Gogol’s “Вий,” one of the four stories in his 1835 collection Mirgorod, is a piece of misogynist tripe; Nabokov is actually being (uncharacteristically) kind to it when he calls it “a gooseflesh story, not particularly effective.” The opening section, describing Kiev seminary life, is pretty much taken straight from Narezhny’s novel Бурсак (The seminary student—see this post); it goes on to a bunch of ooga-booga nonsense involving the protagonist Khoma being terrified in a church late at night, ultimately by the titular Vii, some sort of Ukrainian hobgoblin. But there’s one sequence that’s pure essence of Gogol, and I will translate it here (Russian below the cut). The local yokels are telling the protagonist about the antics of the witch whose corpse he’s supposed to be performing memorial rites for (she was the beloved daughter of the local landowner), and one of them brings up the late huntsman Mikita:

“Stop! I’ll tell him about the huntsman Mikita,” said Dorosh.
“I’ll tell him about Mikita,” replied the herdsman, “because he was kin to me.”
“I’ll tell him about Mikita,” said Spirid.
“Yes, let Spirid tell him!” cried the crowd.
Spirid began:
“You, philosopher-student Khoma, didn’t know Mikita. What a rare man he was! He used to know every dog like his own father. Mikola, who’s the huntsman now—he’s sitting two back from me—can’t hold a candle to him. He may know his job, but next to Mikita he’s trash, slops.”
“You’re telling it well!” said Dorosh, nodding approvingly.
Spirid continued, “He’d see a hare quicker than you can wipe snuff off your nose. He used to whistle: ‘Come on, Robber! come on, Speedy!’ and off he’d go on his horse at full gallop, and you couldn’t say who’d outrun who, him or the dogs. He’d down a quart of raw vodka like nothing. A terrific huntsman! But not long ago he started staring at the landowner’s daughter, couldn’t take his eyes off her. Whether he was really stuck on her or she bewitched him, I couldn’t say, but the fellow was a goner, he turned completely into a woman; he became the devil knows what; pfuh! it’s indecent even to say.
“Good!” said Dorosh.

The irrelevant details, the pleasure taken in storytelling for its own sake, the joyous insults—this is the seed from which Gogol’s later masterpieces will grow. And now you’ve read all you need to of the story.

Addendum. I may have been too hard on this story, being a jaded sexagenarian; for a useful counterpoint, see my extended quote from the Gogol expert Donald Fanger in the comment thread below.

The original:

— Стой! я расскажу про псаря Микиту, — сказал Дорош.
— Я расскажу про Микиту, — отвечал табунщик, — потому что он был мой кум.
— Я расскажу про Микиту, — сказал Спирид.
— Пускай, пускай Спирид расскажет! — закричала толпа.
Спирид начал:
— Ты, пан философ Хома, не знал Микиты. Эх, какой редкий был человек! Собаку каждую он, бывало, так знает, как родного отца. Теперешний псарь Микола, что сидит третьим за мною, и в подметки ему не годится. Хотя он тоже разумеет свое дело, но он против него — дрянь, помои.
— Ты хорошо рассказываешь, хорошо! — сказал Дорош, одобрительно кивнув головою.
Спирид продолжал:
— Зайца увидит скорее, чем табак утрешь из носу. Бывало, свистнет: «А ну, Разбой! а ну, Быстрая!» — а сам на коне во всю прыть, — и уже рассказать нельзя, кто кого скорее обгонит: он ли собаку или собака его. Сивухи кварту свиснет вдруг, как бы не бывало. Славный был псарь! Только с недавнего времени начал он заглядываться беспрестанно на панночку. Вклепался ли он точно в нее или уже она так его околдовала, только пропал человек, обабился совсем; сделался черт знает что; пфу! непристойно и сказать.
— Хорошо, — сказал Дорош.


  1. At first I thought Gogol’s VII was some sort of Russian version of Blake’s 7.

  2. “At first I thought Gogol’s VII was some sort of Russian version of Blake’s 7.”
    Now that’s a TV series I’d watch.

  3. I don’t think this piece is particularly nice on the males either? And the ability of Vij to scare people must have diminished simply because we’re so desensitized by the ever-more-technically advanced scary moves? Anyway what surprised me is “tripe”; how could the stuff which gives texture and tastes to such a variety of excellent soups be dismissed as something worthless? English language, we can never predict your ways 🙂

  4. Critical appreciation of great literature is now trumped by de rigueur gender sensitivity protocols. The rest is tripe.

  5. I love tripes, our local speciality!

  6. Does anyone see the connection between Khoma Brut and Orpheus-Euridice, or is it just me?
    ‘Don’t look, don’t look!’ But he looked.

  7. I don’t think this piece is particularly nice on the males either?
    True, but Gogol’s entire oeuvre does not contain, as far as I know, a single portrait of a woman that suggests he thought of women as fully human, and this one is especially nasty in that regard. (You could, I suppose, claim that “All women are witches” is just the opinion of his character(s), but with Gogol that doesn’t ring very true.) Obviously sexism is an inextricable part of traditional culture pretty much everywhere, but Gogol boils it down to a thick and malodorous essence. Not that that stops me from loving his writing, any more than Pound’s fascism stops me from loving his, but it’s hard to ignore.
    I do, however, apologize, on behalf of the English language, for the use of “tripe” as an all-purpose insult!
    Does anyone see the connection between Khoma Brut and Orpheus-Euridice, or is it just me?
    I hadn’t thought of it, but it’s a great comparison.

  8. Oh, I though Pannochka was as fully human as Khoma; no human being is being flattered by Gogol’s piece, but some characters are kind of one-dimensional and others, a tad more invested with humanity. But generally, in braggard’s tales of drunkenness and stupid debauchery, it’s hard to depict a multi-faceted, complex female character, isn’t it? I do think that it characterizes the genre more than the author.
    Also. Could псарь mean “kennelman”? “Huntsman” evokes a certain politician but originally seems to designate a master hunter, rather than an assistant responsible for the dogs? And cивухa ~~ crudest moonshine, rather than purified vodka?

  9. PS: I suspect that if you ask a Russian to quote from Gogol’, then the most popular quote wouldn’t be Dead Soul’s Troika-Rus’ (even though we had to memorize it as a part of the grade school curriculum), but the Viy’s words from the eponymous tale, in a grave-dweller’s voice “Raise my eyelids, for I cannot see yet!!!”
    Dismiss it or not, *that’s* what Gogol’ is to the native speakers.

  10. If Vij is misogynist tripe let’s have your opinion on Taras Bulba.
    Actually, I happen not to agree that Vij is particularly misogynistic. For me, pannochka (how do you translate it into English? Missy?) is individualized enough not to be a generic witch.

  11. Oksana from Christmas Eve is very attractive.
    I second Dmitriy’s ‘raise me my eyelids’ phrase. I’d put Немая сцена – Silent or frozen scene – from Inspector General as Gogol’s most widely used phrase (to the describe a state of shock.)

  12. Dmitry Pruss & Sashura:
    I believe there’re too many household Gogol quotations to be able to reliably rank them. How about “чуден Днепр при тихой погоде”, “редкая птица…”, “я тебя породил…”, “сказали мы с Петром Иванычем”, etc.? The only thing one can be sure of is that Gogol is firmly (and deservedly!) established as a part of everyday Russian.
    Also, Sashura: you were absolutely right about the non-existent 25 kop. coin, of course. No idea how it could sneak into my list (actually, the only 0.25 coin I’ve ever seen or used must have been the US quarter).

  13. Ukrainian Gothic at its best, even though Gogol couldn’t always keep his corpses decorously wan:
    Подымается протяжно
    В белом саване мертвец,
    Кости пыльные он важно
    Отирает, молодец.
    (This is from “Hans Kuechelgarten,” a poem he wrote at 18.) It is said that Gogol may have used some images from “The Old Woman of Berkeley” by Southey, translated by Zhukovsky in 1814.
    The ending of Viy is typically Gogolian. Khalyava’s chronically broken nose is a relative of the piglet in the finale of “The Overcoat.”

  14. Well, technically the British Crown is a quarter (and was a dollar until Bretton Woods ended), as it was five pence when the pound was twenty pence and became 25 p after decimalisation. But they are mostly commemorative, just like the Russian/Soviet poltinnik and ruble coins.
    Yes, Gogol’s quotes have an incredibly long mileage in Russian. As well as papaphrases and distortions. Remember, ‘Rare is the bird that can fly to the middle of Chernoby’? I was once at a bankers’ conference in Moscow where the Chernomyrdin was speaking. ‘We created these bankers,’ he started with the well-known Taras Bulba quote, immediately realising that the ending was completely inappropriate. So he changed it to ‘and it’s up to us to sort out the problem.’ But the hall was already in uproar because everybody recognised the quote: ‘I created you, and I will kill you.’

  15. …five shillings when the pound was twenty of the same, no doubt?

  16. sure!

  17. But generally, in braggard’s tales of drunkenness and stupid debauchery, it’s hard to depict a multi-faceted, complex female character, isn’t it? I do think that it characterizes the genre more than the author.
    Sure, but in this case it characterizes both.
    Dismiss it or not, *that’s* what Gogol’ is to the native speakers.
    I’m not dismissing anything! I love Gogol, and those quotes, as much as you. I just don’t feel I have to turn a blind eye to the failings of the authors I love, and the portrayal of women is definitely one of Gogol’s. As Donald Fanger writes in The Creation of Nikolai Gogol (Harvard University Press, 2009): “Throughout Gogol’s work the erotic threatens the sensitive male with annihilation.” But I admit I would have liked the story a lot better when I was a lot younger—I’ve pretty much lost all susceptibility to the horror genre—so in fairness I’ll quote Fanger’s conclusion about the story (pp. 101-2):

    The story’s chief failing, for all the effectiveness of its sensational scenes (and the humorously prosaic ones they alternate with), lies in the inconsistency of the psychological and supernatural explanations, both of which the text insists on. The climactic scene—capped by the first mention and only appearance of the Viy—does have a dramatic intensity that appears to justify the story’s title. It is pervaded, moreover, by a strong sense of inevitability (the fatal temptation to know death? the fear of being seen for what one is?). But these qualities are nearly autonomous; if they derive necessarily from the narrative that precedes them, it is only in the implication that the “strange new feeling” aroused by a surrender to lust predisposes Khoma to death as well. There are, however, missing links in this line of interpretation, just as in the one that sees Khoma as a failed Cossack because he yielded to the fear against which the genuine Cossack is proof. Why, in this case, should he be punished with death? The evidence of the text finally leaves him guiltily guiltless.* [*The phrase is Gogol’s, from Selected Passages: “There are guiltlessly guilty people and guiltily guiltless ones.”] It invokes several systems of meaning—psychological, moral, ontological, social—without quite anchoring Khoma’s fate in any of them as the objective narration implicitly promises to do.

    Still, the story is undeniably powerful and Tolstoy, who listed it as one of a handful of works producing “an enormous impression” between the ages of fourteen and twenty, was closer to the mark than Nabokov, who dismisses it as “a gooseflesh story, not very effective.” Compelling in a way reminiscent of “A Terrible Vengeance,” “Viy” marks an advance on that story by the uncanny authority with which it unites apparently incompatible qualities— “laughter and terror, everyday life and miracle, beauty and ugliness, the phlegmatic simplicity and banal unseriousness of the whole figure of Khoma Brut and his improbable, wild and fatal end.” To the discovery of Gogol’s mature manner, as to the thematics of his total created world, “Viy” makes a central contribution. Among the stories of Mirgorod, it points at once back to the demon-infested Dikanka stories and forward to the Petersburg Tales in its concentration on one individual, supremely ordinary, solitary, kinless, and doomed.

    There you go: point-counterpoint!

  18. No doubt it’s one of those things like Lovecraft: if you meet it at the right age, you can like it forever after; if not, probably not.

  19. aye!

  20. It invokes several systems of meaning—psychological, moral, ontological, social—without quite anchoring Khoma’s fate in any of them as the objective narration implicitly promises to do

    I see (Fanger’s point, but also how it couldn’t be further from the perceptions of most native readers; ditto the idea that Khoma’s falling for affection to a female is somehow central to the narrative, or even grossly undue). That’s where my words about “what’s Gogol’ to Russians” come too. Few of us read “Viy” the Fanger’s way.

    This genre isn’t about fulfilling promises of logical explanation; it’s about layering the funny and the scary and the absurd with as sharp and surprising transitions as possible (I think you wrote about “scary couplets” very recently, which exemplify the same instant laughter-horror transition quality). It’s also about shallowness of the human mind and the virtue of self-deprecating folksy humility; nobody is smart enough for one’s own good; no logical train of explanations wins, for who are we to know?

  21. Oh, I forgot, Solokha the Witch (The Christmas Eve), is incredibly sexy, the way I imagined her when I first read the novella about forty five years ago.

    I am not familiar with Fanger’s work, unfortunately. Just wondering if he sees it as well in the context of two contemporary trends: a very strong German (primarily Hoffmann) influence on Russian literature and a nationalist revival under Nicholas II, which included a keen interest in Russian/Ukrainian folklore and ‘tales of old’? I think it was to that that Gogol’s early success was due.
    Apart from that, as pointed above, the story is simply a very enjoyable read, misogynistic, scary or not.

    By the way, there is a true to original 1967 Soviet film version (cf. Tarkovsky’s Rublev came out in 1966). Wiki here and full film on YouTube here with English subtitles and Khachaturian’s (of the Sabre Dance fame) score.

  22. By the way, there is a true to original 1967 Soviet film version

    Yes, the 1967 film is a delight.

  23. Prince Mirsky:

    Viy is a wonderful blend of romantic weirdness with realistic and homely humor. The construction of the story, the absence from it of questionable rhetoric, and, especially, the perfect fusion of the two discordant elements of terror and humor, all make Viy one of the fullest and richest of Gogol’s stories.

  24. Mirsky was a great critic but not infallible, and he, like the rest of his generation, was not especially attuned to the things that bother the denizen of the early twenty-first century. Also, he doubtless read the story as an impressionable youth and was unable to be objective about it.

  25. Sure, I wasn’t quoting him as an authority for or against anything, but just another point of view for people to look at, and ditto on the Taras Bulba thread. In any case, he often seems to express the Russian viewpoint, especially when he doesn’t say otherwise.

  26. Yeah, I know, just had to give him a poke. He’s like my favorite uncle who had an irrational love of USC football.

  27. He seems, furthermore, to have had little sense of humor about humor, resembling in this way (if no other) Adolf Eichmann, who given a choice between joining a Freemason group named Schlaraffia, whose purpose was “humor, refined humor”, and the Nazi Party, plumped for the latter.

    But where does the irrational love come in? The Trojans have, saith WP, won no less than 99 NCAA titles (plus 11 in football, which for some reason do not count) and 287 Olympic medals. No Cubs they.

  28. No, it’s not that, it’s that he was a resentful Okie migrant who might have been expected to loathe everything USC represented.

  29. Yes, I see: Columbia West, only with extra added boozhwassity.

  30. Have you been saving up that response for a year so people will do a double-take if they notice the “2015”?

  31. Nope, just happened to land on this page while looking up something else, got curious about just what USC might represent, read the WP page and a few other sources, and added my bit. I didn’t even notice that it was a year and a day later.

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