One of the first Russian jokes Mama learned goes like this:
Once, a man was walking through a forest and he came across a pond and in the pond was a frog. ‘O frog!’ said the man, ‘Why are you so green, slimy and horrible?’ And the frog said, ‘Well, actually, normally I am white, fluffy and kind, but right now I’m sick.’
Not really believing that this was all that funny, every now and again over the years she has told it to a Russian. Inevitably they smirk, which just goes to show that while the rest of the world thinks that Russian humour is a best cold and black and at worst non-existent, in fact what it is, is surrealist.
(Or, possibly, just not very tolerant of stupid questions).
Which brings us to Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, who is known, somewhat inexplicably to Mama and she gathers to Gogol himself, as the founder of a movement of literary realism in the Russian language.
Not because he was actually born in and grew up in Ukraine, although that is true too.
One of Gogol’s celebrated short stories is about a man who wakes up to find that his nose has gone off and is basically living its best life all over St Petersburg, independent of its former host. His first big successes, a collection of short stories mixing folklore with details of rural Ukrainian life, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, includes the horror story Viy, about a seminarian’s encounter with a witch and her hellish entourage over three nights in an abandoned church. A theme that was not unusual in the book. It’s not obviously the fodder for a bard of the boring.
Even his satire was fairly broad. Mama was delighted by some of the quips when she started reading Dead Souls recently. In which, at the risk of giving away the plot twist for you, look away now if you really do not want to know, SPOILERS, a corrupt bureaucrat is taking advantage of the fact that at one time you could use your serfs as collateral to raise a mortgage. Something which Mama thinks might have been much more blindingly obvious to a contemporary reader a lot earlier, and was certainly obvious to Alexander Pushkin (the greatest poet who evah lived), who gave Gogol the idea. Mama, on the other hand, felt that Dead Souls really span out the big reveal quite considerably.
She found lines such as this amusing:
‘Every conceivable subject was discussed, including politics and military affairs; and in this connection guests voiced jejune opinions for the expression of which they would, at any other time, have soundly spanked their offspring’
But Gogol pokes fun at Russian society more in his creation of somewhat repulsive caricatures than the witty comments he makes about them. No-one is spared in Dead Souls, not even the horses. It’s not real life, it’s larger than life. It’s also pretty horrific in places. You can see why people were quite surprised that Tsar Nicholas I was a fan of another work lampooning bureaucratic shenanigans, The Government Inspector. It’s not complimentary.
The thing is, though, that what Gogol is also really good at is descriptions, squeezed in around what Mama is generously going to call the action. The countryside. The houses. The clothes. Little day to day details. Mama found herself wildly distracted at one point by Gogol talking about a road made of wood, which the hero was not enjoying being bumped along. The courtyard of the old lady. The weather. The food. The fleas. And so on.
Now there, that’s the poetry of the mundane. In fact, Mama was rather sad Gogol didn’t just go all out for straight-faced word painting. You can taste the dust. Sort of thing.
And THAT brings us to the Gogol House Museum, which our little museum going collective went to in happier museum going times last year.
It’s not so much the dust you can taste going round, but the coffee you can smell. It was positively tortuous as it was rich and dark and look Mama is definitely not going to be able to describe the smell of coffee as well as Gogol would, but just imagine it was really really tempting and permeated almost every room of the Gogol House Museum.
Upsettingly, Mama only found the café at the very end of the tour, and then we did not have time to go in.
Gogol’s house is not really his house, but a three room apartment in the ground floor given to him by Alexander Tolstoy (some relation to the more famous Lev, yes) for the last four years of his life. It’s just off the old Arbat.
As visitors you get to go in and look at the antechamber where they have stored his travelling trunk, which gives the guide the opportunity to wax lyrical about his quite extensive journeying. He spent considerable time in Italy, for example, and went as far afield as Jerusalem.
They talked a bit less about the time when he took the money his mother had given him to pay her mortgage and went to Germany after his first attempt to get literary fame was a flop.
Mama is quite interested in what Gogol’s Mama did about that, although unfortunately no-one else seems to be so she hasn’t found out. The family estate stayed in family hands until it was turned into a Gogol House Museum by the Soviets though, meaning that while financial precarity was a bit of a theme in Gogol’s family’s life, obviously things never got that bad. Gogol also spent a lot of time back on the family estate over the years and his mother was always super proud of him, so there clearly wasn’t any lasting damage there either.
Mama has since encouraged my Speculative Big Brother and I not to get any ideas about playing fast and loose with her money, mind you.
From there we went and looked at Gogol’s living room. He liked cards, apparently. But it is also here that the tragedy of Gogol’s final days started unfolding, because this very fireplace was where he burnt the finished and only manuscript for part two of Dead Souls, the bit that was supposed to turn the ugliness of the first half on its head and redeem his main character, Gogol’s own soul, and the Russian Empire itself. Sort of thing.
He wasn’t happy with it, his religious confessor wasn’t happy with it, or the devil made him do it. Sadly, Gogol seems to have been in that kind of place.
It’s been dramatised on the tour. There are sound effects and everything.
What he then died of, just over a week later, we did not find out for another two rooms.
Off the sitting room is a bedroom, which Gogol, who had a secretive (or possibly repressed) streak, was not given to inviting people into. This is where his writing desk stood, and I do mean stood because Gogol’s writing desk was one you stood up to write at. Very modern.
I can’t remember the exact status of the furniture and such you can see on the tour because OBVIOUSLY this house does not remain untouched from when Gogol lived in it. It went through a number of owners after the Tolstoys, and when the revolution came was turned into flats for 31 families. Then it was occupied by the Kyrgyzstan representatives to the USSR, the Soviet equivalent of the Radio Times, and a library. From the library it slowly morphed into the current museum, memorial centre and still has a research library going strong.
So the desk may not actually be THE desk. Still. It’s pretty snazzy.
Next on the tour, was a salon type room, which was not Gogol’s special preserve but allowed the guide to talk more about Gogol’s writing career and his facility with dramatic readings of his own work, under the guise of showing us some old editions of his books.
And finally we made it to the death room.
No, it built up to it.
This is because he died as he often wrote, with a certain amount of macabre panache and absurdity, which echoed on long after he passed.
The guide was at pains to explore these, but also explode some of the many myths about Gogol’s death. He did not, apparently, starve himself to death. He was not buried alive. And when they dug him up, as they did some years later to move him to a different cemetery, his skull was not missing.
That said there are some mysteries. What he actually died of, for example. The doctors at the time originally thought meningitis, the treatment for which involved boiling hot baths and ice cold water poured over his head, and a lot of leeches. It probably wasn’t meningitis, but it sounds like it could well have been the doctors that killed him.
Nikolai Gogol was 42 when he died.
After that rather depressing reflection, we hung out in the room showing various dramatisations of his works. They haven’t got Mama’s favourite one there yet, the action adventure Viy 2, which is wholly satire free but is gloriously over the top.
Anyway. You might be wondering at the lack of photos on for the post, compared to most of our other posts. Well, Mama can only blame the destabilising effects of Gogol’s proximity for the fact she seems to have lost the entire batch she is pretty sure she took. Woooooooooooooo. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Woooooooooooooooo. Etc.
Address: Nikitsky Boulevard, 7a, Moscow
Opening: Tues, Weds and Fri 12.00 – 17.00; Thurs, 14.00 – 21.00; Sat and Sun 12.00 – 18.00; Monday and the last Tuesday of each month CLOSED
Admission: 200 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children over 7, children under 7 are free. Currently, entrance is via timed tickets.
Getting there: The nearest metro station is Arbatskaya on the dark blue line. Technically this is in the same building as Alexandrovsky Sad (light blue line) Borovitskaya (grey line) and Bibliotecka Imani Lenina (red line). Technically.
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