SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — On the eve of the Crimean referendum, while the world anxiously awaited the climax of Ukraine’s political drama, I went to Simferopol’s Crimea Russian Drama Theater to see a production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. In spite of the tension in the city, in spite of the insolent men in military fatigues patrolling every street and intersection, the house was still half-full that Saturday evening, with families, couples, and groups of high-school students occupying the plush seats under a gorgeous, blue-edged, floral-and-butterfly-themed ceiling.
The plot of The Government Inspector is classic bitter Russian satire: A new arrival in a provincial, corrupt town — an imperious young man named Khlestakov — is mistaken by local officials for an important government inspector from St. Petersburg, sent incognito to examine the town’s affairs. The terrified mayor and his cronies immediately grovel before him, offering bribes and favors. The town merchants, believing Khlestakov a real inspector with the power to finally clean up their town, also court him. At the end of the play, the ruse is revealed, but too late: Having taken advantage of everyone, Khlestakov suddenly departs, never to be seen again. In the final act, the real government inspector arrives.