Was Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol a writer without a fatherland? Or was he a writer with two fatherlands that are now at war with each other? Vladimir Putin once exalted Gogol as “a Russian patriot” and “the father of Russian literature”? In 2009 Viktor Yushchenko, the third president of Ukraine, declared that Gogol “belongs to Ukraine”?
Amid all the horrific news of carnage and cruelty in Ukraine, an odd literary paternity suit has resurfaced. In fact, this dispute over the right to claim the legacy of Gogol has regularly been discussed in cultural publications and even official circles in Moscow and Kyiv ever since Ukrainian independence in 1991. The question is: Which of the two countries is entitled to claim Gogol, the beloved nineteenth-century writer known to every schoolchild in both nations?
Gogol is honored as the father of no less than four separate genres: the Russian novella (Taras Bulba, 1835; revised 1842), the Russian comic drama (The Government Inspector, 1836), the Russian short story (“The Overcoat,” 1842), and the Russian novel (Dead Souls, 1842). This year on April 1, Gogol’s birthday, cultural functionaries and university professors on both sides of the border trumpeted their rival claims about the “real” homeland of Gogol. (It seems fitting that the supreme jokester of Slavic literature—best known for his treatment of the grotesque—was born on what we call April Fool’s Day, and what the Ukrainians call “Laughter Day.”)
Born in central Ukraine, known colloquially as “Little Russia,” Gogol (1809–52) left home at the age of nineteen to make his fame and fortune in the cultural capitals of Saint Petersburg and Moscow. He never published a line in Ukrainian, which was viewed as an oral “language of the people” or even dismissed as a mere dialect by Russian authorities. They regarded it as unsuitable for literature or intellectual discourse. The czars of Gogol’s day, like the Communists of the twentieth century, tried to suppress attempts to publish in the Ukrainian language: their censorship represented a sustained, ruthless state policy, whose aim was to secure allegiance to a pan-Slavic, specifically Russian national consciousness by mandating a “legitimate” national language. Ukrainians are also quick to point out that Gogol first came to attention throughout Russia as a Ukrainian (or “Little Russian”) author—not as a “Russian” one. He was first celebrated as the author of bizarre, comic tales of Ukrainian folk life based on his village youth.
But Gogol’s success in Russia raises another question: Does your national identity change if you go abroad and write in another country’s language? Since when do we treat great world authors of Irish birth—like the novelist James Joyce or the poet William Butler Yeats—as “English” just because they did not write in the Gaelic language? What about the great Manhattan-reared novelist Henry James or T. S. Eliot, who grew up in St. Louis? Were they not American writers just because they lived much of their lives in England?
And so the debates proceed. The overheated rhetoric in the dispute over Gogol’s national identity reached a fever pitch during his April 2009 bicentennial—and has remained incandescent ever since. Museums were opened and exhibits staged both in his hometown near Poltava and in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Each of the two countries had bicentennial ceremonies presided over by their respective presidents.
And today? Can we even agree on the name “Nikolai Gogol”? “Already you have loaded the dice!” an expatriate Ukrainian colleague warns me. In Ukrainian, the great writer’s name—the one he was born with—is Mykola Hohol. But Nikolai Gogol is the name his works were published under, and the name used not only by Russians but also by most Ukrainians, not to mention the rest of the world. Nowadays, however, he is not infrequently cited in official Ukrainian announcements as Mykola Hohol—to which Russians respond with either indignant outrage or withering mockery.