Dead Souls


Read 27/10/2021-17/11/2021

Rating 5 stars

Next on my literary tour of Europe, I’m off to Russia. Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls is set in an unspecified Russian provincial capital, only referred to as N—. This undefined location means that I can fudge my journey on the map and visit Kaliningrad. This city is also a Russian provincial capital, but in a small exclave of Russia that sits on the Baltic coast between Lithuania and Poland, the Kaliningrad Oblast.

I’m also fudging things a bit with Gogol, who was born in Ukraine and only moved to St Petersburg when he was 19, after which he became a Russian citizen.

Like Vilnius, the city of Kaliningrad has a complex history of occupation. As Königsberg, it has been capital of its region in Prussia and Germany, with a short period in the 15th century as Królewiec when the region belonged to Poland. Also like Vilnius, it became part of the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Today, it’s the headquarters for Russia’s Baltic Fleet and was the best city in Russia three years running from 2012 to 2014.


There are a few cultural sites in Kaliningrad, ranging from museums and art galleries to theatres and concert halls. All of the museums date from Russia’s occupation of the region. The most recent is the Museum of the World Ocean, comprising five buildings, six maritime vessels and three historic sites.

There are cultural sites aplenty in N— for the protagonist of Dead Souls, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, although not in the form of museums or galleries. Dead Souls is a picaresque. Chichikov is its rogue, a travelling con man who appraises each place he visits to get the measure of its inhabitants. It’s also a morality tale about the nature of community, the pitfalls of welcoming unquestioned into your community a person about whom nothing of substance is known, and the way corruption and self-centred ambition often go hand in hand. I found it very pertinent to the world today in many ways, perhaps as much due to translator Donald Rayfield’s use of contemporary expressions as to Gogol’s understanding and criticism of human nature.

At the start of the novel, we’re told that N—, with its yellow painted stone buildings and its dark grey painted wooden buildings, satisfies Chichikov. The culture is found in its provincial nature, the suggestion that this is a lower, folksier culture than that of a big city. On his first day, Chichikov walks the town, noting its faded shop signs, its buildings and inhabitants, the river and a park of stunted trees. On his second day, he visits the town’s dignitaries, flattering them and receiving invitations to dinners and soirées in return. Over the course of the following week, he socialises with the dignitaries and becomes friendly with the landowners, laying the groundwork for the true purpose of his visit.

Chichikov has two servants, serfs who belong to him under Russia’s feudal system. Selifan is the coach driver, Petrushka the footman. Selifan is a man who lives by his stomach, always happy to make new acquaintances among his fellow peasants as long as there is food and drink involved. His love of drink makes for some humorous moments, as he drives his master around the countryside from village to village, ignoring directions and driving the horses so hard that he occasionally overturns the carriage. Petrushka, in contrast, is a man who loves books, even if he doesn’t really understand them, but doesn’t love cleanliness. Together, these serfs are Chichikov’s supporting cast in the picaresque, providing a contrast between the classes.

Gogol’s tone is light, mocking Russian society, satirising the relationships between the monied classes and Russia’s position in the world. After the intensity of Vilnius Poker, I enjoyed his company as the narrator of Dead Souls. Gogol often addresses the reader from the page, breaking the literary fourth wall, to explain some finer point of etiquette or attitude. He lets us know that a Russian landowner’s wealth isn’t measured in acres of land or rubles of produce, but in the souls of the serfs he or she owns. The taxation system is based on those same souls, measured at each census, with any peasants dying in between census years treated as still being living and the owner taxed accordingly. And as these souls can be taxed by the government, so their owners can find ways to monetise them. It is this system that Chichikov seeks to exploit.

Soon after befriending a couple of landowners at the governor’s soirée, Chichikov begins his campaign. He has early success with a landowner called Manilov, who is moved by their friendship to transfer ownership of his dead souls free of charge. This is followed by a less straightforward transaction with a widow called Korobochka, whom he stumbles across thanks to Selifan’s drunkenness. She cannot grasp what the transaction is, thinking it too modern for her. No matter how Chichikov explains it, she can’t understand that he is not only taking from her a responsibility that costs her 150 rubles a year, but is also giving her 15 rubles as payment.

What isn’t clear, for a good two thirds of the novel, is why Chichikov is doing this. He emotionally tells Manilov that he has no kith or kin, and has experienced hardships in his life, the suggestion being that this acquisition of the names of the dead on paper will bring him a sense of belonging and some respite from his troubles. Chichikov is so charming that few of his targets question this story, or feel any concern about how strange his acquisition of dead peasants is.

As the novel progresses, Chichikov falls in with other landowners, some by way of happenstance. Each encounter is different, illustrative of the range of types Gogol wishes to satirise. Rather than sell him the dead souls, the louche gambler Nozdriov attempts to play Chichikov at cards using a stacked deck. When he refuses, Nozdriov instead offers to play Chichikov at checkers, cheating so obviously that Chichikov refuses to finish the game. The encounter ends with Chichikov on the verge of a beating from Nozdriov’s servants, saved only by the arrival of a local police officer who arrests Nozdriov for failing to answer a charge of assaulting another landowner.

Nozdriov had waylaid Chichikov on his way to Sobakevich’s village. When he eventually reaches that destination, he finds Sobakevich to be more contrary than he remembers him from the governor’s soirée. Sobakevich names an inflated price for his dead souls, recognising that Chichikov can only want them for a scheme to his advantage. He haggles persistently, naming each dead serf and describing their valuable characteristics in life, successfully forcing Chichikov to pay more than he wanted to. It’s an irascible exchange, one that Chichikov almost walks away from, and one that opens him up to exposure, as Sobakevich insinuates that he will tell other landowners his own version of what Chichikov is up to.

In the course of his conversation with Sobakevich, Chichikov learns of another landowner, Pliushkin, who treats his serfs so badly that 18 have died in the past year alone. He senses that such a penny pinching man will be open to making money off those dead peasants, and heads to his village, trying to elude Sobakevich’s attention in the process. On Chichikov’s arrival, the housekeeper informs him that Pliushkin isn’t at home. On hearing that Chichikov is there on business, however, she instructs him to enter the house, where he waits in a dusty room crammed with dilapidated furniture and filthy artworks. A man he takes to be the butler appears, attired like a beggar, and announces himself to be the master of the house. It transpires that Pliushkin is a hoarder who not only doesn’t sell the produce of his estate, but accumulates rubbish picked up as he surveys his land and serfs. He was married once, with a family. His wife was friendly, his neighbours would visit regularly, seeking his advice on how to run an estate efficiently. On the death of his wife, though, Pliushkin retreated into himself, growing anxious and miserly. His eldest daughter eloped with a soldier against Pliushkin’s wishes, considering as he did that all military men were gamblers and spendthrifts. His son, instead of entering the civil service, enlisted in the army and was cut off by his father. Finally, his youngest daughter died, leaving him alone, growing increasingly miserly. Gogol paints a sorrowful picture.

His solitary life was ideal nourishment for miserliness, which, as we all know, has a voracious appetite and the more it devours, the more insatiable it becomes; his human feelings had never run deep and now they dried up with every passing minute, and every day something was lost in this tumbling ruin.

These aspects of reality are the mark of Gogol as a writer. He is akin to Dickens in his observations of regular life, away from the salons of the rich and cultured in the great cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. He contrasts himself self-deprecatingly with the type of writer who is more poet than chronicler.

Happy is the writer who transcends dreary, loathsome characters that strike one with their wretched reality, and who tackles ones that manifest lofty merits, the writer who has selected from the slough of daily recurrent images just those few exceptions … But how unlike is the lot, and how different is the fate, of the writer who has dared to bring to the surface everything that is constantly in front of our noses and which is invisible to indifferent eyes, all the frightful, shocking swamp of trivia that traps our lives … Such a writer will not receive the applause of the nation, nor will he behold tears of gratitude and the unanimous delight of the souls that he has stirred … Today’s arbiters do not recognize this truth and will use anything as a pretext to rebuke and revile the writer of no repute: without communion, response, or sympathy, like a solitary traveler, he will be left alone in mid-journey. His prospects are grim and his solitude will hit him hard.

Much of this is Gogol performing the role of author for comic effect, but, as with most comedy, there will have been an element of truth underpinning the exaggerated character of this author-as-narrator.

Chichikov, meanwhile, successfully completes his transactions with the landowners, using his popularity to push the paperwork through quickly. That popularity, though, means that his plan to quit the town immediately is derailed. Having heard about his purchase of serfs worth 120,000 rubles, many in the town assume that Chichikov is a millionaire and some begin plotting to find him a wife. He is persuaded to stay for a few more weeks, and is fêted at a ball thrown by the governor. The ladies of the town set their sights on him. The ball is like a scene from a Jane Austen novel, with dancing and showing of best aspects, and social chitchat, all aimed at capturing Chichikov’s attention. He laps it up until he is introduced to the governor’s daughter, a young woman he has previously briefly encoutered in a carriage collision. Her presence causes the loss of his usual composure and erudition and is the precursor to Chichikov’s fall from grace within the community of N—.

The women at the ball in particular are not impressed by Chichikov’s preference for the governor’s daughter, and gossip about him and her begins almost instantly. The society women are depicted as superficial, vainglorious and vicious. The town’s society is fractured by the twin revelations of Chichikov’s intent. Nozdriov turns up drunk at the ball and shouts out the nature of Chichikov’s secret, in relation to the purchase of dead souls. Initially, his revelation is dismissed, but then the widow Korobochka pays a frantic visit to the wife of the arch-priest, panicking about her transaction with Chichikov, thus confirming the story. The story of Korobochka’s panic gets mixed up with gossip from two society women that the dead souls story is a blind, and Chichikov’s real intent is the abduction of the governor’s daughter.

The town splits, the officials who have welcomed Chichikov begin to worry about their involvement in facilitating his plan, the corruption at the heart of Russian society is brought into the light, with a number of covered up deaths becoming the skewed focus of the dead souls question. An investigation is begun, with the vendors of the dead souls questioned, but their accounts are unreliable and sow more confusion among the officials. Chichikov is oblivious to all this, being under the weather following the ball, and only discovers his fall from grace three days later.

He leaves town in as much of a hurry as he can persuade Selifan to muster. During the interlude of his carriage journey, Gogol takes the opportunity to fill the reader in on Chichikov’s background. It’s not a pretty tale, and has a lot of relevance to life today. Chichikov learns early on to look out for number one. Starting at school, he develops the techniques of flattery and projection of an image of himself that means he can work those who will be of most use to him in order to improve his own lot. In the workplace, twice he manages to build his reputation to such an extent that he can get away with corrupt practices, although only for a limited time in each instance. His third attempt to work the system brings him to the scheme that underpins Dead Souls. Gogol reveals Chichikov’s purpose in buying up dead serfs. There’s a sort of genius to it, and it definitely makes the most of a ridiculous system of wealth and taxation that is based on people as a commodity.

So we now can see our hero clearly for what he is. But there may be demand for a conclusive brief definition: Who is he from the point of view of his moral qualities? It’s obvious that he is not a hero full of perfection and virtue. Who is he, then? Why call him a scoundrel, why be so hard on other people? We don’t have scoundrels anymore, we have well-meaning, pleasant people, but we would be hard put to find more than two or three people who would submit to being generally disgraced and getting a public slap in the face, and even those exceptional people are now talking about virtue.

Part 1 ends with Chichikov travelling in his barouche towards an uncertain future. In Part 2, we are introduced to the sluggard landowner Tentetnikov, whose village is located in a backwoods mountainous region of Russia. Tentetnikov wasn’t always a sluggardly man. He had attended a school with a progressive headmaster who preferred excellence of thought over good behaviour and learning by rote. Tentetnikov was fired up by this headmaster, looking forward to further studies under him, only for the headmaster to die and his successor to return the school to the standard way of teaching. Out in the world of work, Tentetnikov quickly learned that work was there to occupy part of the day and earn money, nothing more. He engineers his dismissal from the promising career in the civil service that his uncle has arranged for him, and returns to his rundown estate, turning his back on city society. His plan is to transform the estate along progressive lines and make some sort of positive difference to the lives of his serfs, but his authority over them is so lacking that he is doomed to failure. He retreats into himself, descending into squalor, becoming a reflection of Pliushkin from Part 1.

His dilapidation is interrupted by the arrival of Chichikov. An untold number of years have passed since the affair in N—, but although older, Chichikov is relatively unchanged. He spins the same story about his past and installs himself into one of the bedrooms in Tentetnikov’s home. His charm brings Tentetnikov somewhat out of his retreat, and his cleanliness improves the habitability of the house.

Chichikov is still on his quest for dead souls, but decides to bide his time with Tentetnikov, as his host is an intelligent man who would no doubt try to understand the true reason for Chichikov wanting to purchase dead serfs. Instead, on learning that Tentetnikov was once thwarted in love by a disagreement with his beloved’s father, a retired general called Betrishchev, who addressed Tentetnikov using informal pronouns and inadvertently insulted him, Chichikov heads off to the general’s village and ingratiates himself with him. On the surface, his intention is to reconcile Tentetnikov and the general, thus restoring the love affair with the daughter. However, he can’t resist making a play for acquiring the general’s dead souls. He comes up with a ridiculous story that has the general in stitches.

We have a hint that Chichikov successfully acquires the souls, but Part 2 of Dead Souls is incomplete. Gogol died while he was writing the novel and, not only are there gaps in the narrative in Part 2, filled by bracketed paragraphs from the translator Donald Rayfield, but the novel ends in mid sentence. Gogol makes reference in the narrative to Dead Souls originally being intended to be a three volume work. It would have been an epic to rival anything that came from the Russian writers who followed Gogol.

There’s also a hint that Chichikov’s intervention leads to the betrothal of Tentetnikov with General Betrishchev’s daughter Ulinka, as Chichikov is sent out on an errand to inform the general’s relatives of the happy news. The continuing lackadaisical approach to life taken by Selifan and Petrushka means that Chichikov meets people other than those he is intending to visit. This gives Gogol a canvas on which to paint satirical vignettes of Russian society. First, Chichikov encounters Petrukh, a gluttonous landowner whose overconsumption has led to the need to mortgage his estate. Through him, he meets Platonov, the financial beneficiary of his brother’s hard work in managing their jointly owned estate, whose lack of purpose in life has left him depressed. Chichikov invites Platonov to accompany him on his travels, and they call on Platonov’s brother-in-law, Kostanzhoglo, who is managing his estate in a way that would meet with the approval of agroecologists today. Invited to stay with Kostanzhoglo for a few days so that he can learn about this progressive approach, Chichikov remembers his mission and pops over to the first of Betrishchev’s relatives, Colonel Koshkariov, where he finds a self-imposed bureaucratic chaos that would be at home in a Kafka novel. All the same, he attempts to buy dead souls from Koshkariov, without anticipating the stumbling blocks Koshkariov’s bureaucracy will put in his way. He returns to Kostanzhoglo without adding to his haul of dead peasants, but an evening listening to his host’s approach to farming and estate management fires him up to get his act together, monetise the dead souls he’s already acquired, and buy himself an estate.

Further hints suggest that Gogol intended a cautionary tale, in which Chichikov finally goes too far in his schemes to make money, conducting a fraud so significant that he loses everything. This permits some moralising around the question of self control and why it is in human nature not to be abstemious. In the course of trying to keep his fraud secret, Chichikov meets a lawyer who prides himself in obfuscating the facts and entangling officials into cases as a safety net.

“Why am I so calm? Because I know that if things ever get worse for me, I’ll entangle everybody in my case, the governor, the vice-governor, the chief of police, and the treasurer – I’ll entangle the lot of them. I know all the little details about them: who is angry with whom, who resents whom, who wants to frame whom.”

Chichikov takes comfort in his lawyer’s acceptance of corruption. Gogol sets out just how comforting Chichikov finds it through a depiction of how corruption breads corruption.

Every one of us, after all, takes advantage of something … What can you do if there are so many tempting things in the world? … It’s very difficult to abstain, after all, if everybody around you is doing it and if it’s the fashion: you try abstaining! Nobody can abstain all the time. We’re human beings, not gods. And so Chichikov, like the increasing majority of people, had turned things to his advantage.

It does no good hiding behind the knowledge that lots of people do what he has done, however. In Dead Souls, corruption has to be paid for. By the end of the book, Chichikov reminded me of the UK’s current Prime Minister: a man so lost to the satisfaction of his own desires, to the desire for power and influence without earning it that he can’t understand why other people find his corruption abhorrent. Later in the narrative, Chichikov has secured the friendship of the local alcohol monopolist, a millionaire called Murazov who, despite his wealth, has an altruistic outlook and sees his life mission as helping others see the errors of their ways in choosing a life based on self-preferment and corruption. Murazov captures in a sentence an aspect of Russian society that is universal – the periodic lack of self-control that brings about autocracies and sleaze: “Nowadays, really, people have no willpower, they’re weak.”

On the penultimate page of the novel, Gogol offers up an idea of how to save a country from corruption, that struck me more for the way he set out what it is that constitutes corruption.

The point is that we now have to save our country, that our country is perishing not from an invasion by twenty alien tribes but from our own selves; that parallel to the legitimate administration another administration, far more powerful than any legitimate one, has emerged. It has decided its terms, everything has had a price put on it, and the prices have even been made public.

A depressingly familiar state of affairs, in light of the current media focus on sleaze in the governing Tory administration in the UK.

I very much enjoyed Rayfield’s new translation of Dead Souls. Created from Gogol’s original texts, and drawing on two extant drafts of Part 2, Rayfield provides the reader with a good idea of where Gogol was heading with his masterpiece. For a novel that is incomplete, it is deeply satisfying in both its scope and execution. In his introduction to this new translation, Rayfield calculates that his is possibly the thirteenth English translation of Dead Souls, and he tasked himself with correcting the mistakes of his predecessors, preferring to go back to the original Russian to start afresh, instead of revising one of the existing translations. It’s a very accessible work, using contemporary turns of phrase as a way of conveying how current and vibrant the novel would have been at time of publication. If you’re in any way intimidated by classic Russian literature, I’d say that this novel, and specifically this translation, is a decent way in.


6 thoughts on “Dead Souls

    1. Now that I’ve read it, I can recommend it as a good place to start, Margaret. I haven’t managed to capture it in my review, but it’s a very funny book. Funny in a way that can’t be conveyed, it has to be experienced.

      Liked by 1 person

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