Tag Archives: Stephen Moeller-Sally

Nikolai Gogol monument No. 2, Moscow

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At first glance it’s an almost cherubic face with a piercing gaze. It is, in other words, the absolute opposite of the monument it was created to replace – the one we talked about in yesterday’s blog, the so-called “mourning” Gogol that was erected in 1909. This Nikolai Gogol, created by Nikolai Tomsky, and erected on Prechistensky Boulevard (now Gogolevsky Boulevard) in 1952, was done with Joseph Stalin’s approval. It presented what many had wanted for decades – a monument to strength, to power, to health, to greatness (in that narrow definition of unassailability) – to all those things that governments and weak-willed individuals tend to worship unthinkingly. The tie is just right. The buttons are in order. The cloak hangs regally, the face gazes forward boldly, the left hand holds the book lightly but with certainty. I don’t want to say this is a bad monument. It isn’t. It is effective in its own way. But because of its history – it was created specifically to replace another work – it cannot stand on its own merits entirely. It is tied to the monument that it defeated in place, but to which it loses in artistic quality.

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But there is a fascinating backstory here. To rely again on my friend Stephen Moeller-Sally’s excellent book Gogol’s Afterlife: The Evolution of A Classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia, this new monument sneaked Stalin’s own visage into that of Gogol’s. Steve places photos of a portrait of Stalin next to a bust of Gogol that Tomsky made in 1951, and for which he was awarded the Stalin Prize. The similarity of the two faces is striking. I would even say it is undeniable. (For the truly curious among you, this is on page 159 – if you can’t break into it on Google books, do the honorable thing and buy Steve’s book.) That might explain why Tomsky was chosen to do the larger monument, and it also would justify why a shadow of Stalin’s face still lurks in it.
“What could have been the point of this metaphoric joining of Gogol and Stalin?” Moeller-Sally asks. “Why did Gogol become a symbolic double of the Great Leader? To begin with it is worth pausing over the paradoxical position that Stalin occupied in relation to the [current] patriotic campaign. Although he championed Russian ethnic primacy after the war, and had even laid the foundation for the campaign in his victory toast to the great Russian nation in 1945, Stalin himself was a Georgian. Strange as it may seem, Gogol was therefore in a position to justify the Leader’s patriotism. Gogol, after all, was also a non-Russian – an impostor from the South – who nonetheless occupied a central, authoritative place in Russian culture. Indeed, Russia was the most important theme of his mature work. No one would have challenged the Ukrainian Gogol’s devotion to Russian culture, so why then dispute the patriotism of the Georgian Stalin?”
Moeller-Sally goes on to write: “The new monument openly attributed to Stalin the powerful Gogolian gaze, which, in its creator Tomsky’s words, could ‘penetrate the human soul.’ The theme of the all-seeing eye appears frequently in Gogol’s fiction and would have had a special resonance at the beginning of the 1950s, when rumors alleged that Stalin was preparing for another purge. For example, a chain of metaphorical substitution connected Gogol and Stalin with the Inspector General, who symbolized a promise of vengeance for corruption and other ‘little sins’ against the state. Thus the erection of the new monument presaged the coming ‘last judgment.'”
In my opinion the photo that shows the Stalinesque gaze best of all here is the last one below.
Is Steve going too far? Well, I’ll tell you what, if you stand around the Tomsky monument for too long you begin to get the creeps. In all its “healthy power” it is off-putting in a kind of supernatural way. It’s too damn “positive” in the way that the Hitlerjugend were. Steve provides me with a convincing  reason as to why I have that reaction.
Now two more things. 1) Stalin got his comeuppance. This monument was unveiled March 2, 1952. Exactly one year and one day later Stalin died. Take that. Zap! Gogol’s demons did it. Believe me. And 2) Pigeons take their revenge as well. As I was photographing, a pigeon alighted on Gogol’s head and peed. If you look at Gogol’s cheek in the last photo immediately above, you’ll see the trace of urine curling down under his chin. I prefer to think that the pigeons know whose face they really are defiling.

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Nikolai Gogol monument No. 1, Moscow

 

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This may be the finest monument to a cultural figure in Moscow. It is a major work of art in its own right and, like anything of greatness, it has had a tough time making it in the world. Sculptor Nikolai Andreev spent three years creating this moving likeness of Nikolai Gogol, which stands atop a large pedestal rung on four sides by bas reliefs of characters drawn from the writer’s works. It was finally unveiled on Prechistensky Boulevard in 1909, on the centenary of Gogol’s birth. It was intended to show the great novelist and playwright in his period of spiritual crisis toward the end of his life. Not only does it do that beautifully, it captures the essence of spiritual crisis, of alienation, of loneliness, stoic fear and blank indecision. In short, many hated it from the moment it was first unveiled. You know the drill: “Where’s the happy face?!” A poet hiding behind the pseudonym of Someone in Black, responded to the event by placing the following ridiculing verses in the Early Morning newspaper:

The cover was lowered,
The crowd was amazed,
The cantata resounded –
To Gogol give praise!
The dream was now real,
But hearts were now pained:
A face full of sorrow
A pose full of strain!
The crowd became sad,
All understood without words!

As my great friend and former handball partner at Harvard Stephen Moeller-Sally wrote in his excellent book, Gogol’s Afterlife, “…Andreev’s hunched, contemplative figure represented the final years of Gogol’s life, a period of ill health and creative decline. For this reason [people] found it unacceptable. Whatever interpretive insight Andreev’s statue may have contained, it did not fulfill the purpose of the monument: it could not serve as a symbol of national pride.” The doggerel above is also taken from Steve’s book, in his translation.

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Not surprisingly, Joseph Stalin didn’t like the monument either, and he finally decided in 1952 to have it moved to a courtyard not far away where nobody would see it. He replaced it with a happy-faced, straight-backed Gogol that looked as much like Stalin himself as Gogol, and which we’ll look at and talk about at a later date. As such, the monument you see in these photos is now located out of the way in the yard before the Gogol Museum at 7A Nikitsky Boulevard.

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The Gogol House, or Gogol Museum, is located in a beautiful old building that Gogol himself lived in from 1848 until his death in 1852.  As such, the current placement of the work is actually ideal. It is an isolated place, quiet and shady, and people come here with books to sit by the great man’s feet, if you will, to read and contemplate. I know I shouldn’t be surprised by the shortsightedness of those first people who saw the statue in 1909, but, still, ignorance never fails to astonish me. So let me lean on Steve Moeller-Sally to point fingers at some very unsagacious folks:
“Artistic professionals were also unimpressed,” Steve writes in his book. “A number of them felt that the sculptor had not succeeded in representing Gogol at all. Some faulted Andreev for poor technique, noting that there was no sense of body underneath the mantle or that the nose was exaggerated. Others expressed their opinions more imaginatively, the artist I. Chugunova called the statue a ‘monument to an unknown old woman,’ and a noted art collector, Doctor P. Postnikov, said it gave the impression of ‘a kite or a carrion-crow with a broken right wing.’ Dissatisfaction with the monument grew so intense that a Moscow patron of the arts, I. Tsvetkov, began a new subscription for the recasting of the Gogol monument.”
To all of which I say, Pshaw! and, Bravo, Andreev!
Gosh. Big flaw. The artist exaggerated Gogol’s nose. Now, why in the world would he have done that???

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