Icon of the Three-Handed, St. Nicholas Cathedral, St. Petersburg
Троеручица (The Three-Handed)
Moscow, February, 1842
Ekaterina Mikhailovna, sister of the poet Nikolai Mikhailovich Yazykov, was no Russian beauty, but there was an aura of beatitude about her. She was only five years old when her father died. After that she grew up under the sole influence of her pious mother. She and her mother worshipped together, read through the long list of morning and evening prayers. They kept the fasts with utter diligence and spent hours every week bowing down before the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy: the Mother of God of Vladimir, the Three-Handed Theotokos, the healer St. Panteleimon.
As a small girl Katya Yazykova would read aloud, drunk with the sound of her own voice, of saints and martyrs and holy fools, who, despising all that was crass and earthly, embraced the ethereal, who lived in hovels out in the desert, mortifying their corrupt flesh with its passions and lusts. At age nine she wept for months on end, praying and keening, hoping to attain to “the gift of tears.” At ten she went on an extended fast, eating little but bread and water for forty days. This feat of zealotry alarmed even her mother, but the little girl said, “No, it’s all right, Mama. I want to fast my way through to a mantic dream; I hope to speak with the Holy Mother herself.”
It is not known whether Katya was ever vouchsafed to see the Mother of God in her dreams, but she seemed destined for a nunnery, at least until she met the renowned Slavophile philosopher and poet, Aleksei Khomyakov. After their marriage, in 1836, when she was nineteen, her life was centered largely on family and children, although the ideal of the fleshless existence never lost its appeal.
Ekaterina Mikhailovna became hostess for weekly gatherings of intellectuals and literary figures at the Khomyakov mansion in Moscow. Those who attended the meetings were like-minded Slavophiles, firm believers in Eastern Orthodoxy and the holy mission of Russia. Among them was the comic writer Nikolai Gogol, who had first met Ekaterina Mikhailovna and her husband through her brother, one of his closest friends.
On those brisk wintry evenings with the pallid yellow of streetlamps flickering on white frost, Gogol would come to call on the Khomyakovs. The famous author, thirty-three years old that winter, was short in stature, with a long pointed nose, a slender build and blond hair. He would smile at his hosts, toss off a few good-natured remarks, then walk across the drawing room with that peculiar rapid, herky-jerky gait of his. Standing in a corner, wearing his pale-blue vest and trousers of a mauve hue, he reminded one guest of the kind of stork you see in the Ukraine—perched on one leg high up on a roof, with a strangely pensive demeanor.
In Gogol’s personality there was something evasive, forced and constrained. He often appeared to be putting on an act, trying to make people laugh; no one ever seemed to know the real Gogol. Early in his career the literary luminaries of the day (Pushkin, Pletnyov) underestimated him, looked upon him as a figure of fun. The poet Zhukovsky fondly called him by a silly nickname, “Gogolyok.” Especially in the last ten years of his life his nerves were in perpetual disarray. But with her, with Ekaterina Mikhailovna, Gogol was almost natural.
Whenever he arrived he was inevitably drawn to her. Was the attraction sensual in any way? Hardly. In the whole of his solitary life Gogol apparently never lusted for women. What he loved in her was her aura of gentle piety. They would sit together in a corner, drinking tea, speaking in low voices. Gogol showed her little of the raucous, hilarious side of himself, the Gogol who could have people literally crawling on all fours, overcome with laughter. He never told her the off-color stories he loved to tell, most certainly never indulged his bent for scatology. With her he relaxed, he gazed into her lambent grey eyes. Pulled gently into the quiescence that she exuded, he bathed in its soft glow. Like her, he had been raised in Orthodox Christianity, and the longer he lived the more his religion took precedence over everything else.
The conversation tonight, as almost always, was one-sided. Gogol did the talking, while she listened to him, responded with her luminous eyes, her soft smile.
“You know, for years I’ve been planning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to pray at the sepulchre of Jesus Christ, Our Lord.”
No answer. Just the smile, the light in her grey eyes. She looked at him, taking him in without judging him. “Judge not” (Не судите) were two words she repeated incessantly, silently to herself. Her mother had taught her to do that. Gogol’s long blond hair fell straight down from the temples almost to his shoulders, forming parentheses around his gaunt face. His eyes were small and brown; they would flash occasionally with merriment. His lips were soft, puffy beneath his clipped mustache, and the nose was bird-like. Now the mouth was moving again, and she watched it form words.
“I’ll go there for sure. Some day. Just now I don’t have the energy. My bowels are giving me fits again. Did I ever tell you that I was once examined by the best doctors of Paris, and they discovered that my stomach was upside down?”
He smiled wanly when he told her that, and, as so often with Gogol, she could not be sure if he was joking or in dead earnest.
“I think you mentioned that to my brother,” she replied, unsmiling, touching his wrist with her hand.
Silence. She was reciting the Jesus Prayer in her mind: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, pray for me, a sinner.”
“What are you thinking?” he asked her.
“Nothing. I’m listening to what you say. I love your voice.”
That dreamy expression on her face, the very look of her calmed his soul.
“Maybe we could all go together—to Jerusalem—you and your husband, and your brother Nikolai. Would you like that?”
(Smiling) “I think it’s a marvelous idea.”
“Who on earth do I love more than you and Nikolai? No one. Some of my happiest memories consist of just his presence in my life. The time we’ve spent traveling together in Europe, or taking the waters. I treasure the memory of those moments.”
“My brother loves being with you as well. He’s been quite ill you know, for some time, but you always cheer him up.”
“I pray for him. Every day. I know that all will be well, for the Lord is merciful.”
She nodded but did not answer. He looked in her eyes again, then recalled a line from Nikolai Yazykov’s poetry and said it aloud, still gazing in her eyes and smiling: “Милы очи ваши ясны (Sweet they are, your clear pure eyes).”
Karl Gampeln portrait of E.M. Khomyakova