Excerpt from forthcoming book by U.R. Bowie, “GOGOL’S HEAD” (freak shows)
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 He spent his whole secretive life withdrawn emotionally from others.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.