The Magazine

A Russian Master

Anton Chekhov's unforgiving eye was focused on himself.

Sep 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 02 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Soon Chekhov's literary energies spilled out into the theater. Already at the age of twenty he had written a sprawling seven-hour melodrama that remained untitled and was never performed in his lifetime; this was the play that David Hare trimmed to less than half that length and made excitingly stageworthy in 2001. From 1888 to 1890, Chekhov wrote a four-act play, The Wood Demon, which he would later strip to its foundation and rebuild as Uncle Vanya; turned out four one-act farces; and spruced up Ivanov, which enjoyed a triumphant St. Petersburg premiere in 1889. But this triumph bored him. It is hard to think of another born man of the theater so readily disenchanted with life before the footlights.

"Actresses are cows who see themselves as demi-goddesses," he wrote. Male actors must be instructed never to speak words of their own, lest a tidal wave of fatuity sweep all good sense away. In short, "the modern theater is a skin rash, a sort of urbane venereal disease."

To escape the theater's itching unpleasantness, in 1890, Chekhov headed off on an expedition to Sakhalin, the island off the Siberian coast that was Russia's penal colony. In a certain mood he regarded the punishing journey as a welcome diversion; in another, he saw himself embarking on a pilgrimage, to redeem Mother Russia of her sin in creating "a place of unbearable suffering, on a scale of which no creature but man is capable, whether he be free or in chains." Of the 28,000 people on the island, roughly 10,000 were either convicts in chain gangs or exiled settlers eking out a subsistence from the unyielding soil. All of them were forbidden to return to European Russia.

In three backbreaking months Chekhov spoke with all ten thousand. Bearing witness to the very nadir of degradation--refractory convicts permanently shackled to wheelbarrows, drunken mothers selling their pubescent daughters into whoredom, routine floggings the sight of which gave him nightmares--exhausted Chekhov, but on his return home, he labored mightily to produce Sakhalin Island, the longest work he ever wrote, and a classic in the thriving genre of Russian penology.

During the winter of 1891-92, when starvation ravaged the southern and eastern regions of European Russia, Chekhov joined the famine relief effort. After he purchased a country estate in Melikhovo, 50 miles south of Moscow, he provided free medical treatment for the local peasantry, and largely at his own expense designed and oversaw the construction of three village schools. At the same time, in his fiction he was merciless in describing the brawling vodka-soaked imbecility of peasant life. Unexpectedly, Russian Marxists endorsed his unsparing depiction of the peasantry, but Chekhov wanted no such allies: "To seek good ends by foul means is to befoul those very ends. . . . Why assure the peasants that they're right to be ignorant, and that their crude superstitions are Sacred Truth? Can any Glorious Future redeem such filthy lies?"

To steer clear of political passions was Chekhov's guiding instinct, but on occasion he became inflamed with outrage like the hottest firebrand. The Dreyfus case moved Chekhov sharply to assail his friend Suvorin, whose hatred of Jews drove his newspaper's condemnation of Dreyfus: "Even if Dreyfus is guilty, [his foremost defender Emile] Zola is still right, because the writer's task is not to accuse or pursue, but to defend even the guilty once they are condemned and are undergoing punishment."

The St. Petersburg student riots of 1899 further alienated Chekhov from Suvorin, but then saw Chekhov coming to his old friend's aid. The protesters were justified, Chekhov declared: "When people lack the right to express their views freely they express them provocatively and irritably." Suvorin thought otherwise, and his support for the government crackdown earned him the censure of the Mutual Aid Association of Russian Writers and Scholars, which convened a Court of Honor expressly to condemn the dishonorable publisher.

However reprehensible Chekhov found his friend's views--and the friendship was chilled thereafter--he could not bring himself to join the court in its indictment. Freedom of speech was endangered by the high-handed liberals, who would gladly substitute their own repression for the government's if given the chance. For Chekhov, freedom's primacy was non-negotiable; even professed enemies of freedom were allowed their say.