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Gogol’s Place in the Russo-Ukrainian War

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When Russia expanded its war in Ukraine nearly two years ago the act was justified with a contrived narrative. It asserted that Ukraine never had its own history, never had its own state or separate culture, and that Ukrainians are an essential part of the Russian nation without whom they cannot survive. However the Russianness of the Ukrainians, which Russian imperialists see as a matter of course, is not a given historical fact.

The Russian Empire since its founding had the policy to thwart the development of any language, literature and high culture alternative from its own. Upon expanding into Ukrainian territories in the 17th century that policy was directed at Ukrainian national feeling, with varying intensity over hundreds of years and continuing into Soviet rule. At the same time that Ukrainian schools were closed, church services in Ukrainian were banned, and Ukrainian literature was censored or destroyed, it was also the case that Ukrainians and their culture were appropriated into the Russian corpus. The most prominent and controversial case could be none other than the person of Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol.

Since Ukrainian independence in 1991 official circles in Moscow and Kiev have been disputing over who has the right to claim Gogol as part of their heritage, and now that the countries are at war the literary dispute has reemerged with even more intensity. It is firstly major historical events with symbolism that are interpreted and used, but culture is equally powerful in stirring national feelings. Gogol being the greatest Ukrainian of the Russian literary canon has been and still is pointed at as evidence of Ukrainians’ inherent Russianness. Not a year before the war, Putin called Gogol a “Russian patriot” in an article published July 2021, which was about the Ukrainian question. Of course the article’s intent was to deny Ukrainian national identity, but it is telling of Gogol’s importance in that subject if Putin was compelled to mention him.

To start with the basics, Nikolai Gogol (1809-52) was born to the Gogol-Yanovsky family, an old cossack family and landowners in the village Veliki Sorochnytsi. He was a descendant of Ostap Gogol, a hetman in the Zaporozhe host during the Khmelnytsky uprising. His father Vasil wrote comedies locally staged in Ukrainian and that imprinted an early interest for theatre, while his grandmother instilled in him a sense of music and lyricism. Subsequently he became interested in collecting folklore, songs, proverbs, and at one point prepared material for a Russo-Ukrainian dictionary. In fact Gogol first came to prominence in Russian literature writing comic tales of Ukrainian village life in his collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.

In spite of his background, Gogol’s Ukrainian origin did not become the foundation of his work. Gogol had been adamant on his quest for literary fame since he moved to Saint Petersburg at age nineteen. To write in his native language would have condemned him to the literary fringes. In the repressive circumstances there were two paths for Ukrainian writers: either the one Gogol took or that of Taras Shevchenko. The latter was a harder path, it entailed persecution, exile and a short life dedicated to lifting the spirit of a subdued nation. Gogol’s wish was to achieve recognition beyond Ukraine, to write in an prestigious and widely spoken language, which meant a path in Russian literary culture. The choice that an aspiring Ukrainian writer had to make was either dissent or assimilation.

Although Gogol took the easier path it was not in itself easy. Gogol was far from being considered a Russian writer, let alone a great one, when he began his career. The irony and black humour in his works about Russia were seen as subversive, for while he described Ukraine in terms of culture, sunny days and heroism, he described Russia as bleak place with an uncertain future. He was resented by the Russian aristocracy for mocking them in his plays and stories, presenting them as lickspittles, incompetent bureaucrats and petty tyrants. Gogol was also critiqued for deforming the Russian language with his irregular twists in syntax and adding “provincialisms” (ie Ukrainian vocabulary) in his work.

Gogol by the skill of his hand did achieve success, and subsequently was appropriated by the same society that criticized him. Anything related to his Ukrainian identity was omitted and his pre-Petersburg life was not given much importance. It was not just the image of his person that changed but the work itself. Gogol’s novella Taras Bulba told the story of an old Zaporozhe chieftain who brings his two sons to rebel against Polish rule. Then in 1842 Gogol revised his epic under pressure of the tsarist ideology. The 1842 version transformed Taras Bulba from a Ukrainian historical romance to a Russian one. Whereas in the first version the Cossacks had no ties with or even spoke of Russia, the latter turned them into ardent supporters of Russia and the tsar.

But one should keep in mind Gogol is not the only Ukrainian writer which Russia is appropriating. Taras Shevchenko, despite being the most open Ukrainian nationalist of his time, is also another case. Russian authorities in December 2022 tried to pull down his monument in Lugansk but on failing that they simply put a plaque on it, reading “A poet of Russia”. Other contemporaries like Mykhailo Maksymovych and Panteleimon Kulish are also other examples, but they focus on Ukraine in their writings and do not receive as much attention. What distinguishes Gogol is that he came to Russia and bested his peers in their native language. He became the paragon of Russian prose in his lifetime and effectively founded Russian literature as Pushkin did Russian poetry. Gogol is today remembered as the founder of four literary genres: comedic plays, short stories, novels and novellas alike begin from him. He inspired every great writer of the Russian language after him, like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and even chauvinist Dostoevsky.

The dispute over Gogol is essentially a battle within the larger war for history. When the Russian government asserts the Russianness of Gogol it also asserts the historical Russianness of Ukrainians. It reinforces the claim that the Russian World extends to outside its current borders, encompassing not just Gogol and other writers but a third of Ukraine that speaks Russian as a native language. Conversely, when Ukraine reclaims Nikolai Gogol it reclaims the right to exist as a nation and preserve its biological, cultural and linguistic characteristics.

Arguing literature may seem trivial to Western readers, especially during a war that claimed lives in the hundreds of thousands and will claim more as time goes. The question of to whom Gogol belongs should not be treated superficially, for it is the kind of question that wars are fought over. There is an underlying reality that ideas have consequences. Just as wars are fought by opposing men, they are fought by opposing ideas. On the Russian side is the will to empire, to expand and enslave, to take what does not belong to it, and on the Ukrainian side is the will to freedom, to culture, to life, a sentiment captured by Gogol’s words “There, there! To Kyiv! In ancient, beautiful Kyiv! It is ours, not theirs, is it not?”  

Sources:

Putin, Vladimir V. (2021, July 12). On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians. Kremlin.ru. English version http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181
Bojanowska, Edyta M. (2007, February 2). Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian nationalism. Harvard University Press. PDF https://diasporiana.org.ua/wp-content/uploads/books/21641/file.pdf

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