“Every word is convincing when a gun is ringing behind it!” remarked the Ukrainian playwright Mykola Kulish. Though he was writing in 1929, not long after the defeat of the Ukrainian state amid the revolution of 1917–21—and on the eve of Stalin’s terror against the Ukrainian intelligentsia in the 1930s, with the playwright himself among those executed—Kulish’s sentiment still resonates with me today. Aided by the strength and resistance of the Ukrainian people against its Russian occupiers, Ukrainian culture has been given the opportunity to be seen as an authentic and independent phenomenon, free from the lens of Russia’s own cultural narratives.
For centuries, Russia has attempted to reappropriate Ukrainian culture as its own. This is evident even now, as Putin’s attempts to restore his country’s former imperial “glory” are impossible to separate from the appropriation of the cultures of the lands he is trying to subjugate. Back in December 2022, in occupied Luhansk, Russian forces tried to dismantle a monument to the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. On failing that, they instead put a note on it rebranding him as a Russian poet.
Sometimes, though, Russia’s appropriation of Ukrainian culture has, on its own invidious terms, been more successful. The 19th-century writer Mykola Hohol was another Ukrainian on whom Russia bestowed the designation of “Russian writer”—but they even gave him another name, one that he’s become best known by throughout the rest of the world: Nikolai Gogol.
Within literary criticism from the Soviet era, Hohol’s Ukrainian origins are mentioned only in the context of a clear ideological message: he is characterised as a symbol of the friendship between the “two brotherly peoples, Russian and Ukrainian”. Outside the Soviet Union, his “Ukrainianness” has often been even less visible than this. Yet even as this appropriation of Hohol and his heritage has gone on, he remains something of an anomaly within the Russian literary canon. Vladimir Nabokov argued that “if you expect to find out something about Russia… keep away from Gogol”, yet this does a disservice to how persuasively he could depict the fears, dreads and hypocrisies of life under the Russian Empire. “Such is the Russian man”, as he wrote in Dead Souls, in translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; “strong is his passion for knowing someone at least one rank above himself, and a nodding acquaintance with a count or prince is better to him than any close relations with friends.”
It was perhaps because of his outsider (that is, Ukrainian) status that Hohol was able to provide such a sobering perspective—and why he still makes for such uncomfortable reading for Russian imperialists.
Mykola Hohol was born in the town of Velyki Sorochyntsi, Poltava province, in the east of Ukraine, which was then part of the Russian Empire. He was a descendant of the ancient Ukrainian Cossack family of the Hohol-Yanovskyi; his great-grandfather Ivan was a student of the Kyiv Theological Academy, while his father Vasyl wrote theatre plays in Ukrainian. Mykola was educated in Ukraine, collected Ukrainian folklore—songs, proverbs, sayings—and was especially interested in Ukrainian folk art. At one point, he intended to compile a Ukrainian–Russian dictionary. His literary works are steeped in the Ukrainian baroque epoch, and they feature Ukrainian characters and plots drawn from the country’s history. When travelling abroad, he would introduce himself using the Ukrainian pronunciation and transliteration “Hohol”. Of the 43 years of his life he spent 24 in Ukraine, 11 in western Europe (Italy being his favourite) and only eight in Russia. “On that basis alone he may be regarded as a Ukrainian”, as academic George Luckyj argues in The Anguish of Mykola Hohol aka Nikolai Gogol.
And yet, in spite of all this, Hohol’s origins did not become the foundation of his artistic identity. He chose to write exclusively in Russian and, as translator Richard Pevear argues in the preface of The Collected Tales, “was bent on putting [Ukraine] behind him, on winning glory in the capital, on performing some lofty deed for the good of all Russia, on becoming a great poet in the German romantic style”. To understand why this was, we have to remember the imperial context in which Hohol lived.
After the defeat of Ukraine’s hetman (or head of state) Ivan Mazepa in the Battle of Poltava in 1709, and subsequently the abolition of the Cossack Hetman State in 1764, the neighbouring Russian Empire established tighter control over Ukraine (or Little Russia, as it was sometimes called). By the 19th century support had grown for a common Slavic world, while the desire for a peaceful coexistence between two peoples, Russians and Ukrainians, was a widespread political aspiration—even if there remained an awareness that these two peoples remained distinct, as Shevchenko showed in his poetry. Amid such a political climate, there existed two paths for Ukrainian writers: either that of Shevchenko, or Hohol. The first was the unpopular path: to write in Ukrainian for a stateless people, to give a powerful voice to the oppressed Ukrainians of the Russian Empire. Hohol’s path on the other hand was to achieve recognition beyond his home country, which writing in and participating within Russian literary culture could afford him. These two paths were not contradictory, but highlight the choice Ukrainian writers had to make during that time of Russian rule: either between political dissent, or political integration.
As he never wrote in Ukrainian, we do not know how well-versed Hohol in what was very likely his first language. (It should be said, however, that his written Russian has its own unique Ukrainian characteristics.) In many ways, Hohol’s predicament bears parallels to how the Irish language was treated under the colonial policies of the United Kingdom. In Ireland at this time, using English guaranteed promotion and general respect, while Irish was marginalised. In Ukraine, the same was true of the Russian and Ukrainian languages—as Shevchenko explicitly showed time and again in his poetry. In “To Hohol”, he addressed Hohol directly (“you”) and himself (“I”), here translated by CH Andrusyshen and Watson Kirkconnell:
You laugh full deep while
I must weep,
My great and mighty friend!
In 2022, when I read the news that Russian troops had shelled Myrhorod, I thought about Hohol again—that was the city where he had once lived and after which he named his collection of short stories, published in 1835. Not long before that, I saw that his portrait had been hung up by Russian authorities on the facade of the drama theatre in Mariupol; I realized that this is how the myth of “great Russian culture” is being used to conceal horrific war crimes. What would Hohol think of all this? What we are seeing right now surpasses even the worst kinds of misery, hypocrisy and evils of Russian society that Hohol’s bold, satirical imagination so vividly described.
I’ve witnessed some of this at first-hand, when I recently returned to my home city of Brovary, close to Kyiv. On the way I saw ruined houses, roads damaged by the caterpillar tracks of tanks, burned-out fields and scorched sunflowers—typical traces of Russian’s military aggression, all less than 20km away from Brovary. Coming from the northern border of Ukraine, this area is the closest to Kyiv, and yet Russia’s forces got lost on the way there as they tried to navigate the region’s winding roads; they did not make it to either Brovary or Kyiv. The name of the village where they finally gave up was Hoholiv, or “Hohol’s village”. That, for me, is the most telling evidence of Hohol’s Ukrainian spirit, and how even today he continues to show up the evil farce that is Russia.