Above the barricades

Gogol could probably never have imagined that 200 years after his birth he would be fought over by the two peoples to which he belonged naturally and organically. He himself answered the question that is today of such political, not historical and cultural, significance: "I will say a word about what I am in my soul, Ukrainian or Russian. I myself don't know what I am in my soul. I know only that I would never give preference either to a Little Russian over a Russian, or to a Russian over a Little Russian. Both natures are too generously endowed by God and, as if on purpose, each taken separately contains what the other lacks: a clear sign that they must complete each other."

To unintelligent scholars and superficial politicians, Gogol, his life and his work present all sorts of possibilities for playing nationalistic games. Ukrainophiles can refer, for example, to the Ukrainian-Russian dictionary prefaced by the author of Mirgorod, and insist on the Russophobic nature of The Inspector General. Russophiles will gladly drag Ukrainians from the troika-Rus since "it has been fitted up in haste with only an axe and chisel by some resourceful Yaroslav peasant". And in the throes of a Great Russian self-delusion they will find any number of passages in which Gogol pounces on the provincial idiocy of Little Russians, and so conclude that Gogol loathed all things Ukrainian.

One can find all sorts of things in Gogol's texts, but all these various possibilities do not at all reveal the slyness of the author, rather they reflect the slyness of life today. First and foremost a refusal to understand what in fact happened over the course of these 200 years over those vast geographical expanses which Gogol called Rus. Rus which chose for itself Great Russia, and Little Russia, and Belorussia, and the Volga (inhabited by dozens of peoples), and the Caucasus, and Central Asia, and the Baltics, and the Great Polish Kingdom, and Finland. For Gogol, Rus is the Russian Empire whose subjects are divided according to estate and faith, while their national differences are a subject of enquiry for ethnographers. The Empire transcended nationality. The churchgoing Orthodox writer saw in this model of government the earthly incarnation of Christian universalism - and since it was a real kingdom, it was, like everything real, everything earthly, imperfect and sinful.
It was primarily in this sense that Gogol was a Russian writer, for the concept "Russian" embraced the variety of ethnicities and cultures that existed in the Russian Empire. That is why his hero, Taras Bulba, the Zaporozhian Cossack, sacrifices his life for Holy Rus and the Orthodox faith that protects all its sons and daughters.

The Rus about which Gogol wrote has scattered to the winds, and every piece of it, no matter how great, cannot pass itself off as the vanished whole. The Empire, as the result of a 20th century tragedy, disintegrated into national states. And the modern Russian Federation, which includes more than 160 peoples, has become, for the first time in a century, a state in which almost 80% of the population consists of ethnic Russians.

It is understandable that every new state wants to overcome its inevitable incompleteness, to acquire wholeness. It is understandable that a new state needs to restore or to recreate its history, going back millennia ideally, to create its own Pantheon of gods and heroes, its myths and legends, to prove the uniqueness of its culture. To affirm it greatness, after all. But the past, no matter how great, must never become a millstone making any movement forward impossible...

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