The Nationalism of Nikolai Gogol': Betwixt and Between?1

By Ilnytzkyj, Oleh S. | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Nationalism of Nikolai Gogol': Betwixt and Between?1


Ilnytzkyj, Oleh S., Canadian Slavonic Papers


The Nationalism of Nikolai Gogol': Betwixt and Between?1

Mr. Nicolas de Gogol, Ukrainien, etabli a Moscou, auteur de quelques comédies russes.

Almanach de Carlsbad (1846)

On lui reproche, m'a-t-on dit, certain patriotisme provincial. Petit-Russien, il auvrait je ne sais quelle predilection pour la Petite-Russie au prejudice du reste de l'empire.

Prosper Mérimee (1851)2

Ever since his first stories were published in 1831-1832 much has been written about Gogol' as a Ukrainian and his relationship to Ukrainian culture. Nevertheless, Gogol" s dominant image today remains that of the monolithic "Great Russian Writer" (velikii russkii pisatel'). It is amazing how many readers and students (especially Russians from the former Soviet Union) are unaware that Gogol' was a Ukrainian and that he had strong Ukrainian sympathies. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that much of Gogolian scholarship considers his Ukrainian origins to be no more relevant than, say, if he were bom in Tula or Kaluga. Studies of this kind give the impression of deliberately weaving a torturously complex thread tiirough the fabric of his life and work in order to avoid bumping into its Ukrainian aspects. The latter are regularly marginalized as sometiung insignificant and shortlived-or treated as a variant of an ill-defined "Russianness." While tiiere has been serious scholarship, both Ukrainian and Russian, that has demonstrated the centrality of Gogof's Ukrainian background to an understanding of his life and work-one thinks of people as diverse as Panteleimon Kulish, Ievhen Malaniuk, George Luckyj, Iurii Barabash, Iosif Mandelshtam, Vasilii Gippius, to name a few-virtually no one today in mainstream criticism identifies him, as did, say, Piksanov in the 1930s, as a "Ukrainian-Russian" writer.3 The prevalent tendency is still to distance Gogol' from Ukraine and to place him in an unambivalently Russian national context. In 1999 Boris Gasparov expressed the view that

It would be futile to characterize Gogol as an ardent Ukrainian patriot, a champion of its land and people. Such a depiction of Gogol shares the fate of other officious portraits of the writer that view him, for example, as a "critical realist" or as the defender of the "small man.. ."4

Gasparov adds: "Gogol's Romantic mythologization of his double national allegiance offers little to those who would like to see him as a champion of Ukrainian history, language, and literature" (p. 122). Clarence Brown, writing soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, expressed in a feuilleton die hope that "...perhaps Ukrainians will feel sufficiently secure in the possession of tiieir own state, their own language and tiieir own literature to cease claiming Nikolai Gogol' as an ornament of their national culture...."5 The patronizing tone we see here is not untypical for those who see Gogol' as an archetypal Russian writer whose only natural place is in Russian literature and culture.

It is precisely against such positions that Edyta M. Bojanowska's book Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism is written. Diplomatically, elegantly, and with sharp intelligence, she sets out to undermine this "Russocentric view of Gogol" (p. 5):

The standard Russian view of Gogol holds that he was an ardent and sincere Russian patriot. His Ukrainian heritage, for all the fruit it provided his inspiration, amounted to no more than an accident of birth that he shed like a cocoon once he found his true place in Russian culture... Gogol's overriding allegiance to Russian nationalism, according to this canonical view, shines through brilliantly and unambiguously in his writings, which furnish ample 'proofs' for reconstructing the writer's national psyche. The artistic integrity of Gogol's works, their embeddedness in larger social and nationalist contexts, their irony, and the complex devices of narratorial misdirection and distancing that Gogol practiced with considerable skill can all be brushed aside in this grand project of nationalistic exegesis. …

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