Gogol House exhibits shed more light on the life of Russian literature’s main mystic

Gogol House exhibits shed more light on the life of Russian literature’s main mystic
1841 portrait of Nikolai Gogol by Fyodor Moller
He was afraid of being buried alive and fond of knitting. He slept in an armchair and burnt the second volume of his Dead Souls. Let us take a look at the myths about Nikolai Gogol as well as his life and death in Moscow.

Towards the end of his life Nikolai Gogol used to say there were two cities that he loved namely Rome and Moscow. Although a considerable part of his life is associated with Moscow, he did spent several years in Italy too. In the run-up to the release of the final part of the trilogy Gogol by director Yegor Baranov, mos.ru and the Mosgortur agency have issued a guide to Gogol House. This is the place where the writer lived the last years of his life before passing away.

Gogol and Moscow

Gogol visited Moscow for the first time in the summer of 1832, shortly after the publication of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. The young writer at once fell in love with the city and he frequently returned to it and stayed for long periods of time with his friends, Professor Stepan Shevyrev, a literary critic at Moscow University, and Mikhail Pogodin, a well-known publisher, historian and man of letters.  

Early in the winter of 1848 in Moscow, he found somewhere permanent place to reside in. Back from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Gogol moved to the mansion of Count Alexander Tolstoy and his wife situated on Nikitsky Boulevard. He had become acquainted with them while travelling abroad and they invited him to join them at their home.

Tolstoy is thought to be the prototype for the governor-general from the burnt second volume of Dead Souls. In his younger years, Tolstoy was Nicholas I’s flugel [German] adjutant and later, civilian governor of Tver and military governor of Odessa and during the twilight of his life he took on the status of a member of the State Council. Georgian tsars were among his wife Anna’s ancestors. Similar to her husband, Anna was very religious and led a secluded life, shying away from the hustle and bustle of anything to do with high society.

The Tolstoys invited Gogol to have three of their small rooms on the ground floor. There was a separate entrance from the inner porch, an entrance hall, a living room and a study that also served as his bedroom. This was where Gogol spent the last four years of his life.   

“Here Gogol was looked after as if he were a child and was given a free hand in everything,” Nikolai Berg, a poet and translator, who often visited the Tolstoys, wrote in his memoirs. “He did not have to bother about anything. Lunch, breakfast, tea and dinner were served wherever and whenever he so desired. His underclothes were washed and put away in a chest of drawers by invisible ghosts unless they were put on him also by invisible ghosts. In addition to numerous household servants, there was his man servant from Malorossiya called Semyon, who looked after him in his rooms. Semyon was a very young and compliant man who was extremely fond of his master.”  

Within the walls of the house where care was lavished upon the writer members witnessed the intense spiritual crisis he was living through and that he was not destined to overcome. It was there that he could give way to despair following the disapproval by his contemporaries of his book Selected Passages from Correspondence with His Friends that was published in 1847, as well as the unsuccessful marriage proposal to the daughter of a high-ranking courtier, Anna Vielgorskaya, he made in 1849 and also the death of his good friend Yekaterina Khomyakova in January 1852. There he prepared his collected works for publication and worked on the second volume of Dead Souls until the night of 12 February 1852 when he burnt the copy he had just completed, thinking it was not good enough. Ten days after this symbolic literary death Gogol passed away in the place where he had been living. 

History of Gogol House

Speculation about the importance of creating the Gogol Museum in Moscow began in 1909 when the centenary of the writer’s birth was marked. Back in Soviet times, the subject was revisited in 1959 but it was only in 2009 that a museum devoted to Gogol was opened.

Up until 1966, the Talyzins–Tolstoys mansion on Nikitsky Boulevard was a residential building. After the 1917 Revolution the house was divided into communal flats, which caused serious damage to the interior of this historic building. By 1966, when the mansion had also become home to a library, the number of people living in the building had hit 77, each occupying a space of, on average, no more than eight square metres. After the relocation of the former residents the mansion was done up but those involved with the restoration work were disappointed with the result because so many of the original features of the house were nowhere to be found.

In 1974, the library was named after Nikolai Gogol and two memorial rooms on the ground floor where the writer had resided were opened up for people to go and visit. In 2005, the library was transformed into a memorial centre and on 27 March 2009, a new museum, Gogol House, officially opened in Moscow. Today, the museum has six memorial rooms on the ground floor. Their appearance was meticulously recreated in keeping with the reminiscences of Gogol’s contemporaries.   

The Talyzins–Tolstoys mansion

Love of knitting and embroidering, sleeping in an armchair and other habits

On view in the entrance hall is Gogol’s trunk which he used when he was travelling as well as his overcoat and top hat and also a photocopy of a rare portrait of Gogol painted after his death in 1852. However, the artist Nikolai Andreyev depicted him as still being alive.  

Exhibited in the living room is mahogany furniture, dating back to the first half of the 19th century, including the sofa brought from Pogodin’s estate at Devichye Polye where Gogol stayed at one time. There are books and items from the private collection of the descendants of the writer’s sister on the table. Next to it is a map of Eastern Siberia, which refers to the reminiscences of Gogol’s friend, writer Ivan Aksakov, who wrote: “Admittedly, at the end of this part Chichikov, as a result of his new tricks, is likely to find himself in exile in Siberia because Gogol took from us so many books containing atlases and drawings of Siberia.”

The second volume of Dead Souls was reduced to ashes in this room. It still remains unknown what exactly Gogol did commit to flames before his death. The majority of researchers believe it was the fair draft of the second volume of Dead Souls. After Gogol’s demise the executor of his will Shevyrev found some odd rough drafts among his papers. Although it was a tremendous feat, thanks to these drafts, the text of five chapters from the second volume was published in 1855. This edition of the book is on display on a shelf of the bookcase in Gogol’s study that is located next door to the living room.

The living room

The study speaks volumes about Gogol’s whims. Few know that he preferred to work standing up at his desk, a habit he might have acquired during 18 months of work as a clerk in St Petersburg.   

Exhibits on this piece of furniture include a portrait of Alexander Pushkin, a copy of the manuscript of Dead Souls from which a censor cut out The Story of Captain Kopeikin and the ink set complete with a sander that was brought from the family estate in Kibintsi where Gogol spent his childhood. Next to it is his mother’s bone needle-holder that was also taken from the estate. Gogol inherited from his mother her love for needlework.    He could excellently sew, embroider and even knit.     

The mahogany bed separated by a screen from the rest of the room is associated with another trait of Gogol’s character: according to researchers, since 1840 Gogol spent his nights in an armchair but in the morning before his servant was due to come, Gogol made his bed look disheveled, lest anyone should learn about his whim.

Next to the bed, on a coffee table, one can see the cover page of the second edition of Dead Souls published in 1842, or vignette, as it was called at the time. It was drawn by the author of the poem. Gogol was well-versed in calligraphy and was talented when it came to drawing with pens and pencils, so after his death, quite a few illustrations he used for his works were accredited to him. There are a lot of drawings of the people and architecture he sketched during his journeys that have survived to this very day.

The study provided a home for Gogol’s personal library and, according to a police inventory, when he died it included 234 books: 150 books in Russian and 84 in foreign languages. The only expensive item found among his personal belongings was a gold pocket watch, whose previous owner was poet Vasily Zhukovsky – he stopped it at the moment of Alexander Pushkin’s death. Gogol’s personal effects were valued at 43 roubles 88 kopecks. As for the money, a day before his death, Gogol gave slightly over 2,500 roubles to Shevyrev, asking him to use it “to help poor young people involved in science and art”.

The study

The Government Inspector, disappointment and departure from Russia

The collection of exhibits in one of the museum’s rooms is devoted to the Russian theatre of the 1830s–1840s, the staging of Gogol’s plays and the author reading of The Government Inspector that Gogol held at this mansion for the actors and actresses of the Maly Theatre. Ivan Turgenev mentions this literary evening in his memoirs: “Gogol was reading superbly…  I was sitting overwhelmed with joyful emotions: this was quite a feast for my eyes and ears.”

The comedy was premiered at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 19 April 1836. Nicholas I unexpectedly arrived at the theatre to watch the performance. He “had a hearty laugh” and commented after the performance: “What a play! All were given their due and I myself more than anyone else.” The premiere of The Government Inspector in Moscow took place the same year on 25 May.   

2015 sculpture Declaration of Love [based on Nikolai Gogol’s play The Government Inspector] Dulyovsky porcelain

Although the play went down well with the public and the emperor, Gogol was disappointed with both the St Petersburg and Moscow productions.  

The Government Inspector has been performed – I feel so uneasy and so strange…,” he wrote. “My creation seemed to me to be disgusting, preposterous as if it were not mine at all. The main part is a complete failure: I’ve expected this. … Doesn’t the part itself provide a clue as to what type of character Khlestakov is? … Khlestakov does not swindle – not at all; he isn’t a liar by profession; he himself forgets that he is lying and almost believes what he is saying.”

The public’s failure to understand the comedy was among the reasons behind Gogol’s decision to go abroad in 1836. On returning to Russia in October 1851 he visited the Maly Theatre to watch a performance with Sergei Shumsky playing Khlestakov and liked what he saw. A few days later, Gogol held a public reading of the play for a narrow circle of people for the last time.  

The authorities’ attitude to the play was also gradually changing. In April 1852, Ivan Turgenev was arrested for writing Gogol’s obituary that was published in Moskovskiye Vedomosti, in which he praised the author of The Government Inspector too much.  

Etching based on Vladimir Makovsky’s painting Gogol Reading The Government Inspector on 5 November 1851

Commemorative Room

Nikolai Gogol did not die in the room where he had lived while staying with the Tolstoys, it was another room. When he fell seriously ill in January 1852, he was moved to the warmest guest room on the ground floor.

On 20 February (in the Julian calendar), Tolstoy, who was anxious to see his dear house guest better again, sent for doctors to try and find out what Gogol had. However, he was wrongly diagnosed with meningitis. The dying man was treated by force: he was seated in a warm bath and cold water was poured over his head, mustard plasters and leeches were applied to him and hot bread was put round his body. Needless to say, Gogol did not live long enough to ever see any doctors again. He passed away on the morning of 21 February. The hands of the clock in the room where he died stopped at 8 am – the time of Gogol’s death.  

During the last years of his life Gogol suffered from taphophobia, a fear of being buried alive. He began his Selected Passages from Correspondence with His Friends by indicating his last will: “My last will is that you do not bury me until the obvious signs of decomposition appear. I am mentioning this because during my illness there were minutes when my entire body went numb, while my heart and my pulse stopped beating….” 

A weird legend that, despite everything, Gogol was indeed buried alive started circulating in Moscow in 1931when the writer’s grave at the St Daniel Monastery was opened during the demolition of the local necropolis to transfer his remains to Novodevichye Cemetery. According to several witnesses, the body in the coffin was in an unnatural position and the coffin’s lid was allegedly scratched all over from inside. Others dared to assert that the writer’s skull was missing from the coffin because it was allegedly kept unidentified at one of the Moscow museums. The official reports on the opening of the grave which was conducted under the supervision of NKVD [the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs] have not a single mention of this.

Incidentally, sculptor Nikolai Ramazanov, who was invited to make a death mask on 21 February, wrote in his memoirs that Gogol did not seem to him to be dead. 

Ramazanov wrote: “His smiling mouth and open right eye led me to think about lethargy, so I hesitated to proceed with a death mask, but the prepared coffin into which his body was to be put later on in the evening and the ever growing crowd of those who wanted to bid farewell to the dear deceased man made me and my father, who was already pointing to the signs of decomposition, hurry up with making a mask. After that together with Gogol’s servant boy we scrubbed the compact plaster off the face and the hair and closed the right eye, which seemed to be willing to look at this world while the soul of the deceased was far from the earth.”        

The death mask with the open right eye made by Ramazanov at the time is the eeriest exhibit at the Gogol House. The Commemorative Room is the place where it can be found.