Gogol, Nikolay Vasilyevich (Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Gogol, Nikolay Vasilyevich (Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol)

Gogol, Nikolay Vasilyevich (Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol) (1809-1852) Ukrainian dramatist, essayist, and fiction writer

A sharp and perceptive satirist, Nikolay Gogol used his writing to effectively level charges of imperial pomposity at the Russian Empire. Born in Ukraine, he aimed his sights beyond the confines of his native Cossack village of Sorochyntsi, north of the Crimea, and began his writing career in a boarding school at Nezhin on the Oster River. He read Homer in Greek and submitted his own poems to the school magazine, Parnassian Dung. At age 19, he left school and journeyed to St. Petersburg, where he began to attempt a literary career. Six years later, he revealed his poor education when he failed as a lecturer on medieval history at St. Petersburg University.

Gogol presented concepts of empire more forcibly and eloquently on paper than from the lectern. In his essay “On the Teaching of World History,” published in the two-volume Arabesques (1835), he admired imperial power: “The first ruler of the world, Cyrus, with his fresh and powerful nation, the Persians, subdued and forcibly united nations of differing characteristics” (Gogol 1982, 46-47). He was less impressed with the methods of the Romans and Huns. His treatise accuses Julius Caesar of “[trampling] Britain underfoot” and charges Attila with unleashing “ominous retribution,” like a predator lying in wait for prey. Into the breach left by the Huns' foray into the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity provided a hold on citizens' minds that was beyond the ken of emperors.

Gogol developed his ideas on the Mongol hordes in “A History of Little Russia” and “On the Movement of Nations at the End of the Fifth Century” (both published in Arabesques) as the unforeseen salvation of his homeland from Lithuanian conquerors. The rescue began with the Tatars' scorched-earth policy: “Ancient Kiev razed to the ground; desolation and wasteland—that's how this wretched country looked! Frightened peoples fled either to Poland or Lithuania” (100). In his opinion, so great a challenge to survival resurrected a life force from squabbling Russians and “[shaped] an audacious, passionate nation of character” (101). To the south, the rise of the Slavonic Cossacks performed a similar service to Russia by using the cavalry to halt the spread of Islam into Europe.

Russian Nationalism

Like VIRGIL with the Roman Empire, Japanese poet KAKINOMOTO NO HITOMARO with the Nara empire, and RUDYARD KIPLING with the British Raj, Gogol exhibited a chauvinistic nationalism regarding Russia and anticipated the Russification of rural tribes through cyclical reform and solidarity. In two volumes of macabre short fiction and two of prose in arabesques, he developed his interest in empires as subjects for art, including admiration for Attila the Hun's magnetic leadership of a cavalry force in “A View of the Formation of Little Russia” (1835) and examination of early ninth-century Greek warfare with Arabs in the essay “Al-Mamun” (1835). The latter, set in a turbulent period of Khurasan history (present- day Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) during the rule of al-Mamun, the caliph of Baghdad, ponders the clash of ideas from markedly unlike civilizations on issues of social order. Gogol lauded the strengths of Harun al-Rashid, al-Mamun's father, a unifier whom the essay declares “a philosopher-monarch, a philosopher-politician, a warrior-monarch and monarch litterateur” (Gogol 1982, 135). The characterization anticipates later accolades to the hypothetical “renaissance man,” the master of skills.

Gogol focused closer to his birthplace in a scathing three-act comedy, The Government Inspector (1836), a stage play similar in theme to GEORGE ORWELL’S classic anti-imperial essay set in Burma, “Shooting an Elephant” (1936). Gogol’s premise, the unsuitability of the foppish clerk Khlestakov for high office, outraged conservative Russians but won the approval of Czar Nicholas I, who ordered an end to the play’s suppression. Playgoers laughed at a case of mistaken identity that has a frontier mayor and his underlings kowtowing to the wrong man and offering bribes, a testimony to frontier corruption among civil servants far from the emperor’s control. In explanation of the incognito visit, Judge Lyapkin-Tyapkin declares, “That’s it. Holy Russia is going to war, and the ministers have sent this Official to find out if there is any treason here” (Gogol 1931, 8). The intelligentsia overreacted so lethally to the SATIRE that Gogol went abroad, journeying to Germany, Switzerland, and Paris before finally settling in Rome in a self-imposed exile that lasted 12 years.

Humanism and Suppression

Censors limited Gogol’s access to the Russian press to publish a picaresque novel, Dead Souls (1842). A masterwork of social criticism, the narrative describes a buying spree by the intriguer Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, who purchases 400 deceased serfs, still registered on the roll books of local landowners, to enhance his social status. State editors ameliorated the title by publishing the novel as The Adventures of Chichikov; or, Dead Souls, but they failed to soften the impact of Gogol’s merciless censure of slavery. He characterized owners and traders of human chattels as monsters hiding behind the sanctity of Russian Orthodoxy, an elitist hierarchy that avoided questions of human rights for serfs. Of the privilege of serf owners, Gogol makes a stunning jab at proportional “hauteur and noblesse”: “We have men so wise and adroit that they will speak to a landowner possessing but two hundred serf-souls in a way altogether different from that in which they will to one who possesses three hundred of them” (Gogol 1996, 44, 43). To achieve absurdism, the author carries the variations in courtesy to citing possession of one million serfs, a token of his outrage at the flesh market.

In 1842, Gogol completed a pictorial folk story, Taras Bulba, a short historical novel based on the brotherhood of Cossack hordes who raided and fought Poles and Jews in the 15th and 16th centuries. The theme of chivalric pride and divine mission along the Don and Volga rivers exemplifies Russian resistance to Poles, Tartars, and Turks. The soldier’s sacrifice dominates the thunderous narrative with evidence of voluntary Cossack suffering for the common good: “All had laid down their heads, all were lost. Some had given their lives in honourable battle, others, bereft of bread and water, had perished amidst the Crimean salt marshes, whilst a few had fallen into shameful bondage” (Gogol 1907, 237). A grotesque story of war and retribution that costs the title character his sons and his own death tied to a tree and set aflame, the plot served as a film vehicle for the actor Yul Brynner in 1962. Confused in his last days, in late February 1852, Gogol burned unpublished writings that might have contributed to his commentary on imperialism.


Figes, Orlando. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. London: Macmillan, 2003.

Gogol, Nikolay. Arabesques. Translated by Alexander Tulloch. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1982.

----- . Dead Souls. Translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

------- . The Inspector General. Translated by John

Anderson. New York: Samuel French, 1931.

------- . Taras Bulba: A Story of the Dnieper Cossacks.

Translated by Beatrice C. Baskerville. London: Walter Scott, 1907.