The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vol. XIV: RussianScandinavianMiscellaneous
Defunct Serfs as an Investment
By Nikolai Gogol (18091852)
From Dead Souls
ONE of the commissions given to Chichikov was to arrange with the owner of a certain estate for the mortgaging of a number of his serfs to the financial institution called the Council of Guardians. Chichikov found this proprietor to be on the verge of ruin. The cattle had been thinned out by an epidemic disease, there had been several meager harvests, a lot of the most industrious field laborers had died off, overseers had been dishonest, and the lord of the manor himself had been grossly extravagant, fitting up a large house in Moscow, so that the estate was now drained to the last copeck .
Chichikov elicited the information that since the last government census a considerable number of the serfs had died, but that their names had not been removed from the census list. To all intents and purposes, therefore, those peasants could be counted as alive. It was upon this discovery that Chichikov was inspired with the most brilliant idea that ever originated in a human mind. Said our hero to himself:
What a fool I am! I have been looking for my spectacles, and they are on my nose! Why, all I have to do is to buy the serfs who have died since the last census was taken! If I purchase a thousand of them, and the Council of Guardians pays me two hundred rubles per soul, I shall then have a capital of two hundred thousand rubles. There has been a great deal of sickness of late, and, thank the Lord, a high rate of mortality. The landowners have been throwing their money away at cards, and wasting it in riotous living. Everybody has been seized with the craze for town life and service under the government. The estates are neglected or abandoned by the landlords, who find it harder every year to squeeze money out of them to pay the taxes. This seems to be my chance for earning an honest sum. It will take a lot of trouble, and I must avoid a scandal. There is the obstacle, too, that without land one can neither buy nor mortgage serfs. But I know what I will do: I will buy them ostensibly for colonization. There are provinces such as Kherson where land is given free to settlers. I will take up land in Kherson, and pack off all my dead peasants there. The whole thing can be done in conformity with the legal requirements.
Allow me, sir, to ask you a question, said Chichikov to Manilov, speaking with a rather strange intonation, at the same time looking furtively about him. The person addressed, without any apparent reason, also cast furtive glances about the room, until the other continued:
Manilovs pipe dropped to the floor. Its owner sat staring stark at Chichikov for several minutes in complete silence. At last he picked up his pipe, and then, for a space, gazed intently at his guest, wondering whether he had not gone out of his mind. But he saw no external signs of insanity. Manilov was quite at a loss what to think or do, so he stopped thinking, and did nothing but puff out a thin stream of smoke from between his lips.
Do I see any difficulties? was the reply. Oh, no, not at all; but you must excuse meI dont understand. I have not enjoyed such an education as yours, I might say. I have not your beautiful way of expressing my thoughts, I might say. Perhaps, in what you have just been good enough to say, perhaps there is some hidden meaning; perhaps you chose that particular way of speaking forfor the sake of literary style.
By no means, replied Chichikov. We will treat them as if they were aliveas they are, according to the census report. Heaven forbid that I should in any way transgress against the law! Let us conform to the law. I bow to the majesty of the law.