Nikolai Vassilievich Gogol (1809-1852)

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This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of Russia’s greatest authors. Nikolai Vassilievich Gogol was born on April 1, 1809 in the Province of Poltava, Ukraine. In the words of Vladimir Nabokov, one of Gogol’s admiring biographers, Gogol “was the most fascinating-and at the same time- the most elusive- of all the great writers of nineteenth-century Russia. One of the greatest of Russian literary geniuses.”Gogol’s medium is satire and parody, with which he crafts a unique blend of the farcical and ludicrous, the bizarre, the macabre, the grotesque, the supernatural and the irrational and absurd. His masterpiece, Dead Souls, (1842) revolves around the peripatetic Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov who travels through provincial Russia making a business of trading, i.e. buying and selling, serfs even though they are already dead. The adventures and situations in which Chichikov finds himself in his travels provide ample opportunity for Gogol to work his satirical magic. At an early stage of his career, Gogol was introduced to Alexander Pushkin who had read Gogol’s “Ukranian Tales” and expressed “amazement” at the quality of Gogol’s work. Gogol’s reputation as an important writer and raconteur was established.
In his famous play (1836), “The Inspector General”, a.k.a. “The Government Inspector” Gogol satirizes many aspects of Russian life of his day particularly the pervasive corruption of governmental and military bureaucracy and the social mores of “high society”. Nabokov considers this work “to be the greatest play ever written in Russian (and never surpassed since)” and its author to be “the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced”. In this work Gogol reveals his truly extraordinary skill at exposing and doing so with humor, the universality of human frailty. After the first performance of this play, Tsar Nicholas I is reported to have remarked, “Everybody got his due. I most of all”. At this time state censorship of writers and poets was very strict (the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 was still fresh in memory) and brooked no criticism of the government. Given these circumstances, scholars to this day are puzzled at the Tsar’s forbearance in allowing the play to be staged at all. It is a “comedy in 5 acts”, and the play is funny even hilarious at times. Its humor does not hide the underlying serious social commentary. This play takes a rightful place along with Dead Souls among the immortal works of Russian literature.

Gogol’s other works include among others, Diary of a Madman, The Nose, The Overcoat, and a collection of stories of the Ukraine, “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka”, one of his earliest works which established his reputation. In his tale, Taras Bulba, which takes place in the context of the long Ukrainian/Russian struggle against the Poles, Gogol in a style and focus unlike any of his other writings, takes the reader on a journey which creates a vivid if romanticized picture of what life must have been like among the Dnieper Cossack warriors of the late 16th century.

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In later years, Gogol, not unlike Tolstoy a half-century later, came under the influence of religion; and this greatly affected the nature of his later writing. Gogol died at age 43 on March 4, 1852.
It is interesting to note that UNESCO has declared 2009 the “Year of Gogol” In April UNESCO is hosting in Paris a series of jubilee celebrations, and other festive events in Paris will continue into the autumn. Rome, where the writer lived for nearly a decade, is hosting for his bicentenary a “Gogol Week” theater festival. Boston is getting ready to host an international conference on Gogol, and Harbin (a Chinese city which came to have a significant diaspora of Russians who were fleeing their country after the 1917 Revolution) is holding a global conference at the Gogol Hotel on Gogol Street. In Russia the Maly theater in Moscow and the Alexandrine theater in St. Petersburg are giving jubilee nights in honor of Gogol, both of which will feature performance of his timeless comedy, “The Inspector General”.

Contribution by Ludmila Selinsky

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