Gogol's earthly romance

Illustrations from the Russian author Vikenti Veresayev’s Gogol in Life (1933)

Den’ (No.103) carried the article “Gogol’s Theatrical Romance” about his obsession with drama performances. His creative and spiritual heritage is so diversified that the editors have decided to acquaint the reader with Gogol’s earthly romance.

Nikolai Gogol was a ladies’ man all his adult life, probably owing to his romantic and spiritual disposition which was strongly appealing to the opposite sex. Women found in him a heartfelt advisor. Being in contact with him helped some of them solve their daily life problems. Gogol never got married, yet he maintained a special kind of trusting relationships with the fair sex. He had quite a few things to tell them about life, cultural education, and man’s mission in this life.

Gogol had tender, friendly, and supportive relationships with his mother Maria and his sisters Olga, Lisa, Anna, and Maria. Gogol’s letters to his mother show how well he understood her concern about her son, his literary career, and his daily routine. To his sisters, Gogol was an advisor and helper. He helped them enroll in education institutions and made sure they had comfortable living conditions.

His “earthly Romance,” as Gogol himself put it, was dedicated to Anna Wielhorska. His biographers believe that she was Gogol’s only true love. She was the daughter of Count Michal Wielhorski — a musician, physicist, and friend of Pushkin and Zhukovsky. She was 25 when her romance with Gogol started. She was heavily influenced by the high society’s lifestyle and could speak or write virtually no Russian — only French. Poisoned by beau monde, she behaved in a very emancipated way. Gogol became her “physician” — he saw his task in driving her away from what he regarded as an unpleasant milieu. At a certain stage, he even considered joining a kind-hearted and tranquil Anna and Count Tolstoy’s relative Viktor Apraksin in marriage. It did not work out.

Before long, after meeting his protege in Paris in 1845, Gogol became disillusioned. Anna was now a totally different person, a high-society lady, too busy throwing and attending parties. He no longer saw her original extraordinary personality and intellect — just another coquette.

Their next meeting, four years later, once again drew Gogol to Anna. She told him about her problems and her disillusionment with the man with whom she wanted to live the rest of her life. “I want something to get hold of me and rivet me; I don’t have strength anymore,” she told Gogol.

This impressed and scared Gogol. In fact, this fear forced him to reveal his true feelings toward her. He had always dreaded the idea of marriage but mustered the courage to propose to the young countess, asking her to stop attending high-society parties and dancing — which didn’t conform to her inner self, he was sure.

“You aren’t actually pretty. You become pretty only when you have something really noble in mind, which shows on your face; when it disappears, you stop being attractive,” Gogol told her. Could a lady who belonged to the highest aristocratic quarters like this statement from her prospective husband? Not in the least. She felt offended and stopped writing back to Gogol. The Wielhorskis said there would be no marriage. Gogol took this as a well-deserved punishment. He was convinced that their breakup was caused by his divine mission to save human souls, and this helped him overcome the pain of unrequited love. He realized that his earthly affection was doomed because the two of them lacked spiritual unity.

His relationship with another lady, Countess Zinaida Volkonsky, was warm and friendly initially. She fell in love with Gogol but later came to hate him. This countess was eulogized by the poets Venevitinov, Pushkin, Zhukovsky, and Mickiewicz. She first resided in Moscow, where she adopted the Roman Catholic faith, and then moved to St. Petersburg. On learning this, Nicholas I of Russia sent an Eastern Orthodox priest to receive her confession. She had a nervous breakdown and went into convulsions. The Russian emperor allowed her to leave Russia, and she settled in Italy. She met Gogol in Rome, and it was love at first sight. Gogol was often invited to attend her dinner parties. Volkonsky needed someone she could trust to share her problems — or someone she found to be an interesting interlocutor.

What made the countess do an about-face in her attitude to Gogol? Why did she start hating him? The cause was a trifle, but here, too, there was no spiritual unity between them.

Lady Fate had her plans for Gogol and awarded him with a beloved for as long as he lived. Her name was Alexandra Smirnova-Rosset. Gogol wrote in a letter to Yazykov: “She was my cherished dream come true, at a time when there could have hardly been anyone to utter a word to console me.” She was sought by Russia’s top-notch suitors. She was said to be courted by the Russian emperor and his brothers. Noted poets, among them Zhukovsky, Pushkin, and Lermontov, dedicated poems to her.

She was very beautiful, with a Latino-like classical complexion, dark shining eyes, and jet-black hair. She was an acutely intellectual lady with a sharp tongue (the latter prompted Vyazemsky to tag her as “Donna Pepper Tongue”). Her other trait was her passionate temperament, which made her especially attractive. However, her marriage was a total failure. She had married Kammerjunker Nikolai Smirnov, a kind-hearted man whom she did not love. He was neither interesting nor smart and failed to make her happy — something Pushkin had warned her about. “I sold myself for 6,000 serfs because of my brothers,” she would admit later, meaning that her marriage was supposed (but ultimately failed) to help her brothers obtain the status they desired.

She met with Gogol in Rome in 1843. She was desperate at the time; what she sought with her heart and mind did not seem to conform to the current realities. This was their second meeting, because Zhukovsky had introduced them to each other earlier, in the Russian court. At the time, the beautiful Alexandra Rosset paid little attention to Gogol, a small and ungainly man (she only remembered his long nose).

They met again when Smirnova-Rosset was 33 and Gogol 34. For her it was time to start reassessing certain values; she had a feeling there were not many people around whom she could really trust, while all the court intrigue, envy, and desires to rise about the crowd brought no good. It was then that Smirnova-Rosset became aware of her thirst for things spiritual and realized that she wanted to put to good use her unrealized potential — her intellect, emotions, and things that had not yet been brought out in her by anyone.

Gogol was then going through a very unhappy phase; he had convinced himself that he was no good as an author and was trying to return to the everlasting values, including earthly love. They connected on the basis of spiritual unity. She treated him as a tutor, while he treated her as a person who was not demanding anything from him. They were united by the same worldview and had similar dreams and aspirations. Both were disillusioned with earthly realities and united by their Ukrainian background and good command of Ukrainian. Smirnova-Rosset wrote later that they often remembered their beloved Ukraine, “those starlit Ukrainian nights, all those white storks, halushkas served with sour cream, and pirogi stuffed with cherries.” She had a good voice and often sang Ukrainian folk songs that Gogol loved so much.

Their relationship caused raised eyebrows; the ladies who considered Gogol to be their “confessor” (e.g., Countess Natalia Sheremetyev) scolded him for focusing his attention on only one lady. His friends Danylevsky and Aksakov took a dim view of his friendship with Smirnova-Rosset (Aksakov actually believed that her influence on Gogol was ruinous).

We should, however, consider the following aspect. Gogol had a lovely and intelligent lady as his friend. Could he have resisted her charms, considering that he had never actually experienced the little joys of family life? He probably couldn’t; otherwise this would be really bizarre.

Gogol biographers point to an occurrence that affected their relationships in a certain way. Once, as Gogol was reading his Dead Souls to Smirnova-Rosset, there was a sudden bolt of thunder that shattered a window. Gogol closed the shutters and returned to his seat next to her. She stared at him, and he turned red in the face. She said, “Aren’t you in love with me, even a little bit?” He rose and left the room.

We have Smirnova-Rosset’s memoirs as proof that their “spiritual union” was pure and that Gogol’s role was that of a “physician” who treated her patient for depression, feats of despair, or just low spirits. “There is no living soul with which I could think out loud and feel as I do with you,” she told him.

Gogol’s letters to Smirnova-Rosset were warm and tender: “I wish to see you with all of my heart… I adore your wonderful heart… Whenever you feel depressed, I will be with you, even if I have to travel long distances; I will fly over them, and there will be the third one present to console you, our Lord Jesus Christ.” Gogol was concerned about her emotional condition and wanted to know about her relationships with her husband. He gave her advice on how a Christian woman should treat her husband, without condemning others for spreading gossips about their relationship: “You and I connected because of the mutual need for help and for each other that was in our souls, but they were unable to comprehend this.”

Gogol’s friendship with Smirnova-Rosset started and developed during the hard period in his creative pursuits. This was his last period in which he reached the heights of the human spirit, and this marked his writings. Russian critics branded him as a reactionary author, lashing out at him for his mysticism and departure from his satirical portrayal of realities. It was true that Gogol had by then refused to condemn any fellow human, even in his writings, and discarded his satirical style (in his case this meant elevation to a higher spiritual level). The world tagged it as a loss of talent. Precisely when Gogol felt he loved all living beings, he found himself ostracized and experienced a major personal tragedy.

There was only one fellow human, namely Smirnova-Rosset, who understood and supported him. She realized that Gogol had entered a new phase of his life and was improving his soul, especially after his trip to Jerusalem where he visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. From then on this was the purpose of his life and work — to fight for the betterment of his own soul and the soles of his close ones. Only a sensitive female heart was able to perceive this. With gratitude and warmth Gogol called her his “heavenly brother.”