvig’s ‘Northern Flowers’ literary magazine, was taken up by Vasily Zhukovsky and Pyotr Pletnyov, and was introduced to Pushkin. After the triumph of his novel ‘Dead Souls’, Gogol came to be regarded by his contemporaries as a great satirist who lampooned the unseemly sides of Imperial Russia. Little did they know that the 33-year-old author viewed himself primarily as a prophet and preacher, and considered ‘Dead Souls’ the first part of a modern-day counterpart to ‘The Divine Comedy’. Nikolai Gogol (Mykola Hohol in Ukrainian) was born in 1809 in the small village of Sorochyntsi (famous for its big trade fair) near Poltava. Gogol wrote ‘Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka’ (1813-32), a two-volume offering which was to launch his literary career, not while living on his family estate in the tiny Poltavan village of Bolshie Sorochintsy, but in St. Petersburg. ‘Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka’ was filled with fantastical descriptions of his native Ukraine. The inspiration for the book’s stories came largely from Gogol’s mother, who regularly sent her son details from 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 while working as a humble clerk, the lowest rung on the empire’s influential Table of Ranks. ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka’ was published at exactly the right time; the literary salons of Moscow and St. Petersburg couldn’t get enough Ukrainian folk tales then, with Aladin’s ‘Kochubei,’ Somov’s ‘Haidmaki’ and Kuluzhinsky’s ‘Cossacks Hat’ all enjoying considerable success amongst cultured society types. For financial reasons, Gogol wrote all of his works in Russian – the language of the empire that oppressed Ukraine and suppressed his native tongue.
But his status as ‘a Russian writer’ should be reassessed, because it’s impossible to understand him without taking into account his ‘Ukrainianess.’ Gogol was the product of a Ukrainian nobility that was in decline as a national phenomenon and a social force in the early nineteenth century. Kyiv is a natural place for a festival in Gogol’s name. Just as Gogol’s writing was, it’s a platform where dialogues between Western and Eastern Ukraine, Europe and Russia, and different forms and styles take place. GogolFest organizer Vladislav Troitskyi says that this year’s event is preparation for a big international GogolFest that will begin in 2009, the 200th anniversary of Gogol’s birth. ‘I want to create an international Gogolfest brand,’ he says. ‘Only our Krok cartoon festival and the Molodist film festival are known elsewhere than here. Everything else is for inside use.’ Trioitskyi says that although Ukraine should be ‘friendly with Russia’ when it comes to the Gogol question, “we have to make Gogol ours in an ambitious way. Ukrainians should remember that Nikolai Gogol was born in Ukraine and wrote about Ukraine, and that Ukraine is actually his main background.”
With the help of Kyiv gallerist Evgeniy Karas, Triotskyi got 23 prominent local artists to create Gogol-themed paintings that will appear in the ‘Portrait’ section of the festival, located on the right side of the Arsenal. Another project, ‘Open,’ will be a joint one consisting of the work of a number of young, lesser-known artists. It will be a great chance for fresh names to display their skills for a big, serious audience. The project will be situated on the Arsenal’s left side. The Open program’s best works will appear in the main program of next year’s festival.
The theatre piece ‘The Death of Gogol’ will be, appropriately, a mystery - there have long been rumors surrounding the way the writer was buried. In 1931, when the Moscow authorities decided to demolish the Danilov monastery, where Gogol was buried, his remains were transferred to city’s Novodevichy Cemetery. His body was discovered lying face down, which gave rise to the story that Gogol had been buried alive.
The play is a mysterious treatment of the theme of life after death in Gogol’s biography, analyzing the metaphysics of his death. The performance will include 50 actors and unusual decorations, with music by the Mychailovsky choir and DakhaBrakha. The play, which is saturated with allusions to the Gogol works ‘Pannochka, ‘‘Viy,’ ‘Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka,’ ‘May Night, or Drowned,’ and others, is about Ukraine’s transition from paganism to orthodoxy. Troitskyi says that he likes Gogol as a dramatist very much, but this time he tried to concentrate on Gogol as a mystical writer. Two other performances, called ‘GogoShynel #3’ and ‘Gogol Et Cetera,’ will also be on the program.
The ‘Gogol as Metaphor’ event, organized in concert with the Lviv Publishing Forum, will see famous writers like Yuri Andrukhovich, Viktor Yerofeev, Oksana Zabuzhko, and Andriy Kurkov come together to talk about Gogol.
The 12-member Lviv ensemble A Cappella Leopolis, which specializes in the music of different historical eras and tries to reproduce period singing techniques, will also appear.
In addition, May 2008 will see a mini-festival of Ukrainian romantic songs, headed by Oleg Skrypka and Nina Matvienko. Troiyskyi says that he might add a Russian component, with performances by Yulianna Kamburova. On 10 September at 21.00, the band ‘Penoplast’ will perform the musical ‘Viy’ - a new project by Borya Kashapov and his team of young and creative artists.
At present there is only one film on the festival’s schedule, but Troitskyi has plans to establish a separate Gogol Arthouse festival. The short film ‘My Gogol’ by V. Yakovenko will be screened on 13 September at 18.00.