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On the Anniversary of Chekhov

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On the Anniversary of Chekhov

01.02.2010

On the anniversaries of classic Russian authors, we tend to talk about their day and age. What is the relevance of Pushkin and Dostoevsky? Are Tolstoy or Turgenev modern? Chekhov's turn has now arrived, as it is the 150th anniversary of his birth that we celebrate. The issue has become a virtual ritual. Following tradition, let us then ask – how is Chekhov relevant?

The answers to this question are, of course, very different. “Anton Chekhov wrote, above all, about man, about human dignity, about how to get rid of the slave inside us little by little,” said Deputy Minister of Culture Andrei Gagarin in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda. It seems Andrei Konchalovsky was a bit closer to the truth: “Chekhov is a symphony. A symphony of life. A life without the tragic events of grandiose achievements, or emotional outbursts, a life that has no heroes, but as he said himself – a simple, gray, humdrum life...”

Of course, Chekhov’s stories, novels and plays are read with interest now. They contain good humor and subtle drama. These are qualities for all times. Why wouldn’t an intelligent person read Chekhov in our time? Again, let us ask, how is Chekhov relevant for us?

“Moral values, important for the Russian people but crushed in the era of world wars and revolutions, are preserved in Chekhov. So now he has turned out to be the most relevant of writers, even more so than he could imagine,” says Lev Anninsky. This is true, but I think there is still something of relevance to the external, story side of his prose, especially the early stories. With respect to Chekhov this is very important. His characters live diligently, completing the entire everyday ritual. Conflict comes about in direct connection with the cumbersome way of life. In the words of Chekhov himself, the characters of his dramas, “eat, drink tea, but at this time their destinies break down.” This drama is born, it would seem, from the natural course of things, from the mutterings of life. This is the essence of the matter.

In the late Soviet Union, with its seriousness and particular ways of life, many components of the structure in which Chekhov's characters live and which now seems very natural to us were missing. Paradoxically, all of this makes Chekhov even closer to us.

The characters in “The Lottery Ticket” dream about what would they do if they were to win the jackpot. Instantly, a new, poetic life is born in their heads. Ivan Dmitrievich sees himself as the owner of a small estate in Tula or Orel. Then, also in his dreams, he begins to travel abroad. In Soviet times, people did not have such dreams of money, and only a few gave thought to traveling abroad. The dachas and plots of six hundred square meters – the limit of most people’s desires – had little in common. Not so for us today. Even a simple listing of the routes traveled by Ivan Dmitrievich seems very familiar to many: the South of France, Italy, India... A good dacha – right where you want it, not where you are able to buy it or where one is given to you ... nothing is impossible. We can dream ourselves about what to do with such a large amount of money.

A first class passenger is speaking with his counterparts. He laments the fact that the public is not interested in people, things, or serious events. Fires, stylish canaries and other mass idols are the only popular things. The engineer Krikunov’s worries are more understood today than, say, 30-40 years ago during the officious cult of the worker and excessive seriousness of newspaper style.

Mr. Borotov, wanting to learn French (“For an educated person ignorance of languages is a great inconvenience”), hires a poor teacher. Eventually, realizing that she teaches badly, he decides to stop attending the lessons, but, seeing her embarrassment, he understands how much she needs the income. Earlier it would have been possible to imagine the poor teacher, but for the Soviet people such sympathy was more literary idealism; today it is something much more real.

There are many more similar examples, which is a clear advantage for our readers. There is a lot, of course, which can be felt rather acutely. The validity of Chekhov’s stories comes through more clearly, and thus we obtain yet more motivation for empathy. But why go on at length about this? Open Chekhov and see for yourselves!

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