Friday, October 10, 2014

Nikolai Gogol's Childhood: Freak Baiting

In geographical proximity to young Nikosha Gogol in the Ukraine was the estate of Kibinsty, ruled over by the influential relative, Dmitry Prokofievich Troshchinsky (1754-1829). Although Gogol himself never seems to have spoken much about his visits to the estate as a child, he certainly must have been impressed by what went on there. The grandee Troshchinsky, one of the richest men in the Ukraine, had served in high government posts under Catherine the Great and her son Paul. His estate at Kibinsty included around seventy thousand desyatins of land [one desyatina =2.7 acres] and over 6000 “souls” (serfs). To put this in perspective, in an official document that he presented to St. Petersburg University on May 14, 1836, Gogol described his family estate at Vasilevka as covering 700 desyatins and possessing eighty-six souls (not counting the dead ones).

Troshchinsky retired for good from his government service in 1822, returning to live out his years on the Kibintsy estate. At this time, when the grandee was in almost permanent residence, Gogol’s father Vasily Afanasievich helped stage plays at the theater there, including some plays that he himself had written. As a small child Gogol grew up watching the plays, looking at the large collection of European art, listening to the serf orchestra play Mozart and Beethoven. Troshchinsky also had a large library of over a thousand volumes. His estate was, in addition, the center of activities that today would be looked upon as rather base, but then were a normal part of a rich man’s life.

As he aged the grandee and ex-minister often fell into melancholy moods. Part of his daily therapy, therefore, was to watch, and sometimes to participate in what was known as freak baiting. Peter the Great had also loved such activities and kept a large menagerie of freaks around his court all the time. Joseph Stalin, in his own unique way, later kept the tradition going.

One of the best-known entertainers at Kibintsy was the mentally retarded priest Bartholomew, who went about doing bizarre things while still dressed in his religious vestments. Special freak-baiters were employed to stimulate him to engage in laugh-provoking activities. These baiters would seat Troshchinsky near the clown, then surreptitiously place a banknote on the floor in between the two. Everyone would ignore the presence of the money. Finally Bartholomew would notice it, try to ignore it as well, prove incapable of so doing. Then, as soon as he reached out a trembling hand to pick it up, Troshchinsky would clout him on the noggin with a cane, and everyone would roll on the ground laughing.

In a similar act of freak baiting the baiters would arrange something like bobbing for apples. They filled a huge barrel full of water, threw in several gold coins. Then they made Bartholomew go bobbing for the coins. He dove into the water, tried to pick up all the coins and resurface. If he failed to bring them all up he had to dive again, and keep diving until he had successfully brought up all the coins, which were then taken away from him. This too provided lots of entertainment for Troshchinsky and his guests. As Gogol was to write later, in a famous line from his story “The Overcoat,” How much inhumanity there is in humanity.

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