Was Nikolai Gogol Russian or Ukrainian?

The question of whether Nikolai Gogol was Ukrainian or Russian has become a hot topic these days, partly due to the ongoing war between the two counties and partly due to Gogol's own career and nationality. Here I will try to answer this question and later I will quote a few passages from Gogol’s work about his views or half views on Ukraine as well as Russia.

1/12/202410 min read

First thing first, literature is about language, therefore it belongs to those who speak the language, not those who holds the passport. In the video, I explain Gogol’s Ukrainian background in detail but a lot of dummies in the comment section seemed to ignore that.

Gogol wrote in Russian. Not just that, his most famous works are also about Russia and the Russian people. To make my case even stronger, Gogol while ethnically Ukrainian, didn’t have a Ukrainian passport at the time, he was the citizen of the Russian empire. Now some might take issue with the Russian imperial conquest of Ukraine, but that is a different topic. Ukraine has been an independent state since 1991 after the fall of the USSR.

But the topic of a writer’s language, nationality and ethnicity is not as clear cut as I would like it to be. Was Gogol Russian or Ukrainian? Gogol was born in modern-day Ukraine and his family belonged to a Ukrainian-speaking people of Cossack origin as well as some Polish background in his family, so he was Ukrainian by ethnicity. His father Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky also used his Polish surname, but Gogol dropped Yanovsky, perhaps in an attempt to be accepted in the Russian empire or perhaps it was a sensible decision as a writer. In order to be successful, a Polish surname might not have been a good idea at the time when the Poles were rebelling against the Russia Empire.

But what it makes it complicated is that he wrote all his major works in Russian. Why? At the time, Ukraine was part of the Russian Tsarist Empire, so the Russian language offered more opportunities for the young writer. The same goes for someone like Franz Kafka who was born in Prague but wrote all his works in German. Gogol as a young man moved to Saint-Petersburg to seek his fortune at the capital of the Tsar. There he managed to make a name for himself. He was at the time, referred to as a writer from the Little Russia, which denotes his Ukrainian background. Ukraine was called Mala Rus or Little Russia at the time. Today Belarus has kept its name which means white Russia. So many Russian critics at the time referred to Gogol as Ukrainian but as his fame grew more and more, and he became a very serious and established writer, he was called Russian writer in major newspapers and literary magazines.

At the beginning of his career Gogol wrote primarily stories from Ukraine. His first book was a collection of Ukrainian stories titled Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka in two volumes which were published in 1831 and 1832. Also his 1835 epic novel Taras Bulba is also about Ukrainian Cossacks who fight against the Poles not Russians.

Gogol was fascinated by the history of the Cossacks. However in this epic, Gogol doesn’t pitch Ukraine against Russia, but rather against its western enemy, the Poles and Lithuanians. As you know Western Ukraine was ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for centuries, while eastern Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and even to this day there is an east-west divide in Ukraine.

Gogol characterises the Cossacks as a mix between Europeans and Asians, because there was a lot of intermarriages between the Slavs and Tatar Turks. He says: “Owing to this co-mingling, their facial features, so different from one another’s, received a common impress, tending towards the Asiatic. And so there came into being a nation in faith and place belonging to Europe; on the other hand, in ways of life, customs, and dress quite Asiatic. It was a nation in which the world’s two extremes came in contact; European caution and Asiatic indifference, naiveté and cunning, an intense activity and the greatest laziness and indulgence, an aspiration to development and perfection, and again a desire to appear indifferent to perfection.”

For Gogol this gave the Cossacks a sense of dangerous, heroic and untamed characteristics whose only value was freedom to roam the plains. When the Russians took over, they didn’t destroy the Cossack militarism, rather they incorporated into the Russian army. So Gogol’s Taras Bulba is a love letter to an epic history of the Cossacks which no longer existed in his time.

Here is Gogol’s character, Andrey, the son of Taras Bulba talking about his love for a woman compared to his love for Ukraine. Here he is talking to a woman from the side of the enemy:

““Deceive not yourself and me, noble sir,” she said, gently shaking her beautiful head; “I know, and to my great sorrow I know but too well, that it is impossible for you to love me. I know what your duty is, and your faith. Your father calls you, your comrades, your country, and we are your enemies.” He response: “And what are my father, my comrades, my country to me?” said Andrii, with a quick movement of his head, and straightening up his figure like a poplar beside the river. “Be that as it may, I have no one, no one!” he repeated, with that movement of the hand with which the Cossack expresses his determination to do some unheard-of deed, impossible to any other man. “Who says that the Ukraine is my country? Who gave it to me for my country? Our country is the one our soul longs for, the one which is dearest of all to us. My country is—you! That is my native land, and I bear that country in my heart. I will bear it there all my life, and I will see whether any of the Cossacks can tear it thence. And I will give everything, barter everything, I will destroy myself, for that country!”” —Nikolai Gogol—Taras Bulba (translation by John Cournos)

Gogol was madly in love with his native land, Ukraine, spent his childhood there so he started his careers with stories from his native land but living in Saint-Petersburg he became known as a writer from Little Russia. In other words, he was boxed as a Ukrainian writer which was cute but not considered a serious Russian writer. To be taken seriously, Gogol changed gear. He started writing about Russia and his fame grew exponentially as a result. A modern-day example is Kazuo Ishiguro who in the 1980s started writing about Japan and the British media labelled him as a Japanese writer, which propelled him to change gear with his masterpiece, The Remains of the Day, a quintessential English story and today he is called a British writer. Why? Because he stopped writing about Japan. The same happened to Gogol.

But Gogol didn’t become a blind supporter of Russia, instead he used all his literary skills to expose the problems of Russia through comedy. His comic tales show the issues Russia was suffering at the time.

His masterpiece, Dead Souls is about a Russian scammer who buys dead serfs to make him look rich on paper so he can borrow money from banks. His greatest short stories like The Nose, and the Overcoat and his most famous play Government Inspector are also set in Russia. In these tales, Gogol pokes fun at Russians and the empire, which made him unique and popular at the time. He was an outsider who saw what was wrong with the Russian society at the time.

In his preface to Dead Souls, he refers to himself as part of the Russian Empire, but also distances himself from fully knowing the Russian way of life. Of course with the publication of Dead Souls, he became a sensation in Russia and everyone claimed him as a true Russian writer. Here Gogol talks about his protagonist Chichikhov: “Him I have taken as a type to show forth the vices and the failings, rather than the merits and the virtues, of the commonplace Russian individual; and the characters which revolve around him have also been selected for the purpose of demonstrating our national weaknesses and shortcomings.” So here, he says our national weaknesses and shortcomings, by which he means Russian or at least the Russian empire which was his nationality at the time which included Ukraine and many other countries at the time. Gogol was also aware that to criticise Russia or the Russian character, he had to make it his own. Otherwise he would be exposing himself to some attacks by Russian nationalists. So throughout the novel, Gogol doesn’t separate himself from Russia.

Here is famous passage in which Gogol likens Russian march towards progress to the march of a troika or a horse carriage drawn by three horses:

“And you, Rus, do you not hurtle forward too, like some spirited troika that none can catch? A trail of smoke marks your passage, the bridges rumble, everything falls back and is left behind. On seeing this miracle of God the onlooker stops in his tracks: what is this?—a bolt of lighting hurled from the heavens? And this terryiging onrush—what does it portend? And what unearthly power lies hidden in these unearthly steeds? And the steeds—what steeds, what steeds! Are there whirlwinds catch in your manes? Is there some sadder, sensitive ear burning in every fibre of your being? You head the familiar song ring out from high above, in unison you tense your bronze chests, and, your hooves skimming the ground, you are transformed into taut, elongated forms, flying through the air, and you hurtle forwards, inspired by God! …Rus, where you racing? Give an answer! No answer comes. With the wondrous jingling the carriage bells ring out, torn into shreds, the air rumbles, and turns to wind; every thing on this earth flashes by as, with an oblique look, other peoples and empires step aside to let her fly past.” —Nikolai Gogol—Dead Souls (translation by Christopher English)

Here Gogol talks about, not only the Russian progress but also expansion, some 200 years ago. If anything, reading Gogol will tell you how little things have changed. Whether he was criticising or praising is beside the point. For Gogol Dead Souls was a perfect metaphor for progress for the sake of it. Chichikov was a scam artist but he didn’t see it that way because Russia was so big that you can be a respectable gentleman in one area, a crook in another.

Here is another passage from Dead Souls where he talks about Russia from a somewhat outsider’s perspective, perhaps a Ukrainian perspective:

“Rus! Rus! I see you now, I see you from my wondrous, beautiful distance: I see you, mired in poverty and mess, unwelcoming, with no arresting wonders of nature, crowned by further arresting wonders of art, to delight the eyes or to startle, no cities with lofty, many-windowed palaces, clinging like moss to rocky crags, no pictured tees and spreading ivy, growing over houses lost in the roar and eternal sprays of waterfalls; no needs to crane back and look up at the massive granite slabs, towering high, immeasurably high above; no dark arches piled one above the other, and choked with vines, ivy, and numberless millions of wild roses, through which eternal contours of radiant mountains might be glimpsed in the distance, soaring upwards into the silvery skies above. Everything within you is open, desolate, and flat; you are squat towns barely protrude above the level of your wide planes, marking them like little dots, like specs; here is nothing to entice and fascinate the onlooker’s gaze. Yet whence this unfathomable, uncanny force that draws me to you? Why do my ears ringing unceasingly with your dreary song, that carries cross your length and breath, from sea to sea? What is there in it? What is in it, in that song? What is it that so beckons, and sobs, and tugs at the heart? What sounds are these that sting as they caress, that irrupt into my soul in twine about my heart? Rus! What is it you want of me? What is the hidden, unfathomable bond that holds us fast? Why do you gaze like that, and why is it that everything in you has turned to look at me with eyes full of expectation?… And while I stand, baffled and emotionless, there suddenly falls across my head the shadow of a thundercloud, heavy with imminent rain, and my mind is benumbed in the face of your vastness. What does this immense expands portend? Is it not here, in you, that some boundless thought should be born, since you yourself are without end? Is not here that the hero of legend is to appear, where there is space for him to unfurl his limbs in stride about? Menacing is the embrace in which your mighty expanse unfolds me, terrible the force with which it strikes me to the very core, unnatural the power with which my eyes burn bright—oh! What a glittering, wondrous distance, faster than any deer is on Earth! Rus!…” —Nikolai Gogol—Dead Souls (translation by Christopher English)

As we can see Gogol talks about Russia through his character Selifan a peasant coach driver whose jobs to travel the expanse of the country. Yet he appears to not fully understand Russia. This mystery has persisted to even today. Even Gogol was fascinated with Russia but shows how mysterious a country it is.

Gogol’s ethnic heritage was Ukrainian Cossack. That’s why for some Ukrainians calling him Russian is insulting. My counter to that is while Gogol was an ethnic Ukrainian, he is primarily known for his literary skills and his written words. He wrote in Russian. So purely from a literary perspective he was Russian language writer. But it is not simple as that though. Gogol is also known for his humour, which you could say is perhaps more Ukrainian than Russian. Russians tend to be more serious while Gogol was a comic genius. Let me give you an example about the difference between Russia and Ukraine. Gogol’s comedy very distinct from other Russian writers at the time. To illustrate this let’s look at their respective presidents, a tale of two Vladimirs. I know it is a bit superficial but it fits perfectly with Gogol’s style of writing. Vladimir Putin was an intelligence officer while Vladimir Zelanisky was an actor. Him booming a president seems a story written by Gogol. Zealensky played a president role on TV, but shortly after was elected the country’s a real president. Gogol could have scripted that in one of his stories.

Today both Russia and Ukraine claim Gogol as their own. This is a good thing. It only shows that Gogol was a genius. I wish two countries were fighting over me.

But it is tricky. A lot of Irish writers like James Joyce and Samuel Becket are considered Irish writers without writing in Irish. They primarily wrote in English and French. But the counter is that they were ethnically Irish but also held Irish passport as far as I know. Gogol held a Russian passport because Ukraine wasn’t not an Independent country at the time, while Ireland was independent at the time Joyce and Becket were writing.

One of the strongest argument in favour of Ukraine is that Gogol spent his early childhood and early teenage years in Ukraine and spoke Ukrainian, so based on Freudian psychology that childhood is the most important stage of our personality, his writing was primarily influenced by his Ukrainian upbringing, his outlook, his sensibilities, his humour, his overall perspective had Ukrainian flavour. While it is hard to quantify those things, it is still important in a writer’s development. So the seed was sewn in Ukraine but started fruiting in Russia. I think without his Ukrainian heritage and without the fertile soil of Russian intellectual and literary environment, we would not have had Gogol. So just as nature and nurture play an intermingling, dynamic role in one’s upbringing, Gogol had the Ukrainian Cossack spirit but nurtured as a great writer in Russian society.

My final though is that Gogol belongs to the whole humanity. He was a genius and instead of fighting over which people he belongs to, we should focus on reading and enjoying his works and if possible learning from the man. So if you have not watched, I highly recommend you watch my extended video on Gogol’s life and his major works.