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Property Law in Russian Literature:

University of Alberta property professor Russ Brown partly agrees with my post pointing out the prominence of property law in classic literature. He notes that property issues do indeed a play an important role in many classic English novels, but suggests that that is not true of classic Russian literature.

Russ is probably right to suppose that property-related themes are less prominent in Russian than in English-language literature. However, they are far from absent. Nikolai Gogol's classic work Dead Souls hinges on a point of property law to an even greater extent than Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Chichikov, the main character, is seeking to marry a wealthy heiress (an interesting parallel to Jane Austen's characters, many of whom are women who need to marry wealthy men). In order to achieve his goal, Chichikov has to prove that he himself is wealthy enough to aspire to the lady's hand. Nineteenth century Russian gentry measured their wealth in large part by the number of serfs ("souls") they owned. Lacking the funds to purchase a sufficient number of living serfs, Chichikov hatches a plan to purchase dead ones (the "dead souls" of the title) who, under Russian law, were still carried on their owners' books until the next census after their demise. The owners have an incentive to sell to Chichikov because the dead serfs were actually tax liabilities for as long as they remained on the books! Several parts of the story explore Russian attitudes to property (including of course the ownership of serfs themselves, which Gogol at that time opposed). Dead Souls is usually regarded as the first great Russian novel, and property law (along with tax law) played a key role in it.

JohnK (mail):
Don't forget War and Peace. There the protagonist Pierre is the illegitemate son of one of the richest men in Russia. He is thus not allowed to inherit any of his father's property. On his deathbed, however, he writes a letter to the Czar asking him to legitimize Pierre thus making him his male heir and disinheriting the opportunist Prince Vasily and several female cousins. Vasily and the cousins try unsuccessfully to destroy the letter before the old man's death.
12.11.2007 4:54pm
A. Person (mail):
Wow!!! can anyone name more famous novels where property rights are at issue!!!
12.11.2007 5:12pm
Colin (mail):
Or Master i Margerita, which deals a little bit with the Soviet equivalent of rental properties. And doesn't the schoolteacher in Petty Demon get involved in a land transaction? I haven't thought about that book in a long time, I might be making that up.
12.11.2007 5:15pm
Minipundit (mail) (www):
Don't forget Tolstoy's best-ever short story, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"
12.11.2007 5:21pm
Scrivener:
The way I recall the plot, Chichikov was planning to use the "dead souls" as a collateral for a bank loan which he never intended to repay.
12.11.2007 6:39pm
Javert:
"Wow!!! can anyone name more famous novels where property rights are at issue!!!"

Atlas Shrugged.
12.11.2007 11:25pm
R. Richard Schweitzer (mail):
Read: Property and Freedom by Richard Pipes (Knopf, NY 1999 ISBN o-37540498-8)

Noted Historian (Harvard) Specialty: Russia and Russian Regimes.
12.11.2007 11:51pm
ruleswatch (mail):
What about Turgenev's Fathers and Sons? Its complete context is fixed by and replete with property implications of early 19th century property reform and the change in thought that accompanied/resulted from it.
12.12.2007 5:19am
Orielbean (mail):
He was going to buy land out in the hinterlands, and so needed to prove to the government that he owned the serfs to work the amount of land he wanted. It's a very funny story, but if I remember correctly - it was missing some chapters or something and didn't make much sense near the end of the story. He chose the boonies b/c it was unlikely that there'd be many officials in the area to ask "uh, where are your peasants?"
12.12.2007 1:24pm
Fat Mam (mail):
Doesn't Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time" predate "Dead Souls" by a couple of years -- 1839 vs 1842.
12.12.2007 11:06pm