An essay by Jamie Snytte
written for Prof. Louise Arsenault
The Effect of Russia on Chekhov’s Themes
To define a man, one must consider all influences acting upon him. This includes the man’s predetermined genetic makeup and his ability to create his own values based on external influences and his environment. In its most basic form, this is where the nature versus nurture argument derives from. A very important element influencing man is the society he lives in and its political structure. As an author, a playwright and a physician, Anton Chekhov lived throughout the early revolutionary phase of Russia in the late nineteenth century, it should then follow that his nature is partially embodied by a reaction to the characteristics of the society in which he lived. Therefore, an eminent presence of political and philosophical themes from before, during, and beyond Chekhov’s time should be evident in his literature. The socialist idea that progress comes from struggle is explored in the lives of artists in his play The Sea Gull, while his final play The Cherry Orchard examines the repercussions of the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Chekhov explicitly states his political views on freedom in his nonfiction compilation of letters, Letters of Anton Chekhov.
Chekhov lived in the time of the Russian Empire, ruled by Alexander II, the period before the revolution and Lenin’s communist government. However, the socialist ideas of Karl Marx and his contemporary Friedrich Engels had already developed or were in the process of developing. Marx’s ideas acted in conjunction with many of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel’s and had then evolved into the founding elements of Marxism. One principal socialist idea accredited to Hegel is the view of “history as the story of human labour and struggle” and that from this struggle progress arises (Ball et al). The discrepancy between the two, however, lies in the details of the struggle; where Hegel saw it as a spiritual struggle, Marx viewed it as a struggle against a hostile world. Where Hegel saw personal struggle, leading to growth, Marx saw a class struggle leading to economic equality. In The Sea Gull, Chekhov embodies this socialist theme in his protagonist Nina, an aspiring actress from the Russian countryside. Throughout the play Nina evolves from a rural farm girl to a dedicated traveling actress. Nina’s situation at home is representative of the oppression of the Russian people under the Russian Empire and its emperors as “her father and stepmother watch her so closely” that, for her lover Constantine it is as if he is “stealing her from a prison to get her away from her home” (Chekhov, The Sea Gull, 1.3). According to Marx and Hegel’s philosophy, employed here by Chekhov, to make this transition and thus, to progress, Nina must go through a conflict. In the second act of the play, Nina falls for famous writer, Boris Trigorin, ending her relationship with Constantine and thereby causing him to fall into a deep depression, from which even great success cannot release him. In between the third and fourth act is where Nina is truly tested; she moves to the city to pursue her acting career, has a love affair with Trigorin, becomes pregnant, and following the birth, her baby dies. As Marx and Hegel would have proposed, Nina has progressed due to her hardships. She has developed insofar that, in the final act, she comes back to find closure with Constantine, and despite his struggle he has not progressed (demonstrated by his suicide contrary to his success), which establishes Nina’s evolution. As she attempts to find closure with her former lover, the fact that she knows she “shall feel better after this” confirms once and for all her progress after her struggle (4.53).
Whereas the ideas of Marxism and communism were expressed in The Sea Gull, their application and consequences are explored in The Cherry Orchard. The last play Anton Chekhov wrote before his death in 1904, follows Lyuba Ranevsky on her trip back to her native Russia. Once home, she finds out that she has a large debt to clear and the sale of her estate, the biggest cherry orchard in Russia, is the only way to pay it off. A businessman and former peasant, Yermolay Lopakhin, is engaged to help save her from having to sell the property. At the end of the play, Lopakhin purchases the estate in an auction, rising from peasantry to bourgeoisie. Peter Trofimov, a student of thirty years is utilized in the play as a mouthpiece for the expression of socialist ideas. Trofimov does not look back with longing at Russia’s earlier days, as Ranevsky does in a conservative fashion, but instead looks ahead towards progress. Trofimov is sympathetic towards the serfs who he sees as oppressed, even after their emancipation in 1861. He expresses a socialist view as he condemns the Russian intelligentsia for “[they are] rude to servants [and] they treat peasants like animals” (Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, 2.312). This desire for equality and loathing for capitalism expresses Marx’s view of economic progress. Marx believed that just as feudalism progressed to capitalism, capitalism would progress to socialism. This belief was heavily idealistic and placed too much faith in the innate moral sense of human beings. This can be seen in the play in Trofimov’s view of Lopakhin: he sees a man who became rich as a result of the emancipation of the serfs, a product of socialism, but who has become a capitalist, “a predator, gobbling up everything in its path” (2.311). As Lopakhin purchases the cherry orchard in the auction, his regression from socialist to capitalist is clearly confirmed as Chekhov implicitly predicts communism’s greatest flaw.
While Chekhov subtly implies the socialist and communist ideas present in Russia in The Sea Gull and more extensively in The Cherry Orchard, the most explicit references to the oppression of the Russian empire on its citizens and the socialist reaction to its tyranny are made in his nonfiction compilation of letters entitled: Letters of Anton Chekhov to His Family and Friends. Chekhov gives us a sense of Russia at the time as he writes in one letter, to his dear friend A.S. Suvorin, as he travels to the Sakhalin Islands through the Amur River, “The lowest convict breathes more freely on the Amur than the highest general in Russia” (Chekhov, Letters, 211). As Chekhov makes a comparison of Russian civilization to that of the Amur, it is clear he has recognized the empirical presence of his native country and the lack of freedom held by its citizens. However, Chekhov does not only recognize the situation in Russia, he longs for something more, seeing that the “people on the Amur are original, their life is interesting, unlike ours” (Chekhov, Letters, 211). On his journey he observes a liberal society and almost embraces it, counter to his Russian roots. He truly sets the context and demonstrates the need for change in Russia when he writes in another letter, “People are not afraid to talk aloud here. There’s no one to arrest them and nowhere to exile them to, so you can be as liberal as you like” (Chekhov, Letters, 209). Chekhov acts as a sociologist as he examines the Amur countries and sees their populations as “independent, self reliant and logical” and writes with a yearning tone. Chekhov criticizes the Russian government for its “distrust of the natural sciences […] and desire to make university education, and even secondary education, a privilege of the wealthier classes” (Bruford 144). It follows that after seeing these other liberal societies in his travels, the oppressive society in which Chekhov lived would seem even more tyrannical. It was only on his voyage that he saw so much beauty and “so much enjoyment that death would have no terrors now” (Chekhov, Letters, 211).
While Anton Chekhov did not consider himself a socialist, and is viewed by many of his readers as a non political writer, it is apparent that there are many political themes in his works. Living in Russia during the time of the empire, one would indisputably be shaped by its culture, characterized by an oppressive government and revolutionary socialist ideas. Chekhov contributes to this pattern as he writes with implicit socialist themes, sometimes in historical context, and sociological nonfiction, which demonstrates the effect of his country on his philosophy as he longs for a more liberal lifestyle.
Ball et al. Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal. Pearson Education INC.: 2013
Bruford, W.H. Chekhov and his Russia. Archon Books: 1971, Connecticut
Chekhov, Anton. Plays. Penguin Books: 2002, New York
Chekhov, Anton. The Sea Gull. Dover Publications INC: 1999 Mineola, New York
Chekhov, Anton. Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends with Biographical Sketch. Kessinger Publishing: 2005 (pages 201-214)