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Raising Russia: From Serfdom to Superpower

VillageDuring The Government Inspector, Anna, the Mayor’s wife, asks Hlestakov, “So, what’s it like to be a sophisticated gentleman stuck in a country backwater?” Anna’s question captures the desperate desire felt by 19th-century Russians to experience the life, culture and civilization of the capital city, St. Petersburg, and points further west. The desire for approval from the capital, felt by all of the townspeople in the play, mirrors Russia’s own slowly evolving and contradictory attitudes toward western Europe. Russia possesses a famously forbidding geography: the country spans nine time zones and more than 6,600 miles—a third of the world’s circumference. In Gogol’s 1830s, before the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was essentially an ungovernable expanse, a loose conglomeration of more than 160 ethnic groups, speaking up to 100 different languages. How could one person hold absolute authority over all of that? And how could they bring such a huge country in line with the rest of the world?

When Peter the Great became tsar in 1696, Russia was still a regional power, stuck between the east and the west. In Peter’s mind, in order to engage with Europe—in war or in peace—Russia would have to be more like Europe. He built St. Petersburg in the style of great European cities, shifting the capital there from Moscow, to the westernmost part of the country. He also ordered his male courtiers to shave their beards and ordered his court to adopt European fashions. Hoping to surpass other European countries, he made education compulsory for children of nobility, government clerks and minor officials.

More than 50 years after Peter’s reign, Catherine the Great (ruler from 1762–1796) also aimed to Westernize Russia. A foreign empress, Catherine grew up in Prussia with a French governess and tutors, and brought a learned, European pedigree to the throne as tsarina. She corresponded with Voltaire, founded the first schools for women, regulated governance in the provinces and constructed a system whereby serfs could lodge formal complaints against their masters.

Catherine’s last reform was the most needed—and the least successful. Despite periodic attempts at cultural enlightenment, Russia’s economy continued to depend on serfs, a feudal system in which the lower classes were tied to the land as the literal property of the landowning gentry. This dependence on free labor kept the country entrenched in a medieval mode of production.


1816 Russian Ruble, showing the double-headed eagle first introduced by Peter the Great.

By the early 1800s, Russia’s artistic identity was blossoming, and, in Russian cities, theatregoing was de rigueur for nobles and the middle class alike. However, the dichotomy between old and new Russia persisted. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 led to the deaths of almost 3,000 reform-minded protestors. Many of them were aristocratic soldiers who had returned from the Napoleonic Wars with sophisticated democratic ideas, but Russia was more interested in maintaining the status quo. Gogol picks up this thread in The Government Inspector. No character in the play—including Hlestakov—possesses an interest in anything “higher” than wealth, status, sex or food.

Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861, but the country continued to struggle. After the revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks prioritized industrialization, hoping to catch up to Europe yet again. Throughout Russia’s history, the tsars, the communists and, today, Putin and his cabinet have sought to shape Russia according to their ideals, whether that means moving toward a European model or a uniquely Russian one. But, like the characters in The Government Inspector, who look to Europe with both fear and envy, this conflict illuminates how Russia views itself. All of the characters in The Government Inspector embody Russia’s Janus-like identity: looking inward while simultaneously looking out.

Theresa J. Beckhusen is STC’s Artistic Fellow and graduated summa cum laude from Susquehanna University with a dual degree in theatre and creative writing.

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