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Russkiy Mir Foundation Holds Roundtable Nikolai Gogol and the Russian World: On the Writers 200th Birthday

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Russkiy Mir Foundation Holds Roundtable Nikolai Gogol and the Russian World: On the Writers 200th Birthday


On March 31, the eve of Nikolai Gogol’s birthday commemoration, the Russkiy Mir Foundation held a roundtable on “Nikolai Gogol and the Russian World: On the Writer’s 200th Birthday.” Taking part in the discussion were well-known philologists, museum directors, as well as representatives from state agencies and Russian organizations in Ukraine.

The roundtable began with opening remarks by the moderator, first deputy executive director of the Russkiy Mir Foundation Sergey Morgunov, who promised on behalf of the Foundation to facilitate the publication of a full collection of academic essays on Gogol.

The main report was presented by Igor Zolotussky, a well-known Gogol scholar and chairman of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Creative Heritage of Gogol. The lecture, which was quite well developed and emotionally delivered, centered on the two main themes of Gogol’s creative legacy and the celebration of his 200th birthday.

After many years of studying the writer’s life and works, the man who is perhaps the best contemporary specialist on Gogol has drawn conclusions that bear little resemblance to what we think we know about Gogol. Zolotussky’s unorthodox statements, combined with an ability to inspire interest (after hearing him speak, one immediately wants to reread Gogol and compare one’s own impressions with what was just said at the roundtable) are probably his main traits as a researcher and lecturer.

According to Zolotussky, Gogol has never been understood in Russia, including by his contemporaries and even friends. The book Selected Places from Correspondence with Friends, which was published in 1847, was undeservedly ridiculed and denigrated by Russian society. After its release, even Sergey Aksakov, a friend of Gogol’s who had bowed before the writer’s genius, began saying that Gogol had gone crazy. In fact, according to Zolotussky, this book was a step in Gogol’s creative ascent, and thanks to its appearance, Russian literature was introduced into the Christian context. Other works by Gogol are also inspired by Christian sentiment, including "The Overcoat," “The Inspector General” and Dead Souls.

Rooted in Russian criticism was the impression of Gogol’s mysticism and the depiction of monsters (according to Vasily Rozanov and Konstantin Leontev) were clearly in contradiction with the author’s Christian outlook. Zolotussky is certain that this line of thinking is in need of revision.

Zolotussky proposed a new evaluation of another critical element of Gogol’s creativity - his sense of humor. While people have generally spoken about Gogol’s satire, the writer generally referred to himself as a comedian. Gogol’s humor is not similar to Juvenal; rather, it is bright, soft and benevolent. This was the same attitude he had to his own characters, whether Khlestakov, Akaky Bashmachkin, Chichikov or even Gorodnichy. The idea that Gogol ridiculed Russia in his works is no more than a common prejudice. Gogol was a bright genius of Russian literature, insists Zolotussky.

Boris Tarasov, rector of the Literary Institute, spoke on the spiritual nature of Gogol’s work. “Bringing light to the entire body of human forces” was what Gogol saw as the main challenge facing people, and, according to Tarasov, is his lesson for contemporary society.

The president of the Pushkin Institute of Russian Language, Vitaly Kostomarov, described the study of Gogol by his late teacher, Vinogradov, and stressed the writer’s particular interest in “Russian characters.”

In turn, the writer Boris Ryabukhin made the suggestion that the Russkiy Mir Foundation support the study of Gogol’s global heritage. In his view, it would be very important and interesting to collect and publish material about the kinds of responses that his works have received abroad.

The roundtable participants paid considerable attention to how the 200th anniversary is being celebrated in Russia and Ukraine. Perhaps everyone present agreed on how unfortunate it was that the celebration did not do justice to the writer.

According to Zolotussky, it was Gogol who brought Russian literature to the world level, so the writer’s anniversary is something that should have been celebrated at the national level. He talked about the celebrations that took place for Gogol’s 100th anniversary and how they brought together Russia’s best cultural leaders. A number of famous European writers, including eight Nobel laureates in literature, were invited to take part. Furthermore, the celebration was publicly financed. Today, only Putin's personal intervention saved the anniversary celebrations from total collapse. Zolotussky is convinced that by taking an active role in celebrating Gogol’s anniversary, contemporary society and the Russian intelligentsia could absolve their share of the guilt that has weighed upon them since the writer’s grave was looted and his remains were transfered from the Danilov to the Novodevichy Cemetery in 1931, which took place with the participation of many well-known cultural figures.

In an emotional speech, the chief editor of Nashe nasledie, Vladimir Enisherlov, offered support to Zolotussky, who described the recently opened Gogol Museum on Nikitsky Boulevard in Moscow as a “postmodern theatre of sorts” that has no relationship with the writer.

All the participants, even Irina Smirnova, deputy director of the Department of Cultural Heritage at Russia’s Ministry of Culture of Russia, agreed with this assessment and noted the inconsistency of the various activities related to the anniversary. It was not only a matter of poor organization, but also, unfortunately, of “museum parochialism,” whereby museums are reluctant to offer their holdings for common exhibitions. Lyudmila Markina, a representative of the State Tretyakov Gallery, placed special emphasis on this problem.

Ukrainian representatives also joined in criticizing the organization of the anniversary celebrations, including the president of the Russian community of the Poltava region, Viktor Shestakov, and the head of the Poltava Battle Foundation, Yuri Pogoda. According to them, the situation in Ukraine was even more disappointing. President Yushchenko's decree on the celebration was a mere declaration, but the preparation itself was “ugly” in nature. The Gogol Museum in Velikie Sorochintsy has not yet been repaired, and the exhibits remain in unsuitable condition. What is most unfortunate in Ukraine, however, is the very limited approach to Gogol’s heritage, which tends to focus more on the framework of his “little Russian cycle.” According to Shestakov, Solokha and Taras Bulba are all that people know about the legacy of the great writer in his homeland. Shestakov also spoke about the planned celebrations that were developed and implemented by the organization of compatriots in Ukraine, especially the “Russian Gogol” committee. In Kiev and Mirgorod All-Ukrainian conferences for Gogol scholars will be held.

Despite the criticism expressed, the meeting in general can be considered a success and even useful. For example, one roundtable participant, Sergey Scheblygin, a member of the Federation Council cultural committee, offered assistance in resolving current issues related to Gogol’s anniversary. Many offered thanks to Zolotussky for his excellent report, which could not have left anyone indifferent to Gogol’s creativity. The general discussion gave additional food for thought about Gogol’s legacy and the common heritage shared by Russians and Ukrainians today.

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