Nikolai (Mykola) Gogol was a Ukrainian-born writer who wrote in Russian, because the Ukrainian language was banned in Russian Empire. His ancestors were bearing the name of Gogol-Janovsky and claimed belonging to the upper class Polish Szlachta. Gogol's father, a Ukrainian writer living on his old family estate, had five other children. He died when the Gogol was 15. Young Gogol was fond of the drama class at his high school in Nezhin, Ukraine. He was strongly influenced by his religious mother, as well as by the enchanting beauty of the Ukrainian folklore. He also called himself a "free Cossac".
At age 18 Gogol moved to St. Petersburg, became a student, and later a professor of history at the St. Petersburg University. His short stories, set in St. Petersburg, became a success. His play "Revizor" (1836, The Inspector General) had its premiere in St. Petersburg attended by the Tzar Nickolai I. But it also made him many powerful enemies who hated his satire on the corrupt Russian society. It was his friend Alexander Pushkin who suggested to him the subject for "Revizor". Pushkin also suggested the main idea of "The Dead Souls" (1842), a bitter satirical story of a crook, who was buying the names of dead surfs from various greedy landlords, for a tax-evasion scheme. In his other famous story "Shinel" (1842, The Overcoat) a poor clerk is intimidated both by thieves and by the government. Gogol's discontent against the slavery and social injustices in Russia caused him trouble. He escaped to Europe for 12 years, returning to Russia briefly to publish the 1st part of "The Dead Souls".
His religious beliefs were used by the State-controlled Orthodox Church to place guilt on him and to cause interruption of his literary work. In 1848 he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After his return to Russia, he settled in Moscow, where he fell under the control of the fanatical Orthodox priest, Konstantinovskii, who demanded that Gogol quit writing and destroy the manuscript of the 2nd part of "The Dead Souls". Torn by his inner conflict with guilt and being under the pressure from the fanatical priest, Gogol burned his manuscript. He died nine days later in pain without having any food during his last days. In the 1931 excavation of his tomb, his body was found lying face down, which caused suspicion that Gogol was buried alive.
His style involves the elements of the fantastic and grotesque, with the taste for the macabre and absurd, following the tradition of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Fyodor Dostoyevsky proclaimed, "We all came out from under his Overcoat", referring to Gogol's influence on Russian writers. Sometimes compared with Franz Kafka, Gogol had such followers, as Yevgeni Zamyatin, Vladimir Nabokov, and Mikhail A. Bulgakov.
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