September 27, 2019

Go, Go to Ukraine to Find Gogol

Go, Go to Ukraine to Find Gogol
Women in traditional Ukrainian clothes walk past souvenir versions of Cossack weapons on the outskirts of Sorochinsky Fair Katrina Keegan

Packed into a standing-room only marshrutka (mini-bus) on the half-hour trip from Mirgorod to the Sorochinsky Fair, it is understandable that one’s eyes might glaze over in the summer heat of the Ukrainian heartland, imagining an endless, rippling Ukrainian flag instead of fields of wheat and sunflowers beneath the cloudless sky. 

It’s nearly the same scene Nikolai Gogol’s characters saw while traveling to the Sorochinsky Fair in August some 200 years ago. 

“How exhaustingly hot are those hours, when noon shines in silence, and the sweltering and blue immeasurable ocean, a sensual dome bent over the land, seems to have fallen asleep [...] stately sunflowers [...] golden sheaves of wheat are distributed through the field and roam through its endlessness.” 

– Nikolai Gogol, “Sorochinsky Fair” 


Wheat field in Ukraine
The view from the marshrutka has presumably changed very little
from the view that might have been from an eighteenth century wagon. / Katrina Keegan

Gogol is usually considered a Russian writer. He wrote in Russian and is best known for his Petersburg stories (“The Nose,” “The Overcoat,” “Nevsky Prospect,”) and his novel Dead Souls, all of which are deeply Russian. Yet, Gogol was born in Ukraine, the setting for his Mirgorod stories and others, such as “Sorochinsky Fair,” which are drizzled with Ukrainianisms. Many Russianists may forget this, but Ukraine does not.

Today, Sorochinsky Fair is the largest annual festival in Ukraine. It takes about an hour to walk from the entrance, marked by smiling hay bales – past shiny farming machinery, tempted by Georgian khachapuri and Hong Kong bubble waffles, through stalls bursting with fur coats – to reach the other end, marked by piles of bras for sale and a lone windmill. 

The plastic keeps bees to a minimum, at least around here; they are welcome to help produce the mead sold all over the fair. / Katrina Keegan

Of course, some parts of the fair are reminiscent of Gogol’s era: piles of pottery, baskets, watermelons, and sugary bubliki (crunchy bagels, sort of). And you might catch a glimpse of a Gogol impersonator happy to charge for photos, or you can buy a tree stump topped with a carved bust of the writer.

Gogol Statue
A homemade memorial for
all rustic literature lovers. / Katrina Keegan

The fair takes place in August, but Gogol is a year-round Ukrainian phenomenon. For example, you can find traditional Ukrainian dishes in the central Kyiv restaurant, Taras Bulba, named for the title character of Gogol’s tragic novella – a fearless, free-spirited, feast-and-fight-loving father who epitomizes Cossackdom, which defended the southeastern borderlands of the Russian Empire. 

Taras Bulba restaurant in Kyiv
The street may be named after Pushkin, but the building is all Gogol. / Katrina Keegan

But true Gogolphiles will want to make a pilgrimage to Mirgorod (Myrhorod, in the modern Ukrainian spelling). It is located in Poltava Oblast, two hours outside of Kyiv on the route to Kharkiv.

If you look closely, Mirgorod is steeped in Gogol. A local Mirgorod cake shop features illustrated Gogol quotes all over the walls, such as praise of the town’s ponds from the story “How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich.” The plot, in which two well-liked gentleman get into a spat and the rest of the town unites to help them make up, feels like it could still happen in Mirgorod today. The unity of the town is clear from traditions like the New Year’s Eve pilgrimage to the tree on the main square, spontaneous all-ages dancing in a large local restaurant, and midsummer visits to the main sanatorium, which is bursting with statues of Gogol’s characters. 

Gogol statue in Myrhorod
The cat in of this statue is much friendlier than the one that was a death omen in “Old World Farmers” – you have to go to the outskirts of town to find the ones that glare at you from their courtyard domains. / Katrina Keegan

The whimsical statues of Gogolian characters are a far cry from the sarcastic bureaucratic noses of St. Petersburg. There is a folkloric lilt to the Ukrainian Gogol that seems very different from the Russian Gogol’s satirical edge. While the Mirgorod stories, like the better-known Petersburg stories, blend everyday life with the unreal, there is a difference. The unreal in the capital of the Russian Empire is intentionally absurd, while the unreal encountered on the Ukrainian frontier doesn't seem unreal at all. The witch-zombie of “Viy” and the incestuous wizard of “Frightening Revenge” are written as factual fears (don’t read them alone at night). 

Russian modernist writers, starting with Dmitriy Merezhkovsky in his essay “Gogol and the Devil,” were inspired by Gogol’s concept of ordinary evil, the devil in the details that permeates his Russian writing. Yet the evil in his Ukrainian work is much grander, from wicked stepmothers conniving against love to a father watching his child be tortured. Where there is unequivocal evil, however, there must be a counterbalancing good. In Gogol’s Ukrainian work, realistic people react with fear and bravery in the face of evil. 

If Gogol’s Russian stories show ordinary evil, his Ukrainian stories show the ordinary good. And it is this Gogolesque ordinary good that makes a visit to Ukraine’s heartland worthwhile for anyone. But for a Russianist Gogolphile, such a trip might just reveal a new side of the author’s heart. 

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