Nikolai Gogol in the twilight of empire.

Gogol by Ciardiello

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello.

The thing about big plans is that they require people to carry them out. The problem of personnel particularly plagued Peter the Great. Convinced by his European advisers that his country was backward and stuck in a medieval mindset, he spent much of his reign on a series of modernizing initiatives intended to get Russia “caught up” with the West. To implement his reforms—which included establishing a navy, imposing a tax on beards, and eventually drafting half a million serfs to build a city (named after himself) on nothing but marshland—he needed a robust bureaucracy and a standing military that could manage the demands of his new, spruced-up empire. Peter thus made service—civil or military—compulsory for the Russian nobility, and he implemented a new class system, the Table of Ranks, under which one could be promoted according to how long and how well one served.

The Table of Ranks included 14 classes, from collegiate registrars (which included lowly copy clerks) at the very bottom to the top civil rank of chancellor. While it was pitched as the introduction of a modern meritocratic system in Russia, in practice the table produced sharp class divisions, prevented people from working in fields that did not correspond to their rank, and tied social status to the name and nature of one’s profession. A version of this system continued in Russia all the way up to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and yet, in much of the literature of the 19th century, the civil service—which structured almost every aspect of life, particularly in the capital of St. Petersburg—feels weirdly merged into the background, more a fact of life than a facet of literary fiction, save for in the work of one writer: Nikolai Gogol.

In a new collection of Gogol’s short stories, translated by Susanne Fusso, a professor of Russian studies at Wesleyan University, readers are reintroduced to the familiar cast of characters—identified by their rank, of course—that populate many of the Ukrainian author’s most celebrated works, including “The Nose” and “The Overcoat.” There are the titular councillors, the collegiate assessors, the section heads of unnamed departments, the recently promoted (and thus insufferable). In short, the book’s stories cover nearly all manner of pompous, status-obsessed, careerist bureaucrats. It could be said that the Table of Ranks defined Gogol’s narrative landscape, but what is also true is that Gogol in turn redefined the Table of Ranks for his readers, then and now. As the scholar Irina Reyfman notes, “To a large degree, the way people now think of the world of state service is determined by Gogol’s portrayal of it in his fiction.”

When it came time to join the civil service himself, Gogol had little interest in or patience for the entire endeavor. His middling grades at his lyceum in Kiev meant that, upon graduation, he had to enter the service at the 14th rank—the lowest.

In 1828, Gogol moved from Ukraine to St. Petersburg to find work, landing first at the Department of State Economy and Public Buildings and then at the Department of Domains. Shortly after starting, he was diagnosed with hemorrhoids—which turned out to be a blessing in his eyes since it gave him an excuse to quit the post, which involved long hours sitting at a desk. “I am very glad this happened,” he wrote to a friend.

Throughout his tenure in the civil service, Gogol more than once failed to return on time from a leave of absence, though this does not seem to have had much of an effect on his career (in fact, he was promoted after one of these delinquencies). He frequently wrote his mother letters to register his misery and frustration with the entire system and its effect on the residents of St. Petersburg: “No spirit sparkles in the people, everyone here is a clerk or official, everyone talks of their departments or ministries, everything is suppressed, everything is steeped in the trivial, insignificant labor in which their lives are pointlessly wasted.”

It is tempting to see in Gogol’s satirical tales a kind of precursor to David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, his study of corporate bloat and capitalist inefficiency. Indeed, Graeber’s taxonomy of meaningless jobs and the people who hold them—flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, task makers, and bean counters—reads similarly to Gogol’s characterizations of the mind-numbing civil service positions open to him. Yet Gogol was ultimately less interested in the drudgery of office work than in the kind of people who built their lives around titles, prestige, and arbitrary notions of superiority. He drew on the grotesque and perfected the absurd in depicting their shallow worries and pointless cruelty. He also revealed the arbitrariness underpinning Peter’s supposedly meritocratic system: Mislabeling the ranks and ascribing the wrong kinds of jobs to certain titles, Gogol created his own world of random hierarchies, and in turn revealed the randomness of the real one.

Though he wrote in Russian, Gogol was born in a small village in the district of Poltava, in what is now central Ukraine. His mother was descended from Polish-Ukrainian nobility, and his father wrote plays, in Ukrainian, for the local theater. The household was trilingual; his father subscribed to both Polish and Ukrainian newspapers, and family letters show they communicated with one another in a kind of Ukrainianized Russian.

“Gogol’s language is indeed distinctive,” Fusso writes in her introduction, “whether because of his Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism or his eccentric personality or some combination of factors.” It is why he is “accordingly known as one of the most untranslatable of Russian writers.” In a move that preserves a sense of foreignness in the English translation, Fusso employs something closer to a literal translation than the more idiomatic one used by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in their 2011 rendering of Gogol’s stories.

Fusso maintains the pacing and eeriness of Gogol’s narrative flow while also stretching out some of the language so that an English reader, particularly an American one, might stumble a little on the prose, as Gogol’s readers would have. She achieves this through little things, like translating nizen’kogo rosta as “short stature” instead of simply “short,” or writing out “the boots she had cleaned” instead of just “polished boots” (the latter choices are Pevear and Volokhonsky’s). These examples might seem small on their own, but at scale, such choices in translation create a subtle nod to the linguistic distance Russian readers would have experienced reading Gogol’s prose.

While the specificities of Ukrainian culture and identity animated Gogol’s early work, it was his arrival in St. Petersburg in the winter of 1828 that introduced him to his most enduring subject: the Russian civil service. It would take Gogol nearly a year of job hunting—which largely amounted to seeking out help from family friends and various contacts—before he landed a post. Even before he secured employment, Gogol began to have doubts. He started writing his mother tortured letters about how lonely he felt in the capital and how soulless he found the bureaucrats he met there: “To fritter away one’s entire existence in a place where absolutely nothing looms ahead, where years and years are spent in petty occupations, this would resound in one’s soul as a heavy indictment—this would be death” (translation by Vladimir Nabokov).

Gogol soon began to fritter away his time as deputy desk chief for the Department of Domains until, in 1831, he found work as a teacher of history at the Patriotic Institute, a school for the daughters of fallen military officers, which he hoped might be more fulfilling (though his arrival at work three months late suggests otherwise). By this time, he was already writing short stories, though to little fanfare. His early foray into German Romanticism, the self-published poem “Hans Küchelgarten,” was so eviscerated by critics that Gogol burned any remaining copies he could find. That all changed in 1830, when an uprising against the Russian capital in partitioned Poland created an air of suspicion around the Poles living in St. Petersburg. Gogol, worried for his own safety and position, told his mother to stop including their Polish surname (the full form was Gogol-Janowski) when addressing letters to him.

However, while the political circumstances worried Gogol in light of his Polish heritage, they created an opening for him as a Ukrainian. With his countrymen eager to “affirm their happy belonging to the fraternal East Slavic, Orthodox Russian empire,” as the scholar Edyta Bojanowska notes, a sudden vogue for all things Ukrainian and upbeat, including literature, took over the Russian Empire. “Tsarist authorities,” Bojanowska explains, began to encourage “limited Ukrainian particularism as a way to counter irredentist Polish nationalism”—and Gogol, a bridge incarnate between Ukrainian and Russian culture, was there to oblige.

The burst of enthusiasm for anything from or about Ukraine provided fertile ground for the publication of his first major prose collection, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831), a series of short stories narrated by a folksy beekeeper. Sometimes called Gogol’s “Ukrainian tales,” the collection was an instant success, in large part because, as Fusso writes, the stories “adhere to a stereotyped image of the happy, dancing, laughing people of what was then known as Little Russia.”

Fusso includes one story from Dikanka in the new collection. “Lost Letter,” about a Ukrainian Cossack who gets drunk, has his cap stolen by the devil, and then must win it back in a game of cards, is a somehow jolly tale of dark forests and shape-shifting demons, and it does indeed end with someone having a dancing fit. The story, and those that appeared in a subsequent volume, Mirgorod (1835), appealed greatly to the tastes of the condescending Russian elite of the early 19th century, confirming national biases about their Ukrainian neighbors living on the periphery of the empire.

Later critics were less enthralled. Nabokov, in his 1944 biography of Gogol, observed, “We must thank fate (and the author’s thirst for universal fame) for his not having turned to the Ukrainian dialect as a medium of expression, because then he would be lost. When I want a good nightmare, I imagine Gogol penning in Little Russian dialect volume after volume of Dikanka and Mirgorod stuff about ghosts haunting the banks of the Dnieper, burlesque Jews and dashing Cossacks.”

Nabokov, who emigrated to the United States in 1940, knew all too well the pressures to perform one’s native identity for publishers and the reading public, and it could be that he was merely projecting his own anxieties here. But it is true that Gogol quite dramatically pivoted away from the style of Dikanka in his later fiction. Just as Nabokov would later eviscerate American culture in Lolita, Gogol too became a master of uncovering the sins of his adopted nation. Soon, his use of the supernatural in his fiction became less a folkloric motif and more a means to enhance his depictions of evil in the everyday brutalities of poverty and social isolation as they unfolded in the Russian capital.

Fusso includes three stories from Gogol’s second 1835 collection, Arabesques, mid-era works that show him in transition from the overtly gothic to the mildly haunted social satires of his high period: “Nevsky Avenue,” “The Portrait,” and “Diary of a Madman.” Along with two of his later works, “The Nose” and “The Overcoat,” these stories are often classed as his “Petersburg tales.” Filled with characters obsessed with rank and status, they demonstrate Gogol’s belief that St. Petersburg was a city cursed by artifice and superficiality, as vainglorious as the czar who gave it his name.

“Nevsky Avenue” depicts a pompous lieutenant named Pirogov who believes that his recent promotion in the Table of Ranks should grant him access to whatever woman he wants. When the wife of his shoemaker rebuffs his advances, Pirogov “could not understand how it was possible to resist him, all the more since his amiability and brilliant rank gave him full rights to her attention.” When her husband intervenes and kicks him out, Pirogov sets off to the authorities to have the insubordinate merchant sent to Siberia (but gets distracted by a puff pastry and forgets the whole thing).

In “Diary of a Madman,” we get the story of a petty civil servant named Poprishchin, a titular councillor who works in an unnamed department (so anonymous and interchangeable were these offices in Gogol’s imagination). Poprishchin’s entire vocation consists of sharpening quill pens for his director—an actual job, Fusso informs us in the notes: “The low-level clerks who performed this task sometimes made a specialty of sharpening quills to the particular taste of their superiors.” The story follows Poprishchin’s descent into madness shortly after he becomes enamored with the director’s daughter, a woman well beyond his reach as a mere titular councillor. When the head of his section castigates him for “dangling after the director’s daughter,” Poprishchin says to himself, “What am I, a commoner, a tailor, or a non-commissioned officer’s child? I am a nobleman. I can earn a good rank myself. I’m only forty-two years old—that’s the time when your career gets going in earnest. Just you wait, my friend! I’ll get to be a colonel, too, and maybe, God willing, something even bigger.” By the end of the story, Poprishchin has become entirely delusional, having convinced himself that he is heir to the Spanish throne and that the year is 2000.

To a modern audience accustomed to hidden hierarchies and the unwritten rules of elite spaces, the Table of Ranks seems almost refreshingly transparent. But as Gogol reminds us, transparency itself can be something of a mask. Meritocracies are always loudly announcing themselves; this is precisely how they drown out the voices of their victims. On the surface, Peter’s system seems fair—everyone has a chance to work their way up through service. But this only tends to make those inclined to be cruel to people on the bottom feel justified, righteous even, in their actions and attitudes.

That comes through especially in what is perhaps Gogol’s most famous short story, “The Overcoat,” a sad, masterfully written tale about a copyist named Akaky Akakievich, whose coat is stolen in the middle of the freezing St. Petersburg winter. Attempting to seek aid in recovering it, he solicits a high-ranking and well-connected official, but the man brushes him off, offended that someone of Akaky’s rank would appeal to him for help. “Do you know who you are talking to?” he scolds the hapless copyist. “Do you understand who is standing in front of you?” In the logic of the Table of Ranks, the official’s language is not condescension; it is a respect for procedure. Akaky is the one at fault for failing to follow protocol, to work through proper channels, to recognize the order of things. Akaky eventually dies after catching cold, but he gets his revenge in the afterlife: Soon after he passes away, rumors begin circulating around the capital about a ghost who wanders the city pulling coats off people’s backs “without distinguishing rank and title.”

Dspite the importance of the Table of Ranks to his stories, Gogol’s use of the system has always been odd and inconsistent. He offers such acute and exacting renderings of how obsessed his characters are with where they fall in the system, yet he plays fast and loose when it comes to depicting the ranks themselves accurately. As Reyfman notes, the title of titular councillor would have been unlikely for someone like Akaky Akakievich to hold: “Akaky’s service abilities are so obviously deficient that his having this rank is simply not plausible.” She identifies a similar issue in “The Nose,” the story of a vainglorious collegiate assessor named Kovalev who wakes up one morning to discover that his nose has disappeared. Kovalev watches in shock as his nose steps out of a carriage wearing “a uniform with gold embroidery and with a large stand-up collar,” as well as a plumed hat that suggests to Kovalev the rank of state councillor. But Reyfman says this makes no sense: The uniforms of state councillors did not have plumes. This error may seem like minutia to us, considering the greater strangeness of the story, but as Reyfman notes, it would have been instantly identifiable to Gogol’s contemporaries.

Gogol’s precise motivation for creating this messiness is impossible to know, but one recalls how his earlier works, saturated with humorously overblown stereotypes about Ukrainian life, were perceived by his readers as faithful representations. It must have been intoxicating on some level to know how easily reality could be supplanted by a fictional account of it, especially for a writer like Gogol, who felt so at odds with the world around him. Perhaps this is why he chose to do the same when it came to the bureaucratic elites in Russia. Through his tiny mistakes—misplaced plumes and miscategorized clerks—Gogol not only created a fictional world of his own but also mapped the unstable hierarchy and shaky ground of the actual one.