Anton Chekhov: The Role of Author in Russian Society

By
F. Joseph Dresen

"Anton Chekhov has been and remains a moral compass; generations of Russians have measured their lives against Chekhov's," stated Andrei Malaev-Babel, assistant professor of theater, Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory at a Kennan Institute lecture on 1 October 2007. Chekhov's societal impact is a reflection of the importance of the role of authors in Russian society, which is far more pronounced in comparison with other societies, said Malaev-Babel. For example, the passing in 2005 of the U.S. playwright Arthur Miller arguably evoked a wider response in the Russian press and cultural circles than it did in the United States.

Historically, Russian authors have been prominent commentators on society and politics, and that tradition continues today with figures such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Malaev-Babel observed. He traced the origin of the author's social role in Russia to poet and author Alexander Pushkin. At a time in Russian history when writers were predominantly aristocrats, Pushkin became the first literary figure to establish writing as a profession. Malaev-Babel described how Pushkin emerged as an influential figure following the rise of the Decembrist movement and its subsequent exile. Pushkin wrote in defense of Tsar Nicholas I—but also in support of the Decembrists' ideals of freedom. He continued to combine social commentary with his art and established himself as a vital voice in Russian society. Upon Pushkin's death, the tsar, concerned by the potential for political demonstrations at the funeral, ordered Pushkin to be buried in secret.

Other greats of Russian literature combined the roles of artist, activist, and moralist, Malaev-Babel said. Nikolai Gogol intended his novel Dead Souls to be the first book in a trilogy that would "restore Russia's soul." Gogol never completed the other two books; he felt that he could not accomplish his goal through literature, and instead turned to direct moral exhortations in his articles and correspondence. Leo Tolstoy likewise made direct moral appeals to the Russian public both as an artist and as an individual. Tolstoy's interest also touched on religious themes, and he sponsored a number of religious pacifist sects, including some that eventually settled in Canada.

Anton Chekhov, the most frequently produced playwright after William Shakespeare, also played a vital role in Russian society, according to Malaev-Babel. As a medical doctor, Chekov participated in the first effort to perform a census on Sakhalin Island. He interviewed and treated thousands of political and criminal prisoners and settlers over the course of three months. Shocked by what he saw, he wrote a book titled The Island of Sakhalin documenting his experiences. As a result of Chekhov's work on the census and book, Malaev-Babel observed, Russian society was confronted with their first exposure to the terrible living conditions and treatment of prisoners and settlers on the island. Back home at his country estate, Melikhovo, he built schools and hospitals for the poor and continually treated poor patients. In his hometown of Taganrog he supplied books for public libraries, and endowed institutions that provided basic education for the needy.

Chekhov, however, never held himself up as an active example of humanitarianism; instead, he kept his philanthropy private, stated Malaev-Babel. Chekhov also intentionally refrained from delivering moral or political sermons in his literary works or his public statements. Born into the first generation of a family of freed serfs, Chekhov felt that inner freedom was more important than political or social freedom. Malaev-Babel said that Chekhov's struggle to attain this freedom was painful work: "Chekhov wrote that he was always ‘trying to squeeze out the slave in me.'"

This focus on the internal struggle for freedom was reflected in Chekhov's artistic works. Malaev-Babel contended that Chekhov understood that no sermon can make a lasting impression, and that no generic example or recipe for personal fulfillment exists. Instead, Chekhov suggested that his fellow Russians should make their own personal choices and solve their own moral dilemmas. In his writings, Chekhov would point out what these dilemmas were, and what alternative paths might exist; but he would keep his personal views on them completely private. He understood that everyone was different, and therefore all individuals would have different paths, different destinies, and different callings.

Chekhov's lack of directness opened him up to criticism and misunderstanding, said Malaev-Babel. He was criticized by some both during and after his life for this lack of directness and for "not living in his work." Actors would question him on how to interpret the characters in his plays, and Chekhov would invariably tell them that all the necessary information was in the text—although the clue might be as subtle as the character entering a scene "wearing a fancy tie."

Malaev-Babel said that "during Chekhov's life, many of his contemporaries said that the very idea that somewhere in Yalta lives the writer Chekhov made their hard lives bearable." They felt that Chekhov never lied to them, and that if he told his readers how difficult the life of a Russian was, he never forced upon them his own personal way of overcoming this difficult reality. "Thus one can say," concluded Malaev-Babel, "that Chekhov influenced Russian society not by his example, but by his very existence."

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