Collecting dead souls in social media

Gogolsoullll-1 Guestblogger Marina Gorbis is executive director at Institute for the Future.

Yesterday I posted an essay on Socialstructing--creating organizations around social connections rather than against them. I believe these types of organizational forms are growing and diffusing rapidly throughout the economy. However, I do not see them as panaceas from all our ills since they have a potential to bring with them new kinds of inequalities, exclusions, and Ponzi schemes. So this post looks at potential unintended consequences of socialstructing.

One of the best things about speaking Russian (possibly the only thing), is that it gives you an ability to access Russian literature in the original. Over the years I've tried many different translations of Russian writers and was disappointed every time. Nothing compares to the original. Maybe it is impossible to do justice to these texts because many Russian words are so deeply rooted in a uniquely Russian context and life circumstances. What I love about writers such as Gogol and Chekhov is that in portraying life in 19th century Russia they managed to capture universal themes of human inner struggles, desires, and life ironies. They created prototypes of characters and circumstances that are as real today as they were 150 years ago. People just work through those circumstances with a whole new suite of tools and technologies.

That leads me to one of my favorite pieces of Russian literature -- Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, a novel first published in 1842. The story revolves around the exploits of Chichikov, a personality populating the lower rungs of the Russian society. Driven by a desire to enhance his social standing, Chichikov develops an ingenious scheme. He goes around Russian villages buying up records of dead serfs. It's a brilliant idea that capitalized on a unique and grotesque feature of the feudal Russian society -- ownership by landlords of the people who lived and worked on their land.

The number of "souls" one owned was a measure of one's economic and social status. Landowners in fact paid taxes based on how many serfs or "souls" they owned. The government kept count of owned "souls" and this count was based on government census numbers. Unfortunately, the census took place only infrequently and many landowners ended up paying taxes on their dead serfs. Grasping an opportune moment between the two censuses, Chichikov bought records of these dead souls from landowners eager to lighten their own tax burdens. Papers certifying Chichikov's ownership of 400 "souls" rapidly elevated Chichikov's status: landed gentry opened their homes to him, tried to give away their daughters in marriage, and celebrated him at town functions. And all it took was a record of ownership of hundreds of "souls." So every time I see another article or an ad about how to acquire more followers on twitter, friends on Facebook, or otherwise collect more "souls" for money, fame, or reputation, I start thinking about Chichikov. He did come to an ignominous end, finally fleeing town. Makes me wonder.

Dead Souls


  1. Fabulous post, thank you. I tried to teach myself Russian at one point and failed miserably. The only thing that’s stuck is the word for honey, and I can’t even spell the Latin transliteration or the Cyrillic spelling.

  2. I can’t do justice to criticizing this post, and I want to believe that the author had the best intentions. And I agree with all my being that a wonderful social satire can be constructed on the follies of straining dead souls from the intertubes.

    At the risk of accusations of churlish criticism, do I detect a hint of Gogol-as-a-realist in this post? A butterfly flits by my window (A Veronica?):

    “… Moreover, their surroundings and conditions, whatever they might have been in ‘real life,’ underwent such a through permutation and reconstruction in the laboratory of Gogol’s peculiar genius that … it is as useless to look in /Dead Souls/ for an authentic Russian background as it would be to try and form a conception of Denmark on the basis of that little affair in cloudy Elsinore. And if you want ‘facts,’ then let us inquire what experience had Gogol of provincial Russia. Eight hours in a Podolsk inn, a week in Kursk, the rest he had seen from the window of his traveling carriage, and to this he had added the memories of his essentially Ukranian youth spent in Mirgorod, Nezhin, Poltava – all of which towns lay far outside Chichikov’s itinerary. What seems true however is that /Dead Souls/ provides an attentive reader with a collection of bloated dead souls belonging to /poshlyaki/ and /poshlya’chki/ described with all that Gogolian gusto and wealth of weird detail which lift the whole thing to the level of a tremendous epic poem; and ‘poem’ is in fact the subtle subtitle appended by Gogol to /Dead Souls/.”

    — “Nikolai Gogol”; V. Nabokov; New Directions Press; 1944

  3. [whisper] fix your grocer’s apostrophe in “panacea’s” [/whisper]
    Feudal societies are quite fascinating this soul aspect is one part that really raises an eyebrow. Another thought, though… in the language of the time, using ‘soul’ as the designator for ‘person’ was meant to be an indicator christian stewardship, the master was truly responsible for these folks, apart from holding them as chattel. Weird and contradictory.

  4. Reminds me of Lieutenant Kizhe, a story which was made into a movie satirizing bureaucracy, which somehow got made in the Stalin days. Basically, a typo in a military dispatch puts a nonexistent officer into the army lists. Nobody who’s anybody can admit the mistake, so the typo gets promoted and married off. Meanwhile, a real live soldier is mistakenly declared killed in action. He appeals his status as a dead person, but is denied.

  5. Though I don’t speak russian, I have to put in a good word for the translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I have greatly enjoyed their translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy – they have a way of capturing the cadence of the language while preserving (and explaining) the idioms.

  6. Gogol, though a traditional writer, is like a lot of poets. Everyone seems to have a completely different take on the work. Like poetry, what the reader brings to the reading is the primary determinant of interpretation, not the underlying text.

    Marina’s take is thoroughly refreshing, and so far from the norm. I’ve started seeing more and more Gogol quotes in MySpace and Twitter profiles. There seems to be something of a Gogal resurgence going on among the oldest users. It’s a curious phenomenon.

    A Twitter profile with Gogol is generally the signature of an over-the-hill wanna-be gonzo journalist blogger.

  7. Oh how I wish there were more Russian translators with an eye to preserving the original text. Even in contemporary literature, it’s too common to discover translators who work with an agenda or personal tilt. The old Soviets and the Americans who idolized them die so slowly.

    Some recent texts on the KGB and Yeltsin stridently reverse the authors’ positions. The translator turns warnings against the worst of the Soviet ills into a chaotic self-contradictory pulp. The books’ purposes are obliterated. Viewing the original or the translation is like studying entirely different books.

  8. I humbly request more boing boing posts with literary references and parallels. This is a fantastic observation. Also, “The Overcoat” is brilliantly told story.

  9. “Dead Souls” IS freakin’ hilarious. If most Russian lit seems too dark, check him out first. It’s weird that such a serious, God-fearing dude (at least from his letters I read) could be so damn funny.

  10. Wow, brings it all into perspective and given the adoption and abandonment rate of social networking, you could be literally buying dead souls through your friend list.

  11. Actually Chichikov was not buying souls to enhance his social status. He just wanted to pledge them to secure loan.

  12. I was checking out this cool literacy group recently and noticed a facebook button on the bottom of the page. So I linked to the group on my facebook page and within a split second a giant birthday cake appeared on the screen asking me to invite my friends to make a donation for my birthday. (It’s not for two weeks! You still have time! But how did they know?) Anyway, it seemed like an easy way to try to do a little fundraising for a good cause. Whether my friends end up resenting me for using them to fund my pet cause remains to be seen. Personally, I don’t see the point of amassing social capital if you’re not going to spend it. :)

  13. Translations are troublesome. They probably should all be offered with an apology to the original. Edmund Wilson and the great Vladimir Nabokov exchanged such increasingly contentious letters over the matter, specifically about translating Pushkin, that it finally compromised their friendship. In fact, Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin is painfully literal, with little or no artistic or stylistic merit; it is strictly for scholars or fanatic Pushkin worshippers — in four volumes! Wilson argued for a looser hand at translating, hoping for merit to match merit. Alas, such is rarely, if ever, the case. I grew up with a pile of Constance Garnett’s wretched *translations*, unaware until decades later what I was missing.

    One can’t help wondering, however, what Goethe’s translation of his beloved Shakespeare would have been like. After all, he did produce and direct “King Lear” and “Hamlet.” My Berlin mother-in-law used to argue that, “Anyway, Shakespeare is better in German.”

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