The Overcoat (or really the Dressing-Gown)

Gogol’s The Overcoat has the same sticky, slimy, unpleasant-to-view feeling of George Orwell’s 1984. Akaky Akakievich has a monotonous job that only he loves, one that he takes very seriously and even does in his free time. Winston Smith, Orwell’s protagonist, has a fairly boring occupation as well, doing almost the same thing: where Akaky simply copies the words, Winston changes them to reflect Big Brother’s infallibility. Akaky and Winston both live alone, eat the bland foods that their meager government salaries can afford them, and either willingly ignores or is encouraged to ignore every attempt at meaningful human interaction. Where Akaky smells alcohol and slops on the stairs going to Petrovich’s apartment, Winston is followed by the odor of the Victory gin that everyone in his caste drink. Both stories have the theme of being born into blindly following the leadership presented to the character.

Gogol’s short story is much less harsh than Orwell’s and for a good reason. Gogol did not intend for The Overcoat to comment on the oppressiveness of the contemporaneous government. He merely wanted to mention or draw attention to the way of life of some of the government workers. Our protagonist was a titular councillor, rank nine, which means that he was a noble. He was a noble earning 400 rubles per year doing and loving service to the state almost every day. In the current ranking system Akaky could scarcely clothe himself with the salary he earned while people working in the same room as he threw lavish parties for everyone, eating and drinking at probably a month’s worth of food for Akaky. There was a large gap between the rich and the poor even if they held similar or the same occupation.

Emancipation Manifesto (1861)

The Emancipation Manifesto was established in 1861 during the reign of Alexander II. While this appeared to be a sudden, rash decision, in reality, the movement was quite logical. Russia’s pitiful defeat in the Crimean War revealed to officials the blatant inadequacies in the Russian governmental system. Eager to grow and develop industry and subsequently the military and political power, the abolishment of serfdom seemed a practical option. This would allow people who had been previously tied to the land to branch out and help jumpstart a market economy in Russia.

The document itself begins by establishing the government’s legitimacy, “Called by Divine Providence and by the sacred right of inheritance to the throne of Our Russian ancestors…” (307). Then the document continues to explain why the reform is needed, citing that “…the present state legislation favors the upper and middle classes…” (307). The document argues that a weakening of noblemen’s paternal attitude towards peasants was one factor that contributed to the deterioration of serfdom as a system. In essence, the government admitted that they relied too much on the nobles, and acknowledged that noblemen weren’t as honest and virtuous as they believed. The document noted “…these measures were ineffective, partly because they depended on the free, generous action of nobles…” (307). This was certainly deliberate, as this shifted the blame of serfdom to the noble class, not to the government specifically (even though they were the ones to initiate the system).

The document summarizes the ultimate decision regarding serfdom.  The document declared that serfs would be granted the rights given to free rural peasants. They were given their homes and allowed to continue in their livelihoods. Thus, any form of servitude was eradicated. Additionally, Alexander II established several offices specifically for the newly created peasants to ensure that serfdom would not continue.

I think the aspect of this document that I found most interesting was language used specifically in addressing the nobles, and how it evolves over the course of the document. As mentioned before, the selfishness of the noble class was cited as a reason for the initial lack of success with serfdom. However, all these sections are collectively under the title “We have deemed it advisable…” (309). This meant that perhaps these were suggestions to the nobles. Additionally, the document explicitly states that in order for this program to work, “We…rely on the zealous devotion of our nobility, to whom We express our gratitude…for the unselfish support it has given…” (310). In essence, even though the nobles are partly responsible for the failure of serfdom because of their dishonesty, they are still being relied on for the success of this new endeavor! Additionally, the establishment of these Offices for Peasant Affairs is another way the government would continue to rely on the nobles to administer these offices. It seems very hypocritical to me.

I think that this document can serve as an instance of how the government had to rely on the noble class, regardless of what they did. While they realized that they were part of the problem associated with serfdom, the government had no one else to rely on to maintain order.


It’s the End of Their World as They Know it.

The emancipation of serfs and serfdom in 1861 was forced due to the realization that Russia was far more backwards in compared to other major European powers which prevented them from industrializing at the rate necessary. Although serfdom was far more prevalent in the South than the North due to the availability of healthy land and soil, it did decrease slightly between 1835 and 1858 based on the census taken these two years. Once Alexander II created The Emancipation Manifesto, he enabled Russia to move more towards modernization by completely freeing those who had been subjected to servitude for generations. In this manifesto, Alexander II allowed serfs to take the rights given to free rural inhabitants. Nobles were required to allow the serfs to keep their homes and to keep their livelihood. This was done in a way that allowed nobles to retain their power but enabled the serfs to take control of their lives without remaining in any form of servitude. In order to ensure that this reform was successful, Alexander II created offices specially designed to protect the interests of both the newly formed peasants and the nobles and prevent serfdom from returning.

How was serfdom able to continue to flourish in the 19th century when many Russian controlled territories did not have or allow for serfdom? What was the original consensus of the nobles when this reform began? How did this affect relationships between newly freed serfs and the rest of Russia’s population? Aside from allowing Russia to compete against other world powers why did Alexander decide in 1861 that it was necessary to emancipate serfs?

The readings for this weekend were all three on very different topics. The first one Manifesto Freeing the Nobility was a brief piece of legislation published by Peter III before his assassination by his wife Catherine. In it he sets the nobles free, in other words he allows them to resume completely independent action and free migration. The next two readings were discussions of Catherine the greats reign. The first one by Isabel De Madariaga revolves around the legislation she writes, specifically the Nakaz and The Statute of Local Administration. Brenda Meehan takes a different tact when examining Catherine the Great. She discuses both the effect of Catherine’s gender on the international stage and the possibility that Catherine may not have had as much power as we assume.

In reading these texts one overarching theme comes to mind, that the nobility of Russia may have had a very complex relationship with the Russian thrown. In 1762 Peter the third sets the nobles free. He did this because he wanted to improve the quality of the serving class. He specifically mentions that any nobles that are not serving their purpose should be cast out. In the next text more support is found in Catherine’s actions, she creates The Statute of Local Administration to separate the nobles a bit from their power and stabilize the populace. All of this implies that the Russian nobles were under the crowns authority. But the last text questions this by asking weather in actuality she was the pawn of a greater scheme.

Symbolism in The Cherry Orchard

The nobles in The Cherry Orchard are Anya, Madame Ranevsky, Barbara, Gayef, and Pishticik.  The nobility of the play has fallen drastically, the two families out of money but trying to cling on to a previous way of life in the wake of change.  Anya and Barbara are the two nobles that seem to recognize and accept the new order.  Anya is fascinated by the ideas of Peter and Barbara acknowledges her affection for Lopkhin despite his family history.

Firs, Yasha, Dunyasha, and are all peasants, but have different outlooks on change of social construction.  When the Liberation occurred, Firs refused to leave his master and laments the complexity of social interaction now that the peasants are freed from their masters, calling the Liberation a “great misfortune” (25).  Yasha is an opposition to Firs because he has travelled the continent and seen how to live in civilized freedom, which is better than the Russian “barbarism.”

Lopakhin, Trophimof, and Ephikhodof all represent the emerging class of “others” at the end of tsarist Russia because they are those born of humble origins who raised their status through education.  Lopakhin’s father was a serf of the estate and now his son is a wealthy landowner in his own right, even suggested to be married to the daughter of a noblewoman.  This new class seeks some kind of personal retribution for the enslavement of their ancestors by replacing the symbols of noble authority, like the cherry orchard, with symbols of the middle class, such as the villas.

In The Cherry Orchard, wood represents to the characters a connection with past memory and the grandeur of an older time.  Gayef discovers that a cupboard in the home is over a hundred years old and proceeds to laud it for upholding “the courage of succeeding generations” and “faith in a better future” as well as the riches of the past (10).  This characterization of the cupboard could be interpreted as a reflection of the glory of tsarist Russia contrasted against its place in the modernizing world in which it exists.  It is an attempt of the nobles to hold on to their legacy.

The cherry orchard itself serves the same purpose.  It brings back memories of the estate when it was in its prime, contrasting with the current state of the family that has squandered the money.  The act of destroying the orchard is reminiscent of the destruction of the old social structure, particularly since it is carried out by a man of the new middling class that rose from a family of peasants to become a wealthy neighbor of the Ranevsky estate.  Despite his age and connection to the past, Firs acknowledges the idea because no one alive knows how to make they cherry jam, and therefore it cannot provide the economic support of its past.  As she comes to understand the changing social climate through her relationship with Trophimof, Anya remarks that she no longer loved the orchard as she once did, in effect symbolizing her transition from old to new ways of thinking.  The wood of the orchard contains “human spirits” that were contained in the estate during the time of serfs, and the new freedom offered to humans is echoed through the orchard’s path.  The suffering that Madame Ranevsky experiences at the thought of the orchard being destroyed is a way to “redeem the past” in the mind of Trophimof (27).