Nikolay Gogol's The Government Inspector is one of the most influential comedies in the Russian literary canon. Like most political satires, the secret to its success is that it reflects reality without much need for exaggeration. At the premiere of the play Tsar Nicholas laughed heartily and commented: 'It's all true. I know it better than anyone else.' Although subsequent generations of critics have considered Gogol's satires on Russia's bureaucratic dysfunctionalism as a criticism of the Russian state apparatus, in actual fact Gogol was a social conservative whose real target were the sycophantic personalities that populated the political organs of the Russian empire. In his play, Gogol highlights the mutual disconnect between the elites in Petersburg and the rest of the country and the difficulties presented by corrupt public officials obsessed with rank and prestige.
Gogol's plot is simple and quite believable to anyone who has experienced a school inspection. The Governor of a small provincial town in the heart of Russia receives news that an official from Petersburg is coming to make an inspection of the town. He hurriedly gathers the heads of the local public bodies in an attempt to give the best impression to the inspector. He is interrupted by news of an angry St Petersburg gentleman named Khlestakov staying at an inn and refusing to pay for his food. Convinced that Khlestakov is the incognito official from St Petersburg, everyone seeks to make the best impression, while the Governor's wife and daughter both attempt to flirt with Khlestakov. Khlestakov's real identity as a low-ranking copyist is discovered when the postmaster illegally opens a letter sent by Khlestakov, but he has already left town. The real government inspector is on his way.
Many of Gogol's most influential works satirise Russian officialdom's obsession with political rank. The Table of Ranks was introduced to the Russian Empire by Peter the Great in 1722 remained in operation until 1917. Although designed as a meritocratic device by Peter, ranks and offices were bought and sold as individuals sought to increase their prestige and the government aimed to keep its coffers from being empty. The surest way of rising up the ranks was to cosy up to the sovereign, who ended up being surrounded with men of unquestionable loyalty but questionable abilities. In the provinces, the best way to impress the tsar was to give the impression that your town is well-governed and order is kept.
Bribes are therefore an important part of Russian political life. The town officials give the 'inspector' bribes of different sizes in an attempt to win themselves a fair hearing in Petersburg. Khlestakov happily pockets the money, in the process recovering the stake he lost at the gambling table. Khlestakov declares that he never takes bribes but is happy to receive loans which both parties are aware will never be paid back. This arrangement might remind British readers of the 'Cash for Honours' scandal, when Labour Party donors were granted peerages after making large contributions the party. In order to avoid being identified from the donor list, they offered loans which were later classified as donations. At least that arrangement benefitted both sides. The synchronised sycophancy of Gogol's local officials fails to pay off and Khlestakov heads to Saratov unpunished.
Throughout the play the reader senses the distance, both literally and figuratively, between St Petersburg and provincial Russian towns. Khlestakov makes known his disdain for the provinces by saying, "Do what you will, I can't live away from St. Petersburg. Really, why should I waste my life among peasants? Our times make different demands on us. My soul craves enlightenment." This is a reflection of the Aristotelian idea that slavery is necessary in order to enable the best and most noble minds to focus on learning and science. His admission that "I'd rather starve than come home without a St Petersburg suit" further points to the fact that he is jealous of his status as a man from the city and nothing could ever bring him from abandoning this appearance.
The fact that Khlestakov was mistaken for the inspector is down to his sense of entitlement, reminding the servant in the tavern that he is used to better and will not pay for food. A genuine government inspector might also be expected to react in this manner. In reality Khlestakov's unwillingness to pay is based on the fact that he has lost all his money at cards. When he realises that he has been mistaken for a high-ranking court official, Khlestakov shamelessly inflates his rank and prestige. He claims to be higher ranking than a general and a prolific writer, a favoured acquaintance of Pushkin and the author of such works as Robert le Diable and The Marriage of Figaro, all this despite being in his early twenties. The idea that such an important personage is in their midst also gives the local officials an inflated sense of their importance. The fact that Khlestakov's outrageous boasts were believed is emblematic of the fact that in Russia anyone could in theory assume a position of such prestige if they happened to be the tsar's favourite. The Governor and his officials could never be sure that this wasn't a high-ranking official from Petersburg: they are too far away from the court to know what is going on. Other signs that point to Khlestakov's high rank include his 'dignified manners' and his enlightened education. Thus, the gulf between the highest and lowest ranking officials in Petersburg is much smaller than that which exists between the lowest ranking official in the capital and the highest ranking official in the provinces. Indeed, even Osip, Khlestakov's servant, is able to take advantage of his master's supposed status.
By virtue of their cowering and obsession with creating a good impression, the Governor and his subordinates had made fools of themselves in front of a non-entity. The key message that Gogol was aiming to convey in The Government Inspector is that the inefficiencies in Russia's governance are caused not by the system, but by those who inhabit it and seek to profit from it. A man with a greater sense of morality would not have acted as Khlestakov, but had the town been well governed, the Governor would not have to fear anything or pay any bribes. Gogol's play can therefore be interpreted as a study of political incompetence. Khlestakov is nothing more than a fraudster, but he is able to run circles round the local government of a provincial Russian town. In this respect, The Government Inspector is the forerunner of the political sitcom, where political figures of all types find themselves unable to fulfil seemingly straightforward tasks. In democratic societies, we are more prepared to consider politicians self-interested, even evil, than incompetent. If the people we choose to rule over us are woefully incapable of doing the job – what does it say about our own judgement?
By Jimmy Chen