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Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism.

Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism, by Edyta M. Bojanowska. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. xii, 448 pp. $59.95 US (cloth).

Russian literary critics have long declared the Ukrainian-born writer Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) as one of their own, as an exemplar of the Russian spirit and an exponent of Russian nationalism. These claims have been challenged, in recent years, particularly by proponents of Ukrainian culture, who maintain that Gogol's literary language, motifs, and themes are rooted in his native soil. Gogol himself would, no doubt, be amused by the ongoing debate over his "true" nationality. As he once wrote to an admirer who sought to press him on this very question: "Do not draw from [my works] any conclusions about me" (p. 6).

Edyta Bojanowska cites this warning in the introduction to her fascinating new monograph, and has taken it to heart. Bojanowska argues that the question of whether Gogol should be regarded as a Russian or Ukrainian writer is, in fact, the wrong one. According to Bojanowska, "Gogol's national identity, as the treatment of nationality in his texts, cannot be framed as an either/or question, since ample evidence shows that he positioned himself within both Russian and Ukrainian nationalist discourses" (p. 6). Through meticulous readings of Gogol's published and unpublished writings, including works both familiar and neglected, fictional and historical, Bojanowska argues convincingly that Gogol's oeuvre reflects the writer's ongoing preoccupation with questions of national identity and of what it meant to be Russian (and Ukrainian) in the first half of the nineteenth century. Just as his idol Walter Scott "found it possible to champion both Scottish and English nationalist ideas," Gogol in his writings variously espoused Ukrainian and Russian national sentiments but, as Bojanowska shows, he did so in ways that, consciously or not, subverted readers' expectations (p. 8). Gogol's "lifelong cultural belonging to Ukraine contrasted with his civic commitment to Russian nationalism" (p. 371).

Eighteen thirty-six is, for Bojanowska, the pivotal year in Gogol's creative development, for it was then that he abandoned his long-cherished project of a history of Ukraine and resolved instead to become a great Russian writer. This resolution, however, brought with it enormous challenges. To be a Russian writer in the age of Nicholas 1 and in the context of the government's endorsement of Official Nationality (which celebrated the trinity of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality as the cornerstones of Russian cultural identity) required that one adopt a laudatory tone in praise of the Russian nation and its people. Sifting through Gogol's personal letters and unpublished manuscripts, Bojanowska maintains that this was a pose Gogol was unable ever to strike comfortably or convincingly. In his mature writings, Gogol imagined the Russian nation not "as an actually existing nation," but as a work in progress, "a community that was in the process of formation and self-definition" (p. 364). Gogol's Romantic, Herderian notions of nationhood as process found the writer out of step both with the dictates of Official Nationality, which celebrated the political and cultural status quo, and with the tastes of contemporary Russian readers, who savoured a less critical appraisal of their nation. As Bojanowska shows, readers of Dead Souls who had expected that Gogol would paint the Russian nation in the same idyllic and idealized strokes he had earlier used to portray his native Ukraine in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka were sorely disappointed. The Russian nationalism on display in Dead Souls was not of the flag-waving, heart-warming variety, but rather, in Bojanowska's words, "a reform-minded civic commitment to Russia's much-needed social, economic, and cultural improvement" (p. 254). Through an exhaustive study of the critical reception of Dead Souls, Bojanowska is able to demonstrate how the novel's critical tone and "nationalistic deficiencies" failed to resonate with many contemporary readers, notwithstanding Gogol's tacked-on predictions of Russia's future greatness (p. 236). She suggests, in fact, that Gogol's now-infamous decision to burn his unfinished sequel to Dead Souls was the result of the writer's inability to express the positive vision of Russia his readers demanded while still remaining faithful to his artistic mission.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Bojanowska's impressive monograph is that she is able to situate Gogol's uncomfortable evolution from Ukrainian writer to Russian writer in the context of Russia's "unique national-imperial identity," a topic which has been explored fruitfully in the work of Mark Bassin, Jane Burbank, James Cracraft, Geoffrey Hosking, and Roman Szporluk (p. 376). Bojanowska argues that for Gogol the awareness that Ukraine and Russia were divided by national differences was tempered by a realization of "the imperial connection that linked them" (p. 26). The 1842 revision of Taras Bulba, for example, was Gogol's belated attempt to give nationalist-minded Russian readers what they wanted. The raucous and rebellious Ukrainian Cossack horsemen of the original !835 text were recast, seven years later, as "shining exemplars of loyalty for the 'greater' Russian nation" (p. 256). In Bojanowska's apt metaphor, the revised Taras Bulba "marks a crucial turn for Gogol, as he sacrifices his Ukrainian nationalism on the altar of the Russian one" (p. 256) Gogol transforms Taras and his Cossack band into symbols of a larger and more expansive Russian nation including all Orthodox East Slavs. Yet, this vision, too, failed to capture the hearts and minds of Gogol's contemporary Russian readers, who understood the nation in more exclusive terms and "demanded a glorification of Russianness that would be grounded in ethnically Russian characters and subject matter" (p. 371).

Bojanowska has written an important book that calls into question old assumptions about the interplay between national and imperial identities in nineteenth-century Russia. Extensively researched and with copious notes, it will be read with enormous interest and benefit not only by literary scholars and historians of Ukraine and Russia, but by students of nationalities questions more broadly.

Robert H. Greene

University of Montana
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Author:Greene, Robert H.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Words:973
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