Gogol in Ukraine: A Very Long Read About the Writer With Two Heads

Nikolai Gogol’s contribution to literary canon is indisputable with The Overcoat, a symbol of Russia’s fiction, or Dead Souls, the symbol of its rather boring and unsexy slavery. Not many know, though, that the symbol of all things Russian, Gogol was, in fact, a migrant. From Ukraine.

Born just 200 km from my hometown, the most mysterious writer of his time has, quite interestingly, a mysteriously difficult dialogue with his former home. Why is that, you’ll ask? Well, let’s see.

Chapter 1. It’s Quite a Funny Story? No.

Gogol was born in the region of Poltava, Ukraine, and, like many ambitious trendy but provincial youngsters, travelled to Petersburg in search for money, fame and (as you can see by his serious tie) respect. As many of his contemporaries, he started with getting rid of anything provincial, both in clothes and speech. And even though he wrote to a friend that he’d never really got a grasp of Russian grammar and Ukrainian words kept on crawling in his speech and writing, we’d say he still did a pretty well. With plots things were more complicated. His first nod to German romantics, Hanz Kuchelgarten, was torn to pieces by three major literary magazines, making anonymous author run around the capital buying every unsold copy. Which were most of them. German tales had gotten trite, and in search for new exotic most writers turned to Caucasus. Gogol, however, did a smart move and turned to… his mother. And won big time.

Fame came with the publication of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, a series of texts that relied heavily on Gogol’s native Ukrainian folklore. Alexander Pushkin’s impression of the Evenings as ‘so unusual for our modern literature that I have yet to wrap my brain around it’ gives an insight of how little known the topic seemed for Russian culture. It also doomed Ukrainians to be portrayed in a certain way from then on (see below).

The life of simple Ukrainians according to Gogol (from ‘The Night Before Christmas’)

Back home, on the opposite, Evenings became seen as an organic continuation of a century-old tradition of low baroque. Coming from intermedia (short humorous performances between acts), Ukrainian baroque was characterized by burlesque and kitsch and was quite popular at home, even if in the center of the empire it was perceived exotic as the life of any distant colony.

Meanwhile on the edge of the empire (‘Evenings…’)

Though well-received, Evenings were not exactly original . Several decades earlier in 1798 Ivan Kotlyarevsky rewrote Virgil’s Eneid in the style of low baroque, and became known as the Father of Ukrainian fiction.

Thanking the grandpa of Ukrainian fiction for Eneid

In Gogol’s childhood Ukrainian Eneid had already created a horde of epigones, including Nikolai’s father. Gogol’s early cycle also channels Kotliarevsky style or, as Panteleimon Kulish, Gogol’s first biographer called it “kotlyarevshina”. Kulish treated “kotlyarevshina” as a disease that most young Ukrainian writers had to contract and overcome like measles. Characteristic of “kotlyarevshina” was hiding under the mask of a simple person, portrayal of types (a witch, a devil, a kozak), and a play with time. Gogol takes an extensive use of the last one. No exact time is ever mentioned in the Evenings, and in Taras Bulba the time of action is aged by centuries to emphasize the legendary unrealness of it all. Kulish sees Gogol’s impact here as an introduction of Ukrainian discourse to imperial culture, stating that Gogol transforms a marginal non-canonical genre of intermedia into canon and inspires Ukrainian diaspora in Petersburg with an example of success. Thus, Evenings were historically a successful replanting of Ukrainian tradition to Russian soil.

Kotlyarevsky’s Enei was “a hell of a guy”.

Despite the many followers of Kotlyarevsky, including Gogol’s Evenings, Ukrainian literature did not, however, walk out of svitka (kozak’s overcoat) like Russian did out of shinel. One reason could be Taras Bulba. Heroic depiction of Ukrainian kozak warriors as knights of Russia, did not build on Gogol’s popularity back at home. Intellectuals the likes of Kulish, Dragomanov or Bodyansky saw the attempts as weak from historical point of view and dangerous from ideological. Today’s literary critic Stasinevich calls it a funeral song, where Ukraine is seen by Gogol as Troy, destined to die in order to give birth to the ‘third Rome’ (i.e. Moscow). However, to be fair, Bulba did Ukrainian fiction a lot of good, pushing Kulish to write the first historical novel in Ukrainian language, Chorna Rada [Black Council]. That one has become a cult of its own, bringing to life the saying ‘where there are two Ukrainians, three of them are bosses (hetmans)’.

Taras Bulba, an awkward hymn to ‘daddy’ issues and authorities

But it was mostly for Taras Shevchenko that Ukrainian tradition took a sudden turn, saying bye-bye to all Gogol was about. From romanticism of kotlyarevshina to the self-absorbed personal narrative.

Shevchenko played a revolutionary role in Ukrainian literature, as well as in the Empire. He introduced a slave narrative to the cultural discourse.

To fully understand Shevchenko’s breakthrough we need to take Dead Souls and imagine that poema was written from the perspective of the souls, or slaves (krepostnie). Shevchenko gave slaves a voice, an agency. A former slave himself, he shed the mask of comedy to show literary Petersburg what slaves thought of their masters (a hint, not much: ‘Water your freedom with the blood of oppressors’).

Shevchenko, a Ukrainian Che Guevara, always in trend

Gogol might have made the tragedy of the dead souls\slaves implicit in the novel, but he never gave an agency to a slave, like Shevchenko did. Therefore Panteleimon Kulish saw in Shevchenko a modernizer of Ukrainian language and style. He became a prophet of the New Ukrainian Testament and frankly showing the darkest side of the empire, steered Ukrainian canon to another direction. From then on, be it Panas Myrny, Ivan Franko, Lesia Ukrainka or Olga Kobylanska, national classics focused on an underdog (a slave, a female or even a forest witch) that fights colonial system. Ukrainian canon chose Shevchenko’s earnest tears over Gogol’s hidden smirk.

Lesia Ukrainka being sad and amazing, Shevchenko style

Chapter 2. Can We Laugh Now?

It doesn’t mean, however, that romantic tradition died with the Evenings. Both Lesia Ukrainka and Ivan Franko took use of Gogol’s syncretic ethnographism. But it wasn’t until Ukraine’s independence that Gogol’s influence on Ukrainian literature gained new interest.The road to rediscoverywas paved by diaspora researchers, first of all Evhen Malaniuk, whose stated that Dead Souls were filled with Ukrainian imagery, nature, words and even grammar constructions (yes, people notice when you’re not a native speaker).

Taras Bulba: Who Fights Who Again?

Gogol’s translations into Ukrainian also shed some new light on the question of canon. Translation of Taras Bulba by Vasyl Schklyar in 2003 caused much upheaval both in Russian and Ukraine when Shklyar used the first edition of Bulba (1835), discarding canonical in Russian scholarship 1942 version. The scandal was caused by the fact that the first 1935 edition of the text mentioned Ukraine instead of Russia and portrayed Bulba as an anarchist rather than monarchist. Shklyar’s work proved that translation can be an important part of cultural production, as it revealed a new layer to Gogol’s cultural development. However, it also added to the ambiguity of the text, making it probably the least canonical in Ukraine.

Post-soviet Ukrainian fiction was even faster to re-evaluate the writer’s heritage. Formed in 1985, the literary group Bu Ba Bu wrote romantic absurdist verses that, as Yury Andrukhovich pointed out, were influenced by Gofman and Gogol alike.

The writer that took the most use of Gogol’s poetics is Serhii Zhadan. Zhadan mentions Gogol among his main childhood influences, stating that Gogol formed his optics and gave him an indestructible belief in the existence of the mermaids.

In lieu of Gogol Zhadan’s prose and poetry is filled with baroque compilation of high and low, comic and tragic. Zhadan’s night roads somewhere near Poltava rise in the shadow of Gogol for the simple fact that the readers who have ever been there know that every kilometer of Poltava highway is swarmed with road signs the likes of Homeland of Gogol, museum of Gogol, Dikanka tours, etc. Zhadan utilizes subversive non-canonical status of Gogol as a backdrop for his transgressive characters. The love of that road with all its friendly demons and subversives is what makes Zhadan really channel Gogol’s romantics. Only here in Gogol’s homeland devil can be treated as a naughty pet, whereas transferred to Petersburg, it becomes obscure, dark and omnipresent. Zhadan re-actualizes tradition of burlesque. Thus, the image of ptitsa-troika (three-horse carrier) evolves into Ukrainian Railways, an important setting in Zhadan’s works.

The way we still see a usual night ride in Poltava

The trauma of Gogol’s overcoat also comes to life in Zhadan’s story ‘Yellow Chinese Jeep’. When a local MP takes a potential German investor Klaus on a road trip across Ukraine in an almost Chichikov’s manner, he’s accompanied by two female English translators who never take their winter coats on. Not even attending sauna, dancing at a local disco, beating each other up, and falling asleep hugging on the backseat of the jeep. Gogol’s lesson learnt — keep an eye on your coat, you know.

Zhadan, himself an avid traveler between Europe and Donbas, West and East, can relate to Gogol’s optics of Odyssey and is eager to reclaim Gogol in Ukrainian literary canon using postcolonial theory, when he says:

‘The writer Mykola Gogol is our cultural Crimea of sorts. […] Why should we abandon all that is being claimed by the empire?’

3. Street Art and Hooligan Art

Gogol: ‘Your art might not burn, but it can be sure wiped away’.

Turning from official to arguably the most democratic kind of cultural productions, Ukrainian street art shows a particular interest in Gogol, revealing the aspect of cultural heritage that is most relevant to today’s moment, place and audience.

One of the most popular examples is a mural, created in Kharkiv in 2009 by Roman Minin and Hamlet Zinkivsky. Both are famous for paying special attention to words, both having their own very particular sense of humour. They start their respective roads in contemporary art by drafting a new iconography of Pushkin on Pushkin street and Gogol on Gogol street respectively.

The street itself, a testament to Soviet cultural hierarchy, is minor to a massive parallel Pushkin street, and ironically famous for housing the main Catholic cathedral of the city.

Fig. 1: Minigam, ‘Gogol on Gogol St’

The mural places a special focus on Oksana from The Night Before Christmas. Dressed in a pilot’s uniform in style of roaring 1920s, she is backed by the words ‘Oksana grew up, became a pilot and had to choose…’. The choices are depicted further. First one is a pair of queens’ shoes featured against a black night sky, then two planes. Vakula in a traditional folk clothes of a village dreamer is silent. Perhaps here we encounter Gogol’s works from the perspective of Shevchenko literary tradition, i.e. giving an agency the minor, or even another twist of Gogol’s own focus on ‘a little person’, finding one within his own works. Either way, the artists’ take on Overcoat is even less traditional, as Gogol is shown sleeping in what looks like a cocoon comments, ‘sleeping Gogol is no toy’ and ‘it was warm and not so lonely in the overcoat’.

Fig. 2: Minigam, ‘Gogol on Gogol St’

Personalization of Gogol in his texts is something that Ukrainian art often plays with. Therefore Overcoat is not seen as something canonical (encompassing the whole of Russian literature that walks out of it), but a printscreen of writer’s own state of mind in a cold and dark winter city. Both authors stated that particular image being something very personal.

A similar take is seen on Kharkiv Embankment. Here Gogol is placed next to Daniil Kharms, which sets the idea of a tradition he’s seen a part of. He rides a lion and is surrounded by two captions (‘Gogol dreamt of wild animals’ and ‘M. Primachenko loved Mikola very much’). The latter refers to a Ukrainian artist of the first half of the 20th century Maria Prymachenko, known for re-actualization of folk motives in painting. The adherence to cultural roots make the mural’s author link the two. Gogol riding a wild lion, depicted in a characteristic style of Prymachenko, shows hints that his love for fantastic originates in Ukrainian folklore. Additionally, riding such a bizarre lion might be a hint at pseudo-folk, both Prymachenko and Gogol are known for. In the case of Gogol it mainly refers to Vij, a creature entirely of the writer’s imagination that he tries to pass for a folk monster.

Fig. 3: Mural on Kharkiv Embankment

The image generally refers both to the Night Before Christmas and Vij, where the witch jumps on the main character’s back like a cat and rides him into the night sky. Another layer to the image adds a rumour still spread in Poltavsky region that as a child Gogol drowned a cat in the lake out of a sudden fear for it being the devil. Mounting a lion in this light can be interpreted as a rehabilitation of the old fears, both those of cats, of dying in his sleep and a possible fear of women. It is this personal connection and absurdity of life that seems to be an integral part of Ukrainian canonization of Gogol.

Speaking of absurd, a similar tendency can be seen in the representation of Gogol and his works in the culture of Ukrainian memes. The most popular heroes being Shevchenko and his endless sadness (‘zhurba’), Franko pictured as a cat or Lesja Ukrainka as a feminist. Gogol’s memes clearly show the dualism and the problem of canonization.

Much attention is focused on the language Gogol creates in the Evenings:

Author unknown, ‘I write how I like’. In two languages.

Duality is shown further in the reception of Gogol’s texts by a contemporary Ukrainian reader:

When you read a text in Foreign Literature / Ukrainian literature / Gogol’, @ukrlit.mem

At the same time, Gogol’s duality is sometimes seen as a drawback, but sometimes as the reinstatement of Ukrainian identity on the terrains of the empire.

’xixth century writers: Russia, Caucasus, Russia, hey, Russia! Gogol:’, @ukrlit.mem
‘It’s not easy to receive Ukrainian citizenship…’, @demotivator.info

Whereas in the first picture Gogol is seen as a transmitter of Ukrainian identity into Russian literature in the times when exoticism was largely attributed to Caucasus, this one represents Ukrainians as the object of laughter, for which Evenings are often blamed. It seems that Ukrainian society is still not sure whether Evenings is something that is to be embraced or discarded as a reminder of colonial times. Yet it is still the most canonical of his texts.

Drawing conclusions, contemporary cultural production in Ukraine, be it literature, criticism, translation, art or memes, has dedicated much attention to Gogol’s works. The most recognizable would be the early cycle Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, while the least mentioned are the Dead Souls and Gogol’s plays. However, given that for a long time Gogol was taught and criticised purely as a Russian writer, Ukrainian culture seems hesitant to see even the Evenings as a national canon. The canonicity is further questioned from two sides. One is Russian criticism that sees the early works as something weaker than Gogol’s later Russian texts The other side is Evening’s secondary status to earlier works of Ukrainian baroque, such as Kotliarevsky’s Eneid.

The least canonical is probably Taras Bulba with its two variants that from the point of view of contemporary Ukrainian might be seen as Gogol’s transition to imperialism, or, as Stasinevich noted, a funeral song for the culture Gogol never believed might be independent.

Whether being canonical is good or bad is another question altogether. Arguably it is Gogol’s marginal status that encourages contemporary Ukrainian artists and writers to reinvent the meaning of his heritage. Some take use of the baroque features of the Evenings and even Petersburg texts, such as the Overcoat. Others are inspired by Gogol’s poetics of the road and nature, still others take the least canonical works, such as Marriage looking for new senses. Gogol’s relationship with contemporary Ukrainian culture is best summed up by Klementiev who said that ‘Ukraine is known in the world for two sources of radiation — Gogol and Chernobyl’. And it seems that Ukraine is not yet ready to take full responsibility for either.

Writer and a urban researcher from Kharkiv, Ukraine

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