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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.

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