Today is the birthday (1809) of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (Никола́й Васи́льевич Го́голь), [O.S. 19 March], a Russian writer of Ukrainian origin. Gogol was born in the Ukrainian Cossack village of Sorochyntsi, in Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire, present-day Ukraine. His mother descended from Leonty Kosyarovsky, an officer of the Lubny Regiment in 1710. His father Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky, a descendant of Ukrainian Cossacks (see Lyzohub family) and who died when Gogol was 15 years old, belonged to the ‘petty gentry’, wrote poetry in Ukrainian and Russian, and was an amateur Ukrainian-language playwright. As was typical of the avant-garde Ukrainian gentry of the early 19th century, the family spoke Ukrainian as well as Russian. As a child, Gogol helped stage Ukrainian-language plays in his uncle’s home theater.
In 1820, Gogol went to a school of higher art in Nezhin (now Nizhyn Gogol State University) and remained there until 1828. It was there that he began writing. He was not popular among his schoolmates, who called him their “mysterious dwarf”, but with two or three of them he formed lasting friendships. He developed a dark and secretive disposition, marked by a painful self-consciousness yet with strong ambitions. He developed a talent for mimicry, which later made him a matchless reader of his own works and induced him to toy with the idea of becoming an actor.
In 1828, on leaving the university, Gogol went to Saint Petersburg, full of vague ambitious hopes. He had hoped for literary fame, and brought with him his Romantic poem of German idyllic life – Hans Küchelgarten. He had it published, at his own expense, under the name of “V. Alov.” The magazines he sent it to almost universally derided it. He bought all the copies and destroyed them, swearing never to write poetry again. Gogol met the literary elite, had a story published in Anton Delvig’s Northern Flowers, was taken up by Vasily Zhukovsky and Pyotr Pletnyov, and (in 1831) was introduced to Pushkin.
In 1831 Gogol brought out the first volume of his Ukrainian stories (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka), which met with immediate success. He followed it in 1832 with a second volume, and in 1835 by two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod, as well as by two volumes of miscellaneous prose entitled Arabesques. At this time Russian editors and critics such as Nikolai Polevoy and Nikolai Nadezhdin saw in Gogol the emergence of a Ukrainian, rather than Russian, writer, using his works to illustrate supposed differences between Russian and Ukrainian national characters. The themes and style of these early prose works by Gogol, as well as his later drama, were similar to the work of Ukrainian writers and dramatists who were his contemporaries and friends, including Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko and Vasily Narezhny. However, Gogol’s satire was much more sophisticated and unconventional.
At this time, Gogol developed a passion for Ukrainian history and tried to obtain an appointment at the history department at Kiev University. Despite the support of Pushkin and Sergey Uvarov, the Russian minister of education, his appointment was blocked by a Kyivan bureaucrat on the grounds that Gogol was unqualified.] His fictional story Taras Bulba, based on the history of Ukrainian cossacks, was the result of this phase in his interests. During this time he also developed a close and lifelong friendship with another Ukrainian, the historian and naturalist Mykhaylo Maksymovych.
In 1834 Gogol was made Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, a job for which he had no qualifications. He turned in a performance ludicrous enough to warrant satiric treatment in one of his own stories. After an introductory lecture made up of brilliant generalizations which the ‘historian’ had prudently prepared and memorized, he gave up all pretense at erudition and teaching, missed two lectures out of three, and when he did appear, muttered unintelligibly through his teeth. At the final oral examinations, he sat in utter silence with a black handkerchief wrapped around his head, simulating a toothache, while another professor examined the students. This academic venture was such a failure that he resigned his chair in 1835.
Between 1832 and 1836 Gogol worked with great energy, and though almost all his work has in one way or another its sources in these four years of contact with Pushkin, he had not yet decided that his ambitions were to be fulfilled by success in literature. During this time, the Russian critics Stepan Shevyrev and Vissarion Belinsky, contradicting earlier critics, reclassified Gogol from a Ukrainian to a Russian writer. It was only after the presentation at the Saint Petersburg State Theatre, on 19 April 1836, of his comedy The Government Inspector (Revizor) that he finally came to believe in his literary vocation. The comedy, a violent satire of Russian provincial bureaucracy, was staged thanks only to the intervention of the emperor, Nicholas I.
From 1836 to 1848 Gogol lived abroad, traveling through Germany and Switzerland. He spent the winter of 1836–37 in Paris, among Russian expatriates and Polish exiles, frequently meeting the Polish poets Adam Mickiewicz and Bohdan Zaleski. He eventually settled in Rome. For much of the 12 years from 1836 Gogol was in Italy developing an adoration for Rome. He studied art, read Italian literature and developed a passion for opera. He mingled with Russian and other visitors, and in 1838 met Count Joseph Vielhorskiy, the 23-year-old son of the official who had brought Gogol’s Government Inspector to the attention of the emperor. Vielhorsky was travelling in hopes of curing his tuberculosis. Gogol and Vielhorsky fell in love, a relationship which was soon severed as Vielhorsky died in 1839. Gogol left an account of this time in his Nights at the Villa: “if my death could restore him to health, with what readiness I would have rushed toward it!”
Pushkin’s death produced a strong impression on Gogol. His principal work during years following Pushkin’s death was the satirical epic Dead Souls. Concurrently, he worked at other tasks – recast Taras Bulba and The Portrait, completed his second comedy, Marriage (Zhenitba), wrote the fragment Rome and his most famous short story, “The Overcoat”. In 1841 the first part of Dead Souls was ready, and Gogol took it to Russia to supervise its printing. It appeared in Moscow in 1842, under the title, imposed by the censorship, of The Adventures of Chichikov. The book instantly established his reputation as one of the greatest prose writers in Russian.
After the triumph of Dead Souls, Gogol’s contemporaries came to regard him as a great satirist who lampooned the unseemly sides of Imperial Russia. They were not aware that Dead Souls was but the first part of a planned modern-day counterpart to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first part represented the Inferno; the second part would depict the gradual purification and transformation of the rogue Chichikov under the influence of virtuous publicans and governors – Purgatory.
In April 1848 Gogol returned to Russia from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and passed his last years in wandering the country. While visiting cities he stayed with friends such as Mikhail Pogodin and Sergey Aksakov. During this period, he also spent some time with his old Ukrainian friends, Maksymovych and Osyp Bodiansky. He intensified his relationship with a starets (spiritual elder), Matvey Konstantinovsky, whom he had known for several years. Konstantinovsky seems to have strengthened in Gogol the fear of perdition by insisting on the sinfulness of all his imaginative work. Extensive and severe ascetic practices undermined his health and he fell into deep depression. On the night of 24th February 1852, he famously burned some of his manuscripts, which contained most of the second part of Dead Souls.
He later claimed this was a mistake, a practical joke played on him by the Devil. Soon thereafter, he took to bed, refused all food, and died in great pain nine days later (4th March).
Gogol was mourned in the Saint Tatiana church at the Moscow University before his burial and then buried at the Danilov Monastery. His grave was marked by a large stone (Golgotha), topped by a Russian Orthodox cross. In 1931, Moscow authorities decided to demolish the monastery and had Gogol’s remains transferred to the Novodevichy Cemetery. His body was discovered lying face down, which gave rise to the story that Gogol had been buried alive. The authorities moved the Golgotha stone to the new gravesite, but removed the cross; in 1952 the Soviets replaced the stone with a bust of Gogol. The stone was later reused for the tomb of Gogol’s admirer Mikhail Bulgakov. In 2009, in connection with the bicentennial of Gogol’s birth, the bust was moved to the museum at Novodevichy Cemetery, and the original Golgotha stone was returned, along with a copy of the original Orthodox cross.
Gogol is relatively easy to celebrate with specific dishes because his writings are filled with lush descriptions of food. He was also a joyous gourmet, despite the fact that he had habitual stomach ailments. In Italy, for example, he learned how to make Italian pasta dishes, which he often prepared for his friends. Pogodin recalls how Gogol’s spirits would rise whenever he had a chance to serve macaroni:
…right at dinner he would make the macaroni, not trusting anyone else to do it. He demanded a large bowl, and with the artistry of a true gastronome began to sort through the individual pieces of macaroni; he put into the steaming bowl some butter and grated cheese and mixed them together. Opening the lid, with an especially bright smile for everyone at the table he’d exclaim: “Now fight over this, people!”
When traveling, Gogol would sometimes buy fresh milk at the coach stops, skim off the cream, and churn his own butter. One of his favorite dishes was boiled goat’s milk mixed with rum, which he jokingly called gogol-mogol. Kogel mogel, gogl-mogl, gogel-mogel, gogol-mogol (Гоголь-моголь), gogli-mogli, or gogle-mogle is an egg-based homemade dessert popular in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Caucasus. The dish consists of raw egg yolks and sugar, beaten and ground until they form a creamy texture, with no discernible grains of sugar. In modern kitchens, it is often mixed in a blender until it changes color and becomes thick. A classic single Gogl-Mogl portion is made from two egg yolks and three teaspoons of sugar beaten into a cream-like dish. Variations can be made by adding chocolate, vodka, rum, honey, vanilla, lemon juice, orange juice, raisins, whipped cream, or a number of other ingredients based on taste preferences.
Then there is kulebiaka, or four-cornered pie. Here’s an excerpt from Gogol:
And bake us a four-cornered fish pie,” he said, sucking the air through his teeth and inhaling deeply. “In one corner I want you to put the sturgeon cheeks and the gristle cooked soft, in another throw in some buckwheat, and then some mushrooms and onions, and some sweet milt, and the brains, and whatever else, you know the sort of thing. And make sure that on the one side it’s, you know, a nice golden brown, but not so much on the other side. And the pastry, make sure it’s baked through, till it just crumbles away, so that the juices soak right through, do you see, so that you don’t even feel it in your mouth, so it just melts like snow.
Kulebiaka is a pie with four distinct fillings, distributed in such a way that a slice contains all four. Making it is a rigmarole, and I have never done it. Instead I give you this website which has complete instructions with a ton of photos showing the steps.