The Birth of Nikolai Gogol

The most influential of 19th-century Russian wits was born on 31 March 1809.

Nikolai Gogol, painted in 1840

Vladimir Nabokov called Gogol ‘the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced’. Born in a village in the Poltava district of the Ukraine to a family of minor gentry, he grew up in the Ukrainian countryside with its Cossack traditions and wealth of folklore. It was an idyllic childhood, but at night in the darkness he used to hear the uncanny voices of the dead.

In high school from the age of 12, he was not popular and was called ‘the mysterious dwarf’. He had a biting tongue and, according to one schoolmate, he was covered in spots and his ears leaked disagreeably. He went to St Petersburg in 1828 to make his way in the world, but he had no connections and no money. A poem he had written at school was published but it was trounced by the critics and fell completely flat. He managed to get a badly paid civil service post in the Ministry of the Interior and started writing lively pieces for magazines about his memories of the Ukraine, combining realistic accounts of life there with fantastic stories about demons, witches and other creatures of Ukrainian folklore.

The literary world was enchanted, Pushkin became an admirer and friend and Gogol was on his way to lasting fame. Pushkin gave him the themes for his two best-known works, the play The Government Inspector of 1836, a merciless mockery of the Russian bureaucracy, and the satirical novel Dead Souls of 1842.

Gogol’s life went downhill from there. Visiting him in 1851, Turgenev thought he was suffering from ‘some secret sorrow, preoccupation or morbid anxiety’. He died at the age of 42 the following year, after a hunger strike he had undertaken to foil the Devil who he thought was taking him over. The doctors, not surprisingly, decided he was mad. In death he retained his capacity to startle: when his body was exhumed for reburial in 1931 he was found lying face-down, sparking a rumour that he had been buried alive. His end seemed strangely typical of him.