Posts Tagged 'Gogol'

Forty days

I wrote this in July last year. Inbetween trips to Crimea and Donbas, I spent a week in this central Ukrainian village, watching the sun set and the moon rise, and pretending nothing else was happening.

Baba Lena died in December – peacefully, everyone says, on her bunk by the stove in the little white-painted khata, like a scene from Gogol’s Evenings near Dikanka, and a village beekeeper’s stories of a Ukraine that never was.   

Baba Lena, 95, who lived through four years of German occupation, gives her verdict on the conflict in East Ukraine’s Donbas: “That isn’t war, its hooliganism.” 

Mercenary, state-sponsored hooliganism, in which civilians are dying. 

Baba Lena’s village in Poltava region, like most villages in Ukraine, looks too remote, sleepy and idyllic (in a falling-down, rubbish-strewn sort of way) to have ever been near a war. These are the villages from Nikolai Gogol’s Dikanka tales, where little white houses nestle like sleeping doves under the hillside, hollyhocks and sunflowers tower over sagging wooden gates and kudriavy panichi – crooked gentlemen, or Morning Glories – twine up the frilly iron-capped gate posts. 

Gogol saw these places in better days of course, before the collective farms took over, the shy maidens got emancipated and the dashing black-eyed young Cossacks put on Red Army uniform, or had to leave for Donbas and Siberia. Before the collective farms collapsed and everyone left, except for grandmothers like Baba Lena. 

Appearances are so deceptive. Just a few kilometers beyond the village is a monument to a division of Soviet border guards, slaughtered here as they retreated east before the advancing German army in 1941. Their captain survived, joined the partisans and fought all the way back west again through Zhytomir and Vinnitsa and further.  He was made a general, lived after the war in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kyiv – and ended up being related to Baba Lena, when her son married his daughter. 

Baba Lena has never left this village in all her life. She doesn’t have too bad memories of the German occupation –or maybe she does, but she doesn’t talk about them. It was four years of some kind of stability, and like many people in east Ukraine now who have ended up participating in deadly state-sponsored hooliganism in the name of wanting a quiet life, she treasures stability above just about everything.

I suppose there were no Jews or gypsies in this village. The villagers had to work for the Germans during the day; in the evenings they could tend their own smallholdings. By 1945, families (women and children, mostly; the men were away fighting) had cows, pigs, chickens, or money from selling them. Four years is a long time. Maybe the German soldiers fell in love with local girls; thought about settling down. I don’t know about that. 

Then war swept through again, from east to west this time. The Soviets came back, and the collective farm took away all the livestock and money. Baba Lena has a medal from the Soviet Union though, for ‘valiant and selfless service’ during the war, awarded in 1946. That’s what she showed me, when I asked about her war years. 

Over eight hundred Red Army soldiers who died in this area between 1941 and 1945 are buried in a collective grave by the village school. The memorial stone has only eight names on it – I guess no one ever identified the rest. There is no monument to any civilians who died, though recently someone put up a new cross on the hill, to those ‘warriors who gave their lives for the peaceful present’. Even more recently – after the present got a good deal less peaceful – someone put up next to it the Ukrainian flag.  

You’d think World War Two – the Soviet ‘Great Patrotic War’ – was the only thing of note that ever happened here. But up on the grassy, windswept hill is the site of a much older castle or fortress, I don’t know exactly what since the Soviet-era notice helpfully says ‘architectural monument’ without further details. 

Also on the hill was the grand panichy dom, the house where a rich Polish family lived until the revolution, with their own bakery and church. The local grandmothers still talk about that, and the scandal when the Polish gentleman married a woman from the village. There’s nothing at all left of the grand house, but the cottage he built for his village wife is still standing, pretty and white and blue-shuttered, like a khata out of a Gogol tale where a black-eyed Cossack woos a shy young beauty under the lovely Ukrainian moon. 

Ukraine often makes me think of that supposedly ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. Baba Lena might seem to have led the least interesting life imaginable, here in this falling down village. Nearly everyone she talks about these days is dead – in wars and epidemics, in some kind of stupid, horrible village accident, or just of old age and disappointment. 

The collective farm is in ruins, and Baba Lena’s own plot is a weed-smothered expanse of potatoes and carrots and rotting melons that her grandchildren (who grew up in Kyiv, descendants of that Soviet general) inexpertly sowed but haven’t found time to come back and harvest. Ukrainians in cities still rely on their grandmothers in the villages to supply potatoes and carrots; their safety net when the gas is cut off, when the economy collapses yet again.  

This black, crumbly Ukrainian earth is as close to sacred as Baba Lena gets. Everyone died, everyone left, but worst of all, they let the land be overtaken by buryan – a wilderness of  weeds. 

Flowers blue and yellow, birds and small bright-eyed creatures flourish in the weeds and wilderness. The river shelters turtles and floats many-petalled water lilies; beneath a fine skein of mist its still, rose-flushed surface is illusorily brighter than the twilight sky. A crescent moon is setting over fields to the west, golden as a promise… It’s illusory too that interesting times feel a long way off, happening in another country, to someone else.


Two sons of Donetsk

The shabby, creaking, rattling night train from Kyiv to Slavyansk is full of Ukrainian soldiers on leave, getting drunk. They roam the carriages until three a.m, maudlin and aggressive and teary-eyed and tired.

One of them is on his way home to Donetsk. He’s been with the Ukrainian special forces for two years, and based in East Ukraine for the last few months with the army, fighting militants from the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic – the DNR. Now he’s on his way home to his family.

“My family is the only reason I’m fighting,” says Andriy – let’s call him that.

His family lives in Donetsk, which flies the DNR flag. Donetsk is full of his enemies: men he’s been fighting during the last few months. Men he grew up with. From Slavyansk he will get on a crowded, rattling bus and pass the checkpoints on the road to Donetsk, first the Ukrainian and then the DNR checkpoints although it is not always clear which is which when everyone speaks the same language and grew up in the same towns; pass them hopefully anonymously, because as a Ukrainian soldier going home to DNR-held Donetsk, he is a traitor to both sides.

“It’ll be ok,” he says slurrily. “They all know me; I have relatives everywhere.”

Next day in Donetsk, a militant from the DNR’s Vostok Battalion tells me he is local. Ostap – let’s call him that – thinks I am wondering if he is a Russian mercenary, because he adds: “I’m not just from Donetsk, I served for 20 years in the Ukrainian army.”

Ostap says he’s fighting against that army now because “the Ukrainian army is a crock of shit,” – and he and his fellow militants guffaw. Unlike Andriy, unarmed, out of uniform, and travelling in the cheapest platzkart railway carriage, Ostap is driving a shiny jeep full of weapons; along with the rifles he and all the others carry there’s a grenade, a knife and a pistol stuffed in the pocket of the door next to me.

Ostap says he knows personally some of the people he is fighting against. “Lots of them want to kill me, they say they want my head.” There is a pause. “But I’ve still got my head.”

Later he says, “It wasn’t an easy decision.” He was loyal to the Ukrainian army til February this year, when he was on Maidan and saw special forces officers get shot in the head. After that, when his commander said “Let’s go and kill the separatists in East Ukraine,” he said, “fuck you”, deserted, and joined the rebels.

His family is in Donetsk, his mother and wife and children. “If my dad knew what I was doing he’d kill me. Like Taras Bulba – you know that story?”

I do; it’s a famous Gogol story about the 18th century Cossack-Polish wars, and about a man with two sons.

Taras Bulba the Ukrainian Cossack took his two sons to war, and lost them both. He killed his traitor son Andriy, who fell in love with a Polish girl caught in a Cossack siege. When the siege was lost, Taras watched his loyal son Ostap be tortured and killed by the victorious Poles.

I wonder which son this militant I’ve called Ostap really identifies with. I wonder if the soldier on the train, the one I’ve called Andriy, knows this story. Andriy wouldn’t say what his father thinks about what his son is doing; whether his father would kill him, or would watch him die.

I tell Ostap the militant about Andriy the soldier coming home to Donetsk. “Oh, we know about them, there are lots of them,” says Ostap. “We hate them.”

It has gone very quiet in the jeep. Not far away, explosions boom. “Civil war,” says Andriy or Ostap. “This is civil war. And it is hell.”

Taras Bulba, 2014

Taras Bulba, 2014 style

Taking it for granted

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in the UK, and I am frequently taken by surprise by affairs in my native land that everyone else takes for granted. For example, voting. It turns out (of course I should have known this) that all you need to vote in Britain is a name registered at an address. It doesn’t need to be your name and address, because no one will check it.

I’ve clearly lived too long in countries that do not take democracy for granted, because this fact absolutely amazes me.

In Ukraine and Russia, you have to take your passport to the polling station to be allowed to vote. These countries of course have a venerable history of mass election fraud. It was Ukrainian/Russian writer Nikolai Gogol who coined the phrase ‘Dead Souls’: in his eponymous book, these are serfs who still exist on registers despite having died, and which the main character ‘collects’ in order to create an entirely fake existence as a wealthy serf-owner.

‘Dead souls’ is now a common phrase in Russian. Dead souls are deceased citizens still on election registers who manage to vote, or living people whose votes are cast by someone else, or even non-existent people invented in order to create an entirely fictional electoral majority. It’s claimed that in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections, there were up to three million false or dead soul votes.

Sixty-one percent of registered voters used their ballots in the last UK general election. That means there were just over seventeen million potential dead souls. Anyone inspired by, for example, the post-Soviet idea of democracy, would not have had to invent people, or bring them back from the dead, to get a majority. They would just have had to take advantage of the apathy of seventeen million people.

I had to leave the UK and live abroad to come to appreciate Britain’s tradition of democracy and civil liberties. Sure, there are many things wrong (as there are many things wrong with the way we use that word ‘democracy’). But the fact that we are still so confident of our basic honesty and our right to be heard or to keep silent that we will take our ballot papers on trust is at once wonderful – and strangely depressing.

In Ukraine, even with the passport system, no one can assume that their vote is not going to be cast by someone else. In Britain, we just can’t quite be bothered to either use the voting system as it is meant to be used, or even to exploit its potential for abuse.

Telling the winter away

It’s Russian Orthodox Christmas, and Russian Orthodox winter weather. I love weather this cold. It’s so perfectly clean and sharp and uncompromising. It’s too cold for the snow to melt into slush, only to harden into slick grey rivers of ice. When the sun sets the snowy fields seem to glow pink from the inside. The moon turns them absolute, pure blue.

It’s weather as it should be, as it is on the Christmas cards, in the fairy tales. When there is a warm house to come home to, hot crumpets and ginger tea; when father Frost, cracking his long fingers, wraps abandoned Marfa in furs and sends her home to her wicked stepmother with gifts of silver and gold – then it is more than bearable.

This is what Orthodox Christmas is like now in a tiny Ukrainian village, in temperatures lower than this, in a house pretty much identical to one built a hundred years ago, to a house in a Russian fairytale:

No sign of kolyadki (carols) or Christmas. The only people on the street are waiting for the bus, which trundles through all lit up and steamy-windowed and crammed with passengers in fat padded coats, like a little travelling fragment of civilization that all too soon passes on and leaves behind the introverted houses and empty ice-blown street and silent woods under their weight of snow. A wicked wind blowing, loaded with snow as fine as smoke, and yet there are drifts already piled knee-deep in corners. The cottages are curled in on themselves, doors and windows firmly closed, and I suppose inside them everyone is curled up on their Russian stoves like bears hibernating, waiting out the winter.

Baba Lena falls asleep at 6pm, so she can get up at an unmentionable pitch-black 3am to chop the pumpkin for the goats and feed the chickens who live in the hallway for the winter, fat and roosting in the darkness. She dreamed of piglets three days before we arrived, and guessed from it that she would be getting visitors. A frivolous dream for such a hard place as this. So we are the three little pigs.

The day slips past with excruciating slowness. The light outside the frost-patterned window turns briefly blue. Then night comes and with it the feeling that it’s time for bed – but it’s only five o’ clock. Reading even the best book palls. There’s nothing on the two channels the ancient TV picks up except glossy adverts for things so irrelevant to the village as to be incomprehensible – flights to distant countries, mobile phones, sanitary towels for immaculate young women in airports, bars, sparkling gyms. There is nothing to tidy, nothing to cook. The pack of cards contains only thirty-two cards. There are coloured chalks but no paper. You think of knitting socks, playing at riddles, of knotting rag rugs or stitching the embroidered linen sheets and towels that will one fine day be your dowry.

Outside, up and over the hill the winter and the woods stretch forever, inscribed with the paws of fox and hare, the dainty slots of deer, wide-spaced hoofs of elk, a crowd of cloven prints from galloping wild pigs.

Baba Lena tells us the story of the maddened elk that chased a hunter right into the village street before expiring on the doorstep of the korchma (pub). We are sitting on the stove top, luxuriating like Ilya Muromets in glorious soporific warmth, and this is how to get through the awful hardship of winter, this is what the winter is for: telling tales of devils and witches and wild beasts, bold black-browed girls and brave Cossacks, the unspeakable exploits of the neighbours and the village headman who once upon a time met Catherine the Great on her way to Crimea…

That famous English writer Mykola Hohol

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.

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

%d bloggers like this: