A few years ago I was interested to read in a Ukrainian tourism magazine (in English translation) about a Ukrainian writer called Mykola Hohol. I was half-way through the article before I realised it was referring to Nikolai Gogol. His name had been transliterated into English from a Ukrainian text which had Ukrainianised his name from Russian, becoming almost unrecognisable in the process. At the time, the absurdity made me laugh.
I discovered Gogol when I went to Ukraine, and through his Ukraine stories (collected in Village Evenings Near Dikanka and Mirgorod). I adore these stories; they’ve informed my love of the Ukrainian countryside and influenced my own writing. I’ve always thought of Gogol as a Ukrainian writer who wrote in Russian and lived most of his life abroad, in the same way that Nabokov is a Russian writer or James Joyce an Irish writer who wrote in English and lived abroad.
Apparently, however, it is not that simple. Russia and Ukraine, as if they haven’t already got enough to argue about, are now at loggerheads over who Gogol belongs to, with both countries claiming him for themselves as they celebrate his 200th anniversary. It’s a sign of how bad relations have become when discussion of the new film of Gogol’s novella ‘Taras Bulba’ is nothing to do with its artistic merit but all over the fact that it was made by a Russian director (I don’t think anyone has ever complained that Czech composer Janacek wrote a musical suite based around the story).
Ukraine is a little short on national heroes, and I must admit that I’ve occasionally thought of it as a place that is most famous for being abandoned by its cultural figures; Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, even national poet Taras Shevchenko left it for Russia (Shevchenko only returning in a pine box); while it’s a little remarked fact that Joseph Conrad was born and brought up in Ukraine before he ran away to sea, changed his surname and and adopted English language and citizenship.
Of course, when all these writers were leaving it, Ukraine didn’t exist as an independent country; they were leaving one part of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union for another, or altogether. Gogol in fact spent most of his adult writing life in Rome, while poor Bulgakov begged Stalin for years to let him leave the Soviet Union. Russia may like to claim them as its literary heroes, but they were apparently little enamoured of living there.
Bulgakov was born in Kiev, where he wrote (in Russian) The White Guard, an amazing evocation of Kiev and Ukraine during the revolution (it was adapted into Stalin’s favourite play, The Days of the Turbins). Later Bulgakov moved to Moscow and his most famous work, The Master and Margarita, is located firmly there. Like Gogol before him, he drew on Ukrainian folk motifs of witches and devils, as well as the earthy and absurdist humour of many Ukrainian folk tales, for The Master and Margarita. This debt should be acknowledged but some Ukrainian critics have gone further to identify Moscow settings like Sparrow Hills as thinly-disguised Kiev locations, which seems verging on the absurd. At least I’ve yet to hear anyone claim that Bulgakov is a Ukrainian writer.
All this would be an amusing literary spat were it not that bad Russia-Ukraine relations are poisoning everything in Ukraine, from gas prices to election campaigns to family dinner-table rows. Use of Russian language has long been a political stick – Russian is the mother tongue of a large proportion of the Ukrainian population, but the government refuses to make it a second state language – but it’s a pity to see it beating down the literary heritage of both countries. And it isn’t only the Ukrainians’ fault, in being somewhat over-zealous to reclaim their heroes; it is as much provoked by Russian chauvinism.
By imposing Russian (often by repressive and violent means) on the countries of the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union, Russia itself was responsible for turning Russian from a national into an international language. To now claim that anyone who wrote in Russian during a time when it was extremely difficult to do otherwise must be somehow intrinsically or ethnically Russian is absolute nonsense.
Gogol knew a great deal about Russian nonsense; he wrote about it at length. He was a great writer in Russian, full-stop. His legacy should be celebrated in Ukraine, where he was born and which he clearly loved, immortalising it in stories that are wry, affectionate and idealised; in Russia, where he lived and wrote cutting satires about society and politics, and all over the world where he is read and admired.