How Gogol* Explains the Post-Soviet World

(*And Chekhov and Dostoyevsky.) The case for (re)reading Russia's greatest literary classics.

By , a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, 15 new states emerged from the wreck of the Soviet Union, uneven shards from a broken monolith. One story turned into 15. Most Soviet watchers have been struggling to keep up ever since. How to tell these multiple stories?

Twenty years ago, 15 new states emerged from the wreck of the Soviet Union, uneven shards from a broken monolith. One story turned into 15. Most Soviet watchers have been struggling to keep up ever since. How to tell these multiple stories?

In retrospect, it is evident that Western commentators failed to predict or explain what has happened to these countries: their lurches from one crisis to another, weird hybrid political systems, unstable stability.

Commentators have long tried to project models from the rest of the world ("transition to a market economy," "evolution of a party system") onto countries that have very different histories and cultural assumptions from the West and often from each other. I have read about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s "ethnocentric patriotism," his "delegative democracy trap," and his building of a "neo-patrimonial state" — all very intelligent stuff. What I take away from such jargon is a nicely constructed model or two (for both Putin and the political scientists), but not the insights I seek into a living society.

So here is a not entirely frivolous suggestion: How about skipping the political science textbooks when it comes to trying to understand the former Soviet Union and instead opening up the pages of Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky?

This is not just a thought experiment; the works these authors wrote in the 19th and early 20th centuries turn out to be surprisingly applicable to today’s politics in a broad swath of the former Soviet space, whether it’s the unexpected fragility of Putin’s authoritarian rule in Russia or the perpetually failed efforts to modernize next-door Ukraine. There’s a reason: Most of the former Soviet countries emerged from two centuries of Russian-dominated autocracy, an autocracy that just happened to have produced some of the greatest literature the world has ever seen. Some have argued that the one helped produce the other, that the rigors of tsarist-era censorship, the aridity of public service, and the educated classes’ hunger for intellectual nourishment all helped stimulate great writing. Pushkin and Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky were more than just cultural commentators — they were public celebrities and the key moral and intellectual voices of their age. They were idolized because they described the predicament readers found themselves in — and still do.

In her surprising 2010 bestseller, The Possessed, Elif Batuman makes the case for why Russian literature can be a guide to most of life’s questions, big and small. "Tatyana and Onegin, Anna and Vronsky," she writes, recalling some of the Russian canon’s most famous characters, "at every step, the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love appeared bound up with Russian."

My idea here is a little more modest: a brief sketch of how three great works of Russian literature can be mapped onto the stories of the three post-Soviet countries in which Western commentators take the keenest interest: Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. These classics, each more than a century old, provide both the specific detail and the grand panorama that are lacking in a shelf full of overmodeled political analysis.

Russia as Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector

A great burden of Russia is that it has never rid itself of the habit of feudalism, of personalized power. Up until the late 19th century, enslaved serfs constituted a majority of the Russian population. Nor were the landowners who ruled the serfs independent — they served the state and owned property at the mercy of the tsar. The Soviet system reconstituted that hierarchy, this time with centralized ownership of property and the monopoly of the Communist Party. In recent years, Putin has repackaged it yet again for the post-Soviet era, imposing a so-called "power vertical" even while allowing his citizens a much greater degree of private space.

But, as Putin has recently discovered, the system is surprisingly brittle. It requires constant maintenance, as it is built on a chain of dependencies that are oiled by favors and kickbacks and riddled with suspicion and duplicity.

It can break down quickly. A tsar can get too willful or sick or run out of money to pay his bills, at which point Russian citizens are fully capable of challenging their rulers — if they think it is worth the effort. As Russia scholar Sam Greene has put it, "There is a common myth … that Russians are passive. This is not true: Russians are aggressively immobile." By this he means that Russians are naturally conservative, preferring to focus on survival strategies rather than take risks that might make their situation worse. If they feel the emperor has no clothes, though, they will protest. That’s what happened from 1989 to 1991, when the whole Soviet edifice crumbled, and, on a more modest scale, in recent months since the rigging of December’s parliamentary elections.

Which brings me irresistibly to Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Gogol is the master cartoonist of Russian life. You could say he is savagely affectionate about Russia. His only full-length play is Russia’s greatest stage comedy and its most devastating satire, a mirror of Russia’s habit of replicating petty despotism from tsar to serf. When Nicholas I watched an early performance in 1836, he famously exclaimed, "We all got it in the neck — and me most of all."

The plot is simple: The corrupt mayor of a small town is tipped off that a government inspector from St. Petersburg is arriving to investigate how local affairs are being run. This causes panic! Everyone is taking bribes, money for a new hospital was siphoned off and nothing was built, and geese are nesting in the front hall of the underused courthouse.

Then the mayor and his underlings disastrously mistake a young city man living at the town’s hotel for the inspector. Khlestakov, as the guest is called, is in fact a wastrel brazenly running up credit, having lost all his money in a game of cards. He quickly takes advantage of the obsequious attentions of the town officials, proceeding to fleece the local bureaucrats for money and seduce the mayor’s wife and daughter with wildly embroidered tales of life in St. Petersburg.

Just like Russian history of the last century, the play’s denouement brings a cycle of revolt, absolutism, and collapse. A crowd of mutinous merchants complains to the newcomer about the mayor’s abuses. The mayor trumps them by announcing that Khlestakov has proposed to his daughter and will take the family to St. Petersburg. The mayor lords it over a cowed merchant, telling him, "Now you are sprawling at my feet. Why? Because I’ve got the upper hand, but if the balance tipped just a bit your way, then, you rascal, you would trample me in the mud and club me on the head into the bargain."

Then the balance does tip. With Khlestakov having skipped town, the postman covertly opens a letter the fraudster has written bragging about the hoax he has perpetrated. The whole illusion shatters, and the town is struck dumb by the news that the real government inspector has arrived. At the end, the distraught mayor tells both his subordinates and the audience, "What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves!"

In Putin’s Russia, as in that of Nicholas I, everyone knows his or her place and colludes in corrupt practices, out of self-interest or inertia or both. But it all depends on the man at the top — the tsar, the mayor, the president. When the illusion of authority evaporates — the inspector is a fraud, the president overreaches — everything can crumble quickly. In the play, order is re-established quickly too: The new inspector will impose his will. In the play’s celebrated closing "dumb scene," though, the characters are struck speechless, and we glimpse a moment of existential terror.

Russia’s recurring predicament is to swing between autocratic order and societal breakdown, which is how most Russians experienced the post-Soviet 1990s. The Government Inspector poses the same dilemma. If Gogol has a lesson here for Russia’s current civic protesters, it is that they must strive to change the system itself, not just the man at the head of it.

Ukraine as Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard

Ukraine is a large, peaceful country that does little to make an impression on the world. It lacks its big neighbor’s Great Power complex and nuclear weapons, playing a sort of Canada to Russia’s United States. 

Certainly, Ukraine’s post-Soviet statehood is now real and irreversible. In the two decades of its independence, it has twice achieved what Russia has failed to: the handover of power from government to opposition.

It has failed, however, to deliver tangible material benefits to ordinary people. In a recent Pew Research Center survey of Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania, the most negative attitude was from Ukrainian respondents. More than half of them said they disapproved of the post-Soviet transition to multiparty democracy and a market economy, a higher figure than in Russia. Almost three-quarters said ordinary people had benefited "not too much" or "not at all" from the changes since 1991. Top-level corruption is a fact of life. Ukrainian politics, too, have veered from the brave civic activism of the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, when protesters overturned a rigged election after Viktor Yanukovych was wrongly declared to have defeated opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, to a Yushchenko presidency so disappointing that in 2010 voters elected Yanukovych anyway.

The country seems to be, in scholar Lilia Shevtsova’s phrase, "lost in transition." Internationally, rather than acting as a dynamic bridge between Europe and Russia, Ukraine has become, as my colleague Olga Shumylo-Tapiola has put it, a "gray zone" somewhere in between. Ukraine is stuck.

This sends me back to the wonderful Anton Chekhov, the poet of the mundane. Better than any author, Chekhov conveys how drama happens without drama. He famously wrote, "People eat their lunch, just eat their lunch, and at the same time their happiness is taking shape or their lives are shattered."

Many of his characters have a charming but fatal habit of thinking great thoughts while the world passes them by. Maybe we can better understand Yushchenko’s underwhelming presidency if we compare him to the eminently likable Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin in Three Sisters, who spends much of the play dreamily predicting how, "in two or three hundred years, life on Earth will be unimaginably beautiful, marvelous" — while utterly failing to act in the present.

But it is Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, which best evokes the dilemma of being Ukraine. The year is about 1900. A charming but feckless aristocrat, Lyubov Ranevskaya, returns from Paris to her family estate in eastern Ukraine and must sell the house and its famous cherry orchard to pay off a mountain of debt. A veritable social slide show of the era passes through the house: a rich new businessman, Yermolai Lopakhin, the son of a serf who can now afford to buy and cut down the cherry orchard; a revolutionary "eternal student" who announces that he is "above love"; an uprooted German governess; down-at-the-heels aristocratic neighbors; and uppity servants who make fun of their masters.

They are all in the same house, thinking they are talking to each other but actually talking past each other. We see that, and they don’t.

The play builds to a dramatic close. A party is held as the estate is put up for auction, and the ex-serf Lopakhin triumphantly buys it. He extravagantly orders the gypsy musicians to play and then tries to console Ranevskaya, "Oh, how I wish it would all pass and our disjointed unhappy life would change quickly!" But there is no revolution, only more gentle muddle. Everyone just moves on — or back to Paris, in the case of Ranevskaya. Her indolent aristocratic brother takes a job in a bank. Only Firs, the elderly deaf servant, is left behind in the abandoned house, and that is by mistake.

A mixed inheritance, missed opportunities, the triumph of new money, transition without arrival. This is the story of Ukraine, a modern European country of 45 million people that is not really going anywhere. Through the poetic veil of The Cherry Orchard, we can see that one of Ukraine’s key problems is that the thinkers who dream of a brave new life — in their case, a destiny for their country as part of Europe — don’t actually know how to make it happen. Yet Chekhov called The Cherry Orchard a comedy. He wants us to understand that no one is in terminal suffering. At least Ukraine today is still more comedy than tragedy. But can its citizens start to have a proper conversation with each other about their future?

Georgia as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

All 15 republics of the Soviet Union that gained independence on Dec. 25, 1991, save Russia, were patricides: They killed their Russian father to gain their freedom. Everywhere, the separation was a painful one, but nowhere more so than in Georgia, a country whose elite, over two centuries of empire, had forged strong ties with Russians through the aristocracy, the Orthodox Church, and the Bolshevik brotherhood. The story gets even more complex considering that, for 30 years of the 20th century, it was a Russified Georgian, Joseph Stalin, who was the abusive parent.

In 1991, Georgia slew both Russia and its own Stalin complex after an intense outbreak of nationalism, when it threw off Soviet rule. Two presidents succeeded each other in years of drama and civil war. Then in Georgia’s peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution, U.S.-educated lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili, only 35 years old at the time, engaged in another act of patricide, ousting the man who had once been his patron, veteran Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili has said he was skipping a generation in Georgia and that the country needed to "start from scratch." Out went virtually the entire former bureaucracy and its regulations. In came a group of 20- and 30-somethings educated abroad, forming the youngest government in Europe.

Now take a look at Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Like the modern history of Georgia, Dostoyevsky’s plots are all about crisis and revelation, both real and imagined. The drama and its philosophical insights are made by romantic, impulsive, life-loving characters engaged in perpetual argument — surely Georgians!

In this novel a tyrannical father is murdered, and even if none of the man’s three sons actually committed the deed, each must confront his secret patricidal desire to see the old man dead. Dostoyevsky’s most fascinating creation is the fiercely intelligent 24-year-old student Ivan Karamazov. He is obsessed with utopian theories about how to end suffering in the world and ready to contemplate extreme measures to make it happen.

In the book’s most famous chapter, Ivan tells his fable of a Grand Inquisitor from 16th-century Spain rebuking Jesus Christ for granting humanity the "burden of free will," which had brought only unhappiness. He envisions instead a small caste of enlightened rulers who will govern the masses in their best interest, while blinding them with deliberate mystification. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, "All will be happy, all the millions of beings, except for the hundred thousand who govern them. For only we, we, who preserve the mystery, only we shall be unhappy."

Ivan is a close fit for today’s young Georgian reformers: intense, arrogant, and philosophical. In a modern incarnation he would perhaps have studied in the United States on a Muskie fellowship, would have served as a deputy minister, and would now be a 24/7 blogger with a column in the new elite’s in-house magazine, Tabula.

I had an online debate with one such Georgian a few months ago. He tenaciously supported the U.S. government’s use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" against terrorism suspects during the George W. Bush era, while I called it "torture." When I wrote that he reminded me of Ivan Karamazov, he replied, "Dostoevsky would not be my choice to seek advice on military strategy and tactics. To apply individual morality is philosophical error that leads to morally indefensible catastrophic consequences." To my mind, a perfect Ivan Karamazov response!

The new Georgian generation has certainly done impressive things. In many ways Georgia has been transformed since 2004. The tax and customs systems have been overhauled, public service streamlined, and new cities and road systems planned. But there has been a cost. The new elite is perceived as arrogant and unaccountable — one reason it got dragged into a war with Russia in the summer of 2008. Corruption and criminality, which had plagued Georgia for a generation, have been suppressed — but at the price of the creation of a new, feared police force seemingly answerable to no one.

According to U.S. State Department cables published by WikiLeaks, the Georgian governing elite’s most articulate spokesman, Giga Bokeria, told the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi in 2008 that the Georgian president "believed that he did not have the luxury of developing consensus in order to bring irreversible democratic change to Georgia" and that "reform would stop" if the opposition did well in the elections. This idea of "reform before democracy" (some would call it the ends justifying the means) has a philosophical lineage that goes beyond the 20th-century Bolsheviks and further back to the Russian radical thinkers of the mid-19th century. Dostoyevsky spells out how dangerous that can be: In his novel, Ivan Karamazov’s single-minded pursuit of a rational utopia and the strain of his father’s death lead him to hallucinations and the brink of a nervous breakdown. The Georgian government is some way from that point. But the warning is there. 

Thomas de Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe.

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