What Kind of Con Man Do You Want?

Chichikov, from “Dead Souls”


A couple of weeks ago, when I was in the early stages of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, I compared Donald Trump to the flamboyant liar Nozdrez, who loves making deals, and reflected that I’d rather have the novel’s  “cautious and frigid” Chichikov running my government than Nozdrev. I didn’t know then that Chichikov too is a scoundrel and someone far more to be feared that Nozdrev, whose lies are at least apparent to everyone.

So now the novel helps me to build on the insights that Gogol gave me into Trump’s popularity among certain voters. Given a choice, who would you rather have running things: a blowhard that everyone knows to be a blowhard or a secretive conman who says all the right things but, as a result, is able to fleece you all the more effectively?  At least when you get taken in by a Nozdrev or a Trump, you can’t say you weren’t warned. With establishment Chichikovs, whether Republican or Democrat, it’s a different matter.

Which helps explain why many Trump supporters despise the Paul Ryans and the Mitch McConnells almost as much—perhaps as much—as the Hillary Clintons. Like Chichikov, our politicians carefully take the measure of every person in the system, add up their strengths and weaknesses, and act accordingly. If such types are assuring you that you will keep your healthcare in the very act of taking it away, why not just vote in a Trump to blow everything up?

To emphasize the contrast, Nozdrev trying to make deals is like Trump selling “Trump steaks” that have someone else’s sticker on them. He is so transparently fraudulent that you can’t help but enjoy the show. Here Nosdrev is trying to sell some worthless dogs and then a worthless barrel organ to Chichikov:

“Then buy a few dogs,” said Nozdrev. “I can sell you a couple of hides a-quiver, ears well pricked, coats like quills, ribs barrel-shaped, and paws so tucked up as scarcely to graze the ground when they run.”

“Of what use would those dogs be to me? I am not a sportsman.”

“But I WANT you to have the dogs. Listen. If you won’t have the dogs, then buy my barrel-organ. ‘Tis a splendid instrument. As a man of honour I can tell you that, when new, it cost me fifteen hundred roubles. Well, you shall have it for nine hundred.”

“Come, come! What should I want with a barrel-organ? I am not a German, to go hauling it about the roads and begging for coppers.”

“But this is quite a different kind of organ from the one which Germans take about with them. You see, it is a REAL organ. Look at it for yourself. It is made of the best wood. I will take you to have another view of it.”

And seizing Chichikov by the hand, Nozdrev drew him towards the other room, where, in spite of the fact that Chichikov, with his feet planted firmly on the floor, assured his host, again and again, that he knew exactly what the organ was like, he was forced once more to hear how Marlborough went to the war.

“Then, since you don’t care to give me any money for it,” persisted Nozdrev, “listen to the following proposal. I will give you the barrel-organ and all the dead souls which I possess, and in return you shall give me your britchka, and another three hundred roubles into the bargain.”

For Nozdrev, deal making is a form of play. He is a bad dealmaker, as apparently Trump is as well, but one can’t help but admire his enthusiasm.

Chichikov, by contrast, is cold-blooded and calculating. When he figures that one can make millions by working in customs, he first figures out the lay of the land before cashing in. His initial step is to establish himself as an exemplary employee:

But now he decided that, come what might, into the Customs he must make his way. And that way he made, and then applied himself to his new duties with a zeal born of the fact that he realised that fortune had specially marked him out for a Customs officer. Indeed, such activity, perspicuity, and ubiquity as his had never been seen or thought of. Within four weeks at the most he had so thoroughly got his hand in that he was conversant with Customs procedure in every detail. Not only could he weigh and measure, but also he could divine from an invoice how many arshins of cloth or other material a given piece contained, and then, taking a roll of the latter in his hand, could specify at once the number of pounds at which it would tip the scale. As for searchings, well, even his colleagues had to admit that he possessed the nose of a veritable bloodhound, and that it was impossible not to marvel at the patience wherewith he would try every button of the suspected person, yet preserve, throughout, a deadly politeness and an icy sang-froid which surpass belief.

Then, when the moment is ripe, he makes the job pay off through bribes from smugglers:

It happened that previously there had been formed a well-found association for smuggling on regular, carefully prepared lines, and that this daring scheme seemed to promise profit to the extent of some millions of money: yet, though he had long had knowledge of it, Chichikov had said to the association’s emissaries, when sent to buy him over, “The time is not yet.” But now that he had got all the reins into his hands, he sent word of the fact to the gang, and with it the remark, “The time is NOW.” Nor was he wrong in his calculations, for, within the space of a year, he had acquired what he could not have made during twenty years of non-fraudulent service.

The result is that Chichikov grows rich whereas Nozdrev bankrupts himself and his estate.

So which is Trump? I suspect that, if he hadn’t been bailed out by Russian oligarchs laundering money, Trump would be as broke as Nozdrev by now. I also admit a spot of fondness for Nozdrev whereas, by the end of the novel, I thoroughly loathe Chichikov.

The one advantage of having Nozdrev as president is that, with all his bumbling, he may do less damage. Chichikov would loot the treasury far more systematically.

This entry was posted in Gogol (Nikolai) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!