Friday, January 25, 2019

Mirgorod: Four Tales by Nicolai Gogol

Source of book: I own this.

My wife found this for me in a used library edition. I confess I haven’t to my knowledge read any Gogol before, so I was eager to fill in the gap. Gogol was a Russian author of Ukrainian heritage who lived in the early 1800s. He generally fits the gap in between the grandfather of Russian literature, Pushkin, and the later masters such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Generally regarded as influential, he wrote in a mostly realistic style at first, before becoming increasingly fantastic and romantic as time went on. 

Gogol as a young man.

Mirgorod is a collection of four stories, one of which, Taras Bulba, is actually a novela. The other three are shorter, although not quite as short as a typical short story. As I often do with collections, I will discuss each individually.

“Old-World Landowners”

This is the shortest of the stories, and, although it is certainly long enough to qualify as a short story, it has the feeling of a vignette, or a character study. It is a snapshot of an old Ukrainian farming couple, and their last days. It was written early in Gogol’s life, and is believed to be based on Gogol’s grandparents. Not much happens. The couple live, grow old, and die. They are thoroughly ordinary, and don’t do much. However, her death starts off a kind of bizarre apotheosis. She, in seeming good health, announces she is going to die soon, takes to her bed, and dies in pain. In what is a striking parallel, Gogol himself would die in similar circumstances 20 years later. After she dies, her husband attempts suicide and generally is miserable until death comes for him. I can’t decide if this story is suppose to be more humorous or tragic. It is realistic, if a bit macabre, and certainly isn’t as grotesque or exaggerated as his later works.

Taras Bulba

Taras Bulba is a historical novella, based in significant part on a number of historical figures in Cossack history. The Cossacks were, before the Russian Empire, a fairly democratic militaristic group of affiliated tribes. They were organized around raids and military glory, and adopted the Russian Orthodox faith. Because of their culture, they were used later by the Russians as soldiers and “law enforcement” in the sense of the secret police. (Which, by the way, predated the KGB and its predecessors by centuries. Soviet Communism wasn’t so much of a change from Tsarist Monarchy as one might think.)

Taras Bulba the character is based loosely on several historical persons. Their individual stories are combined to give a full narrative arc. During Gogol’s lifetime, Taras Bulba was apparently rather popular, and believed to give a true picture of Russian character. To our 21st Century eyes, that doesn’t look very flattering, perhaps, but times have changed.

Taras Bulba is a Cossack leader, with great experience in battle, and respected by his comrades. He has two sons, Ostap, the extroverted natural leader, and Andriy, the introverted dreamer. They come back from the university, then set off with their father to join the quest for military glory.

This is where things start getting very unpleasant. Gogol was pretty viciously anti-Semitic, and this novela is particularly so. Basically, the soldiers decide they need something to do, so they go round up the Jewish merchants and drown them in the river. And Gogol seems to think this was perfectly normal and acceptable. Taras Bulba saves one, however, which is important because he later calls in a favor.

Not content to kill the Jews, Bulba riles up the Cossacks to go attack the Poles, breaking the peace treaty, and going against the advice of the current leader, who Bulba deposes. They head for Dubno Castle, to fight the Poles, who, as Catholics, are the sworn enemy of the Orthodox. After basically doing the whole “rape, plunder, and a massacre” thing along the way, they settle into a siege of Dubno Castle. Andriy by chance comes across the servant of the Pole girl he loves, and he essentially defects. A battle happens, and Ostap is captured, and Bulba is rendered unconscious. He comes to in time to bribe the Jews (see above) to let him see Ostap one more time before he is tortured and executed. After that, Bulba goes on one last campaign, wherein he ruthlessly slaughters every Pole he meets, including children, until the final disaster in which nearly everyone dies. 

 Dubno Castle.

I really wanted to like this one, but I found it pretty loathsome. It’s like every 16th Century idea of toxic masculinity, racism, tribalism, and misogyny was glorified as “true manhood” and “true national character. Ugh. Not only that, but the few times women made it in, they were there as the weak mother not willing to let her babies die for glory, or the wicked seductive woman wooing the man away from his true calling as a soldier. I just didn’t find it compelling at all. As I said, times have changed.


This was my favorite of the book. “Viy” is very much in the vein of the Russian fairy tale, a dark, supernatural, and malevolent tale. Gogol claims in the introduction to the story that it is just a re-telling of an older tale, but scholars haven’t been able to find the original. Most likely, Gogol invented it himself. It is, however, enough like genuine folk tales to pass for genuine.

This group of college students (“seminarians” in this case, with a really fun description of the whole schoolboy system in the tale) is on holiday, and set out across the countryside to their homes. They have to find shelter along the way, and that means begging a room for the night from whomever they find along the way. A trio is forced to shelter at this ominous farmhouse run by an old lady who is rather obviously a witch. The one character finds himself pursued after dark, and ends up on a fantastic journey at the end of which he ends up beating the witch. And then, back in real live, he is called upon by name to watch vigil for a beautiful young girl who is dying. Who is, as it turns out, the witch. And, well, things happen.

It’s just a short story, but it packs a lot into it. Thoroughly gothic and atmospheric, I really found it enjoyable.

“The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”

If you read Gogol in school, this is probably the one you read. This classic tale reads just a bit like Tolstoy’s moralistic short stories, although the characters are a bit more complex. The two Ivans of the title have long been friends, even though they are very different. Ivanovich is extroverted, genteel, and excruciatingly correct. Nikoforovich is quiet, profane, and a bit boorish. But the two of them are fast friends.

Until. Well, until a stupid quarrel over a gun, and an unfortunate use of a word for poultry, and suddenly the two won’t speak to each other, and lawsuits are filed, and...well, everything goes to hell.

By the end of the tale, a couple decades (literally) have passed, half the other characters are dead, and the two decrepit old men are still waiting for a ruling from the court. It is, shall we say, one of the stupidest quarrels ever, and it goes beyond just them to cause trauma throughout Mirgorod. (This is both an actual city in the Ukraine, and also the title of the story cycle. Ironically, “Mirgorod” means “City of Peace.”) The narrator concludes with the rather pessimistic “It’s a tedious world, gentlemen.”

This is an excellent story, as timeless as Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It gets right down to our most base instincts, and shines an uncomfortable light on the stupidity of human egos.


That’s the summary of the four stories. Here are a few lines which I wrote down.

From “Old World Landowners:

The old man is described as “He was not one of those old men who bore you with their everlasting praises of the good old days and denunciations of the new.” Not a bad description of the sort of older person who actually connects across generations.

From the same story, I also loved this one:

Some conqueror rallies all his countries forces, wages war for several years, his generals cover themselves with glory, and it all ends with the acquisition of a patch of land on which there is barely room to plant potatoes; while sometimes two sausage-makers have a fight over some trifle and in the end their quarrel spreads over cities, big and small villages and finally, the whole kingdom.

Cynical, but a bit too true. Particularly in light of Taras Bulba.

Speaking of which, there is a really sad description of Bulba’s wife, the mother of the sons destined for glory or whatever.

Her youth was gone in a flash without joy or pleasure, and the bloom on her cheeks had faded without kisses, and her lovely breasts  had withered, and the beautiful girl became a wrinkled old woman in the space of only a few years. All love, every emotion, all that is tender and passionate in woman, had turned in her into one feeling of maternal love.

Yeah, basically, the men were off at war the whole time, her existence was reduced to motherhood, and then her sons were off to go get themselves killed, and she would never see them again. Life sucks.

Or how about this one, about education for young men:

They had been sent  to the Kiev Academy in their twelfth year, for all people of quality in those days thought it necessary to give their children an education, thought it was done with the intention that they should forget it completely afterwards.

Hmm, I can think of more than a few in my Fundie upbringing who were fine with education, as long as you came to the same (ludicrous and hateful) conclusion.

I also have to mention the crucial moment in Taras Bulba, when Taras challenges the current commander to break the peace.

“Well, General, it’s about time the Cossacks had some real work to do.”
“There isn’t any work for them at present,” replied the commanding officer, removing his small pipe from his mouth and spitting.
“What do you mean? Couldn’t they go on an expedition against the Turks or Tartars?”
“No, sir. They can make war neither on the Turk nor on the Tartar,” the general replied coolly, replacing the pipe in his mouth.
“Why not?”
“Because they can’t. We promised the Sultan peace.”
“But he’s an infidel. Both God and the Holy Scripture command us to draw the sword against the infidel.”

So much to unpack here. There is the “masculinity defined as warmongering soldier” thing. The “slaughter anyone who has a different religion” thing, and the “who cares about promises?” issue.

Hey, that sure sounds a lot like the xenophobic right, plus religious extremism, plus toxic masculinity! And more than a bit like Trump, right?

And it gets worse!

As Taras is making his move to displace the more moderate leader and incite the Cossacks to war, here is his argument, after spewing anti-Semitic bilge:

“Then there is of course the further consideration that there are many young men among us who have never been to war and who don’t know what war is like, and I need hardly tell you that a young man cannot exist without war. What kind of Dnieper Cossack will he make, I ask you, if he has not even once beaten the infidel?”

And it just goes down from there, with nasty appeals to racism against the Tartars, the Poles, and of course the Jews. Later, after Ostap’s death, Taras Bulba rages against all non-Cossacks, specifically targeting the idea that others are much like us. He claims that they may seem like us, but they are not us, being in fact subhuman, and unworthy of being treated with human decency.

This is my problem with Taras Bulba. It has so many great lines, is psychologically perceptive, with interesting characters. But it is so contrary to basic human decency that it feels dirty to read. You can basically compress all the evil and genocide of the 20th Century into a small pill and it would be Taras Bulba in a nutshell. Of course, Gogol didn’t see the future. He is just talking about the past, when a few horses and a siege and a few Jews murdered, as bad as those can be, was as much as he expected. The horror of two world wars, the holocaust, and Stalin’s purges likely never occurred to him as a natural consequence of the “morality” of Taras Bulba. But the germ of all of those is clearly apparent in Gogol’s story, and so many more like it. The culture in which they arose led inevitably to mass slaughter, sadly enough.

Leaving aside the rest of this, I want to end with one fascinating observation.

But the future remains for ever unknown and it stands before a man like the autumn mist that rises from the marshes: the birds fly about it wildly, with a flutter of wings, not seeing or recognizing one another, the dove not seeing the hawk, and the hawk not seeing the dove, and none knowing how far he is from his doom…

That’s a great line, no matter how one slices it. And it is one of the reasons why, despite my general dislike of the philosophy of Taras Bulba, I find myself fascinated by Gogol’s language. In general, I found this collection to be worthwhile, but oddly liked the less well known stories more than the famous ones.

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