Gimmie Gogol

Cathy Young writes in the WSJ about the tug-of-war going on between Russia and Ukraine over who can claim nationality of the famously gifted writer Nikolai Gogol:

Gogol once wrote that he could never decide whether his soul was Russian or Ukrainian. In an era when Ukrainian aspirations for nationhood were dormant, he did not see the two as contradictory; for him, Ukraine and Russia were inseparable parts of a greater whole. Unsurprisingly, many Russian politicians and pundits have seized on this theme, making the bicentennial an occasion to affirm Russian-Ukrainian unity — and snipe at Ukrainians who are less than fond of the idea. Lyubov Slizka, Russian parliament speaker and deputy chairwoman of the ruling United Russia party, has dismissed Ukraine’s attempts to claim Gogol’s legacy as “petty squabbles” that, she warns, are “dangerous to both Russian and Ukrainian citizens.” (…)

No one knows what Gogol, if were he alive today, would make of thesedebates. His work certainly carries some of the dangerous viruses thatstill infect Russian culture — above all, the belief that the Russianpeople, gifted with special spiritual depth, should reject soullessWestern liberal democracy to pursue their own mystical destiny. Yet itwould be a shame if this aspect of Gogol’s legacy overshadowed hisgenius as a writer.

Ideologies come and go. What will endure is Gogol’s art: therichness and music of his language (which, alas, cannot be fullyappreciated except in the original), as well as his capacity to createcharacters of tragic grandeur and whimsical ridiculousness, to combineterror and tenderness, humor and nightmare, the poignantly lyrical andthe grotesque — to blend reality and fantasy into a uniquelycaptivating world of his own.