May 01, 2002

Russian Serfs and Nikolai Gogol


Russian Serfs and Nikolai Gogol

The system of serfs and masters was practices in many European countries, as well as in Russia. In Russia, a serf, or soul, was a person who was attached to an estate, usually land. The worth of the estate was determined by the number of souls owned by it, not by its acreage or output. Likewise, the status of the squire or master was based on how many souls he possessed.

Serfs worked the master's land and paid him rent for small, individual plots. In some cases, serfs lived in town, practiced a craft or trade and paid and agreed fee to their master. The master was not, personally, liable for any taxes. It was his responsibility, however, to make sure taxes were paid by his serfs. The master was obligated, by law, to collect the annual taxes from each serf and present the sum to the government. The tax was determined by the number of male serfs attached to the master. This number was based on a periodic census. Additionally, mortgages and land could be obtained from the government only if one demonstrated a strong inventory of serfs to work the land and pay taxes.

We can agree that this was a fairly inhumane system not much better than out right slavery. In the first half of the 19th century, serfs comprised roughly one-third of the total population of Russia. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II issued his Emancipation Edict, freeing the serfs. The newly freed peasants were to be allowed to purchase land from their former masters.

The manner in which the tax was accessed and ones eligibility to obtain land from the government created a situation open to a rather morbid and dishonest practice. While there is little to indicate that this actually happened, it certainly is feasible. Let us say you are a master and own 100 male serfs when the census is taken. Prior to the next census; several years later; twenty of your serfs die. Until the next census, you are still responsible for taxes on 100 serfs. Thus, you have to come up with tax money for 20 dead, non-producing individuals. The only way to not be responsible for the tax on a serf is to sell him. The tax obligation is transferred to the buyer at the time of the sale. On the other hand, let us say you are a gentleman who wants to obtain a mortgage and land from the government. You don't own any serfs and cannot readily afford the full price for them. One way to expedite the process would be to buy dead souls. Since the government is only interested in what is on paper, you can, for a reduced fee, obtain the needed number of serfs. The seller is happy to oblige as this relieves him of the tax burden on non-producing individuals. The fee he charges to sell the dead souls goes towards the purchase of living serfs. The buyer gets his land and, when the next census rolls around, reports the serfs as dead.

This is the basis of Nikolai Gogol's novel, Dead Souls. Gogol was born to a landowner in 1809. He grew up on his family's estate in Poltava, Ukraine. In 1828, Gogol moved to St. Petersburg, got a government job and published the two volumes of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. This is a collection of short stories based on Ukrainian folklore. His next project was a history of Russia. The work never happened, but, the plan won him a position in the history department at the University of St. Petersburg which he held until 1835.

Gogol published Taras Bulba and The Overcoat during this period. In 1836, his comedy, The Inspector General, was presented. This play was heavily criticized as unpatriotic and caused Gogol to, voluntarily, exile himself from his homeland. He spent the next twelve years living, primarily, in Rome. While in exile, Gogol completed Dead Souls and published it in 1842. For the following ten years, Gogol struggled to write a sequel to Dead Souls to no avail. He burned the manuscripts just days before his death in February of 1852.

Dead Souls was written over a period of several years. The first few chapters were published first and were met with accusation of national betrayal. As a result, the final chapters of the work hint at an upcoming sequel which will portray the characters in a more positive light. Even though Gogol burned the manuscripts to the sequel, some notes and passages survived. His attempt at shedding a more positive light on his story was unsuccessful. As he wrote from Italy, his homesickness shows in his descriptions of the Russian steppes.

Dead Souls is not an epic novel and does not take long to read. But, it is one which begs to be reread several times. The buying and selling of souls, dead or alive, is a morbid topic. Whether the merchandising of dead souls actually occurred is almost irrelevant to the deeper issue presented by Gogol; the value of human life. This is something he obviously struggled with. like his contemporary, Leo Tolstoy, Gogol came from the upper class and was seen as a traitor to his class. He died young at the age of just 41, only nine years before Alexander's Emancipation Edict.

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