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Why did Gogol write in Russian?

July 15, 2011

Iurii Barabash justifies asking this question for as long as he answers it, as it seems provocative if you take it for granted that Gogol is a Russian writer. He has no trouble knocking down the following straw man: it would be as strange to expect Gogol to write in Ukrainian as it would be to expect Pushkin (who had African ancestry) to write in Tigrinya, Lermontov (supposedly of Scottish extraction) in Gaelic, or Pasternak and Brodskii (both Jewish) in Hebrew.

an 1864 map of Little Russia, as Ukraine was known

Gogol grew up in a place where both Russian and Ukrainian were spoken. For his Russianized family, the Ukrainian language (or in colonial terms, the Little Russian dialect) was used for talking to servants, but Russian was used outside the home, and not only in formal settings. Meanwhile in this situation neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian spoken was prescriptively “pure,” but each was invaded by elements of the other.

Opinions differ on how well he knew Ukrainian. Some Ukrainian writers, including Taras Shevchenko, said Gogol “didn’t know his own language,” but Mikhail Maksimovich, who knew him, declared that Gogol “was on firm ground in his native Little Russian dialect and knew it perfectly.” Everyone agrees that he wrote next to nothing in it.

Barabash’s reasonable view is that Gogol wrote in Russian because it was the language of prestige and widest readership in the Russian Empire. Only a few, like Shevchenko, were interested in writing in Ukrainian. In an interesting aside, Barabash calls Gogol and Shevchenko the “yin and yang” of Ukrainian culture. As I understand his point, they represent the extremes of full participation in (Great) Russian literary life and a demonstrative rejection of it in favor of Ukrainian language and literature, choices that have presented themselves to many others.

Barabash insists, however, that Gogol’s Ukrainianness (in language, culture, “national psychology”) affected the Russian of his prose, that he actually created a “new language” through the interplay of Ukrainian elements and the dominant Russian of his texts. Barabash, following Potebnia and others, goes further down the “language shapes thought” path than I would, but I certainly take his point, much as I’d like more discussion of specific passages. He uses the question of how to translate Gogol into Ukrainian to make his point concrete: everyone agrees that Gogol’s Russian is quite distinct, even unique, a quality it loses when its Ukrainian-inspired features cease to sound semi-foreign in a Ukrainian translation.

For all Gogol’s Ukrainianness, Barabash emphasizes, he’s still part of Russian literature, because you can’t have a national literature outside a national language. People who want to make him all Russian, or on the other hand part of a “Russophone branch of Ukrainian literature,” are being chauvinistic and, worse, oversimplifying a complex problem.

I’m not up on all the “how Ukrainian was Gogol” literature, but Barabash’s essay reminds me of the most interesting thing I’ve read on the topic, a 2003 article (ungated .pdf) by Roman Koropeckyj and Robert Romanchuk analyzing Gogol’s first popular work Evenings on a Farm near Dikan’ka (1831) as “Ukraine in blackface.” They see Gogol as performing Ukrainian culture for a Russian audience  just as black culture was performed for appreciative white audiences in the nineteenth-century United States: with the same “broad caricature of stereotyped behavior,” “coarseness and vulgarity,” “slapstick,” “singing and dancing,” and so on.

See Iurii Barabash, “‘Svoego iazyka ne znaet…’, ili Pochemu Gogol’ pisal po-russki?,” Voprosy literatury 1 (2011).

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