The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Tax Farm Affair" (1858)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Tax Farm Affair” (original: “Otkupnoe delo”) was written by “V.N. Elagin” and first appeared in Sovremennik no. 9 (1858). Little is known about “V.N. Elagin;” he may have been Nikolai Elagin (1817-1891), a Russian revolutionary writer.
“The Tax Farm Affair” may have been the first Russian detective short story and the government inspector one of the first detectives in Russian literature. The inspector, Gorev, works for the Tsar, attempting to expose the corrupt dealings of a tax farmer, one of the men whose vodka distilleries provided so much money to Tsarist Russia. Unfortunately, not only does Gorev encounter difficulties from the tax farmer, but the farmer's workers, who are loyal to their employer, are capable of stymieing Gorev, and there are a number of government officials who accept bribes from the farmer and do what they can to hinder the inspector. However, Gorev succeeds in the end.
“The Tax Farm Affair” displays a detailed knowledge of both the liquor trade and the manner in which corrupt officials work. What is most interesting about the story is not only the fact that the government inspector is honest and moral—stories in Tsarist Russia which government officials were heroic protagonists were, as might be imagined, rare, especially before the Tsar’s 1864 revision of the Russian judiciary system, which was “so scandalously corrupt that even ministers of justice had resorted to bribery”1—but also that the story is, in its way, a detective story. It is possible that Elagin had been inspired by a translation of Bleak House or by one of Poe’s The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries, although given the Russian fascination for all things French the most likely direct inspiration was either Eugène François Vidocq’s autobiography (see: The Great Detective) or one of the many French detective novels and stories and romans feuilleton inspired by Vidocq’s autohagiography. But the Russian enthusiasm for mystery literature did not truly begin until the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, when Russian translations of American and English detectives, including Sherlock Holmes (See: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries), Nick Carter (see: The Nick Carter Mysteries), and Nat Pinkerton (a Nick Carter-like version of Allan Pinkerton—see: The Great Detective) became popular with lower-class readers and spawned Russian imitations and unauthorized sequels. At mid-century stories in imitation of James Fenimore Cooper (see: The Last of the Mohicans) and stories of heroic knights or Cossacks (see: Taras Bulba) were popular. In 1870s and 1880s the bandit story took precedence (see: Bandit Churkin). Elagin’s decision to write a detective story, well in advance not only of his native country’s taste for the genre but also of the flourishing of the genre in the West, is curious as well as foresighted.
For Further Research
David Christian, ‘Living Water’: Vodka and Russian Society on the Eve of Emancipation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.
1 Louise McReynolds, Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 16.