Ukraine in Blackface: A Diptych on Gogol''s Dikanka

Roman Koropeckyj, University of California, Los Angeles, and Robert Romanchuk, Florida State University

The appearance of Gogol''s Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka in 1831-1832 constitutes not so much a turning point in the history of Russian-Ukrainian literary relations as a nodal moment in the mutual perceptions of these two cultures in the first half of the nineteenth century. In this paper, we invoke the American tradition of "blackface minstrelsy" as a close (even historically contemporaneous) analogy to the complex play of representations and self-representations that Gogol' projects in his Ukrainian performance for an imperial audience: in Dikanka, as in blackface minstrelsy, we trace the attempt of a contested, subaltern culture to represent itself by means of ethnic burlesque (a performance with very different meanings to different audiences) as it is appropriated by (or for) a hegemonic audience and reduced to a stereotyped representation.

The first part of the paper (Romanchuk's) focuses on Gogol''s "blackface" performative strategies as dramatized in the two introductions to the cycle. Two audiences, Russian and Ukrainian, are present at the moment of the first volume's appearance, if their balance is perhaps uneasy (Gogol' is seeking Russian patronage). Thus, four voices are deployed in the introduction to the first Dikanka: the Ukrainian writer Rudyj Panko, his Russian reader, and two storytellers, the Cossack Foma Grigor'evich and the Russified Dude (panich) from Poltava. Each of these voices anticipates a different moment in Dikanka's reception (and turns on the rhetoric of either the Kotljarevshchyna's burlesque or Slavono-Russian literary norms). Yet in a typically Gogolian play of deferral, each is but a parody of the other, and moreover the presence of each voice masks its own potential absence (such as that of a Russian readership): each only signifies its opposite, hence, nothing is signified. As it turns out, he found the Russian patronage he sought, creating an imbalance that motivates the performative strategy of the second Dikanka's introduction. Here, Panko, Foma, and the Dude return, while the Russian reader has been silenced; the Dude soon exits as well, to Panko's refrain of "good riddance." But the subaltern (Ukrainian) victory dramatized in the second introduction (with the Dude's departure, Panko claims to be joined with Foma in an unbroken horizon of "our own," svoj) is belied by Gogol''s ultimate superimposition of the Dude's romantic-elegiac (i.e., "Russian") rhetoric over Panko's performance itself. Panko, indeed, announces that he will soon become an elegiac object, substituting an epitaph for his "Ukrainian" voice.

The second part (Koropeckyj's) focuses on "The Fair at Sorochincy" as a complex locus of sometimes contradictory discourses about Ukraine and Ukrainians by a Ukrainian for an imperial audience. As the first story in the cycle (the Dude's, we learn elsewhere), it must be assumed to be programmatic and sets the tone for the reception of the remaining stories. Gogol' himself contextualizes the story by supplying a series of epigraphs in Ukrainian, all taken from either the Ukrainian burlesque tradition or Ukrainian folklore. The two traditions thus belong in their evocative function to the same contextual plane, that is, they represent Ukrainian culture of the time as a curious amalgam of "low" genres. This plane is addressed to both the Ukrainian and Russian horizons of expectation: as the nostalgically native to the former and exotically comical to the latter. However, while this plane is embodied in the characters and action of the story itself, it is so now in the Russian language, the linguistic counterpart of "blackface." Stripped of their native language, the Ukrainian characters are thus appropriated for the imperial audience, made more comprehensible, less foreign, while at the same time retaining those outward features--the masks--that inscribe the Ukrainian burlesque and folk traditions, that is, either the broadly comical or touchingly sentimental. By this same token, rather than distance the two cultures (at a moment, after all, when works in the Ukrainian vernacular were beginning to appear with ever greater frequency), this gesture in effect brings them together, which figures in the scene with Paraska looking in the mirror and then dancing with her father.

The talk ends with a brief discussion of the opening and closing sections of "The Fair at Sorochincy," which frame it in an entirely different tonality and problematize it. Both are lyrical (like the end of the second Dikanka introduction), something that at this point in its literary development was stylistically "impossible" in Ukrainian. In this way, the narrator's elegiac, psychologically complex farewell demonstratively signals Ukrainian culture's own impossibility, a theme that runs throughout the introductions and stories of the Dikanka cycle.