Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism

Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism

Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism

Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism

Excerpt

When Aleksandra Osipovna Smirnova asked Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol in 1844, “In your soul, are you a Russian or a Ukrainian?” she confronted the writer with a question that puzzled his contemporaries and continues to generate debate to this day. The topic had first arisen at a gathering in Russian high society, at which Gogol was accused of an apparent lack of love for Russia and excessive devotion to Ukraine. Gogol, who was Smirnova’s close friend, answered her characteristically blunt query with a peculiar reply: “You say, ‘Reach to the depths of your soul and ask yourself, are you really a Russian, or are you a Ukrainian?’ But tell me, am I a saint; can I really see all my loathsome faults?” Rather unexpectedly, Gogol associates the question of his national identity with moral imperfection. He then launches into a tirade that reveals his deep-seated insecurity about the issue: he chastises Smirnova for failing to point out his faults, gripes about mean-spirited speculations on his two-facedness, suspects his friends of ill will, complains about the insults he suffered, and stresses his desire to become a better person. In short, Smirnova’s straightforward question elicits a defensive reply that reveals the embattled position Gogol saw himself occupying in the nationalistically charged climate of the 1840s. His colleagues and critics were pressuring him to be more “Russian,” and in some measure he internalized this imperative. His Ukrainianness was becoming a liability, which comes through in Gogol’s equation of imperfect Russianness with a moral failing.

Significantly, neither Smirnova, who grew up in Ukraine and shared Gogol’s nostalgia for it, nor Gogol uses a neutral term such as “a Ukrainian” or “a Little Russian.” Instead, they choose khokhlik, a diminutive version of the Russian ethnonym khokhol, which one might loosely . . .

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