No Comment, Quotation — August 29, 2009, 7:53 am

Gogol’ – Those Damned Liberals!

pobedonostsev_by_repin

O????????! ????? ? ?????? – ??? ???? ?????????! ????? ??? ? ????? ? ??????????!.. ??? ????????, ????????, ???? ???, ??? ????????????, ??? ????????, ??? ???????? ??????????! ?????????, ??????, ??????? ???????! ?? ??, ???????????! ????????, ?????? ?????? ?? ??????? ????????! ??? ?? ?????? ?? ???? ?????? ???????? ?????????????! ???????? ?? ????? ????? ???????. ???????? ??? ??????? ? ????????? – ???????? ????????, ????????????, ? ??????? ???? ???????. ??? ??? ??????! ????, ?????? ?? ???????, ? ????? ??? ??????? ???? ? ???? ? ??????. ???? ????????? – ??? ????? ????????!.. ?? ??!.. ? ?? ???? ???? ???????????! ?, ?????????, ???????? ?????????! ??????? ????! ????? ?? ??? ???? ???????, ? ???? ?? ???? ??? ???? ?? ????? ? ?????????! ? ????? ???? ???!.. ?? ??? ??? ?? ???? ?????? ? ????. ???, ????????, ???? ??? ????? ????????, ?? ??????? ?????? ?????. ?? ??? ???? ? ???? ?????????? ???????? ?? ????????? ?????? ?? ????! ??? ?????? ?? ?????????? ?? ???? ???????? – ? ????? ???: ???????! ???????! ?? ??? ?????? ????????, ??? ?? ???????? ?????????!

Engaged! Rats! Fiddlesticks!
So much for your engagement! Thrusts her
engagement at me now! Here, look at
me! Look at me, the whole world, the whole of Christendom.
See what a fool the governor was made of. Out
upon him, the fool, the old scoundrel! Oh, you fat-nose! To take an icicle, a rag
for a personage of rank! Now his coach bells are jingling
all along the road. He is publishing the story to
the whole world. Not only will you be made a laughing-stock
of, but some scribbler, some ink-splasher will put
you into a comedy. There’s the horrid sting. He won’t
spare either rank or station. And everybody will grin
and clap his hands. What are you laughing at? You
are laughing at yourself, oh you!
I would give it to all those ink-splashers! You scribblers,
damned liberals, devil’s brood! I would tie you
all up in a bundle, I would grind you into meal, and
give it to the devil. I can’t come
to myself. It’s really true, whom the gods want to punish
they first make mad. In what did that nincompoop
resemble an inspector-general? In nothing, not even
half the little finger of an inspector-general. And all
of a sudden everybody is going about saying, “Inspector-general,
inspector-general.” Who was the first to say
it? Tell me.

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’, ??????? (The Inspector General), act v, scene viii (1836)


The office of revizor, or inspector general, was brought to Russia by the Tsar Peter the Great with the idea of providing an extra pair of eyes for the tsar, penetrating into the depths of society and exposing what was most ridiculous and corrupt. But as Gogol’ showed, this was not just a powerful political tool, it was also a vehicle for the most biting satire—biting because it could expose the seedy underside of society, that which was known, understood and swept under the carpet. But the inspector general of Gogol’s play exposes not only petty corruption, but also the obsequious conduct of the aspiring classes when they stand before a figure of apparent power. It shows how the presence of that figure corrupts and distorts their conduct. Still, Gogol’ writes of Khlestakov, the protagonist of his great play, in almost religious terms: “he is our national conscience, who will force us, once and for all, to take a long hard look at ourselves. Nothing remains hidden from this inspector, for he is sent by command of the Almighty.”

At one level, The Inspector General is a rather conventional comedy of mistaken identity. Word reaches a country town that an inspector general will soon arrive from St Petersburg, possessed of a “secret mandate” to examine the town and its administrators. Suspicion soon comes to rest on a polite and well-dressed young man staying at the inn. Taken for the inspector general, Khlestakov is on the receiving end of predictable blandishments as the town’s leaders compete for access and a good word. Khlestakov did not perhaps initially deceive anyone, but he soon understands what is happening and plays along for the ride, taking full advantage of what is offered him, and seeking the hand of the mayor’s daughter. Then two shocks come, as Khlestakov is exposed as a “nobody,” and word quickly comes of the arrival of the real inspector general.

A key aspect of Gogol’s work focused on the chasm between a society’s formal values and its actual functioning. That, indeed, helps account for Gogol’s very effective use of the grotesque and of a series of dream- or trance-like sequences—when the mayor’s wife changes her gown fifteen times before a mirror, for instance. Gogol’ gives us distorted faces, cartoonish figures—but his real focus is on the distortion of human souls, on the obsession of an appearance of normalcy that cloaks a sordid reality. “The sergeant’s widow told you a lie when she said I flogged her. I never flogged her. She flogged herself.” That quip from act iv exacts laughter as its pay, but it points to a heart twisted with inhumanity, cruelty and lies. The supposed inspector general is extracting a precious commodity from those with whom he meets: the truth. He turns out to be a mirror that shows them for what they really are.

It’s typical for his time that Gogol’ portrays the petty gentry who are his particular subjects as arch-conservatives, even reactionaries. They live lives of privilege in which the system of blat or petty corruption is an accepted fact, the right of the minor official to supplement his income. And they strive for more. And in the Inspector General the idea of accountability before the law, that petty officials must actually obey the law and not simply what seems to them most expedient, is pronounced a “liberal” idea—a label that contains as much disdain as if it fell from the lips of Rush Limbaugh in a radio broadcast this week. And indeed it is—a liberal aspiration, that we should actually try to live the rules we pronounce as law.

So why should the Inspector General matter for us today? We also live in a world where our values are too easily compromised and dismissed by the interests of petty politics. Those who read carefully will see evidence of that in the newspapers that each day brings. We listen to journalists of the chattering classes address concerns about the gravest abandonment of law and principle—“in a perfect world, perhaps,” they whisper, acknowledging and dismissing with the same breath. Has an inspector general arrived in the village? We can only hope. In any event, Gogol’ could easily lay the scene for a new Inspector General in a village on the banks of the Potomac.


Ilya Repin prepared this study of Konstantin Pobedonostsev for one of his great pre-revolutionary works, the State Council. Pobedonostsev was the very definition of archconservative of the late Romanov era, a lawyer and Oberprokurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. Podedonostsev could be understood as the James Dobson of his age. He pushed the excommunication of Tolstoy for his “radical” views about Christianity, he denounced Western thought of his age as “dangerous” and “nihilistic” and particularly condemned Darwin. He detested the idea of democracy as rule by a “vulgar crowd,” and he despised and railed against legal reforms like the introduction of trial by jury and the introduction of press freedom. Many have seen in him the very model of Dostoevsky’s cardinal-inquisitor. That may be so, but in fact Pobedonostsev and Dostoevsky were good friends and correspondents. Very fittingly, Repin presents him as a man lacking eyes and dominated by his uniform.


Listen to music from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Ivan the Terrible, the authoritarian dilemma put to music.

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