Between Heaven and Hell: The Mysterious Life of Mykola Gogol
There is probably no other more mysterious writer in Russian literature than Mykola Gogol. His heritage consists оf dozens of immortal short stories and phrases that have long been famous. No less interesting than his literary works is his biography as Gogol is remembered as one of the most mysterious writers in the world. The author of The Viy constantly heard voices, which used to tell him horror stories from the other world. The writer had prophetic dreams that came true with inconceivable accuracy. He also believed in the existence of witches and vampires and was terrified of being buried alive… Particularly, a lot of controversies arose over his death. According to one hypothesis, Mykola Gogol was buried alive in a state of lethargy. According to another, he lost his mind and died after meeting with a devil.
April 1st marks the anniversary of the writer’s birth. So we’ve decided to share with you the most interesting facts about the mysterious writer.
Mykola Gogol was born in the village Velyki Sorochyntsi, but he and his parents often visited Dykanka ‒ an urban settlement 30 kilometers outside of Poltava. At that time, there were two churches: the Holy Trinity Church and the St. Nicholas Church. Some say that the former was described in Gogol’s book The Night Before Christmas, and the latter is believed to be the place where all the mysticism that pursued him throughout his life began.
The fact is that before Mykola Gogol was born, his parents’ children used to die. The first two died immediately after birth. Because of this, his mother believed that their family was cursed. Before the birth of her boy, someone advised her to pray to the icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in honor of whom the church was named. His mother heeded the advice and soon she gave birth to a boy who was named Mykola ‒ a Ukrainian variant of Nicholas. He was the third child, but the first and only boy in their family. Is this not proof that supernatural powers do exist?
From his mother, Gogol inherited a God-fearing religious commitment. She often scared him with the Final Judgment, thoughts of which haunted him his entire life. It is no wonder that from an early age he believed not only in God, but in evil spirits as well. For example, when Mykola was five years old and was left at home alone, he drowned a black cat in a pond. Here is how he explained his behavior to his parents: “I thought that if the cat would die, there would be fewer supernatural spirits in the world…” Later, Gogol depicted a similar case in his story May Night, or The Drowned Maiden in which the stepmother turns into a black cat and tries to strangle the captain’s daughter. The writer confessed, “I will never forget her stretching and following me. The cat set her soft paws on the floor. Her green eyes sparkled with some evil light. I was gripped by fear. I climbed up the couch and pressed myself against the wall.”
“‘Kitty-kitty,’ I mumbled to comfort myself a bit, jumped from the couch, grabbed the cat, which gladly gave herself up to me and ran out to the garden. I hurled the cat into the pond and several times when she was trying to get out of the water I pushed her back with a stick. I was shivering with fear and experiencing some kind of content. It was my sweet revenge for she scared me.”
Gogol described some of his other mystical experiences in his The Old World Landowners. He said, “No doubt everyone has once heard some voices, which were calling their names. Commoners believe such voices belong to wandering souls that are in search of other people. After someone hears such a voice, their death is imminent. I must confess that I have always heard that mysterious call.”
Perhaps the most mystical of all of Gogol’s works is The Viy story. Unlike The Lost Letter and The Night Before Christmas in which all evil characters are funny, in The Viy we meet real evil. No wonder that the film based on the novel is considered to be the first horror film in the Soviet Union. In more recent times, filmmakers made use of Gogol’s works, too. In 2014, a new, 3D‒format movie called The Viy directed by Oleg Stepchenko was released in Russia.
Gogol claimed that the plot of the story comes from folklore that he had once heard and recorded without changing a single word. Notwithstanding, researchers have yet to find a single sample of folklore similar to that found in Gogol’s story. So, the frightening story about the Viy and the witch that arose from the coffin is likely a fruit of the writer’s imagination.
Like his father, Mykola Gogol used to hear some strange voices and also suffered from nervous disorders after which he fell into a severe depression. The writer was always afraid of being buried alive. Because of this, the last eleven years of his life he slept in a sitting position. In his will, he forbid his body from being buried until there were visible signs of decay on it.
The destruction of the second volume of Dead Souls is also explained by the writer’s mysticism. Gogol burned it in the evening of February 11, 1852. The next day he told his friends that he had done so to obey the order of an evil spirit… It should be noted that about a month before that the writer started suffering from inexplicable death anxiety. He had to give up writing and spent every night fervently praying.
After the destruction of the manuscript, Gogol didn’t live long. He died on February 21.
However, there was no less mysticism even after his death. During his reburial, it was discovered that his skull was missing from the coffin and the skeleton was turned over. According to Professor Volodymyr Lidin of the Institute of Literature, the skull was stolen from the grave in 1909. Allegedly, this was done by monks who were persuaded by the patron and founder of the Theater Institute, Oleksiy Bakhrushyn, who later included the writer’s skull in his collection.
Interestingly, another famous author and a real admirer of Gogol’s writings, Mikhail Bulgakov, used rumors about Gogol’s remains in his own works. His book The Master and Margarita contains an episode about a stolen head of the MASSOLIT’s (the fictional literary union) chairperson ‒ Mikhail Berlioz whose head was cut off by the tram in the Patriarch’s Ponds neighborhood.