Feature: The World of Nikolai Gogol
Although Taras Shevchenko is the greatest literary figure within Ukraine, one of the best-known Ukrainian writers outside the country's borders must be Nikolai Gogol. He was born in 1809 to impoverished parents in the Cossack village of Sorochyntsi near Poltava. It was here, in deepest rural Ukraine, that Gogol spent his formative years before leaving for St Petersburg in 1828.
Often claimed as a great Russian writer, Gogol was Ukrainian through and through. Many of his stories set in Ukraine are inspired by the supernatural world and the rural superstitions and folk tales of his youth in the Poltavshchina. His tales are set in a land of sun-drenched fields and blue skies, where faded nobles nap in the afternoon heat, Cossacks gulp down bowls of borshch, kitchen gardens overflow with tobacco and sunflowers, and shy Ukrainian beauties fall in love under star-dusted skies. Gogol's short novel Taras Bulba is a rollicking Cossack tale flush with romantic nationalism, adventure and derring-do.
During his years in St Petersburg, where he was employed in the civil service, Gogol's mood changed and his later stories such as 'The Nose', 'Nevsky Prospekt' and 'The Inspector General' are darker, gloomier, and riddled with ill health, crime and vice. In fact, the capital had such a bad effect on Gogol that he died in 1852 after burning the second half of his last novel, Dead Souls, in a fit of madness.
Gogol is an inspirational companion to pack into your rucksack on long train journeys across the snowbound steppe or midsummer bus trips through Ukraine's endless landscapes.