The state of business ethics is rather low in The Estate of Wormwood and Honey. Is it a realistic portrayal of 19th century Russia? I think so. The great economic historian of Russia, Alexander Gerschenkron, thought so too.

Actually, the best document of the abysmal state of business dealings in Russia back then is the great Russian novel Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, in which a crooked businessman by the name of Chichikov travels from one estate to another trying to buy dead serfs—serfs who were listed on the last census but who have since died. He wants to use these non-existing serfs as collateral to obtain cheap state loans.

His simple scheme requires great efforts on his part because his counterparts—the estate owners—try, in turn, to cheat him at every step. One tries to sell him the phantom serfs at full price, defeating the purpose of the scheme. When Chichikov protests that he can’t be expected to pay full price for serfs who are dead, the owner proceeds to extoll seriously how productive they were while alive.

Another challenges Chichikov to settle the price by playing checkers and proceeds to move three of his own pieces at the same time. Chichikov refuses to continue to play and the owner gets mad and orders his footmen to beat Chichikov up. He is saved at the last moment by the arrival of a police official who arrests the estate owner for assaulting another land owner.

Gogol might have exaggerated, of course, but none of his contemporary readers could claim that he couldn’t recognize their reality in his novel.