Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s April Fools’ Day Present to Itself and the World

Paul Goble

Helsinki, April 1 – Mark Twain observed a century ago that “April 1st is a day when we remember what we are like the other 364 days of the year,” but according to commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky, “in Russia these words have a special meaning” because today is the 200th birthday of Nikolay Gogol, whose “kind laughter” over the foibles of his nation helped define it.
In an article in “Rossiiskaya gazeta” yesterday, the Moscow political scientist observes that all Russians are “characters out of Gogol,” because like Russia’s greatest poet Aleksandr Pushkin but even more immediately, the 19th century humorist not only “CREATED” Russia but “DISCOVERED Russia” for itself (
If the role of Pushkin is widely recognized and regularly celebrated, Radzikhovsky writes, that “of Gogol is less obvious but in no way less significant.” Pushkin created “a system of coordinates of his internal world which became the world of Russian culture,” but Gogol “populated this space with people” whom Russians could identify as much like themselves.
He was “the first in Russian literature to describe in detail LIVING Russian people. Because he DID NOT THINK THEM UP,” but rather took them from life itself and thus they “are somewhat more vivid and real than ‘the demons of Dostoyevsky’ or the ‘noble relatives of Tolstoy.’”
And while Gogol highlighted and even made fun of the foibles of his heroes, he “loved them. And that is “one of the main secrets” of his continuing attraction. His laughter was never intended to hurt, it was not from the outside, but rather it in a good hearted way “LEGITIMATED that very Russia” which Gogol loved.
Even “The Dead Souls,” the name of perhaps his most famous novel, were people Gogol loved, Radzikhovsky continues, even as his loved all the other characters that are not only immortal in literature but still found among Russians. And that is something worse recalling too on this bicentennial.
But even as Russians mark this round anniversary, there have been several statements about him that Gogol would have seen as confirmation of and justification for his affectionate amusement for his people. On the one hand, a Russian literary expert has argued that one can’t translate Gogol into Ukrainian without losing his meaning (
And on the other, a Russian Orthodox monk, the director of the Sretensk Monastery publishing house, says that Pushkin may be “our all,” as Russians have always insisted, but Gogol is “all ours,” as even those angry at the way his observations are employed by others have to admit (

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