Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.
In a letter written on December 20, 1833, Nikolai Gogol wrote: “There, there! To Kyiv! In ancient, in beautiful Kyiv! It is ours, not theirs, is it not?” In other words: Kyiv was Ukrainian in Gogol’s view.
The letter was written to his friend, Mykhaylo Maksymovych, a botanist, linguist, and at the time, the first Rector at St. Volodymyr Royal University in Kyiv where Gogol wanted very much to be a professor.
Gogol also wanted very much to live in Kyiv, a city he knew as a student when he first traveled there on a summer holiday from Nizhyn Gymnasium in 1827. It was in this majestic, ancient city where Gogol no doubt reinforced his Ukrainian ethnic heritage especially his interest in Cossack history.
Kyiv from the view of the Dnipro River and the Podil section. Postcard, 19th century.
Later, in 1833, he visited Kyiv again as Maksymovych’s guest in his apartment overlooking the Dnipro River. Gogol must have enjoyed the view and the long riverside walks which led him to the Podil, the oldest section of Kyiv and must have been inspirational for the young writer who was writing another book of short stories.
In fact, the Bratstvo Monastery on the Podil was the setting for one short story “Viy,” that appeared in another collection about Ukrainians called Mirgorod published 1835. This story features a trio of seminarians who all have fantastic and rather gruesome adventures, especially Khoma Brut who is trapped in a church while reading prayers for a dead woman who turns out to be a witch.
Bratsvo ( Brotherhood, also known as Theophany) Monastery, Podil, Kyiv. (Photo: I. Zabytko)
There are several film versions, the most recent came out in 2014, and was a multi-national venture which I have yet to see.
Going towards and up the road (and the Podil is hilly!) on the street called St. Andrew’s Descent, Gogol and Maksymovych were familiar guests at the home of the Polish novelist and critic Mikhaylo Grabowsky (1805-1863) who lived at Number 34. Many other famous Ukrainian writers visited this literary mecca including Panteliemon Kulish (who later wrote the first biography about Gogol after his death), and the most famous Ukrainian poet then and now: Taras Shevchenko.
34 St. Andrew’s Descent, Podil Section, Kyiv. (Photo: I. Zabytko)
The building still exists and is located across the street from St. Andrew’s Church which Gogol visited often after his mother complained to him that he hardly went to services anymore.
A few words about Mikhaylo Maksymovych (1804-1873). He was already well known in Ukraine and certainly to Gogol well before they met since Maksymovych published his first collection of Ukrainian folk songs in 1827–a book the Gogol family owned in their home in Sorochintsy. But it turned out that Gogol knew and shared even more Ukrainian folk songs which were unfamiliar to Maksymovych, so much so that Gogol was mentioned in the acknowledgements in Maksymovych’s second volume in 1834.
Mykhaylo Maksymovych, Drawing by Taras Shevchenko, 1859.
How did Gogol know so many Ukrainian songs? Probably from hearing them at his home estate in Sorochintsy, where serfs and villagers sang in the fields, and at the “evening parties” as mentioned in Dikanka. He also loved to sing, although I have yet to come across any eye-witness accounts (ear-witness accounts?) describing his voice.
However, the Russian writer Sergei Aksakov describes in his memoirs how Gogol, Maksymovych and a third Ukrainian, the Slavist and professor Osip Bodyansky sing Ukrainian songs at parties. Gogol wears a Ukrainian embroidered shirt and sharavary, those traditional balloon-legged trousers, and Aksakov goes on to say: “It was the usual khokhol [derogatory name for Ukrainains] type music—with whistles and stomps and even Bodyansky almost losing control. He started dancing and practically landed on Konstantin’s [Aksakov’s son] lap.”
Maksymovych did try to help Gogol land a professorship at St. Volodymyr’s—which was later renamed as Taras Shevchenko University (I think Gogol would have been upset over that), but it was never to be. And so, Gogol left Kyiv for St. Petersburg which he disliked, and told Maksymovych in that same letter of December 20, 1833: “I’m tired of St. Petersburg, or better, not it, but the damned climate: it will bake me…”
St. Volodymyr Royal University, Kyiv. (Postcard, 19th century).
The last time Gogol visited Kyiv was in 1848, and ironically at St. Volodymyr’s Royal University. He was invited to come as an honored guest and famous writer by the Vice-Chancellor (Maksymovych had since left his post there) to meet with the faculty and students. By then, Gogol was exhausted, having returned from his disappointing trip to the Holy Land, and still harboring the excruciating criticisms for his last published book of essays, Selected Passages from Correspondences with Friends.
Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (Formerly St. Volodymyr Royal University). (Photo: I.Zabytko)
He was also near-penniless, and frustrated in finishing his second volume of Dead Souls. Most likely, he was also going through another bout of mental breakdowns and physical illnesses, in addition to an overbearing religious mania he acquired in his later years.
Still, he accepted the invitation. It occurred on an unbearably hot day in June. He was late because he went to the University and not to the Vice-Chancellor’s home where they were all waiting for him on the lawn. When he arrived, they applauded and made speeches and then asked him if he could say something to the students—words of advice or encouragement.
Nikolai Gogol Postcard issued in the Soviet Union, 1955.
He was then asked if he would like something to drink.
He said only water which he drank quickly and then handed the empty glass to one of the professors. “I think I saw you once,” Gogol said to the perplexed man. “You were eating in a restaurant. You had onion soup.”
And without a goodbye or thank you, Gogol left and returned to his home in Sorochintsy where he collapsed from heat stroke. It could’ve been worse since a cholera epidemic was raging in Kyiv and environs at the time. His family thought he was dying of cholera when they saw him.
It seems that although Gogol loved Kyiv, Kyiv doesn’t love him, at least not as much. There is one statue of Gogol, and a bust on the façade of the Kyiv Opera House which no one really notices. Somewhere on a wall on the Podil, a Canadian artist donated a small sculpture of a nose and moustache.
At the National Museum of Literature, Gogol has a corner with a replica of his writing desk and a much too long cape—definitely not an original. He pops up here and there in other writers’ exhibits such as the one at the unusual One Street Museum where I first heard of Mikhaylo Grabowsky. Otherwise, there is no Kyivan museum dedicated to Gogol himself (although Pushkin has one, and Shevchenko–three!).
Maybe someday. As Gogol himself famously once said, “No one is a prophet in his own country…” and although Kyiv is now certainly a Ukrainian city, it still isn’t entirely Gogol’s.
Thank you to the guides at the National Museum of Literature, the One Street Museum, Sergey Bilokan, and to Kirill Stepanets for his tour in Kyiv (Kirill’s Kyiv guided tours in Ukrainian and Russian can be found on his Facebook page).
Fulbright Scholar Program: www.cies.org/
English version of the short story, “VIY”: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61v/
One Street Museum: https://onestreet.kiev.ua
National Museum of Literature of Ukraine: http://museumlit.org.ua/?page_id=4862
Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv: http://www.univ.kiev.ua/en/
Sergey Bilokan’s Website: http://www.sbilokin.name/Culture/Gogol.html
My Website: www.irenezabytko.com Join my free mailing list for weekly advice on writing literary fiction.
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NEXT AND LAST POST IN THIS SERIES: Gogol at home.
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