Aksentij Popriščin, the hero of Gogol′’s “Diary of a Madman” (1835), comes to the realization that he is no ordinary St. Petersburg clerk, but actually Ferdinand VIII, King of Spain. By shedding his name and rank in favor of a more royal identity Popriščin engages in a tradition that had played a significant role in Russian history since the seventeenth century—he is a false pretender (samozvanec). By the mid-1830s the theme of pretenderism had already come to prominence in both literature and histories (most notably for my discussion in the works of Karamzin and Puškin). As I hope to show, in fashioning his madman Gogol′ draws heavily from previous and contemporary depictions of pretenders, while he also makes important alterations and additions to this tradition by recontextualizing it in the hierarchical world of the post-Petrine bureaucracy. Gogol′ delves into the psychological motivations of a pretender while he also molds the concept of pretenderism to fit his own discourse on the lot of a civil servant in nineteenth-century St. Petersburg.
Popriščin is a noble creature. Yet he expresses this critical facet of his identity with two quite different Russian terms—he is a dvorjanin and he is of blagorodnoe proisxoždenie. The first of these etymologically distinct words implies state conferred nobility (possessed by all clerks over the twelfth grade of the Table of Ranks) while the second denotes an inherent, inborn quality. Popriščin uses his nobility to set himself apart from the motley St. Petersburg crowd. Therefore he must distance himself from his rank and his utterly commonplace dvorjanstvo in order to seek out and embrace his blagorodstvo. Popriščin’s belief in his own inner greatness compels him to discard his identity as titular counselor Popriščin and discover that he is indeed of blagorodnoe proisxoždenie—he is a king. Like all pretenders he usurps another’s biography and lineage in order to justify his own true value. By drawing out his blagorodstvo, Popriščin’s pretenderism combats the depersonalizing forces of the bureaucracy which threaten to deprive him of any individuality whatsoever.