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Reading in Russia

 | 
Damiano Rebecchini
, 
Raffaella Vassena

The Young Chekhov: Reader and Writer of Popular Realism

Jeffrey Brooks

Résumé

The young Chekhov wrote popular fiction for cheap magazines and newspapers, and he also parodied successful genres such as the criminal novel. He was a voracious reader, who did not ignore the bestsellers of his day. The topics explored in this essay include the young Chekhov’s use of the techniques of the feuilleton novel and his efforts to sell his works in the highly competitive marketplace for genre fiction and humor. The essay also concerns Chekhov’s early evocation of some of the great themes of Russian culture, including the mythologies of freedom, violent rebellion, order, and authority. Lastly, the essay explores Chekhov’s early focus on beauty and art in the rapidly changing society in which he lived.

Note de l’auteur

I thank Karen Brooks, Georgiy Chernyavskiy, Dina Khapaeva, Jean McGarry, and William Mills Todd III for helpful comments and participants in the Harriman Institute History Workshop and the Russian History Seminar, Georgetown.

Texte intégral

  • 1 On the turn to realism see Valkenier 1989
  • 2 Hauser 1957: 64-65.

1Anton Chekhov came of age as a writer when Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were the glory of Russian literature and realism was on the rise. The Peredvizhniki (Itinerants) had recently jettisoned the historical and mythological themes assigned by the Imperial Academy to represent Russian landscapes, history, and people in a template that they viewed as realistic.1 Romanticism and idealism were out of fashion in Europe, and with them went the world of monsters, giants, and miracles.2

  • 3 Brooks P. 2005: 5.
  • 4 I discuss this shift in Brooks 2011a

2The critic Peter Brooks has described realism in the arts as “a form of play that uses carefully wrought and detailed toys, ones that attempt as much as possible to reproduce the look and feel of the real thing.”3 This description captures well the importance of the genre or “set piece” in the realism of Chekhov’s time, and it also suggests ties between realism in literature and the ascendancy of drama. Russia’s turn to realism took place, as elsewhere, in a specific historical and cultural context. The naturalists’ emphasis on daily life and the mundane suited the urbane educated publics to which they catered. The appeal was broader, however, than to an elite newly aware of and concerned about the conditions of daily life for Russia’s impoverished majority. Many of Russia’s poor were newly literate and a bit less poor than in the past — at least they commanded the few kopecks necessary to support a thriving new print culture produced for and delivered to them. During Chekhov’s formative years in the 1880’s, a widely disseminated popular Russian literature arose with a realistic veneer. Simultaneously, producers of the widely circulating cheap pictorial prints known as the lubok (lubki), which were similar to European broadsides, gradually foreswore fantastical images of dragons and monsters and offered scenes from daily life.4

  • 5 Kuprin 1910: 119; on his love of reading, including religious texts, see Fedorov 1910: 295
  • 6 See his “V vagone” published in Zritel’in 1881, no. 9; Chekhov 1974-1982, Pis’ma, 1: 89, 568. Note:(...)
  • 7 “Letaiushchie ostrova (soch. Zhiulia Verna). Perevod A. Chekhonte,” Chekhov 1974-1982, 1: 208-214, (...)
  • 8 The sketch appeared in Strekoza. See Chekhov 1974-1982, 1: 35-38, 563-564.
  • 9 The review remained unpublished; see Chekhov 1974-1982, 1: 487-94, 600-603.
  • 10 For this citation and on Chekhov’s parodies more generally see the note in Ibid., 3: 590-591.

3Chekhov was a voracious consumer of the printed word of all sorts. “He read an astonishing amount and always remembered everything,” Aleksandr Kuprin recalled.5 One can only wonder how Chekhov found the time to navigate the literary world from top to bottom, while producing his own writing and practicing medicine as well. He not only read everything available, but also joked about it. He parodied a series of genres when starting out as a writer in the early 1880’s, and scoffed at the stories about railroad travel then popular throughout Europe.6 He took a swipe at the Gothic and terrifying stories of the occult and at Jules Verne, then also in vogue.7 His humorous sketch “A Thousand and One Passions or a Terrifying Night” begins with the narrator trembling beside a tower at midnight.8 He also wrote a facetious review of criminal adventures titled “The Secrets of One Hundred and Forty Four Catastrophes or the Russian Rocambol (the Most Enormous Novel in Compressed Form),” a backhanded tribute to Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail, whose multi-volume series attracted Russian readers as well as those in France.9 He did not forget to mock the Russian horror story (roman uzhasov) popular in the petty press (malaia pressa). “Our newspapers are divided into two camps: one of them frightens the public with lead articles; the other with novels,” he wrote in 1884 in Oskolki (Splinters), the upscale humor magazine whose editor, N. A. Leikin, befriended him.10

  • 11 See most recently Bykov 2010-2011 and Evseev 2010-2011.

4Chekhov could parody popular fiction well because he also wrote it. His early humorous writings and their influence on his later work have not escaped critical attention.11 One could easily conclude that his humor was forged on the boulevard; this would be correct, but incomplete. His participation in popular literature as both a reader and writer enriched his subsequent literary trajectory. His innovations in form and selection of themes show the impact of his involvement with the boulevard press.

  • 12 This genre was also popular in Italy and Germany but also elsewhere. See 2000 and Brooks 1985: 166- (...)
  • 13 I discuss this in Brooks 2005.

5The popular form with which he engaged most in his own writing was the very Russian genre of bandit and criminal adventures.12 Chekhov’s earliest writings show structural and thematic similarities with what was by far the most important popular novel of his time, N. I. Pastukhov’s The Bandit Churkin (Razboinik Churkin, 1882-85). Chekhov was an avid follower of the bandit’s progress and well acquainted personally with Pastukhov. One cannot really argue, however, that Churkin influenced Chekhov, since Chekhov was already developing his own tales when Churkin entered the scene. Pastukhov’s novel drew from a broad Russian tradition in imagining the clash between a demonic rebellion and a sanctioned authority, between a divinely conceived social order and a boundless freedom of satisfied desire. It was a tradition that flowed deeply through Russian life, fed by the great Cossack and peasant rebellions, as well as the songs and folklore in which they were memorialized. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky drew on this mythology of tragic revolt and so it was no surprise that Chekhov did as well.13

  • 14 Shevliakov 1913: 521.
  • 15 Belousov 1926: 11.
  • 16 I discuss this formula in Brooks, 1985: 166-213.

6Pastukhov was editor of the scandal-mongering Moskovskii listok (The Moscow Sheet), and with his novel serialized in the paper, he became the king of newspaper serials. He successfully roped in a large public and held them for three years running. His epic was read aloud in bars and taverns to city folk and transient peasants. One observer praised him for delighting janitors, cooks, coachmen, and others “who hitherto had not read any newspaper.”14 Another recalled how “Workmen pooled their kopecks and bought the paper, which cost three kopecks.”15 The circulation of Moskovskii listok soared to 40,000 copies thanks to such readers.16 If five people read each copy, a modest estimate, then nearly a third of Moscow’s 750,000 inhabitants would have read or heard some installments. The serial appeared on Saturdays, and one can guess that on such days circulation rose still higher. The novel was also printed as a book in several parts, thus winning additional enthusiasts.

  • 17 Chekhov 1974-1982, 16: 52.
  • 18 Chekhov 1974-1982, Pis’ma, 1: 145.
  • 19 Chekhov 1974-1982, 16: 204-205.
  • 20 Chekhov 1974-1982, Pis’ma, 1: 69-70.
  • 21 Ibid.: 70.
  • 22 Ibid.: 93-94.
  • 23 Chekhov 1974-1982, 2: 375-379, 558-559.
  • 24 Ibid.: 375.

7Chekhov was ambivalent about Pastukhov. He praised him in Oskolki in September 1883 as a character “who regularly livens our Saturdays with his eminent cutthroat.”17 He congratulated his artist brother Nikolai in March 1885 on the success of the latter’s portrait of Pastukhov in the magazine Pchelka (The Little Bee). The issue, he noted “sold like hotcakes in Moscow,” and “Pastukhov himself bought 200 copies.”18 Nevertheless, Chekhov found Pastukhov unsavory. He wrote in the Peterburgskaia gazeta (Petersburg Newspaper) in 1884 of a scandal and a bribe Pastukhov accepted.19 Chekhov’s ambivalence was not limited to Pastukhov, but extended to popular journalism more generally. In May, 1883 he complained to his brother Aleksandr that a journalist (gazetchik) is no better than “a cheat (zhulik),” selling his soul for “30 pieces of false silver” and added, “I am a journalist… but it is temporary...”20 He explained that if he worked for Pastukhov he could earn 200 rubles a month, much more than he was getting from Leikin at Oskolki, but he still recoiled. As he put it, “better to set off on a visit with no pants and a naked ass than to work for him.”21 “Readers of Moskovskii listok do not need good stories,” he wrote Leikin later that year in December, 1883.22 He sold Pastukhov a piece the following year but was then embarrassed by the association. He tried to use a pseudonym but the clever Pastukhov refused to allow it.23 The story, “A Proud Man” (Gordyi chelovek), reflects the cruel humor of the time; a clueless and conceited young fop who claims that beauty only counts in women gets his comeuppance when a young woman points out a more handsome rival.24

8Pastukhov and Chekhov could hardly be more different. Pastukhov is forgotten and Chekhov appreciated even more with time. Pastukhov was a longwinded buffoon with the gift of gab; Chekhov became a master of brevity. For all their very considerable differences, both Pastukhov and Chekhov worked with the form of the serial. Pastukhov stayed with Churkin through thick and thin until forced to kill him off with a falling oak branch, and then he essentially retired from the business of serialized novels. Chekhov, on the other hand, used his early experience with the serialized novel to develop his signature innovation in the short story, essentially a literary slice.

  • 25 On serialization and Russian novels see Todd 1986.
  • 26 Ibid.

9Serialization came in many shapes and sizes.25 Nineteenth-Century Russian novelists produced their works in monthly segments of thirty to a hundred pages for the “thick journals” and could expect readers to follow the text as it appeared. Their editors for their part usually promised subscribers a complete novel for the year in which they subscribed, though they sometimes failed to deliver. Submissions were likely to cohere as an individual selection. Dostoevsky considered the 16 installments of The Brothers Karamazov (January, 1879 - November, 1880) to be separate books – “whole and finished” – as William Mills Todd has shown.26 Since subscriptions were yearly, the editors did not need to hold onto readers with each issue. Newspaper subscriptions were different. They were often for a much shorter period, and there were also daily street sales. Pastukhov had to satisfy occasional fly-by-night readers as well as regulars such as Chekhov. He could not presume familiarity with his earlier installments. Each entry had to justify the purchase of the next week’s paper at a newsstand or the upcoming renewal of the month’s or quarter’s subscription.

10Pastukhov’s 114th installment, which comes late in the novel, is typical. It begins with Churkin’s sidekick Osip (“the convict”) waiting in the street by a small house. The setting is the great Nizhny Novgorod commercial fair with its rich merchants and easy women. The site alone would have attracted the big public of new readers. Pastukhov works with the setting and adds sex and violence, or what passed for them at the time and under the censor’s watchful eye:

The convict lowered his hands and did not know what to do: to seek his ataman in the courtyard of the house where he remained or to wait for him in the street. Waiting for Churkin, and thinking such thoughts he began to walk about near the little house.

 

  • 27 Pastukhov 1983-85: 986-995.

The bandit was so drawn to his charmer that he even forgot his comrade and remembered him only when he entered the lodging of Praskovia Maksimovna. Looking about the rooms and not seeing anyone but an old woman, Churkin began to talk with his charmer but their conversation was brief. Churkin could not stay long in the house because his beauty was expecting her admirer, the merchant Gavril Ivanovich, as she called him; she promised to meet the bandit at dusk in the street, kissed him, bade him goodbye until evening, and led him to the gate.27

11Readers in short order enjoy intimations of a mistress cuckolding her paramour, knowledge that Churkin’s promises to her would make him a bigamist, and glimpses of the merchants’ wheeling and dealing on the fair grounds. The merchant and his friends arrive unexpectedly while Churkin and Osip are still in the house. Praskovia hides them in the kitchen from which they eavesdrop in a scene that would later become a stock comic device for early films. Pastukhov packed a lot into his 2500 words each week. Each installment was a mini adventure to be enjoyed on its own as well as an invitation to seek out the next week’s episode. Readers could very well play with these characters, using them to work through this or that imagined script.

  • 28 See Hunter 2009.
  • 29 Chudakov 2000: 9.
  • 30 Ibid.

12Chekhov’s short stories can be read as slices taken out of a popular feuilleton novel or serialized genre adventure story, with the prequel and continuation left to the reader. Virginia Wolf, Katherine Mansfield, and later Frank O’Connor and H. E. Bates and others have noted the “irresolution” and openness of Chekhov’s short fiction.28 The Russian critic Aleksandr Chudakov observed: “Chekhov’s comic sketches always take some fragment of life, with no beginning or end, and simply offer it for inspection.”29 He goes on to suggest that Chekhov’s later works also often “follow the same pattern, beginning ‘in the middle’ and ending ‘with nothing.”30

  • 31 Chekhov 1987a: 240. Chekhov 1974-1982, 4: 15.

13Although this feature of Chekhov’s work is well noted, its likely origin in the serialized novels of the 1880s is not. The linkages are too plausible to ignore. His story “Nerves” (Nervy), was published in Oskol’ki in 1885, and is even shorter than one of Pastukhov’s installments. An architect, “an educated intelligent man,” returns to a country cottage after a séance and is too afraid to spend the night alone. He sneaks into the governess’s room and spends the night propped on a trunk in the corner, where his wife finds him in the morning. Chekhov concludes: “What she said to her husband, and how he looked when he woke, I leave it to others to describe. It is beyond my powers.”31

14Chekhov ends this with his characteristic irresolution and a punch line. Among the most revealing examples of this form are four of his shortest stories in which he adopts the viewpoints of children. In “Oysters” (1884, Ustritsy) a man out of work is begging with his son and the boy sees a sign for oysters. Two gentlemen observe his curiosity and for their amusement give him a stack of oysters to eat. The boy later recalls being sick and hearing his father rue, not his suffering, but the lost opportunity to ask for money. In “The Cook Marries” (Kukharka zhenitsia), published a year later a young female servant is forced to wed an unappealing cabman. A child in the family hears the woman sobbing and decides that marriage is a terrible calamity. Chekhov concludes with the cabman requesting a five-ruble advance on his fiancée’s salary and the child consoling her with the biggest apple he can find. In “Van’ka” (1886) a mistreated apprentice writes pleading to be taken home. He drops the letter addressed to “grandfather in the village” in a mailbox and falls asleep, leaving readers to write the ending. A powerful and brutal example is “Sleepy” (Spat’khochetsia), which appeared in the newspaper Peterburgskaia gazeta in 1888, the year Chekhov published his masterpiece “The Steppe” (Step’). An overworked nursemaid only thirteen years old, pushed to desperation by constant demands of her employers and lack of sleep, strangles her infant charge. The reader last sees her in hysterical and maniacal laughter as the longed-for silence descends.

15Chekhov also leaves his readers hanging in some of his most magnificent longer fiction. “Lady with a Lapdog” (Dama s sobachkoi, 1899) opens with Gurov, a calculating philanderer in Yalta, casting about for prey. His tryst with the self-possessed lady surprises them both as they discover love. The story ends with their wish to free themselves from lies and unwanted ties. Chekhov again forces readers to anticipate more, and even invites them to imagine a sequel.

  • 32 Chekhov 1987b: 28; Chekhov 1974-1982, 10: 143.

And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.32

16The irresolution of Chekhov’s very short fiction is a mark of its greatness, and distinguishes from the genre fiction that was its contemporary.

  • 33 I discuss Pastukhov’s narrative strategy in Brooks 2002: 447-469
  • 34 Vinogradov 1935: 52.

17Chekhov could play with structures of popular narrative because he knew its themes. If he adopted the “slice” form of the feuilleton novel and developed it into his own masterful form, he also made liberal use of the imaginative constructs of the criminal adventure and the bandit tale. Pastukhov provided all the essential elements of the genre in The Bandit Churkin. These included rebellion, humor, deviltry, upended authority, and a realm in which his hero could satisfy his desires and readers could imagine doing so as well. Pastukhov evoked the traditional mythology of rebellion even in the details he provided, from Churkin’s fake Turkish passport to his feasting, womanizing, and songs of freedom. Pastukhov calmed the censors with the promise of Churkin’s punishment but used the serial format to suggest otherwise to readers. He begins and ends with a doomed bandit but scraps the standard plotline for the bulk of the novel, in effect creating a narrative sandwich.33 The outer layers satisfy the formula, but the meat on the inside, nearly a thousand pages, does not. In most of the novel, Churkin is a sympathetic figure who shows no signs of repenting and does not fear punishment. Pastukhov reasserts the formula in the last 170 pages, after officials complained.34 Churkin then discovers a guilty conscience, and readers can anticipate a formulaic resolution. In the final scene the bandit sees the flaming hand of God in the sky and is struck down by a falling oak branch.

  • 35 Chekhov 1974-1982, Pis’ma, 1: 86.

18Chekhov, as an aspiring writer in need of cash, not only read Pastukhov’s novel as it appeared, but lampooned the criminal novel and the detective story in a piece published after Pastukhov’s novel began to appear. Chekhov was just starting out, and one can sense his excitement when in the fall of 1883 he wrote to N. A. Leikin, editor of Oskolki, to tout some of his new material and also a long story, “a parody of criminal tales,” which had been requested by a rival editor, I. F. Vasilevskii, the chief of Strekozy (Dragonfly): I have given in to temptation (iskusilsia) and written a huge story of one printed sheet “[presumably 8 pages in the magazine].”35

  • 36 I discuss Tolstoy’s warm humor in Brooks 2011b. Literally, War and Peace is perhaps better translat (...)
  • 37 See Brooks 1985: 184-85.

19The story in question, “The Swedish Matchstick” (Shvedskaia spichka), reveals his warm humor and his playful attitude toward the genre and the wealth of fantasies it encompassed. Although the story is only a light-hearted sketch one thinks back to Tolstoy’s humor in his Childhood and also War and Peace that allowed the reader to smile without contempt or malice.36 Chekhov’s humor in the “Swedish Matchstick” differs from that in some of his early sketches. “The Swedish Matchstick” opens on a young man reporting the murder of his employer, Kliauzov, to the police chief. Clues are discovered including the Swedish matchstick of the title. Theories are invoked. A valet is suspected. The murdered man’s sister is thought to be involved. Dostoevsky and the French author of criminal novels Emile Gaboriau (1832-1873) are mentioned. Chekhov also introduced the supernatural, which was a vital element in the popular mythology of crime and rebellion. After hilarious twists and turns, the hunt for the murderer and the corpse ends with the discovery of the supposed victim snoozing in a bathhouse stocked with food and awaiting his mistress, who happens to be the wife of the police chief. Chekhov comically evokes the very life of the feast celebrated in Cossack songs of rebellion and in the cheap retellings of such adventures in the literature of the lubok.37 The examining magistrate and his assistant rouse the supposed victim who immediately invites the lot of them to drink with him. They of course accept.

  • 38 Korolenko 1910: 76-77.

20Chekhov’s timing is perfect. Early in the story the aged chief tells his wife that he expected the chap would come to a bad end, and the chief exits with no inkling of the actual situation. Chekhov liked this piece so much that he used it to conclude his second collection, Motley Stories (Pestrye rasskazy), which he published in 1886 under his own name. “This book was noticed at once by the large reading public,” the writer Vladimir Korolenko recalled a few years after Chekhov’s death.38

  • 39 Chekhov 1974-1982, 3: 589. Chekhov 1986.
  • 40 Chekhov M. 1910: 273.
  • 41 Zemstvo teachers were paid on average 285 rubles a year in 1894. See Brooks 1985: 46.
  • 42 See Vukolov 1974: 209.
  • 43 Vukolov 1974: 214 suggests it is pure parody.

21After joking about the genre it is no surprise that Chekhov soon published his own serial thriller. He titled it Drama on the Hunt (Drama na okhote, 1884). It appeared weekly over four months in the St. Petersburg boulevard newspaper, Novosti dnia (News of the day), to which Chekhov had referred only a few weeks before as “filth of the day” (pakost’).39 He received all of three rubles per week from this newspaper and “just barely squeaked by” (ele-ele skripeli), in the words of his youngest brother Mikhail Chekhov.40 This was truly a pittance.41 Chekhov signed the installments with the byline he often used in his humorous sketches, A. Chekhonte. His serial competed for readers on Saturdays with Pastukhov’s novel and other serial adventures as well. Chekhov explained that he wrote it for the large public for whom Tolstoy and Turgenev were inaccessible.42 The question arises as to whether the novel is a serious effort or a parody, and the answer may be some of both.43 In any case, he did not include the tale in the first edition of his collected works.

  • 44 Chekhov 1986: 20.

22The similarities between Chekhov’s novel and Pastukhov’s are striking. The genres overlap and Chekhov too used the serial format to turn a villain temporarily into a hero, although possibly with mocking irony. Chekhov’s novel is a detective story but includes most elements of the bandit story. Drama on the Hunt begins with the editor of a literary journal describing the arrival of a man with a manuscript about “love and murder.”44 The narrative then shifts to the manuscript and the voice of its author. Chekhov concludes the tale in the editor’s office, with the narrative voice of the editor, who accuses the author of committing the murder described in the manuscript, an accusation the author does not deny. In the course of the novel, Chekhov tricks his readers into identifying with the narrator until the final sequence.

  • 45 Ibid.
  • 46 Ibid.: 19.

23Chekhov’s protagonist is a dissolute judicial investigator who wants to be a writer. Rebellion in the name of art would soon become routine and Chekhov explored the idea ahead of his time. The inspector tells the editor, “I served and served till I was quite fed up, and chucked it.”45 Nihilistic and self-destructive, he seeks satisfaction and pleasure without a care for the consequences. He is Stenka Razin in a morning coat, and a near physical match for Pastukhov’s bandit. Chekhov alerts readers to the brutal power of his protagonist, who can “flatten out a sardine tin with his fist.”46

  • 47 West 2011 describes the strategies of advertisers.
  • 48 See Brooks 2011a: 245-246

24Chekhov, like Pastukhov, evokes dreams of gluttony and lust. The theme was well worth satirizing. The age of mass consumption was beginning; department stores were chock full of goods to desire, and advertisers urged the public to indulge.47 The clergy warned rural parishioners moving to the city to avoid the devilish allure of urban life.48 Amid the proliferation of temptations, the bourgeois value of suppressing desire and deferring satisfaction also rose, and tensions between desire and discipline, always prevalent in Russian culture, took on new material meaning.

  • 49 Chekhov 1974-1982, 3: 282-283. On the common association of the song with Cossacks see Brooks 1985: (...)
  • 50 Chekhov 1974-1982, 3: 315 and Chekhov 1986: 102.
  • 51 Pastukhov 1983-85 and Brooks 1985: 188-89 for this usage in Churkin and lubok tales.
  • 52 I discuss this language and associated narratives in Brooks 2005: 542
  • 53 See the entrees in Brokgauz, Efron 1892: vol. 7; Brokgauz, Efron 1900: vol. 29.

25Chekhov’s inspector suffers mightily from unchecked desire. He abandons self-restraint and the career that required it for a great fling. Chekhov offers a depraved Count, an estate, banquets, a gypsy chorus, beautiful women, money to burn (literally), and trappings of Turkish exoticism.49 Chekhov’s editor-narrator concludes that in the absence of authority, “the criminal will (volia) of man gains sway.”50 His use of volia for will is telling, since it is so vital to the language of rebellion and to Pastukhov’s novel as well. Churkin sings “I love you, mother nature, free spirit, free freedom (volia-vol’naia).”51 The freedom to have one’s way (volia) was also identified with the peasants’ historic desire for land.52 Volia contrasts with svoboda, which was used for the civic freedoms, as well as freedom of trade.53

  • 54 Chekhov 1974-1982, 11: 382. The note dates the play in the late 1870s, when Chekhov was not yet 20.
  • 55 Ibid.: 79.
  • 56 Ibid.: 180; “Убивал тварей божиих, пьянствовал, сквернословил, осуждал... Не вытерпел Господь и пор (...)
  • 57 Pastukhov 1983-85: 1387.

26Chekhov did not borrow from Pastukhov; he had already created his own fantasy of rebellion in his early play Fatherless (Bezottsovshchina, 1878), now often referred to as Platonov.54 The play’s setting is a young widow’s estate at which the local gentry frolic with their creditors and others, drinking wildly and pursuing love affairs. Platonov is a sly womanizer who has squandered his inheritance and now works as a village schoolteacher. He sponges off those with money, cheats on his wife, and wallows in self-pity.55 Chekhov concludes his play with an ending worthy of Pastukhov; Platonov is shot and killed by a young woman he has seduced. The retired colonel Triletskii concludes the performance: “[He] Forgot God…. Killed God’s creatures, went on drunken binges swore, judged others… God struck him down.”56 Pastukhov provided Churkin a similar epitaph: “He escaped the judgment of people but did not escape the judgment of God, as often happens with such evil doers.”57

  • 58 Malcolm 2002: 80-89 discusses Chekhov and religion
  • 59 See Senelick’s discussion in Chekhov 2006: 3-5.
  • 60 Chekhov 1974-1982, 11: 39.
  • 61 Ibid: 39, 41.
  • 62 Ibid.: 41-42.

27Chekhov evoked the popular mythology of rebellion in all its superstitious aspects, though he hardly believed in spooks and demons.58 Platonov features a horse thief and murderer named Osip who serves as Platonov’s double.59 Platonov calls him “the godfather of devils (chertov kum),” “the most fearsome of people (Samyi strashnyi iz liudei),” and “the most terrifying of the mortals (uzhasneishii iz smertnykh).”60 He further mocks him with references to rebels from folklore, including the Nightingale Bandit, a figure of the lubok, who is often pictured in a treetop being shot in the eye with an arrow by the folk hero Ilya Muromets.61 How could Chekhov leave a more obvious clue to his play on the popular imagination? As if this were not enough, Osip laughingly calls himself “a thief and a bandit” (vor da razboinik).62 Like Chekhov’s judicial investigator in Drama on the Hunt, Platonov rebels against society, not the state as do the heroes of formulaic bandit tales or Dostoevsky’s heroes.

  • 63 Ibid.: 402; a character is named Merik; the censor cited the play as gloomy and to the nobility.
  • 64 Chekhov 1974-1982, 7: 681; Garnett titles it “The Horse Stealers” in Chekhov 1998: 2-26.
  • 65 Chekhov, 1974-1982, 7: 314.
  • 66 Ibid.: 324.
  • 67 Ibid.: 325.
  • 68 Ibid.

28Chekhov returned to the theme of the bandit when he was well established as an author. In April 1890, he published “Thieves” (Vory), subtitled “Devils” (Cherti) in the respected newspaper Novoe vremia (New Times). The germ of the story can be traced back to his play On the Highway (Na bol’shoi doroge, 1884), in which vagrants and tramps gather in a shabby inn during a storm and tell stories about demons.63 In April, 1890, six years later, Chekhov was preparing to travel to the prison colonies of Sakhalin, where he would meet notorious murderers, including Son’ka of the Golden Hand (Son’ka zolotaia ruchka), famous for her escapades and daring escapes.64 “Thieves” was an appropriate tale for the eve of his departure to the land where thieves and bandits went in real life. The plot is illogical and the story can best be understood as a conflation of realism with the mythology of banditry. A medical assistant with a weakness for drink returns from town during a snow storm with supplies for a local hospital. He stops at an inn with a bad reputation and three inhabitants: Liuba, the young daughter of the proprietress; Kalashnikov, a scoundrel and known horse thief; and Merik, an all-around rogue. As the wind howls, the medical assistant sits excluded from the revels of the other three by his role and status in life, but longs to join. The three ask him if there are devils, and he replies that science says no, but “among us we know devils exist.”65 The medical assistant envies the scoundrel’s and rogue’s ability to live lives of freedom from constraint, and his envy persists even when the storm abates and Merik makes off with his horse and supplies. Humiliated, the medical assistant leaves on foot wondering how to explain his loss to the doctor but also about how lives are lived. He asks: “why are there doctors, medical assistants, merchants, clerks, and peasants instead of simply free men?”66 He yearns “to jump on a horse without asking who owns it, to race like a devil with the wind over fields, forests, and ravines, to love girls, and to laugh at everyone.”67 He compares “those who have lived in freedom (na vole) such as Merik or Kalashnikov” with “frogs” and concludes that he did not become “a scoundrel (moshennik) or even a bandit” (razboinik) only for lack of opportunity.68

  • 69 Ibid.

29Chekhov ends the story with the medical assistant loitering in the street a year and a half later, having lost his job and taken to drink. He wonders “Why do birds and beasts not work and get salaries and get to live for their own satisfaction?”69 Chekhov has returned to an image he introduced at the outset of the Prophet Elijah flying to heaven. The space of freedom is between heaven and earth and thus unreachable. Chekhov places these questions in the mind of a relatively educated person, a man of science who knows the answers but still harbors dreams of freedom and destruction. Chekhov anticipated Maxim Gorky (Aleksei Peshkov, 1868-1936), who won fame and fortune portraying rebellious tramps and vagrants of a Nietzschean cast a bit later in the 1890s. Each explored mythologies of rebellion, Cossack traditions, and the southern lands of the empire but Gorky was much taken with these figures and Chekhov was not.

  • 70 Bartlett 2005: xxix-xxx.
  • 71 Mirsky 1999: 374.

30Chekhov saw the positive sides of freedom, but also the threats. He loved to travel and see new places, as Rosamund Bartlett has observed.70 The southern lands drew him and also had a special connotation in the mythologies of banditry. When Chekhov wrote about the Steppe region between the Sea of Azov and the territory of the Don Cossacks, he often introduced a fear of the supernatural, as the early twentieth-century Russian critic D. S. Mirsky observed.71 The region was linked with the tradition of Cossack and peasant uprisings and with the wild dreams that inspired them. Chekhov adds to the wild dreams in his writing on the region. In “The Steppe” (1888) a young boy who is sent away to school crosses the region in a wagon with some wool traders employed by his father. The travelers gather around a campfire and hear of an attempted murder thwarted at the last moment by a mysterious knock at the window. The southern lands are a venue of longing as well as mystery. A couple carries out an adulterous romance in the Caucasus in the story “The Duel” (Duel’, 1891), and the adulterous fling in “Lady with a Lapdog” (1899) takes place in Yalta, another southern city.

31Chekhov stayed with the idea of the fulfillment of desire as he left light fiction behind for more lasting themes. His story “Happiness” (Schast’e, 1887) is set in the steppe and opens as two shepherds bide their time around a campfire. The overseer at a nearby estate approaches and the conversation turns to devils, possession, and pursuit of buried treasure. The young shepherd, Sanka, listens, increasingly perplexed and pondering mortality, material wealth, the source of knowledge, and the nature of happiness. Chekhov shows his genius for seeing into the most human of dilemmas:

  • 72 Chekhov 1985: 265.

The old shepherd and Sanka parted at the further side of the flock. Both stood like posts, without moving, staring at the ground and thinking. The former was haunted by thoughts of fortune, the latter was pondering what had been said in the night; what interested him was not the fortune itself, which he did not want and could not imagine, but the fantastic, fairy-tale character of human happiness.72

32Chekhov’s Sanka bears a surface resemblance to the youth in Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73), who looks up from his downcast and weary companions to seek a ray of light. Repin provided a beautiful cliché that fit the political demands of his time. Chekhov, in contrast, does not present the ray of light, and gives no assurance that Sanka will find it; instead he simply leaves Sanka contemplating its nature and existence.

  • 73 Chukovskii 2002: 31-40. “The Captain’s Uniform” (1885, Kapitanskii mundir) is included in the 13 vo (...)

33Chekhov’s early preoccupation with the nature of freedom evolved into an association of freedom with art and constraints on freedom with the values of the expanding capitalist economy. This step took him a long distance from his start as a writer of popular fiction, since the boulevard press was a creation of a vibrant and expanding market, and lived by its rules. Kornei Chukovsky (1882-1969), Chekhov’s most insightful contemporary critic, captured this shift in the first pages of his book From Chekhov to Our Days (1910), which appeared only a few years after the writer’s untimely death.73 Chukovsky begins his remarks on Chekhov abruptly with this brief exchange:

  • 74 Chukovskii 2002: 31.

Captain Urchaev is ordering a uniform from Merkulov the tailor. How much will you charge? He asks.
Be kind, your honor; what are you thinking? I am not a merchant of some kind. We understand how it is with lords.
Merkulov the tailor makes the uniform not for the sake of money.74

  • 75 Chekhov 1974-1982, 3: 163-168. “Kapitanskii mundir” appeared in Oskolki 26 Jan, 1885

34The story that Chukovsky quotes is “The Captain’s Uniform” (1885, Kapitanskii mundir), in which Merkulov makes a uniform for “the joy of creativity.”75 Chukovsky is right to pick out this story as a key to Chekhov’s vision. In The Cherry Orchard Chekhov clearly favors the impractical family over the well-meaning Lapukhin, who would sacrifice the wondrous orchard to save the family’s finances. The tailor in “The Captain’s Uniform” makes the expensive uniform and withstands his wife’s scolding when the client refuses to pay; what matters to him most is that he has had pleasure in making it.

35This is not a story about the rejection of money or petty bourgeois values (meshchanstvo), but about the love of life, art, and beauty.

  • 76 Chekhov 2006: 754; Chekhov 1974-1982, 13: “Eto chto-to dekadentskoe” (p. 13), “blednye ogni” (p. 13 (...)
  • 77 See Yevtushenko, 1993, 11, 21; on Vrubel see Bowlt 2008: 93. He describes the demon as Vrubel’s “pr (...)

36In Chekhov’s play, The Seagull (Chaika, 1896), produced a decade later, his treatment of the role of art shows the distance he has come from the stalls of the boulevard. An aspiring and hopeful young man organizes an amateur theatrical presentation for his family and friends at his uncle’s estate, but is mocked for his efforts and for his evocation of the devil through clumsy staging of two red dots for “dreadful crimson eyes.”76 By 1896, when the play was first performed, Russia’s early modernists, the so-called “decadents,” were shocking high society with their pronouncements about the independent value of art, their attacks on the civic tradition in literature, and their noisy embrace of the occult. To gauge the appeal of the demonic for Russian modernists one need look no further than Mikhail Vrubel’s paintings inspired by Mikhail Lermontov’s “The Demon” beginning with his Seated Demon (1890) or such incantatory poems of the period as Fyodor Sologub’s “The Devil’s Swing” and Zinaida Gippius’s “Little Demon.”77

  • 78 Lawrence Senelick in his introduction to The Seagull in Chekhov 2006: 737
  • 79 Ibid.
  • 80 E. A. Polotskaia uses the phrase in Polotskaia 2000: 428.

37Chekhov, like the modernists, used the occult, but unlike them, he hearkened back to earlier themes of rebellion and the search for freedom. Through the character of Konstantin Chekhov recast his treatment of demonic rebellion, and this time targeted an unfeeling society that did not value a new art. By taking aim at bourgeois philistines and bourgeois practicality he was embracing life for life itself; making the coat for the pleasure of creativity. His enemy now was bourgeois practicality and the reductive attitude toward living that went with it. Much of the humor in the play is found in the caricature of society, of those who reject Konstantin and his play – his self-centered mother, his clueless family, and the conventionally successful writer Treplev who seduces and abandons Nina, the Seagull. The Russian critic Alexander Chudakov suggested that Konstantin and Treplev “themselves call their basic theses into question.”78 Laurence Senelick in his preface to his translation notes, “The younger writer scorns the elder as a hack, but by the play’s end, he is longing to find formulas for his own writing.”79 Yet Konstantin commits suicide only after he has ceased to rebel, and the suffering Nina flies on alone to pursue a life in art. As she leaves him, she tellingly recites lines from his failed play, describing what might be considered a “post-apocalyptic” landscape.80 Chekhov evokes the occult here as earlier to highlight rebellion and the violent pursuit freedom associated with it.

38The revolt of artists and writers against bourgeois society and convention led directly to the avant-garde. Chekhov dramatized this revolt, and he did it with at least some of the elements of the traditional bandit tale in hand. He turned the traditional mythology of banditry upside-down so that the target of rebellion was now proper society, not the tsar and the state, but traces of the original construct remained. He repurposed elements of the mythology of doomed rebellion that carried an almost subliminal force and meaning in the Russian context, and changed the object of the revolt. Had he lived but another year Chekhov would have encountered the great turnabout in Russian humor that accompanied the rebellious assault on society in the Revolution of 1905 and which was expressed most vividly in the remarkable left-leaning satirical magazines of the time.

  • 81 On sprees and binges see Lotman 1985: 124-125

39By the end of his short life, Chekhov had covered a lot of ground, literally and artistically. From his early fascination with and participation in the popular serialized literature of the bandit and the outlaw he mastered the form of the serial and turned it to new creative purpose. Because he was able to create works that defied resolution, his characters could treat the issues of freedom and order, discipline and creativity, and the nature of happiness profoundly rather than formulaically. In Chekhov’s life as an artist, he expanded the traditional Russian idea of the spree or the binge, the dreams of wine and women on the banks of the Volga, of pillage and rape, and turned it into a deeper inquiry into the positive attributes of freedom.81 By the time of his death, he had arrived at his own understanding that freedom resides in the protected space apart that nurtures creativity. For Chekhov, unlike for the later modernists, this space coexisted in the world and required constant defense against it. And unlike his earlier peers producing popular literature, he was not willing or able to resolve fundamental human dilemmas by dropping oak branches on his protagonists. Those created by Chekhov over a century ago carry on and continue to probe the core dilemmas of the human experience.

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Notes

1 On the turn to realism see Valkenier 1989

2 Hauser 1957: 64-65.

3 Brooks P. 2005: 5.

4 I discuss this shift in Brooks 2011a

5 Kuprin 1910: 119; on his love of reading, including religious texts, see Fedorov 1910: 295

6 See his “V vagone” published in Zritel’in 1881, no. 9; Chekhov 1974-1982, Pis’ma, 1: 89, 568. Note: Pis’ma identified in notes: volumes not in Pis’ma series identified as Chekhov 1974-1982.

7 “Letaiushchie ostrova (soch. Zhiulia Verna). Perevod A. Chekhonte,” Chekhov 1974-1982, 1: 208-214, 585. He also produced his own gothic tale “Chernyi monakh” (Black Monk, 1894).

8 The sketch appeared in Strekoza. See Chekhov 1974-1982, 1: 35-38, 563-564.

9 The review remained unpublished; see Chekhov 1974-1982, 1: 487-94, 600-603.

10 For this citation and on Chekhov’s parodies more generally see the note in Ibid., 3: 590-591.

11 See most recently Bykov 2010-2011 and Evseev 2010-2011.

12 This genre was also popular in Italy and Germany but also elsewhere. See 2000 and Brooks 1985: 166-171.

13 I discuss this in Brooks 2005.

14 Shevliakov 1913: 521.

15 Belousov 1926: 11.

16 I discuss this formula in Brooks, 1985: 166-213.

17 Chekhov 1974-1982, 16: 52.

18 Chekhov 1974-1982, Pis’ma, 1: 145.

19 Chekhov 1974-1982, 16: 204-205.

20 Chekhov 1974-1982, Pis’ma, 1: 69-70.

21 Ibid.: 70.

22 Ibid.: 93-94.

23 Chekhov 1974-1982, 2: 375-379, 558-559.

24 Ibid.: 375.

25 On serialization and Russian novels see Todd 1986.

26 Ibid.

27 Pastukhov 1983-85: 986-995.

28 See Hunter 2009.

29 Chudakov 2000: 9.

30 Ibid.

31 Chekhov 1987a: 240. Chekhov 1974-1982, 4: 15.

32 Chekhov 1987b: 28; Chekhov 1974-1982, 10: 143.

33 I discuss Pastukhov’s narrative strategy in Brooks 2002: 447-469

34 Vinogradov 1935: 52.

35 Chekhov 1974-1982, Pis’ma, 1: 86.

36 I discuss Tolstoy’s warm humor in Brooks 2011b. Literally, War and Peace is perhaps better translated as War and the World.

37 See Brooks 1985: 184-85.

38 Korolenko 1910: 76-77.

39 Chekhov 1974-1982, 3: 589. Chekhov 1986.

40 Chekhov M. 1910: 273.

41 Zemstvo teachers were paid on average 285 rubles a year in 1894. See Brooks 1985: 46.

42 See Vukolov 1974: 209.

43 Vukolov 1974: 214 suggests it is pure parody.

44 Chekhov 1986: 20.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.: 19.

47 West 2011 describes the strategies of advertisers.

48 See Brooks 2011a: 245-246

49 Chekhov 1974-1982, 3: 282-283. On the common association of the song with Cossacks see Brooks 1985: 176.

50 Chekhov 1974-1982, 3: 315 and Chekhov 1986: 102.

51 Pastukhov 1983-85 and Brooks 1985: 188-89 for this usage in Churkin and lubok tales.

52 I discuss this language and associated narratives in Brooks 2005: 542

53 See the entrees in Brokgauz, Efron 1892: vol. 7; Brokgauz, Efron 1900: vol. 29.

54 Chekhov 1974-1982, 11: 382. The note dates the play in the late 1870s, when Chekhov was not yet 20.

55 Ibid.: 79.

56 Ibid.: 180; “Убивал тварей божиих, пьянствовал, сквернословил, осуждал... Не вытерпел Господь и поразил.” Chekhov, 2006: 195. Senelick translates the passage as: “Killed God’s creatures, got drunk, talked dirty, sat in judgment… The Lord lost patience and struck you down.”

57 Pastukhov 1983-85: 1387.

58 Malcolm 2002: 80-89 discusses Chekhov and religion

59 See Senelick’s discussion in Chekhov 2006: 3-5.

60 Chekhov 1974-1982, 11: 39.

61 Ibid: 39, 41.

62 Ibid.: 41-42.

63 Ibid.: 402; a character is named Merik; the censor cited the play as gloomy and to the nobility.

64 Chekhov 1974-1982, 7: 681; Garnett titles it “The Horse Stealers” in Chekhov 1998: 2-26.

65 Chekhov, 1974-1982, 7: 314.

66 Ibid.: 324.

67 Ibid.: 325.

68 Ibid.

69 Ibid.

70 Bartlett 2005: xxix-xxx.

71 Mirsky 1999: 374.

72 Chekhov 1985: 265.

73 Chukovskii 2002: 31-40. “The Captain’s Uniform” (1885, Kapitanskii mundir) is included in the 13 volume collection of The Tales of Anton Chekhov translated by Constance Garnett or in collections Anton Chekhov, Stories, Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Bantam books, 2000) or in Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories, ed. Ralph E. Matlaw (New York: Norton, 1979).

74 Chukovskii 2002: 31.

75 Chekhov 1974-1982, 3: 163-168. “Kapitanskii mundir” appeared in Oskolki 26 Jan, 1885

76 Chekhov 2006: 754; Chekhov 1974-1982, 13: “Eto chto-to dekadentskoe” (p. 13), “blednye ogni” (p. 13), “strashnye bagrovye glaza” (p. 14).

77 See Yevtushenko, 1993, 11, 21; on Vrubel see Bowlt 2008: 93. He describes the demon as Vrubel’s “principal pictorial motif.” He adds (p. 90) that the occult themes “may have been dictated not necessarily by an artist’s particular political ideology, but rather by a psychological fascination with Decadent motifs.” He notes the depiction of subjects which, in another context, would have been socially taboo.

78 Lawrence Senelick in his introduction to The Seagull in Chekhov 2006: 737

79 Ibid.

80 E. A. Polotskaia uses the phrase in Polotskaia 2000: 428.

81 On sprees and binges see Lotman 1985: 124-125

Auteur

He is Professor of Russian and European history at The Johns Hopkins University. His interests include Russian literary, visual, and political culture from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. He is the author of When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917 (2003, 1985); Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (2000); and Lenin and the Making of the Soviet State, with G. Chernyavskiy (2006). He received a Guggenheim, a Vucinich Prize, and other awards. His three favourite readings are A.P. Chekhov’s fiction; The Journey to the West (A.C. Yu ed. and transl.); K. Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.