Gogol’’s Views on Ukrainian History and the Problem of his Dual National Identity

Paul Karpuk, Central Connecticut State University

Nikolaj Gogol’’s interest in Ukrainian history spawned a number of works both finished and unfinished which shed considerable light on the writer’s views concerning the history of his native land. These works include several of the Dikan’ka tales; four fragments relating to his unfinished historical novel The Hetman; the 1835 and 1842 editions of Taras Bul’ba; two articles, “A Glance at the Composition of Little Russia” and “On Little Russian Songs”; notes relating to his unsuccessful attempt to write a multi-volume history of Ukraine in 1833-1834; his “Announcement of the Publication of a History of Little Russia”; some preliminary sketches for a tragedy based on the history of Zaporože; and notes on Ukrainian history which he wrote out in 1839-1840 in connection with the tragedy and his revision of Taras Bul’ba.

These works display a pattern of interest in those periods and events in Ukrainian history which represented crucial turning points in Ukraine’s historical relationships with Poland and Russia, that is, which caused it to merge with or break away from one or the other. Gogol’ shows particular interest in the conquest of the remains of the early Kievan state by the Lithuanian princes, which eventually led to the absorption of Ukraine by the Polish Commonwealth, and contrariwise, in the Cossack wars of independence against Poland from the end of the sixteenth through the middle of the seventeenth centuries, which resulted in the reunification of (Left-Bank) Ukraine with Russia. I intend to show that Gogol’’s research on Ukrainian history appears to reflect an underlying goal of trying to define the historical relationship of Ukraine to Russia, but that his views were conditioned by the sources he consulted, which often reflected debate on this topic among his contemporaries, as well as by the constraints of censorship. The debate centered on whether Ukraine was a nation in its own right, with its own cultural and linguistic tradition completely distinct from that of Russia, or an indigenous part of Russia which simply became detached from it for a time due to historical accident. I believe Gogol’ to have settled on a compromise solution, partially for purposes of expediency but also perhaps for personal reasons, according to which he considered Ukraine as having led an existence independent of Russia for a time but as doing so no longer.  His characterization of Ukraine, in his “Announcement of the Publication of a History of Little Russia,” as a “part of Russia” which became detached from it, led an existence independent of it for several centuries, but then once again “completely merged” with it (PSS 9:76), and his “Russification” of Taras Bul’ba in the transition from the first to the second edition, might represent attempts to resolve a disturbing duality in his sense of national identity.


Гоголь, Н. В. Полное собрание сочинений. Москва: Издательство Академии Наук СССР, 1937-52.