In 1952 it was hundred years since the great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol died. At the end of his life he had idealised servitude, aristocracy, and the moral authority of the church, causing fellow writers to accuse him of suffering from mania religiosa.1 One should think that the self-proclaimed atheist state of the Soviet-Union would want nothing to do with this man. But at the start of the year 1952, Soviet newspapers announced that the entire peace loving and progressive element of mankind would commemorate the great author.2 Let’s have a look at this strange turn of events.
Compulsive liars and frauds
It is not easy to write about Gogol’s life. The man is often described as a notorious madman and liar. None of his statements about himself can be trusted. In his letters he would sometimes boast about books that he had never written.3 What we know for sure is that he was born in Ukraine (then called Little-Russia) in 1809 and that he turned into a man of many (failed) professions.
He tried painting and writing poetry, but it was soon obvious that he had no particular talent for that.
He also was a teacher of history but failed in that profession as well. He was continuously boasting about the great works he was going to write, but was only able to impress his students with one thing: his lack of knowledge. His classes consisted of incoherent murmuring, and sometimes he would appear with a bandage around his head (because of a simulated severe toothache) to avoid having to answer questions.4 When the school board finally convinced him that it was better to seek a different profession, Gogol was not the man to reflect critically on himself: “If there would be only one student who would understand what I mean, but they are all as colourless as the city they live in.”5
No wonder that the prose-writings of Gogol are full of boasters and compulsive liars. Let’s take a look at two of his most famous works:
The “Government Inspector”
St. Petersburg, 1836. Tsar Nicholas the First has just visited the première of a play. The great Tsar is very amused and states: “everyone got a beating, myself included.”6 The play was called The Government Inspector and was written by our protagonist Nikolai Gogol.
The main character of the play is a young bon vivant who arrives in St. Petersburg with an empty stomach and ditto wallet. Little does he know that in the days before his arrival rumours had been going around that a Government Inspector was going to visit the town, making the corrupt officials of the town very wary. So when our bon vivant arrives, they take him for the infamous inspector. He is able to take a variety of bribes, stays at the luxurious apartment of the mayor, and flirts with his wife and daughter. When the man leaves town with a full wallet and ditto stomach, the town realises that they have been pranked.7
The play not only amused the Tsar of the Russian Empire, it was a great success. And the play is still performed regularly up to this very day. But the critics were divided. “The critics on the right interpreted it as an attack on the social order of Russia and rejected that. Critics on the left interpreted it as an attack on the social order of Russia and loved that.”8 Gogol got very confused by this and embarked on a journey through Europe.
The Dead Souls
In 1842 Gogol presented us with another knave, this time he has a name: Tsjitsikov. This Tsjitsikov and his coachman Selifan are travelling through Russia, visiting impoverished landowners with a business proposition of the weirder kind. In Tsarist Russia servitude was common. Peasants were the property of the landowners and could be sold at will. The landowners on their part had to pay taxes for every “soul” they possessed. The exact amount of property and the annual taxes connected to it was calculated once every ten years. When peasants were unlucky enough to die in the meantime the landowner still had to pay taxes for them until the next censure was made. Tsjitsikov on his part is planning to populate an estate with these dead souls, which he reckons he can buy for a friendly price.9
During his travels Tsjitsikov meets the entire couleur locale of Tsarist Russia: corrupt state officials, the old scrounger Pljoeskin, the aggressive drunkard Nozdrijov, and many more. Gogol planned the work to become a great epic but it looks like he lost track when he was writing it. Part two of the book was never finished. Gogol stated that he had burned many drafts and the part two that survived is fragmentary. But part one is a brilliant read and met with a lot of fame. The farcical humour met with the Russian taste and Gogol was declared the greatest Russian writer alive. Russian patriots were delighted with the lyrical descriptions of the Russian rural landscape and the Russians that were oriented towards the West saw a brilliant criticism of existing circumstances in Russia.10
Not that all this compliments did Gogol any good. He was vagabonding through Europe, plagued with all kind of vague diseases. He was a hypochondriac who started to starve himself. The man who loved eating spaghetti was getting thin as a plank and donated all his fees to charity. After a lot of vagabonding he arrived in Moscow. Then came the moment when he just stopped leaving his room. And after that came the moment when he stopped getting out of bed. The doctor who arrived later stated that when touching his stomach he could feel his spine. On March the 3th of 1852 the doctor decided that the solution was to hang him with leeches and cover him with ice cold blankets. On March the 4th of 1852 Gogol was dead.11
Transforming the madman
And now the story speeds through the years, to take a halt in Moscow in the year 1952. There the communist tyrant Josef Stalin was seating in the Kremlin. Stalin knew the works of Gogol. He once compared his critics with a farmer girl that gave Tsjitsikov and Selifan directions but actually didn’t know the difference between left and right.12
The work of Gogol fitted in just right in the anti-intellectualism that was characteristic of Stalinist cultural policy. In The Dead Souls Gogol depicts the corrupt state officials and landowners who are taking advantage of simple peasants with great satirical talent.13 So the commemoration of Gogol’s death could be of great propaganda value to the Stalinist regime. In Moscow there was still a statue from 1909 depicting Gogol as a hunched and melancholic figure. Now was the time to replace it. The old statue was removed to some outskirt of Moscow and on Gogol’s dying day a new statue was revealed with pompous state ceremony. This statue shows a calm and upright Gogol, a man with dignity. It was rumoured that the face was modelled by the example of the great Stalin himself.14 Further, the Soviet House of Children’s Books organised exhibits at schools and libraries to tell the children what a great communist Gogol had been.15 Similar commemoration activities were held in the satellite states of communist Russia, but also in non-communist countries like Italy, France, and….the Netherlands.
Most Dutch newspapers did not spend a lot of attention to the commemoration of Gogol’s death. They lined it up with other short news like the 76th birthday of Pope Pius XII.16 But there is one exception: the newspaper of the Dutch communist party, De Waarheid (“The Truth”), pays quite some attention to the occasion.17 Some apologetic articles about the work of Gogol were published. It was stated that “his emotions fed the ink in his pen to write a stern accusation of absolutism.”18
The association Netherlands-USSR, which was known to be very loyal to the soviet regime,19 organised a festive evening at the hotel Krasnapolsky in Amsterdam. It was open to members of the communist party who could hand over a written invitation.20 Those lucky enough were treated to a lecture by the well-known communist writer Theun de Vries, music and song, and a ballet-film from Moscow. De Waarheid does not forget to mention that representatives of the Soviet embassy had “showed interest” for the activity.21
For non-communist Dutchmen, a reprisal of The Government Inspector under the direction of Peter Scharoff was planned. But the main actor, Peter Laseur, became ill, and it was replaced by some play by a Dorothy Christy22, who is now even forgotten by Google.
Ding Dong, Gogol is born
It would not be the last time that Gogol would be commemorated and instrumentalised for political purposes. In 2009 it was 200 years since Gogol was born. A number of Russian state officials gathered at Gogol’s grave in Moscow. The then Russian minister of culture Alexander Avdeyev stated that “His genius described the Russian universe of that period – from the high social life of St. Petersburg to beloved Ukraine.”23 Despite these soothing words a fierce debate started about the question whether Gogol is to be reckoned a Ukrainian or a Russian writer.24 This discussion now moved to the background for some reason. I can’t help wondering what the year 2052 will bring.
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K. van het Reve, Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur. Van Vladimir de Heilige tot Anton Tsjechov (Amsterdam 1985) 207-208 ↩
Neues Deutschland (State Newspaper of the GDR) January 4th 1952 ↩
K. van het Reve, Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur, 191 ↩
Ibidem, 194 ↩
N.Gogol, Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories (London 2005) ↩
Quote of Karel van het Reve the best and most amusing Slavist that the Netherlands ever had. In, K. van het Reve, Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur. 197 ↩
N.Gogol, The Dead Souls, (1842, London 2005) ↩
K. van het Reve, Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur. 202 ↩
Ibidem 209 ↩
S. Moeller-Sally, Gogol’s afterlife: the evolution of a classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia (Illinois 2002) 160 ↩
Ibidem, 155 ↩
S. Moeller-Sally, Gogol’s afterlife, 155 ↩
Leeuwarder Courant, March 3th 1952 ↩
De Waarheid, March 14th 1952 ↩
De Waarheid, March 14th 1952 ↩
De Telegraaf, February 26th 1952 ↩
The Guardian, March 31th 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/31/nikolai-gogol-russia-ukraine, last seen August 24th 2014 ↩