Gothic Ruins: The Ghost of the Ukrainian Past in Panteleimon Kulish’s Mykhailo Charnyshenko, or Little Russia Eighty Years Ago

On September 30, 2014, Dr. Valeria Sobol, Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois, gave a talk on Gothic tropes in nineteenth-century Russian and Ukrainian literature, and discussed their significance in a novel by Panteleimon Kulish entitled Mykhailo Charnyshenko, or Little Russia Eighty Years Ago (1843). Kulish’s recognizably Gothic plot turns and characters reflect the writer’s complex attitude to the Ukrainian past and identity in their relation to the Russian imperial presence. This presentation is based on a chapter from Prof. Sobol’s current book project on the imperial Gothic in Russian literature.

Prof. Valeria Sobol giving her Noontime Scholars Lecture

Prof. Valeria Sobol giving her Noontime Scholars Lecture

In the beginning, Prof. Sobol outlined the origins of the term “Gothic,” the general characteristics of Gothic genre, and its manifestation in the Russian literary tradition. Similar to Western novels, Russian works feature sensational plots, shocking moral transgessions, and demonic villains. However, Russian Gothic aesthetics develop its own unique geography and imperial agenda. For example, the English Gothic novels are usually set in a southern Catholic country. A journey of northern Europeans to such lands is often described as time-traveling to the past. In Russia, this popular opposition between North and South turns into the distinction between the Empire’s center and its mysterious and dangerous borderlands  that were only recently integrated into its territory, such as Finland and Ukraine. For writers and readers of the early nineteenth century, Ukraine often became the nostalgic place that represents the irrevokably lost authentic past, including both the Russian historical past (Kievan Rus) and the Ukrainian national past that was being replaced by the narratives of Russian Empire.

Scholarly approaches to Gothic literature have shifted from literary methods that contextualized it as the counter-Enlightenment and the pre-Romantic tradition to psychoanalysis, and then to the focus on colonial subtext and power relations. Prof. Sobol argues that, within these theoretical frames, Ukraine can be interpreted as the uncanny colonized land. The common historical past with Russia, the proximity of the two languages, and their mixing allow the perception of Ukraine as a home-like space. This familiarity and the simultaneous cultural and linguistic otherness engender the unsettling feelings and mysteries. Importantly, Gothic tropes allow some Ukrainian authors to explore Ukrainian history and identity in ways that challenge the widespread portrayals of their land as exotic or provincial.

Panteleimon Kulish (1819-97) was a well-known writer, intellectual, ethnographer, and translator during his time. Included in the canon of Ukrainian literature, he is virtually unknown in Russia or in the West. His own background and identity were rather complex, as he wrote and published in both Russian and Ukrainian, and was a Russo- and Polonophile at the different periods of his life. His Ukrainian nationalist sentiment took shape as “kozakophil’stvo,” a movement that envisioned the Cossacks as part of European knighthood tradition, and later, as “khutorianstvo,” the idealization of Ukrainian rural life.

Mykhailo Charnyshenko or Little Russia Eighty Years Ago is the novel where Kulish carried out an antiquarian project of the restoration of the Ukrainian historical past.  Even its title refers to Walter Scott’s famous historical novel Waverley (‘Tis Sixty Years Since). Kulish’s plot is based on a generational conflict where the eponymous protagonist does not share his father’s antiquarian interests or his Romantic fascination with Ukrainian heroic past. Perplexingly, Mykhailo’s still existing wish to connect with that heroic heritage manifests itself in him joining the Russian imperial army. The supernatural and tragic Gothic plot unfolds after Mykhailo accidentally burns their old ancestral house, and his father curses him. The protagonist’s readiness to enter the imperial hierarchy signifies his break from Ukrainian authenticity, which is severely punished and results in death. The burnt house becomes the embodiment of the uncanny, the unhome-like home. It functions as the symbolic ruin that signals a temporal rupture between the imperial present and the unattainable national past.

Kulish’s exploration of the relationship between Russian imperial power and Ukrainian identity is further complicated by the presence of the exotisized Serbian characters. They play the role of the apparently necessary Oriental other, and their conversations in actual Serbian turn the language of the novel into the uncanny, not fully comprehensible mixture.  Mixing of the languages and the combination of historical and Gothic elements in the narrative exposes the struggles of Kulish and his fellow authors and intellectuals in their pursuit for the continuity of Ukrainian history and culture.

Irina Avkhimovich is a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian literature, theater, and post-colonial studies. She is currently working on her dissertation project that examines historical themes and constructions of national identity in early Russian drama. 

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