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“Glitter, Patches, and Impressions”: Nikolai Gogol’s Literary Treatment of the Absent Metanarrative of St. Petersburg (Sarah Wall)

The confluence of art with its cultural context and the reciprocal ways in which these often influence each other is not a new or momentous observation.  Take, for instance, the heralding of Romanticism that converged with nationalism in the mid-1800s, or the pessimistic early-twentieth-century Futurism that emerged in response to the European tensions that culminated in World War I.  Across centuries of human history, art has captured the ethos of its society and both preserves and expounds on it for posterity.  True artistic brilliance, however, is much rarer, evident when an artist sees not only his given cultural context but also how this context, if played out, will affect the future.  This is the gift of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, an author of Russian literature during its Golden Age of the mid-nineteenth century.  Because of his evaluation of the city of St. Petersburg as a Western construct not organic to the Russian people or the Russian experience, Gogol portrayed the city in his works as lacking in authenticity, ripe for demonic influences.  Such candid criticism leaves St. Petersburg natives in a difficult position.  They define themselves in terms of their cultured love for art and literature, yet their varied memorializations of Gogol introduces an intriguing dichotomy in their attempt to reconcile their respect for him as an author with contempt for him as a person.

Nikolai Gogol’s Analysis of St. Petersburg through Literature

For all of his clearly defined opinions of St. Petersburg, Gogol was not a native to the city he later called home.  Born in 1809 in Sorochintsy, a provincial village in present-day Ukraine, Gogol only immigrated to St. Petersburg at the age of nineteen.  The young idealist had long desired to reside in this self-professed cultural capital of the Russian Empire.  In a letter to his mother in February 1827, Gogol declared that “‘Sleeping or awake, I am always dreaming of Petersburg,’” and just four months later, he wrote, “‘Already, I mentally place myself in Petersburg… since I have always thought to find myself such a spot’” (Buckler 199-200).  However, Gogol’s enthusiasm in his expectations of the glorious Petersburg went drastically unfulfilled.  His dreams to become an important official in the bureaucracy, an actor, a poet, or an artist quickly soured, and, forced to settle for a position as a humble government office clerk, “he turned angrily against the city he had embraced with such hope” (Lincoln 122).  Indeed, in an 1829 letter to his mother, Gogol writes of his deep frustration in that “Petersburg does not seem to me at all what I thought – I imagined it much more beautiful, magnificent… All this makes me live as if in a desert” (Gogol, Letters 28-9).

Disdain and disappointment in the city experience colored several of Gogol’s stories, but his scathing sentiments may have stemmed from a far deeper place than mere disenchantment with the city.  He offers a more transcendent analysis that Petersburg is a shallow city lacking in legitimacy and self-awareness.  Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in his most famous short story, “Nevsky Prospekt.”  Published in 1835, the tale relates the story of two men, Piskaryov and Pirogov, and their independent realizations that all is not what it seems on Nevsky Prospekt, the boulevard that remains to this day the cultural heartbeat of St. Petersburg.  Piskaryov becomes romantically obsessed with a beautiful woman he sees on Nevsky and is shocked and dismayed to find that she is a prostitute.  In order to reconcile this reality with his romantic notions, he dreams that she is a virtuous woman of nobility trapped into prostitution and whom only he can rescue.  When he returns to the brothel to ask her to become his wife, however, “she interrupted his speech with an expression of scorn,” mocking him for the mere suggestion that she would want to marry him:  “in those words the whole of an ugly, degraded life was portrayed, the life of the true followers of vice, full of emptiness and idleness!” (Gogol, Complete Tales 227).

Lest the audience see in Piskaryov’s story merely a sad story of disillusionment, Gogol makes it clear that his experience with the false woman is symbolic of his views of St. Petersburg overall.  First, the story opens not with any mention of plot or characters but rather with an extended, extravagant description of Nevsky Prospekt:  its “atmosphere of gaiety,” with its shops and their “display of all the finest things the genius of man ever produced” (Gogol, Complete Tales 207).  On this boulevard, “you meet marvelous moustaches that no pen, no brush could do justice to… and the ladies’ sleeves that you meet on Nevsky Prospekt!  Ah, how exquisite!” (Gogol, Complete Tales 211).  As the fawning portrayal becomes sickeningly sweet, it becomes all too obvious that Gogol’s ridiculous exaggeration is pure satire and mockery.  Equally important to note is that the very first line of the story establishes that he intends this description to be a microcosm for the city of St. Petersburg overall:  “There is nothing finer than Nevsky Prospekt, not in Petersburg anyway:  it is the making of the city” (Gogol, Complete Tales 207, emphasis added).

Similarly crucial to Gogol’s overall message is a second shift, again away from the specific plots of the world of the characters to a more general discourse with his audience.  In fact, the author addresses us specifically with his command, “Oh, do not trust that Nevsky Prospekt!… Everything breathes deception.  It deceives at all hours, the Nevsky Prospekt does, but most of all when night falls… when the devil himself lights the street lamps to show everything in false colors” (Gogol, Complete Tales 238).  In the context of the exaggerated introduction and the story of Piskaryov and the prostitute, this final line in the story becomes a thesis in Gogol’s overall argument.  Nevsky Prospekt, the cultural pulse for the city of St. Petersburg, may well appear exquisite, virtuous, and glittering, but there is no organic substance to validate that description.  The city, in Gogol’s interpretation, becomes merely a deceptive ruse hiding demonism, darkness, and corruption.

The Source and Reason for Inauthenticity in the City

That Gogol’s disdain for the city is borne of an analysis that it is inauthentic to the Russian soul and experience is an argument corroborated both by Gogol’s own pen and by the arguments of various critics.  In his discussion of “Nevsky Prospekt,” historian W. Bruce Lincoln notes that “Gogol’s St. Petersburg was a detached place in which a perverse fascination with rank outweighed all human feeling… At the center of it all, forming the greatest of all the city’s many contradictions, was the Nevskii Prospect, at one and the same time enchanting and repulsive… In St. Petersburg, Nevskii Prospekt was ‘everything’” (Lincoln 123-4).  The falseness of the city overall necessarily results in this obsession with the shallow and ultimately meaningless set of ranks and appearances, which, as critic Donald Fanger argues, “The theme of misleading appearances developed here… is more properly a matter of the difficulty of judging by any appearances” (Fanger 113).

Indeed, Gogol didactically warns readers not to trust the glittering aura surrounding the boulevard, begging them to recognize the misleading falseness of the city.  The root cause of this falseness can only be found in Gogol’s own testament, preserved in the oft-cited 1829 letter to his mother, which becomes a thesis for how Gogol views the city’s inauthentic condition:

“Petersburg is not at all like other European capitals or Moscow.  In general each capital is characterized by its people, who throw their stamp of nationality on it; but Petersburg has no such character-stamp:  the foreigners who settled here have made themselves at home and aren’t like foreigners at all, and the Russians in their turn have turned into foreigners – they aren’t one thing or the other” (Gogol, Letters 29).

Part of this assessment comes from the very inorganic, top-down process of the establishment of the city itself:  in 1703, Peter the Great came to the swamps of present-day Petersburg and by imperial decree built the city with the intention of establishing for Russia a modern, technologically advanced “Window on the West.”  Indeed, he was not unsuccessful in his endeavors, for “by the middle of Elizabeth’s [ruled 1741-1762] reign, St. Petersburg had become everything Peter the Great had envisioned:  a fortress, a bustling port, a window on the West, a center of government, and a model for everything Russia might be (or ought to become)” (Lincoln 348).  Whatever its technological advancements and modernization, however, the fact that it was not the Russian people themselves who inculcated their own identity into the city led Gogol to argue that St. Petersburg was not authentically Russian:  “There is something about it that resembles a European colony in America:  the same dearth of deep-rooted national characteristics, and the same admixture of foreign elements that has not yet been amalgamated into a solid mass” (cited in Maguire 76).  Thus, without depth, significance, or authentic Russian-ness, all that remains in St. Petersburg is, as one as literary scholar put it, “all glitter, patches, and impressions” substituting for and replacing the profundity of the genuine human spirit (Maguire 77).

St. Petersburg’s Reciprocal Response:  The Memorialization of Gogol

Naturally, for a city that promotes itself as the cultural heartbeat of Russia, the fact that a famed author from the Golden Age of Russian literature unmistakably holds a less-than-favorable estimation of St. Petersburg would be difficult for natives to accept.  After all, Gogol’s place in the Russian literary tradition is akin to that of Fyodor Dostoevsky, his contemporary and just as much of a social commentator during the second half of the 19th century.  Interestingly, though, even in my personal experiences, it seems as if Petersburgers would rather forget that Gogol was so prolific.  During a placement test on my first day at St. Petersburg University, I informed the professor of my love for Russian literature, to which she immediately probed, as all Russians do, whether I had read any Pushkin.  I responded, “No, not yet, but I really love Gogol,” and the look of shock on her face and the way she repeated, “Gogol?!” made me certain I had just failed my placement test.  I encountered this attitude all over St. Petersburg, for it was not confined to the university; even my host mother, when I informed her that I loved reading Gogol’s short stories, demonstrated the same evident surprise and disbelief as the professors.

Perhaps even more telling is the way in which the city has memorialized its “redheaded stepchild” both through traditional monuments and through businesses, namely The Gogol Restaurant.  Perhaps the most famous and most traditional memorialization of Gogol in this city is the monument located approximately fifty feet from Nevsky Prospekt.  The monument, while still visible from the boulevard, now stands behind the makeshift “countdown” to the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in St. Petersburg, so clearly the focus of every passerby is on Sochi, not on Gogol.  If, however, someone does venture behind the Sochi countdown, on an avenue directly across from the famous Kazan Cathedral, there stands a gloomy, ten-foot-high Gogol, wrapped in an overcoat pulled tight against the cold, his eyes cast downward as he gazes beyond his left shoulder.  Such a gray, melancholy memorial stands in direct contrast to my own experiences on Nevsky Prospekt and in the greater St. Petersburg; I personally find it difficult to reconcile the gloom exuded by Gogol’s monument with the lively, bustling air of Nevsky just beyond him.  Perhaps this is not an unintentional coincidence:  given Gogol’s disdain for Nevsky’s “bustling liveliness” that, in his opinion, was a mere veneer for deception and demonic influences, it stands to reason that Petersburgers would want to mock his “gloom and doom” attitude and make his monument unfamiliar and out-of-place in its surrounding atmosphere.

A second monument to Gogol, erected on a less central street in St. Petersburg, offers a contrasting image.  This one, much more lighthearted than the first, was originally “erected in 1994 as part of the ‘Zolotoi Ostap’ festival of humor and satire” and is nothing more than a plaque with a giant pink nose slapped on it, inscribed only with the title, “Major Kovalyov’s Nose” (Bigg 1).  This monument is a testament to Gogol’s oddest short story, “The Nose,” in which Major Kovalyov awakens one morning to find that his nose is missing from his face and is instead parading around St. Petersburg as a civil servant higher in rank than Kovalyov himself; despite its initial refusal to do so, the nose has reattached itself by the next morning.  Critics are at a loss to fully explain this bizarre short story, some seeing it as a story as a scathing critique of the role of the rank system, while others see it as just as dream of Kovalyov, but each of these explanations seems to fall apart under deeper scrutiny.  Intrigued that St. Petersburg would choose this story to memorialize Gogol, I unfortunately could find only a picture of the monument and the address of its location (11 prospekt Rimskogo-Korsakova), a location which turned out to have no trace of “Major Kovalyov’s Nose.”

Two aspects of this missing monument offer intriguing glimpses into St. Petersburg’s memorialization of our writer.  First, the decision to memorialize his strangest, most complex story by reducing it to a mere statue of a nose demonstrates a satirical treatment of the author that subtly requests that passersby not take him too seriously as an author.  Secondly, when the monument went missing and the city decided against replacing it, they demonstrated their belief that it lacked enough cultural significance to pursue its restoration.

While the exploration of monuments is indeed very telling in the memorialization of an author, it is equally prudent to explore other avenues in which a person’s memory is preserved; in the case of Gogol, this is certainly the case in the restaurant bearing Gogol’s name, located off Admiralteiskii bulevar about a quarter-mile from Nevsky prospekt.  Describing itself as a “gastronomic play in St. Petersburg style,” Gogol Restaurant offers its customers “a wide choice of classic Russian dishes and the more sophisticated meals that used to please St. Petersburg literary Bohemia.  The project owners aim to recreate the very atmosphere of St. Petersburg books of Nikolai Gogol, the language of the epoch, the uniqueness of home Russian cuisine that borrowed so many fragrant names and exquisite recipes from the French” (“Gastronomic Play” 1).  However, it is important to muse whether Gogol would appreciate being attached to this restaurant, for the whole experience and atmosphere it attempts to create is an entirely falsified construct.  First of all, the menu, while boasting limitless delicacies, draws very little from Russian cuisine and crafts French recipes instead; this is a direct slap in the face to Gogol’s messages, which revolved around genuineness and the corresponding “demonism” that arises from losing a connection to authentic Russian-ness.  Beyond the menu, however, the existence of the restaurant itself is a construct, for it is a role-playing enterprise that attempts to whisk its characters back to Gogol’s time and day.  This level of pretense is almost comical when observed alongside Gogol’s hatred and fear of inauthenticity.  Why would a restaurant whose entire premise is an inorganic construct choose to associate itself with Gogol?  Of all the 19th-century authors who also wrote during this period of the Golden Age of Russian literature, from Dostoevsky to Turgenev to Tolstoy, why emulate a role-playing enterprise on the basis of the only one who mocked St. Petersburg for its very nature as a constructed city?  Just as Gogol derisively mocked St. Petersburg through seemingly lighthearted, ridiculous exaggeration, perhaps the owners of the Gogol Restaurant (and by extension, perhaps the city itself) are following the author’s lead and using seemingly lighthearted ironies to derisively mock him as well.

Taken together, these three preservations of Gogol’s memory give a very clear picture of the manner in which St. Petersburg has chosen to memorialize its reluctant son.  Each in its own way is subtly mocking and satirical:  the gloominess of the statue of Gogol does not match the lively bustle of the surrounding avenue; “Major Kovalyov’s Nose,” while in itself a satirical plaque, was not even deemed important enough to replace; and the Gogol Restaurant has built an entire enterprise based on the very pretense and lack of authenticity that its namesake so despised.  Just as Gogol employed ridicule and hyperbole to shroud his disdain for St. Petersburg in mockery, St. Petersburg has in turn adopted that same philosophy in the way that they have memorialized and preserved his memory.

Gogol’s Prophetic Words:  The Missing Metanarrative in Russia Today

While Gogol’s impressions of St. Petersburg provide an interesting commentary on the Westernized, constructed nature of the city in the 19th century, much more interesting and, indeed, critical to Russia’s future, is whether this impression holds in the present day.  During my many wanderings down Nevsky Prospekt, I was first struck, even a little overwhelmed, by the hurried activity of everyone around me.  From the tour guides shouting advertisements of excursions on every block; to people pouring in and out of the ritziest and most beautiful “grocery store” I’ve ever seen, Eliseyev’s Emporium; to the portraits and artwork, a picture of culture and refinement, being sold all over the city, Nevsky truly does remain today the heartbeat of St. Petersburg.

However, once I allowed myself to more critically examine Nevsky Prospekt, my perceptions were altered as I began to realize the depth of, as Gogol put it, “foreignness” in the city.  First of all, despite the fact that the nearest English-speaking neighbor to St. Petersburg is 1500 miles away, the English language is nothing short of prolific across the metropolis:  souvenir-shop clerks greet customers with, “Hello,” rather than, “Zdravstvuite,” every menu has an English counterpart, and the Latin alphabet was so common, particularly on Nevsky, that I often saw more of it than Cyrillic during casual glances down the avenue.  In terms of the abundance of English, though, the moment that shocked me the most was on my final day in Petersburg, when I happened to walk by a restaurant on a side-street off Nevsky and noticed that the name of the restaurant and the descriptions of the menu were written first in large letters in English, and underneath in smaller letters in Russian.  That evidence points to something beyond mere businessmen catering to an English-speaking client base; putting a city’s native language beneath a foreign one demonstrates Petersburg’s embrace of imported elements at the expense of its intrinsic culture – if, granted, such a culture even exists.

The presence of foreign elements in St. Petersburg and their substitution of any sense of organic Russian-ness is only a small part of an overall trend in Russia towards Westernization and globalization.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, profound economic transformation has taken place, due largely to the actions of the economic power-players like the United States and Germany; “the ‘transition economies’ have been encouraged to open their crisis-ridden economies to international trade and attract foreign investment” (Koehn 1).  Indeed, the Russian government has greatly encouraged foreign investment in Russia:  even from 2012 to 2013, foreign investment jumped 10.7%, reaching $370.6 billion by June (Razumovskaya 1).  From McDonald’s to Burger King on every block in Petersburg and Moscow to fliers on the street advertising 1000 rubles per hour for English tutoring, Russians are nothing short of enthralled by Western, American, and Anglophilic culture.

In this way, the St. Petersburg that Gogol observed and so greatly feared, lacking in any “character-stamp… [where] the Russians in their turn have turned into foreigners – they aren’t one thing or the other,” has become a microcosm for the globalized, Westernized Russia of today (Gogol, Letters 29).  The fall of the Soviet Union left Russia without a metanarrative, a common myth of heroism and pride that unites Russians at their core and gives an organic sensibility to their national identity.  The missing metanarrative is what Gogol first detected in St. Petersburg, due to its top-down establishment by an authoritarian tsar who continued to force the country into a Western, modern role for which there was no organic precedence.  What Gogol saw as inauthentic and demonic, mere “glitter” and “impressions” at the expense of any substance, was the result of a constructed metanarrative inorganic to the genuine Russian experience.  Because of the presence of foreign conglomerates that accompanied the globalization process, this analysis now spreads beyond St. Petersburg into the country itself; the Russian people, without a sense of who they are and what it means to be Russian, embrace instead foreign elements and cultures, in turn resulting in further degradation of what was once their organic fabric.

In a way, Gogol was prophetic in his analysis of St. Petersburg as resembling a foreign colony within his country, for this not only remains true today but has expanded to paint a picture of the greater story of the Russian nation.  Little wonder, then, that the attitude I encountered in St. Petersburg, from the responses of locals to the monuments and enterprises “venerating” him, is one of mockery and satire:  inherent in Gogol’s analysis is a threat to the way in which Russians have chosen to cope with their missing metanarrative, and rather than confront that threat, they would prefer to write him off.  In turning their backs on his analysis, however, the struggle for Russians becomes how they can legitimize the organic Russian metanarrative, replacing the dark, shallow “glitter, patches, and impressions” Gogol observed with the genuine substance foundational to the national experience.

Works Cited