In a famous passage from his novel "Dead Souls", Gogol compared Russia with a troika (a traditional three-horse carriage) soaring forward:"Where art thou soaring away to, Russia? Give me the answer!"
At a meeting of the Stalin Prize Committee in February 1952, Stalin laid down the law to satirists: "We need Gogols," he said. "We need Shchedrins." Six months later, in his report to the 19th Party Congress, a Very Big Boss by the name of Malenkov repeated Stalin's words: "We need Soviet Gogols and Shchedrins." Here, Soviet meant "do not attack anything serious."
And before long, though not before Stalin's death a year later, this epigram began making the rounds of the writing fraternity: "We are for laughter! But we need kinder Shchedrins and the sorts of Gogols who won't get us into trouble." But both Stalin and his critics had lumped Shchedrin and Gogol together because of a misunderstanding. The bilious Shchedrin loathed serfdom and advocated a Western way of development for Russia, while the romantic Gogol, an ardent devotee of the monarchy and the church, considered the Russian spirit superior to the rationalism-soiled West. Gogol was of the simple- hearted conviction that by chastising bribe-taking and boorishness, he was helping the powers that be and the people move toward a dazzling future.
When supporters of the status quo alleged that the "The Inspector General"-a delightful grotesque deploying an array of corrupt provincials- of slandering Russia, while the opposition extolled it as the bitter truth, Gogol was shocked. He even tried to prove he was portraying not people in his comedy, but his own vices, that the Russian state system did not need any major tinkering, it was only that all citizens, from bureaucrats to private individuals, must do their duty conscientiously. However, "Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends," in which he propagated this view, brought him abuse and ridicule. This failure combined with the exacerbation of his own mystical sentiments ended by bringing about his early death.
Are Gogolesque traditions alive today?
A few years ago the St. Petersburg Writers' Union, together with the city government, established the Gogol Literary Prize. Gogol had inspired not one, but several traditions. Consequently, the prize was divided into three nominations, each given the name of a major work by Gogol. The Greatcoat Prize is awarded to works that sympathize with the fate of ordinary people; the Taras Bulba Prize goes to works on a "heroic" theme; and the Nose Prize to phantasmagorias. The first prize was awarded to me for my novel Chuma (The Plague), a work about the appalling state of affairs in the war on drug addiction; the second prize went to retired officer Nikolai Prokudin for his courageous prose about the war in Afghanistan; and the third to Sergei Arno for a social grotesque.
Each of those books, even in the era of perestroika, would have been published with enormous difficulty-and once out would have been a sensation. Today they are all freely published and generated excitement among lovers of literature, as opposed to the broad or politicized public. Today the Russian government controls only the most popular television channels, allowing writers to amuse themselves in their sandbox as they see fit. I can also assert that in all my years of editing even the most sensitive publication has not elicited the slightest reaction from the government, which offends writers far more than the former persecutions.
Alexander Melikhov is a Gogol Literary Prize-winning prose writer.
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