Carusel Tours
4 August 2021

Russian Literature Must-Reads:
Nikolay Gogol
(1809-1852)

Panorama of Nevsky Prospect
Many Russian literature admirers maybe get surprised, but it was poetry that dominated it in the 18th and early 19th century, and not prose. By the 1830-s and 1840-s however together with Belkin Tales by Alexander Pushkin and the Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov prose gained more significance, and Nikolay Gogol, a contemporary of Pushkin and Lermontov, already became famous for his prose.

Nikolay Gogol was an extraordinary and very versatile writer. His works range from fantastic folklore tales and horror stories inspired by half-pagan believes from his home village to witty satire on the Russian society, absurd stories with state-of-art grotesque characters and a very realistic historical novella, filled with love and drama. In this impressive collection, all of you will definitely find something worth reading!
Silent Films Night at the Yard of Gogol House in Moscow
Silent Films Night at the Yard of Gogol House in Moscow

Gogol was the favourite writer of Mikhail Bulgakov and Bulgakov's fantastic scenes with witches and demons from Master and Margarita seem to be coming from Gogol's stories, moreover, Bulgakov was saying that he met Gogol's ghost in the most difficult moments of his life and it helped him survive diphtheria and even pointed out the house where Bulgakov later got acquainted with the love of his life and the prototype of Margarita from the novel.

Franz Kafka drew inspiration from Gogol's works when he was writing absurdist horror stories from the lives of humble clerks, and Dostoevsky was very likely under the influence of Gogol when creating his characters of ordinary people.

And today Gogol keeps inspiring artists around the world. In Russia, there are many wonderful film adaptations and stage production of Gogol's works, including some of the first silent films, shot before the revolution. So, let us get to know more about this wonderful Russian writer with a difficult fate!

Early lithographic portrait of Nikolay Gogol by A. Venetsianov
Early lithographic portrait of Nikolay Gogol by A. Venetsianov

Gogol's Birthplace

Nikolai Gogol came from an ancient noble family of Little Russia, the area that is now known as Ukraine. His father, Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky, loved theatre and literature, he headed an amateur theatre of his friend and performed there as an actor. He also wrote plays and verses in Russian and Ukrainian, and loved collecting Ukrainian folk stories.

Almost nothing from Gogol Senior's creative work survived to our day, but his son must have been inspired by his father when he decided to follow into his footsteps.

Portraits of Nikolai Gogol's parents

When Nikolay Gogol moved to St. Petersburg in 1828 with the intention to devote himself to literature or theatre, he was disappointed – the capital of the Russian empire turned out to be cold, windy and hostile. His mother, who worshipped her son and considered him a genius, was sending Gogol all the money that she received from their estate, but it was not enough to support him in a big city. By that time, Gogol's father already died and the family was in a very difficult situation.

Gogol tried to become an actor, but no theatres accepted him, so he had to take some minor official positions to improve his financial state. There he got acquainted with the terrible bureaucracy and the veneration of those who had higher ranks and those impressions would later lay the foundation for his St. Petersburg Tales.

Gogol's first literary work was a romantic poem in verses, published under a pen name. It was a total fiasco - demanding readers of St. Petersburg did not appreciate it, so sensitive Gogol fled to Europe for several years. Later he would do that often and Rome in Italy would become his favourite destination.

Sign on the house where Gogol lived in Rome
Sign on the house where Gogol lived in Rome. Julie Satu Blog

Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831-1832)

Upon return from Europe Gogol published a series of lovely stories that were supposedly heard by the Ukranian beekeeper from various visitors of his house, where he held evening gatherings – "vechernitsy" – for the locals in winter. Gogol borrowed this literary device from Alexander Pushkin and his Belkin Tales.

All stories in the Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka became an instant success – readers loved them for their melodic language spiced up with many Ukrainian words, sense of humour and magical incidents that are described as if they were real. At the core of all stories are folk legends and fairy tales that Gogol heard in and around his home village of Sorochyntsi.

The stories are written in Russian, but they have epigraphs from Ukrainian comedies, songs and plays and verses from Ukrainian folk songs. All the characters of the stories are either common people – cossacks, farmers, blacksmiths, artisans, or evil forces – witches, ghosts, devils or other mystical creatures.

Christmas Eve (or The Night Before Christmas), The Fair at Sorochyntsi
and A May Night or the Drowned Maiden are probably the most popular stories, in all of them a brave young man wants falls in love with a beautiful girl and wants to marry her, but there appear some obstacles and magical incidents on his way, that he resolves successfully.

Christmas Eve Film (1961)
Christmas Eve Film (1961)

Christmas Eve is a lovely Christmas story with the happy ending about young blacksmith Vacula who is madly in love with a black-browed beauty Oxana from the same village and who has to deal with the devil to win hear heart and in the process, Vacula meets empress Catherine II in person.

Famous Russian composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an opera Christmas Eve based on this story. Now you can see it on stage of Mariinsky Opera House in St. Petersburg, for instance.

Christmas Eve was also made to films several times. The most well-known is the Soviet film of 1961, that was actually shot in the Murmansk Region, not in Ukraine, as the cinema people wanted to have guaranteed snow and frosts. Almost every scene in a film is designed after the same named Soviet cartoon of 1951, even the actors look very much like characters from the cartoon. We have a tradition to watch this film or cartoon on our Television before Orthodox Christmas.

The Fair at Sorochyntsi is another very colourful story. It is not without evil forces either, and there are a lot of funny adventures with the characters of the story, but it ends up well.

By the way, the famous Fair at Sorochyntsi, that gave the name to the story, still takes place in this village every year. It unites all local farmers who come there to sell their production. It used to be held on the last weekend of August, at the present time the dates have been moved to mid-August.
In A May Night or the Drowned Maiden the brave guy and his father, the local mayor of the village compete for the heart of the same girl, but the guy gets unexpected help from the ghost of the drowned young lady at night…

And the poetic descriptions of warm and fragrant Ukrainian nights in May will make you want experience them in person.
Viy Production at Tabakerka Theatre
Viy Production at Tabakerka Theatre

Viy (1835)

This is a classic horror novella that has elements of those frightening stories that were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. It is very cinematic too and the first film based on this story was shot as early as in 1909, and theatres and film directors keep staging or screening new versions of it.

Even though I read this story before, when I went to see the Viy production in Tabakerka, a wonderful theatre in Moscow with a tiny and very dark audience hall, I almost hid down underneath my seat when the evil forces were about to come on stage, so frightened I was.

Some theatres in Moscow and St. Petersburg have English subtitles during performances, and you might also see Gogol productions while in Russia.

In Slavic folklore Viy was the name for the devil creature who can kill with his single glance. In later editions of this novella Gogol took away detailed descriptions of other evil creatures, which made them seem even more terrifying.

The main character of the story is the seminary student Khoma Brut, who travels with his classmates by foot to their homes for summer vacation. They accidentally stay overnight at the witch's house and that is where strange things start to happen.

In Viy there is a pretty young lady too, but unlike the girls from the previous stories she turns out to be the embodiment of evil. This time there is no happy ending.

There have been several psychological studies of Viy and some scholars see sexual context in the relations between Khoma and the witch, and they interpret the whole story as the persecution for wrong sexual behaviour of the student.

Starting from Viy Gogol's works become more and more dramatic, joyfulness and lightness disappear from his writing.
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Turkish Sultan by I. Repin, Russian Museum
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Turkish Sultan by I. Repin, Russian Museum

Taras Bulba (1835)

It is a beautiful and very cinematic drama about Cossack colonel Taras Bulba and his two sons, Ostap and Andriy. They live in Zaporozhian Sich in the 17th century that was under the rule of Poles at that time. Taras is very proud of both of his sons and he prepares them to become brave warriors and fight against Poles. However, something goes wrong - Andriy falls in love with the Polish noble girl…

As an adolescent, I cried over this book and it deeply moved me, and in many ways disagreed with the author, and could not believe that this could have happened in real life. However, the novella was inspired by the real story that happened during the Cossack uprising against the Polish rule in 1637-1638. Gogol heard it from his classmate, Grigory Miklouho-Maclay.

Cossacks were a separate class in pre-revolutionary Russia, professional warriors. Their name probably derives from the Turkish "free man". They lived in the Ukrainian steppes, along the southern borders of Russia, in Ural and Siberia and all their lands became the part of the Russian Empire in the 18th century.

The Cossacks as a class emerged in the 14-15th centuries, just when the serfdom was gradually consolidating in Russian principalities. In the Imperial era, they were allowed to live freely, but only on the condition that their men would participate in all military campaigns of the Russian Empire.

In the 1920-s and 1930-s, many Cossacks were shot or forced to emigrate, because most of them fought for the White Army and they were against Bolsheviks.

When Taras Bulba was published, it caused a flurry of criticism among the Polish intelligentsia - they were reasonably outraged by the description of the atrocities of the Poles in the book. Most of the territory of Poland was at that time part of the Russian Empire. Taras Bulba was published in Polish only at the beginning of the 21st century. The novella is also criticized for its anti-Semitism, and again, not without reason.

Taras Bulba was significantly revised by Gogol himself several times after its initial release. We now are reading its edition of 1842 with some modifications taken from Gogol's 1850-s notes, and it differs a lot from the first edition. Throughout his literary career, Gogol was very demanding of himself and he kept changing his early writings a lot, which must have puzzled his contemporaries.
Taras Bulba Film (2009)
Taras Bulba Film (2009)

Taras Bulba was cinematized many times and not only in Russia or Ukraine - you can watch British, French, Italian, American and Indian versions of this story.

The most popular version in Russia is currently the film of 2009, that was released under alternative titles in English The Conqueror and Iron and Blood: The Legend of Taras Bulba. Despite all the controversies around this film, we recommend you to watch it – it has really strong cast.

Green Bridge over Moika River on Nevsky Prospect
St. Petersburg Tales (1830-s – 1840-s)

These are 5 stories, published separately, but all united by the same theme – the action in them takes place in St. Petersburg, and their main characters are not the nobility, as it was normally the case with most stories about the city at that time, but minor officials, craftsmen and artists who live a very humble life.

There is neither romance nor love for the city in them, but a lot of fantasy and grotesque. St. Petersburg is pictured as a frightening and cold city both literally and figuratively, where many small people live who can hardly make ends meet. They are in awe of officials of higher ranks, their supreme goal in life may be to save money for a new overcoat, and they are ridiculous and pitiful.
Vladimir Nabokov was saying that the world that Gogol created in St. Petersburg tales was absolutely "nightmarish".
Monument to Nose on Voznesensky Avenue St. Petersburg
Nevsky Prospect, The Nose and Overcoat are probably the most popular stories from St. Petersburg Tales. In the Nose the main character wakes up one day and realizes that his nose has disappeared. He meets the nose walking around the city in a uniform of a higher-ranking official, and it does not want to return to its owner.

In St. Petersburg there are as much as 3 monuments to Gogol's nose. The most well-known one is situated on the façade of the house of Voznesensky Prospect, the place, where according to Gogol, the official from the story lived.
Government Inspector/ Inspector General (1836) and Dead Souls (1842)

Alexander Pushkin suggested to Gogol the ideas for both works – these were the jokes that our famous poet heard when travelling around the country.

Government Inspector is a comedy play about the provincial town where the local officials, corrupted from head to toe, are expecting an incognito visit of an inspector and they accidentally mistake another person for him. The story is relevant for today's Russia, where, apparently, little has changed since then in that sense.

It is a must of the school programme and most school students go to see it in a theatre with their class. I can't say that I enjoyed it back at school, but I am not a big fan of plays in general, maybe you will find it more appealing.
Original illustrations to Dead Souls by A. Agin and E. Bernardsky

Gogol considered the Dead Souls to be his life's work and the process of its creation was very dramatic. Gogol called it a poem, even though he wrote it in prose and most of it was written abroad, mainly in Rome.

Only the first part of the poem was published. Gogol burnt down the second part of the Dead Souls not long before his death, and the third part was never written. Gogol's idea was to copy the structure of Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri – with Hell on Earth in the first part, Purgatory in the second, and Paradise, that is complete rebirth of the main characters of the poem and atonement for their sins, in the third.

The main character of the poem is charming swindler Chichikov, he visits a provincial town and pretends to be a landowner. Chichikov gets acquainted with local landowners and tries to negotiate with them the acquisition of their dead surfs, who were still listed as living souls according to the latest census. He wants to do that in order acquire a higher social status and become a nobleman.

At the time of Gogol, there was still serfdom in Russia, it was abolished only in 1861. That is, the landowners owned villages with peasants who were forced to work for them, often in difficult conditions. It was very hard for the peasants to redeem themselves and their families from serfdom, but sometimes they succeeded.
The portraits of all landowners are brilliant caricatures and grotesques – in each of them one certain quality of their character is exaggerated to extreme. Therefore, the Dead Souls are often staged in the theatres and cinematized – all the characters in the book are very "theatrical" and it is interesting for actors to embody them.

While working on the second part of the Dead Souls, Gogol had a serious depression. He turned to spiritual literature and mystical texts, and he wanted to become a monk. At that time, Gogol lost almost all his friends, as it became very hard to communicate with the writer. It seems that Gogol suffered a mental breakdown - he burned almost all of his remaining manuscripts, including the second part of the Dead Souls, which was almost finished, and died after prolonged starvation and seclusion.

This is a very insight into Gogol's works, but I hope that it will help you to find out more about this mysterious man, who influenced so many Russian writers who followed him. Gogol's creative heritage is very versatile and I am sure that you will find in it something to read on cosy evenings at home!

If you are planning a literary trip to Russia, and if you need advice, let us know! We will be happy to share our suggestions with you or design a literary tour for you.

Text Alexandra Lyukina
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