Monthly Archives: June 2017


Excerpt from forthcoming book by U.R. Bowie, “GOGOL’S HEAD” (freak shows)

Biographical One

Freak Shows

(Ukraine, 1822)

Nikolai Gogol-Yanovsky, 1809-1852. Great Russian writer, Ukrainian born, into a family that was extremely pious, steeped in the Russian Orthodox religion. The name Gogol has an avian connection. The гоголь is a bird, the goldeneye, a black and white diving duck: Bucephala albeola or Bucephala clangula. Given the prominent bird-beak nose on the writer, his having a bird name is appropriate.

As a young boy Nikosha Gogol’s head was inculcated with the religion of fire and brimstone. He seemed to have lived successfully through this indoctrination, but later on, as an adult, the deleterious business came back and took control of him, destroyed him.

Gogol was born on March 20 (old style Julian calendar), which is April first by the western Gregorian calendar. Given the grotesque nature of his best prose—and given the strange life he was to live—having him born on April Fool’s Day seems just right. Lived in the back of beyond, on his parents’ modest country estate of Vasilevka. Not much is known about the childhood years. For one thing, Gogol’s biographers always tell the story of how young Nikosha drowned a cat. They emphasize, as well, what must have been a terrible shock for him: the death of his younger brother Ivan, while the two of them were students at the gymnasium at Poltava. Did Gogol later speak of this loss? Apparently not. But then, he seldom spoke of things close to his heart. Not with anyone. He spent his whole secretive life withdrawn emotionally from others.

Four younger sisters came along after Nikolai, but no more brothers. In geographical proximity to the boy was the thriving estate of Kibintsy, ruled over by the influential relative, Dmitry Prokofievich Troshchinsky (1754-1829). Although Gogol himself never seems to have waxed eloquent about his visits to that estate as a child, he certainly must have been impressed by what went on there. The grandee Troshchinsky, one of the richest men in the Ukraine, had served in high government posts under Catherine the Great and her son Paul. His estate at Kibintsy boasted around seventy thousand desyatinas of land [one desyatina =2.7 acres] and over 6000 souls (serfs). To put this in perspective, in an official document that he presented to St. Petersburg University on May 14, 1836, Gogol described his family estate at Vasilevka as covering 700 desyatinas and possessing eighty-six souls—not counting the dead ones. Other data puts the figures, respectively, at one thousand desyatinas, and four hundred souls.

Troshchinsky retired for good from government service in 1817, then returned to the Ukraine in 1822, where he lived out his years on the Kibintsy estate. At this time, when the grandee was in almost permanent residence, Gogol’s father Vasily Afanasievich helped stage plays at the theater there, including some that he himself had written. As a small child Gogol grew up watching the plays, looking at the large collection of European art, listening to the serf orchestra play Mozart and Beethoven. Troshchinsky also had a library of over a thousand volumes.

As he aged the grandee and ex-minister often fell into melancholy moods. Part of his daily therapy, therefore, was to watch, and sometimes to participate in what was known as freak-baiting. Peter the Great also loved such activities and kept a large menagerie of freaks around all the time. Two centuries later Joseph Stalin, in his own unique way, kept the tradition going.

One of the best-known entertainers at Kibintsy was the mentally retarded priest Bartholomew, who went about doing bizarre things while still dressed in his religious vestments. Special freak-baiters were employed to stimulate his laugh-provoking activities. These baiters would seat Troshchinsky near the clown, then surreptitiously place a banknote on the floor in between the two. Everyone would ignore the presence of the money. Finally Bartholomew would notice it, try to ignore it as well, prove incapable of so doing. Then, as soon as he reached out a trembling hand to pick it up, Troshchinsky would clout him on the noggin with a cane, and everyone would die laughing.

Sometimes the baiters filled a huge barrel full of water, threw in several gold coins. Then Bartholomew would be forced to go bobbing for the coins. He dove into the water, tried to pick up the coins and resurface. If he failed to bring them up he had to dive again, and keep diving until he had successfully brought up all the coins, which were then taken away from him. This too provided entertainment for Troshchinsky and his guests. As Gogol was to write later, in a famous line from his story “The Overcoat,” how much inhumanity there is in humanity.




EXCERPT FROM “Gogol’s Head: the Misadventures of a Purloined Skull”

У Гоголя Голову Украли (The Head Gone Missing)

In his Last Will and Testament Nikolai Vasilievich had stipulated that his grave be made inviolate. He wished to lie so far beneath the ground that no one could ever reach him. Furthermore, he had left instructions that he not be buried until his body showed clear signs of decomposition, for in his worst nightmares he conjured up scenes of himself, poor Nikosha, momma’s little boy, awaking below ground from a deep sleep, then shrieking and clawing at the lid of the coffin.

The heat was oppressive now. The spectators ran out of tea. They improvised hand-held fans from newspaper pages. They sat waiting, fanning themselves, watching the diggers. Their conversation had petered out, and Lidin was too sweaty and tired to provide further literary entertainment. Late in the afternoon the exhausted diggers came upon a brick vault that proved incredibly difficult to breach. They shoveled around it in a variety of directions, searching for a way inside. Bakhrushkin suggested digging eastwardly, since he had heard that in Orthodox burials the head of the deceased must be directed toward the east.

Long since fed up with the admonitions of those who hung around watching, the shovelers spit in disgust. They were silently contemptuous of these idlers who had never worked by the sweat of their brows, like good honest peasants and workers. Then the shoveler-spitters thought twice about what they had done, worried that such disgusted spitting would offend the dead. So they spit three times over their left shoulders to ward off evil; after that they proceeded to dig toward the east.

Twilight (the summer sumerki) was setting in when they finally found an opening in the brick vault, then managed to get a grip on the wooden coffin inside. Holding their breath, saying nothing now, the tea drinkers gathered around and gaped. A large throng of nebulous bystanders hovered behind them. Lidin, smiling, tried to ease the tension that hung upon the scene like a black cloud.

–He thought, old mole, that he had dug himself in way down deep.

No one said anything to that.

–He thought the interlopers would never get to him.

No one said anything.

–But he had another think coming.

Lidin looked around expectantly, waiting for the appreciative laughter that never materialized.

The laborers dragged the coffin out of the vault. Its upper planks were rotted, but the sides of the casket were still in good shape—they had brass corners and handholds, with well-preserved cerulean-lilac braided galloons.

The workers pulled away the rotted planks and stepped aside. They took off their hats in a gesture of respect. There he was: Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, the man who had written the best play in all of Russian literature (The Inspector General), the best short story in all of Russian literature (“The Overcoat”), and the best twentieth-century modernist novel ever written in the nineteenth century (Dead Souls).

The first thing they noticed was that the head was gone. The remains began at the bones of the neck. For a long, long time the gapers stood there in awkward silence. They were in the presence of something awe-inspiring: the great writer of the Russian land lay there in front of them, but minus his head. Finally, Bakhrushkin wiped the astonishment off his portly brow and spoke, whispering.

–Look at that, will you. Someone has made off with the skull.




Excerpt from forthcoming novel by U.R. Bowie: “Gogol’s Head: The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull”

Where am I? thought Nikolai Vasilievich. I’m out on the road again, riding a britzka [one-horse buggy] to the wedding of my sister, and I find myself unable to make myself go to the wedding of my sister. This silly trip is ruining the peace of mind I so desperately need; my nerves are strained to the breaking point. Should I go to the wedding or not? I must go; it is my duty as token paterfamilias. I cannot go, for the strain is too much. I need advice; that’s what I need. I know what I’ll do: I’ll stop over in Kaluga, go visit the holy man, Father Makarios, at the Optina Pustyn Monastery.

If only my bowels were in better shape. Here we are again with the peristalsis on strike, the refusal of this recalcitrant twisted tube of an organ to function. I got up this morning feeling as if a regiment of soldiers had bivouacked in my guts, soldiers wearing the red and blue and white uniforms of the Napoleonic era, with cockades in their helmets, with the dash and panache and soaring spirits of victorious warriors, lighting campfires beside my liver, stomping around on my gall bladder, singing out in hearty voices the songs of the mighty heroes who marched all the way to Paris—then putting out the fires and packing their gear and marching around in and on my guts, shouting the cadence loud, HUP, TWO, HREEP, HROAR, then, finally, clomping in their ill-fitting jackboots up to the gates of Optina Monastery and stopping. My poor rectum.

–I need your advice, holy father.

–What is your concern, my son?

–I’m on my way to my sister’s wedding in the Ukraine, but I’m not sure I should be going.

–Why ever not, my son?

–Just got a feeling, father. A feeling that that is not the place for me.

–You are on your way home, are you not? To your ancestral abode?

–Yes. To our family estate at Vasilevka.

–Then how can home be not the place for you?

–This marriage. They arranged it without my consent. I feel as if I should not go. What do you think, holy father?

–I would assume that you must be there to give your blessing to your sister on the occasion of her happiness. What’s the problem?

–But what is happiness, father? That is the question. Or must we trust in the Lord God of Sabaoth and in his Son, the Lord Jesus? Only they can tell us and show us and give us our happiness.


–Yes, what, holy father?

–Yes, trust in the Lord and go on south to your sister’s wedding.

–Thank you, holy father! I feel so much better now!

Taking the hand of the white-bearded starets, Nikolai Vasilievich kissed it fervently, shedding tears of joy. They dribbled down his long nose, then dripped from there onto the parapet steps and glittered in the early morning sunlight, as he took his smiling and waving farewell. Then he walked out into the leafage of September, all green-red-yellow and gleaming in sunbeams. He mounted his britzka, shouted to Selifan, his coachman, “Onward, onward to Vasilevka!” The driver whipped up his nag, and off they rode in a cloud of dust.

But they did not get far. In fact, they were a mere half kilometer from the monastery when the doubts overwhelmed him again. No, he thought to himself. No. My nerves will never stand the tumult of this wedding. No way can I put myself through this. But you must. But I can’t. Better I should return to Moscow, and from there borrow money and make a mad dash to the only place on earth where I have ever found solace: to Rome, my beloved Rome!

–Selifan, turn around (he shouted)!

–Where to, then, sire?

–To Moscow! Back to Moscow!

But they did not get far. In fact, they were but a mere half kilometer in the other direction, approaching the monastery, when the doubts overwhelmed him once again. No. It’s my obligation. I must be there for the sake of my sister. Mother would never forgive me if I failed to show. I have to go to the wedding. But you can’t go to the wedding. You’ll collapse in nervous prostration. The very idea of holy matrimony is sheer terror in your poor sick guts. Yes, of course you’re right. What to do? What to do?

–Selifan, stop!

–Where to now, sire?

–Back to Optina Pustyn. I must ask the advice of the holy father Makarios!

And so it went. He returned to ask the advice of Father Makarios. Twice, thrice. Each time the conversation with the humble man of God was almost identical to what is outlined above. As was the writer’s lachrymose departure from Optina. Except for the fourth time. On Gogol’s fourth visit to the holy man, he no sooner said, “Help me, father, for I cannot decide what to do,” than the humble holy man, meek and God-fearing, arose in a righteous rage, eyes blazing. Stuffing his long white beard into his mouth—to keep himself from saying a blasphemous word—he drove Nikolai Vasilievich bodily out of his hermitage, waving his arms in a frenzy and kicking at the fleeing author’s backside with both feet.

–Out of here, out (he shouted through his beard and teeth)! Get on to the Ukraine, where I told you to go in the first place! Attend the wedding!

Whereupon Nikolai Gogol mounted his britzka under the bright fall foliage of a linden tree, then yelled out at his long-suffering coachman, Selifan, “To Moscow, back to Moscow!” And that’s where he ended up going.