VV Bortko’s film is purportedly infused with Russian patriotism, which he interprets as the spirit behind Gogol’s story. Certainly the accepted text which we read today has a strong slant of romantic nationalism which it tethers to Slavophile notions of the ‘Russian Soul’. There is room for controversy, however, as ‘Bulba’ was rewritten by its author from an original version which emphasised the Ukrainian roots of its Cossack protagonist.
Of course, any attempt to project current political preoccupations unto nineteenth century literature is anachronistic. Gogol moved from rural Ukraine to urban St Petersburg and wrote about both. His conception of the ‘Russian Soul’ was bound up with his strong Orthodox faith. The literal locations which Gogol writes about were within the same imperial space.
What is certain is that Gogol wrote in Russian and shaped the golden age of Russian literature. His work often mines Ukrainian culture and folklore, but its grand, national imagery pertains to Russia. ‘Dead Souls’ most memorable metaphor envisages Russia as a speeding troika,
“Thou art not my Russia, soaring along even like a spirited never to be outdistanced troika?”
There is little evidence to suggest that Gogol believed the two aspects of his work were incompatible. President Yushchenko’s contention that the writer, “wrote in Russian, but….thought and felt in Ukrainian”, is rather absurd.
Gogol cannot be co-opted as a supporter of independent Ukraine; neither can we confidently say that he would have opposed its independence, in the modern context. He is an example of one of many cultural links between the two countries and he should be celebrated for his contribution to literature, rather than invoked on one side or the other of a contemporary squabble.