Gogol or Hohol?

Was the great writer Russian, Ukrainian, or both?
Nikolai Gogol (Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)

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. 

 

Much of the impetus for the Russian invasion—and for the Ukrainian resistance—has to do with appeals to history.

This controversy may seem rather trivial to American readers, especially during a brutal war that has already claimed an estimated 20,000 Ukrainian and Russian soldiers, along with up to 25,000 Ukrainian civilians. But scratch the surface and you will find that the question of who gets to claim Gogol is connected to larger questions, the kind of questions wars are fought over. Much of the impetus for the Russian invasion—and for the Ukrainian resistance—has to do with appeals to history. Historians refer to “the uses of the past”: how the past is used (and abused) to validate (or condemn) the present, and to lay claim to the future.

Putin argues that, except for a few months in the aftermath of World War I, Ukraine was either part of Russia or a state within the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991. Ukrainians reply that the focus should be not on the long-ago past but rather on the near-past and the present: Ukraine has been a fully independent and internationally recognized nation for more than three decades—and it must remain so. The debate about Gogol is really a skirmish in this broader conflict of historical interpretation. By establishing “title” to this world-class writer, the Russian government reinforces its claim that national borders, as currently drawn, are less important than the “Russian World,” a civilization whose literary constellation may include any writer who wrote mainly in the Russian language. By reclaiming Mykola Hohol, Ukraine is trying to remind the rest of the world that its culture no more belongs to Russia than its territory.

Such literary turf wars may also have a different valence in that part of the world. Russia is often called “a nation of readers”—and the same is true of Ukraine. Catherine the Great, the multilingual Nicholas I, Lenin, and Joseph Stalin all fancied themselves sophisticated thinkers, capable of engagement with intellectuals on serious political, economic, or literary matters. Regularly sought out for their pronouncements on various issues of public import, Russian intellectuals and writers have traditionally stood as guiding spirits of the nation, and are often treated as celebrities equivalent to American sports heroes, Hollywood entertainers, and Big Tech entrepreneurial geniuses. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, in Ukraine.

Beyond all that lies a larger and more pressing reality: ideas have consequences. Every war is fought not only by military means, but also through propaganda, and the propaganda war is sometimes just as important as the military campaign. “Win the minds of men!” ran the old Communist slogan. To win the minds—and the hearts and the souls—means to win the war. How people think and feel about a war often determines their will to fight, endure, and prevail. 

Propaganda campaigns may take the low road or the high road—and usually take both. The low road consists of feeding the enemy disinformation, blaring fake news, and blocking non-official new sources on the home front. “Shocking” bulletins describe the (subhuman?) enemy’s atrocities, their dwindling morale, and their battlefield disarray. Interspersed with such stories are inspiring eyewitness accounts attesting to the superhuman heroism of the soldiers on one’s own side and their limitless capacity to endure all hardship. 

Yet propaganda that takes the high road is also important, and its role in warfare is less often reported by the media. Appropriating the glories of another country’s literary patrimony is an excellent example of high-road propaganda. So the stakes for the controversy over Gogol, while obviously a minor issue compared with the rival territorial claims of Russia and Ukraine, are real enough in their way. He is reportedly a favorite writer of Putin himself, and has been treated for generations by all Russians as a velikii russkii pisatel (“a great Russian writer”). He is also Ukraine’s most important, or at least most famous, contribution to world literature. Gogol is, as it were, the Ukrainian Shakespeare. “He is our Great Writer,” my Ukrainian colleague wrote to me, “the single Ukrainian figure with a long-recognized place on the world stage.” No wonder, then, that Russia’s attempt to add him to their own literary pantheon is viewed as a gross injustice in Ukraine.

Gogol may not be as well known, or as often read, in the West as the novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov, but that is partly due to the far more difficult task of translating his exuberantly rich, densely textured, vivaciously irregular Russian prose style (dotted with Ukrainian expressions) into idiomatic prose in Western languages. But he is widely credited in Russia as the “father” of Russian fiction. Dostoevsky himself is said to have remarked that “we all came out of Gogol’s overcoat” (a reference to Gogol’s most famous story, “The Overcoat”). Waggish Ukrainians might reply: Since Gogol hails from central Ukraine, isn’t all Russian literature actually derivative of Ukrainian literature? It is, in the current circumstances, a grim joke—the kind that was Gogol’s specialty.

 

Suffering severe depression in the winter of 1852, Gogol apparently went mad and starved himself to death. He was forty-two years old. Before the end of his short life, he had become a mystic and visionary, focused on otherworldly concerns. The Slavic “soul,” the future of humanity, and the writer’s role in spearheading the Slavic people’s divinely ordained mission to save the race—not the mundane politics of “Little Russia” and “Big” Russia—commanded his attention. One considers his dying words: “The ladder, the ladder.” 

In a Christmas letter to a literary friend in 1844, pondering the matter of his national allegiances, he confessed: “I don’t know whether my soul is Ukrainian or Russian. All I know is that I would never give preference to someone from Little Russia or to someone from Russia.” And then, as if anticipating the cataclysmic conflict underway in his homeland today, he added:

The natures of both [countries] are so lavishly gifted by God. It is as if, on purpose, each of them contains precisely that which is absent in the other one—which is a clear sign that they should complement each other. That is why the stories of their past lives have been given to them differently, so that, growing for a time apart, the distinctive powers of their characters may be developed. Then, having merged into one, together they can form something perfect within mankind.

That was long ago—before two world wars, before Stalin’s forced mass famine of Ukraine (the Holodomor), before Putin’s revanchist war of aggression. That kind of national mysticism, combined with a supranational imagination, may seem archaic and even alien now. It’s safe to say it would not be welcome by nationalists in either Russia or Ukraine today. It’s Gogol’s stories both sides would like to claim, not his idiosyncratic politics.

Published in the June 2022 issue: 

John Rodden has written widely on Russian topics, ranging from Catherine the Great and the recent Dostoevsky bicentennial to Soviet-era cultural policies and USSR–East German relations.

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