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Europe as object of aversion and desire: cultural antinomies in Gogol′’s ‘Taras Bul′ba

by Peter Sawczak

The fact is that we never moved forward with other nations, never belonged to one of the great families of humankind: we are neither of the West nor of the East and have the traditions of neither one nor the other.
— Petr Chaadaev, Philosophical Letters

The place of Russian society and culture both within and outside the framework of European civilisation was a major preoccupation for Gogol′, as it was for many of his contemporaries. According to Pavel Annenkov, his copyist in Rome over the summer of 1841, Gogol′ ‘was convinced then that the Russian world comprised a distinct sphere with its own laws about which Europe had no idea’ (119). Such a conviction makes itself keenly felt in the conception and teleology of Mertvye dushi (Dead Souls). As the author variously indicates in his correspondence and in the famous final apostrophe of his magnum opus, Dead Souls has as its general aim nothing less than the essentialisation of Russia (Rus′) and Russianness. It is the ability to invoke ‘our Russian Russia, not the one … invoked for us from abroad by Russians-turned-foreigners’ (8: 409), which Gogol′ later identifies as the true measure of worth for Russian poetry in his Vybrannye mesta iz perepiski s druz′iami (Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends). This did not, nevertheless, prevent him from being, at the same time, an enthusiastic cultural as well as physical resident of Europe himself. The fact that Gogol′ composed several essays on European history, art and architecture and elected to spend most of his creative life in Italy – a country from which he drew inspiration and to which he often referred as his second homeland (11: 109, 111–12, 141) – points to a marked ambivalence in his attitude towards Europe.

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