The geographical settings in Chekhov’s literature are extensive: his characters are found in small villages; in provincial towns; on a nobleman’s estate; in the two ‘capitals’—Moscow and St. Petersburg: in the Caucasus and the Crimea, Siberia and Sakhalin. There are also endless roads and numerous encounters on country lanes, tracks on the steppe, and encounters in railway stations and on trains.
No less diverse is the social world populated by his characters: intellectuals, merchants, peasants, landlords, shepherds, fishermen, firemen, military of all ranks and civil servants of all grades, policemen and thieves, actors and scholars, students, doctors, teachers, lawyers and clergymen—of different generations, ages, levels of education and culture.
But the geographical dimension, the social backgrounds and professions are not as important as Russia’s inner state and the way this shapes people’s individual destinies. The purpose of this chapter is precisely to explore this interdependence, while the subject may be defined as ‘turn-of-the-century Russia’ through Chekhov’s eyes or—to put it another way—’Chekhov’s images of Russia’. This interdependence is explored from a variety of perspectives: the vastness of Russia’s territory and the abundance of its nature as the Russians’ existential context, and Russia in the contexts of the world, and of the universe. Chekhov’s judgments are never categorical or blunt, just as the symbolic ‘images’ of Russia are never unequivocal, and reflect the complexities and controversies, the combination of light and darkness, good and evil, that typify the Russian way of life and Russian sensibilities at that time.
An example of Chekhov’s complex perceptions of Russia are his feelings about the south of the country where he was born, combining deeply personal and emotional impressions with objective, unprejudiced observations. In 1887 Chekhov, already a popular author of short stories, revisited his home town of
. His impressions of local customs and manners, found in his letters, are full of irony. Having lived in Moscow for seven years, he found many of the local customs alien and even detestable: the lack of culture, the idle talk of the philistines who only eat, drink, bread and have no other interests. But beneath this irony is a touching and uncynical admiration for the charming sounds, colours and smells of the Southern lifestyle: music in the city park and the smell of lilacs and acacias, but most of all the ‘little hillocks, kites, laiks and blue vistas’ of the Don Steppe. A distinct memory of his childhood experiences is expressed in the story ‘The Steppe’ (1888) as the image of a “beautiful, stern motherland”. Taganrog
In the 1880s the writer whose childhood was spent in this setting, was faced with quite a different reality—depressing and ominous. Having finished work on ‘The Steppe’, Chekhov wrote to Dmitri Grigorovich about his realisation of the fundamental hostility to man of Russia’s vast expanses:
On the one hand, there is physical weakness, nervousness, early sexual maturity, passionate desire to live and find the truth, dreams of work which, like the Steppe have no boundaries; edgy analysis and lack of knowledge combined with the irrepressible flight of thought; and on the other hand—endlessly flat land, severe climate, a grey and severe nation with its hard and old history, the Tatar yoke, bureaucracy, poverty, ignorance, rainy capitals, Slavic apathy, and so forth... Russian life beats the soul out of the Russian...In Western Europe people die because their space is cramped and suffocating. In Russia they die because the space is an endless expanse.
It seems this image of Russia is quite different from the beautiful motherland of ‘The Steppe’. Chekhov had found a rationale which he expressed through artistic intuition in his short stories ‘The Witch’, and ‘On the Way’ (‘Na puti’, 1886), where frost and snowstorms become symbols of restless souls or the spirit. The only common thread in his letter to Grigorovich and these stories is the conflict between the “passionate desire to live and find the truth”—and man’s importance in such a vast and old space. Although these words about the cold were written by a southerner, born near the warm sea, they echo the widespread European perception of Russia as a cold country. (Was this perhaps the reason why in the British premiere of The Cherry Orchard, the actors wore fur coats and fur caps ?)
Chekhov himself nearly froze to death in
Siberia in 1890, and in the Nizhni Novgorod province in 1892, so the motif of a old climate destroying the human physique and psyche is not accidental in his works. ‘In the climate one expects it to snow at any time, and now all this philosophising. These lines of Masha’s in Three Sisters contain a subtext, suggesting the dreadful ambience in the house, dominated by the heartless rationalist, Natasha. This atmosphere is as unbearable as apprehension of the cold winter which will soon come in the Urals—as Chekhov wrote, the action of the play is set ‘in a provincial town, like Perm’.
Having moved to the south of the Crimea in the late 1890s, but still possessed by the memories of Melikhovo, the splendour of central Russian winters, the joy of sledging in the abundant and pure Russian snow, Chekhov returns to the problem of Russian destiny in the endless expanses of the country. In the short story, ‘On Official Business’ 1899, he portrays a low-grade country policeman, subserviently engaged in meaningless paperwork, against the backdrop of a snowstorm. As a member himself of the Serpukhov Sanitation (Health) Council, Chekhov knew such policemen who, for thirty years, had timidly endured the petty tyranny of local administrators. The protagonist in Chekhov’s story, investigator Lyzhin, watches the snowstorm and thinks he sees the little policeman walking hand-in-hand with the dead insurance agent, whose failure to cope with the pressures of harsh reality had driven him to suicide. In Lyzhin’s mind the old policeman, of peasant stock, and the bygone intellectual, are merged in the single image of a hardworking man, breaking his back under the burden which ought to be carried by society as a whole. And the protagonist has feelings of guilt about such vulnerable people.
References to the harsh image of the ‘cold’ motherland as an ideal milieu for the bureaucratic state are found in Chekhov’s two aphorisms: “Russia is a bureaucratic country” and “Russia is a vast plain across which a dashing horseman recklessly rides”. The latter aphorism was echoed by the eminent statesman Konstantin Pobedonotsev, who also said that ‘Russia is an icy desert across which a dashing horseman roams’. It is not known who first used the epithet ‘icy’ with reference to Russia, but it matches perfectly Chekhov’s general image of his homeland.
The ‘daring’ of the Russian brings us back to the issue of unrealised individual aspirations. Where is the daring, dashing horseman riding so recklessly? This question also relates to Gogol’s proverbial comparison of
as “the troika swift as a bird”, and to Gogol’s rhetorical question: “ Russia , whither do you fly?”. The concept of man’s conflict with Russia’s vast expanses is linked in Chekhov’s mind with the problem of suicide which, by the end of the last century, had become almost commonplace, especially amongst the young. (Treplev’s attempts and suicide in The Seagull are relevant here.) Russia
Another scourge of society which concerned Chekhov was the psychological disease known as a ‘persecution complex’, which flourished in the fertile soil of Russian police terror and outrages, causing the people to live in constant fear of arrest, and of administrative or criminal punishment. Such a persecution complex damaged the mind of the refined intellectual, Ivan Gromov. Seeing shackled convicts in the street, escorted by guards, convinces himself that this will happen to him, and he ends up in a lunatic asylum. The story ‘Ward No. 6’ (1892) came as a real shock to the reading public. Chekhov’s most terrifying ‘experiment’ in the aesthete exploration of Russian society resulted in the exposure of yet another aspect of Russian ‘Ward No. 6’ became a metaphor for the country as a whole. The paradoxical motif of the claustrophobia of Russia’s vast expanse in Chekhov’s letter to Grigorovich acquired literal meaning in ‘Ward No. 6’. The action is set in an enclosed space, cut off from the rest of the world and the ward in the clinic looks like a prison-cell. Dr. Ragin identifies the clinic with the prison, which can be seen from the window, and comes to the conclusion: “This is reality.” The only way to escape it is to die. So Ragin dies.
The sense of ‘Ward No. 6’ as the symbol of a feudal Russia which represses human freedom, was shared by the painter Ilya Repin, and the writer Nikolai Leskov: “Ward No. 6’ is everywhere...This is Russia.” And Vladimir Lenin confessed that when he was young, he was terrified by the story, as though he himself was locked in the ward with madmen.
It was later that Chekhov became interested in man’s reaction to such grim realities. And he discovered that horror at the prospect of being imprisoned often results in transference into the desire to see others jailed. This motif first appeared in the early short stories such as ‘Cases of Mania Grandioza’ (1883) or ‘Sergeant Prishibeyev’ (1885). The only way such people can cope with the fact that their reality is a prison is to adapt and make others do the same. This method is used by the teacher of Greek Belikov, in ‘A Hard Case’ (1898). He creates his own microcosm, and voluntarily imprisons himself in it: a bedroom that looks like a ‘box’, covered by a blanket; and a robe, a cap, things in cases, invariably galos he and an umbrella. The wretched Belikov is terrified of any sign that others are unwilling to have according to the same rules, and when he dies they put him in his last case—a coffin. But Chekhov leaves his readers with no illusions: ‘And how many more such men “in their cases” are still around, and how many more are yet to come...? The symbol of the case, and the man who voluntarily locks himself in it, became Chekhov’s wider metaphor for the grim social atmosphere of the 1880s.
Such dark images of Russia have an original source and a synonym: Sakhalin. At a time when his knowledge of penal servitude in Sakhalin was limited to sources from ‘special’ or restricted literature. Chekhov realised that ‘this is a place of unbearable suffering’. During his visit to
in 1890. Chekhov was able to obtain proof of his assumptions. Crowds of convicts, many of them falsely condemned, suffered from a cold climate, of which Chekhov wrote: ‘This is a not a climate. It is the most foul weather...this island is the foulest place in Russia’. The only word Chekhov used to describe this dreadful climate, combined with hard labour, was ‘hell’. Sakhalin Island
In his book, The Island of Sakhalin (1895), Chekhov expressed the hopelessness of the convicts’ existence, doomed to endless physical and moral suffering. The worst-off were people like the fratricide Yakov Terekhov, described in ‘Murder’ (1895), who had not yet lost his irrepressible longing for freedom. He had tried to escape many times, was brutally punished, but his soul purified itself through suffering and he acquired faith in God which previously had been lacking for him. And peering into the distance towards the motherland with anguish and love, he dreams about sharing his cruel experiences, even if only with one other person who might therefore be saved. No matter who he is, man’s soul is as multifarious as
In much of Chekhov’s work, Sakhalin became the symbol of repression. He once observed that all his works of the 1890s are “Sakhalinized throughout”. Equally, the ‘ravine’ symbolises the abyss that has swallowed up not only the village of Ukleyevo but the whole of Russia. This image was born out of Chekhov’s observations in Melinkhovo this estate outside Moscow, from his close contacts with peasants, merchants and the owners of the nearby factories, depicted in the story ‘In the Ravine’ (Hingley’s ‘In the Hollow’, 1900). The ravine is a dark, unclean place: “swampy mud, even in summer, foul-smelling river, polluted by factory wastes...shadows which the old willows cast on the house and on the courtyard. Darkness outside reflected darkness in the house and sin loomed like fog in the air.” And the only pure creature, Lipa, daughter of a poor widow, is kept by the rich family as if in a prison—gaining freedom cost too high a price: the loss of her little son, victim of a family row. The story ends with the fall of darkness as the village again sinks into the ravine. At the same time, however, the literal sense of ’ravine’ remains part of nature. And thus this deep cavity with steep slopes performs another, psychological, function in accentuating the characters’ experiences. The intelligent Vera Kardina in the story ‘In the Home-Stead’ (1897), is so horrified by the landlord’s violent outburst at a peasant girl that she feels violently dragged back decades to the time before the abolition of serfdom, and she runs, away from herself, to the ravine where she finds peace of mind. She decides to change her life and ‘become one with the luxuriant steppe’, with its beauty and vistas. And although this offers her no personal happiness, the function of the ravine in Vera’s imagination is parallel to the steppe in the 1888 story of that name: here too is the embodiment of Russia’s endless expanses.
In the story ‘Peasants’ (1897), the cliff—like a ravine it too is associated with steep slopes—is related to the degradation of a Russian village which however, is seen against the backdrop of the beauties of rural nature with sunset on the river, the church, the ‘soft and indescribably clean air’. That is how the devout Olga, sitting with her sick husband on the edge of the cliff sees the village on the day of their arrival. Her spirits are not yet darkened by poverty or their relatives’ hostility towards them as self-invited guests. And at the end of the story, Olga is again sitting on the edge of the cliff. She has survived a severe and hungry winter, has lost her husband, but she admires the river and the church and dreams of how she will return to
The contrast of darkness and light in the symbols of nature echoes the differences within the characters, such as the peasants. The derogatory nickname of ‘lackey-land’ given to the village of Zhukovo is not a general metaphor of the country, or the nation. After all, the peasants were not born lackeys, boors, thieves or drunks. They acquired these vices through living in unbearable conditions, hard labour, poverty and the injustice of local administrations. Such vices only disappear when “humanitarianism and faith in God take over”. Like Dostoyevsky, Chekhov regarded the Russian soul, whether of a peasant or a landlord, an intellectual or a casual labourer, as the receptacle of both good and evil, strength and weakness, degradation and birth. As a psychologist, Chekhov particularly valued moments of insight, and of the sudden awareness of a wasted life. Likewise, the convicts Chekhov met and interviewed on Sakhalin provided no exception.
These negative symbols of a rich and multifarious country are juxtaposed with the images of a ‘stern and beautiful motherland’ in ‘The Steppe’, and Russia as ‘our orchard’, in Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard. Amongst other symbols between these two works, one must include the forest in Uncle Vanya (1896). It is as beautiful as the steppe or the orchard, and with the same inevitability, it is becoming scarce. The forest and the lives of the characters are vividly interwoven. The beauty of Sonya’s feelings is futile, as are the feminine beauty of Yelena Andreyevna. Astrov’s talents and his efforts to protect the forest, or Waffle’s innocence and naivety. But the most dramatic is Voinitsky’s (Vanya’s) awareness of his wasted life, while only the nanny, Marina, with her quiet simplicity and faith in God, personifies the healthy spirit of the people.
In The Seagull, the lake—as the natural scenic setting for Treplev’s play about the distant future of mankind—bears the authentic traits of Russian life: people fish in it, gulls fly over it and living on its banks is a girl (Nina), who dreams of getting out of the provinces to Moscow where the ‘real stage’ is. But all this could happen in any country: the national specifics carry universal meaning. The same applies to the seagull symbol in the play. It contains a variety of meanings, both explicit (references to Nina’s ruined personal life) and implicit (when Treplev says that ‘soon he will kill himself in the same way as the seagull’). The play contains allegorical references to art which triumphs over people’s personal sufferings; in a sense this bird, killed in ‘real life’, but resurrected as the symbol of art and the beauty of life, echoes those symbols of the motherland which has endured much suffering in the past, yet still remains a potent source of vitality.
Nina’s longing for Moscow reveals one further aspect of Russia which the artist can see in his favourite city. First there is the Moscow-Petersburg antonym in Chekhov’s works. Moscow is the symbol of Russian statehood, ‘the widow in purple’ as Pushkin described it in The Bronze Horseman, ‘a widow’ who stood aside, overshadowed by the new capital. But Moscow turned out to be the kind of ’widow’ who has not lost interest in the world—or taste for the joys it offers. Deep in their hearts, the majority of Russians always preferred Moscow to St. Petersburg, Hospitable, famous for the promenades along the Sadovoye and Boulevard Circles, with its cosy seven hills and numerous churches, Moscow appeared more homely to the ordinary Russian than St. Petersburg with its European style and planned avenues. It was not by chance that the story ‘Misery’ (1886) of the old drayman and his tragic loneliness since he lost his son, is enacted against the backdrop of cold and indifferent
crowds. St. Petersburg
Chekhov’s stories of human drama are also set in Moscow: such as ‘A Dreary Story’ (1889), ‘Three Years’ (1894), or part of ’A Lady with a Little Dog’ (1899).
was more dear than Moscow to both Chekhov and his characters (such as Yartsev and Kochevoy in ‘Three Years’). He even liked it for its coolness and ‘grey misty days’. In Chekhov’s writing, departure to St. Petersburg is usually related to the characters’ hopes of changing the circumstances of their lives—for example, in ‘Practical Jokes’ (1886), or ‘The Artist’s Story’ (also known’as ‘The House with a Mezzanine’, 1896), or for careers—Doctor Blagovo in ‘My Life’ (1896); and the longing for Moscow arises from the desire ‘to start life from scratch’—as in The Russian Master’ (1894). But Chekhov always makes exceptions in his last short story. ‘The Marriageable Girl’ (1903). Nadya Shumina, eager to start life from scratch, merely passes through Moscow on her way to St. Petersburg where she is going to study. It may be that this was related to Chekhov’s sympathy with the (radical) student movement which was very much alive in St. Petersburg over the years 1899-1902. St. Petersburg
Chekhov’s perception of Moscow as the heart of Russia is also illustrated by the fact that in his creative or fictional meditations on the future of Russia he always thought of Moscow’s historical past. The teacher, Yartsev, in ‘Three Years’, admires the up-and-coming new generation, believing that Russia is ‘on the eve of a great triumph’, but he also says that ‘Moscow is the city that will have much to suffer’. Paradoxically, to prove these words he looks back to the past, to the times of raids by nomadic tribes on Russia at the end of the eleventh century when Moscow already existed. It is suggested to Yartsev that he write a play about those times for the young generation, of whom he has such great expectations. Drafting a play that will never be written, Yartsev imagines a scene with a captured Russian girl, tied to the saddle, who watches the dreadful conflict ‘sadly and wisely’—sadness and wisdoms symbolising the suffering of the nation, yet endowed with great patience and prepared for further ordeals. Thirteen years later, Alexander Blok also prophesied the return of violent times when Russia struggled against Tatar hordes: “Yes, I behold you, the beginning/of grand and stormy days.”
Chekhov, moreover, did not envisage the future of Russia as an ascent to ‘glorious heights’, although for many years Soviet Chekhov scholars tried to prove the opposite, referring to the memories of the writer’s contemporaries, and the lines of some characters of his plays and later short stories. Amongst believers in a glorious future are Vershinin from Three Sisters, Sasha from the story ‘The Marriageable Girl’, and Trofimov from The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov’s irony in relation to these characters was generally ignored, as were their evident limitations, predilection for high-flown rhetoric and ineffectual personalities.
Trofimov’s aphorism “All of Russia is our orchard” sounds like a call to work the soil for the future; and when he talks about the land which is “vast and beautiful and with so many wonderful places in it”, he means the Russian land. It is worth pointing out to non-Russian speakers that in Russian there is the same word for ‘land’ and for ‘earth’. And when Chekhov dreamed about the ‘flowering orchard’ which will come in three or four hundred years, he means the whole of the earth—the future of the motherland inseparable from the fortunes of all mankind.
With all the limitations of Trofimov’s historical optimism, he is by no means a professional Russian revolutionary. As a participant in student protest marches (since Chekhov had to comply with the requirements of censorship, he could not make this explicit in the play—but he wrote about it in a letter to his wife), Trofimov did not call for the destruction of the old world, but for giving up the old mode of existence which allowed the few to live at the expense of others’ labour.
Chekhov’s characters dream of a ‘glorious future’ which is not connected with revolution (for this reason, in the 1920s many critics ranked Chekhov amongst those writers who opposed the proletarian revolution). On the other hand, up to the late 1960s, the myth about Chekhov’s revolutionary views was carefully cultivated by official theatre historians who referred not only to Trofimov’s tirades, but also to Tuzenbach’s lines about the storm in Three Sisters, claiming that they echoed Gorky’s call for the storm in The Song of the Stormy-Petrel (‘Let it break in all its fury’). But in contrast to Gorky’s stormy-petrel, Tuzenbach does not expect the storm to be destructive. In fact The Song of the Stormy-Petrel was printed three months after the premiere of Three Sisters, and perhaps it was partly intended to continue a polemic with Chekhov’s characters’ idea of improving society. Tuzenbach dreamed of ridding society of ‘idleness, indifference, prejudice against work, putrid tedium’, and that was all.
Chekhov’s memoirs testify that his vision of Russia’s future was not as optimistic as we were taught to believe. He wrote about events that ‘will turn everything upside down’: “Our time is much like that lived through by our fathers shortly before the Crimean campaign, except that we are in for a greater ordeal. I know this for sure.” That was written in 1903, and a month later the war with Japan broke out. At first Chekhov entertained some hopes about the outcome of that war (‘We shall beat the Japs’), and even wanted to serve as a field doctor. After the death of the Russian army, analogies with the Crimean campaign became widespread.
Missing the Russian weather in the Crimea at the end of 1901, Chekhov wrote: ‘An endless field and a lonely birch-tree. The name of the picture is “loneliness”. And he wrote this about Levitan’s picture Hay-Ricks: ‘A meadow, hay-cocks, forest at a distance, and reigning over them all is the moon’. These sketches betray the melancholy, lyrical, or as Chekhov would say, ‘Levitanian mood’. It is similar to the heroine’s mood in ‘Three Years’ who looks at a landscape in an art gallery, and feels the air filled with loneliness, silence.
Finally, there is one further point on this subject which Chekhov wrote in
in 1899: ‘A conversation about earth from another planet 1,000 years from now: do you remember that white (birch) tree...? The image of Russia is placed in a global context. It is about the time when ‘all lives have made their woeful circle and died out’, but the earth and its satellites have not yet turned to ashes, as The World Soul prophesied in Treplev’s play in The Seagull. In other words, this is post-apocalyptic. Hence the date: ’1,000 years from now’, according to the New Testament, meant the end of ‘the earthly history’, mentioned by the black monk in the story of the same name (1894). And for Chekhov, by that time the former inhabitants of the earth will have moved to another planet and even forgotten the name of the birch-tree. The birch-tree, without which the Russian landscape is inconceivable, becomes the symbol of both Russia and the world. Yalta
But while Chekhov had a grim vision of the earth’s future, abandoned by human species, he also had faith in the triumph of man in the context of earthly reality. He pins his hopes for a better future for
not on a social class, but on individuals: “I have faith in individuals, I seek salvation scattered all over Russia , they have power, although they are scarce.” And it was Chekhov’s constant and firm position not to divide people into classes or social groups. “No division is good, for we are all, a nation and the best things we do are for the nation.” In spite of all the human weaknesses and vices that he saw so clearly and exposed so ruthlessly. Chekhov had faith in individuals. Russia
This faith was fed by the rise of ‘social awareness’ in Russia, of the educational, cultural and ethical standards of Russian intelligentsia, as well as by the blossoming of Russian spirit the culture at the turn of the nineteenth (and twentieth) centuries. Chekhov contemporaries and acquaintances were such outstanding personalities as Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Chaliapin, Peter Tehaikovsky, Isaak Levitan, Konstantin Korovin, Sergei Rakhmaninov (whose genius Chekhov was amongst the first to recognise), Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky. The ideas of others of his contemporaries, such professional revolutionaries as Lenin, Plekhanov and others, were profoundly alien to Chekhov, although he could not help sympathising with political prisoners (many of whom he met on Sakhalin). But Chekhov’s rejection of the class-oriented model of change, as well as of all forms of violence, made it impossible for him to accept the revolution which he felt was about to break out.
The premonition of calamity on the eve of the revolution, combined with strong faith in Russia, was shared by his successors in literature. In his article, entitled ‘Timelessness’ (1906), Alexander Blok wrote: ‘Some devilish vitality helps us burn and never burn out’. And as for the present when, as Tolstoy once put it, everything in Russia ‘has gone head over heels and cannot get back on its feet’, we need only to repeat, alter the philosopher Berdyaev, that our hope is in Russia’s ‘hidden resources’.
In the story ‘In the Ravine’ the wise old man observes reassuringly: “Life is long and there will be many good and bad happenings. Mother Russia is so vast.” In this statement, different aspects of Russia merge into one. A Russia that is eternal.