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.
Act IV, Scene X
MERCHANTS: God help us! There's never been a mayor like
him. You see him coming, and you hide everything in the shop. And not just
delicacies -- he takes any old trash. Prunes that have been lying in the barrel
seven years and even the boy in my shop wouldn't eat -- he grabs a whole fistful.…
KHLESTAKOV: What a swindler! He should go straight to Siberia!…
MERCHANTS: The further from us the better. Father, don't scorn our bread and salt. We are paying our respects with sugar and a basket of wine.
KHLESTAKOV: No, no. Don't think of it. I don't take bribes. But if, for example, you'd offer me a loan of 300 rubles, that's quite different. I'm willing to take a loan.
MERCHANTS: If you please, father. [They take out money.] But what is 300? Better take 500. You have to help us.
KHLESTAKOV: A loan, and I won't say a word. I'll take it.
MERCHANTS [presenting him the money on a silver tray]: Do please take the tray, too.
KHLESTAKOV: Well, I could take the tray.
MERCHANTS [bowing]: And take the sugar as well.
KHLESTAKOV: Oh, no, I don't take bribes.
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."