Thursday, 16 April 2009

Gogol debate is an anachronism

The power of great literature to animate debate decades and even centuries after its inception is currently being demonstrated in Russia and Ukraine. A lavish production of Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Taras Bulba’ (which could be considered either a short novel or a rather long short story) has reinvigorated a national ‘tug of war’ over ownership of the work and its author.

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.


The Aberdonian said...


I find this blog very interesting. However, despite scouting about, have failed find any reference in your blog about the divsions between the Western Ukrainians and the rest of the country.

As you may appreciate, many Western Ukrainians, particularly in Galicia, do not have romantic yearnings about Mother Russia. Their links with Mother Russia only started properly in 1945, before that they are part of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania and before that, part of the Habsburg state. There is no recent common history with Mother Russia till Stalin and the boys turned up.

It was Mother Russia who supressed their Uniate Rite church, jailed its hierachy etc.

There is of course Ivan Franko, the anti-Russian local poet whose name adorns so many places in Western Ukraine. In Lviv the university, opera house and the central park bear his name.

I guess that Franko like many of his contemporaries was in a loose sense an "Austro-Slav", those who supported a reformed Habsburg state and considered the Habsburg state the least of the evils amongst the German, Russian, Austrian and Ottoman Empires.

Strangely in Lviv today there is still a lot Austro-nostalgia. There are three Austro-resturants in the city centre including the "Blue Bottle". This cafe contain pictures of the Habsburg period (Franz-Josef etc) and serves dishes named after prominent Habsburgs such as a Franz-Ferdinand coffee.

At the moment the OSK (the Austrian equivalent of the Commonwealth Graves commission) is busy repairing the old garrison cemetery in Lviv which was obliterated by the Soviets and used for burying Soviet soldiers killed by the UPA.

Chekov said...


I have referred to east / west divisions within Ukraine on a number of occasions. In particular I have emphasised the dangers of western leaders involving themselves involving themselves in the political dynamic of that divide. However, I have also declared myself wary of exaggerating the extent to which current political tensions within the country reflect the east / west situation. Ukrainians themselves often have different preoccupations as regards their leaders. None of which is relevant to Gogol, who lived squarely within the Russian Empire.

The Aberdonian said...


I did not see that one. For the record during the Georgia conflict Lviv invested in a giant Georgia flag and draped it arcoss the city hall. Lack of ambivalence on that score I think--------

Anonymous said...

Don't think that the Ukrainians view Gogol as there own writer anymore: even in schools they study him as a "foreign author".

Chekov said...

That's a pity too knigolubka.