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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Great Gogol Is Alive and Relevant at 200

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Wednesday was the 200th anniversary of Nikolai Gogol's birth. One hundred fifty-seven years have passed since his death. Yet at times, it seems that there is no author in Russian who is more modern than Gogol. This is not because Gogol's works are timeless. It is because Russia has not changed. The same foolish customs Gogol poked fun at then are still with us now. As he wrote in the last lines of the first volume of his book "Dead Souls," Russia is heading somewhere, but nobody knows where, and is "overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!"

It's a shame that fewer Westerners are less familiar with Gogol than with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but the reason is clear enough -- Gogol is more difficult to translate, his images and flights of fancy are at times too phantasmagorical for a person with a rational European mindset. Take, for example, the story in which a man's own nose runs away from him, and when it meets up with him later it is wearing a general's uniform. The nose reminds the man that he is only a mayor, and as such, he could have nothing in common with a general. If Western politicians and political analysts had read that and other Gogol stories, they would have a better understanding of what is happening in Russia now.

"The Nose," "The Overcoat," "Dead Souls," "The Inspector" -- open any of Gogol's books and you will be confronted with the same thing that we see in today's Russia: corruption, abuses of power by the police and the courts, lies and mutual deceit. Ordinary citizens are browbeaten, intimidated, humiliated and deprived of their rights. The petty officer's widow who flogged herself. The judge who accepts greyhound puppies as a bribe. The merchants who complain about the city chief who takes larger bribes than are justified by his rank while themselves handing out gifts to the authorities to whom they appeal for aid.

That bureaucracy has become so inefficient that the country's leaders no longer trust it to manage the state's key assets or to direct its top-priority projects -- from nanotechnology to preparing for the Olympic Games in Sochi. This is precisely the reason behind the creation of the notorious state corporations such as Olimpstroi, Rosatom, Rosnano and many others. They are essentially beyond the jurisdiction of the government. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin installed people whom he personally trusts to head those corporations, people such as Igor Sechin, Anatoly Chubais, Sergei Kiriyenko, Dmitry Kozak, Sergei Ivanov and others. They were given a free hand, enormous resources and high salaries. To guarantee their success, they answer with their heads before Putin. That is approximately the same system Soviet leader Josef Stalin used when he had to create an atomic bomb and that Nikita Khrushchev employed to launch a rocket into space. The one difference, of course, is that those who failed Stalin answered with their freedom or their lives, and those who fail Putin face only a dishonorable dismissal from their posts. But in the end, the whole system is held together by fear -- not of losing one's life perhaps but of missing out on a very lucrative career.

Gogol's inspired comedy, "The Inspector," also deals with the theme of fear as a driving force in Russian history. It is the story of a bumbling fool who stumbles into a small town in which the corrupt officials mistakenly believe him to be a high-ranking inspector from St. Petersburg and proceed to lavish him with obsequious bribes and compliments to conceal their various wrongdoings. They ultimately end up humiliated by their own duplicity. It is a classic illustration of how fear can work miracles in Russia. These cunning old birds who are normally too smart to fool anticipate being called on the carpet for their guilty ways and experience such fear before the supposed official from St. Petersburg that they lose their ability to calmly and dispassionately gauge the situation.

In Russia, there is only one person who occasionally feels no fear and who is unafraid to shoulder responsibility -- the supreme leader. It was Tsar Nicholas I who, against the advice of government censors, personally gave permission for "The Inspector" to be staged in 1836. He attended the premiere, clapped and laughed frequently during the performance and upon leaving his box seat remarked, "What a play! Everybody got what they deserved -- and me most of all!"

Tsar Nicholas was smart. He understood that the public needs to occasionally express its dissatisfaction by, as Gogol said, "gathering all the stupid aspects of Russia into one pile and laughing at all of them at once." However, even realizing that fact and a few others besides, Nicholas I did not want to change the rigid power vertical he had created. Nicholas felt that if he were to take one serious step toward liberal reforms, the whole edifice of the Russian empire would collapse.

The same logic seems to be motivating Russia's current leaders who strongly oppose even the slightest loosening of the iron grip they hold over the political and social life of the country. This is because the present authorities -- along with Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev -- witnessed the Soviet collapse with their own eyes. What's more, Putin referred to that event as the "greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century" and a result of the erosion of the communist regime, a process initiated by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. And perestroika began with greater press freedoms and a loosening of restrictions on elections for deputies in a few major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. That is why our current authorities are so adamant about maintaining control over all elections and television broadcasting.

However, because there is no normal feedback mechanism between the authorities and society, including the dialogue that would normally exist through television, leaders are in no position to properly evaluate what is actually happening in the country and how the authorities really appear in the eyes of voters. That type of television programming existed when Putin first took office as president, but the new administration did not like the way it was being portrayed, so they torpedoed the whole thing. All TV stations were either subjected to state control or eliminated. Apparently, the people in authority hadn't read Gogol in many years and had forgotten the epigraph to "The Inspector": "The looking glass is not to blame if your own face is plain." But sooner or later, the authorities will need a mirror -- that is, independent television -- whether they want one or not. What's more, they will have to make a place for all the rest of the full-fledged democratic institutions and procedures such as free elections, an independent judiciary, the division of authority and equal rights for all political parties. That might not happen soon, but it will probably be sooner than Gogol's next major anniversary.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.