Where Russian authors are concerned Gogol often is overshadowed by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. While Dostoevsky is still the Master, Gogol is a better storyteller. While Tolstoy powerfully captures the human dimension, Gogol has a tighter grip on his narrative. Gogol’s outlook is tough to pin down. While he is a Petersburg urbanite, he knows that the Masonic civilization a la Peter the Great is an imposition of matter upon reality. The true life is found in hearth, home, and (as in the case of the Cossacks) on horse.
In “Diary of a Madman” Gogol exposes our vain pretensions. Yes, the story is silly and absurd. The man is a bureacrat (and note how similar government workers are in every society). His job is a joke. He does nothing but drain the resources of society (like the US Congress). And he knows it. And the audience knows it.
The book climaxes in “Taras Bulba.” This makes readers uncomfortable on many levels. 1) Gogol praises Russian Orthodoxy. 2) Gogol describes the brutalities committed by the Cossacks. 3) Gogol has the Cossacks as the good guys. What do we make of this? Gogol does not justify the Cossacks’ brutality, but the question looms in the background: which is worse–waging a defensive (albeit very brutal) war in defense of your home and to keep your churches from being desecrated OR to destroy the lives of thousands from a government office in the capital city, divorced from the hard and painful realities of human life? Gogol is not merely writing a short story about Ukrainian nationalism, but he is showing two types of barbarity–cold, heartless bureacracy and heated, contextualized warfare. Which is worse, then?
Given the question, the Cossacks’ actions take on a more meaningful role (and accordingly, the government bureacracy is delegitimized). On another level, Gogol may very well have solved the problem of different types of nationalisms working together despite themselves. These Cossacks are not Russian, but Ukrainian, but as Bulba is burned alive he shouts his faith in Christ and in the Russian Tsar. In short, Gogol is hinting at a Slavic federation which sees Russia as its leader (simply out of necessity).