Wednesday, July 14, 2004


The famous novelist was politically incorrect even before the Russian revolution!

"Chekhov was painfully aware of the reactionary nature of Russian society, but fortunately for his prose he was no politician. This earned him the abuse of literary liberals, who accused him of failing to take a polemical stand on public issues. Having seen more of the real Russia than most, as a doctor and because of his lowly origins, Chekhov shared none of their self-gratifying sentimentalism about the narod, the people.

He managed to get himself both criticised by the "progressives" and censored by the Tsarist regime for painting too true a picture of peasant life ("Who embezzles community, school and Church funds and spends it on drink the peasant! Who steals from his neighbours, sets their house on fire and perjures himself for a bottle of vodka? The peasant!").

But not only was Chekhov a better writer than his critics not a few of whom came from the conscience-stricken upper classes and preached faith in the peasantry while privately sympathising with revolutionary terrorism he was a better citizen too. As Bartlett deftly shows, Chekhov was a highly moral person not because he proclaimed a love for humanity, he probably loved nature more, but because he was a man of practical ethics, dispensing free medicine to the peasants near his estate, helping to set up schools and to inspect them, and treating his tyrannical father generously in his old age. And the author who had scant interest in politics endured the appalling voyage to Sakhalin the end of the world, it seemed to him, in every sense to write an account of the horrors he saw that inspired a national debate about the treatment of prisoners.

His distaste for the luxuries of life on the French Riviera ("There is something hanging in the air which you feel offends your sense of decency, that vulgarises nature, the sound of the sea, the moon," he wrote about Monte Carlo) and homesickness when in the West showed that, unlike Turgenev, he was no cosmopolitan. Neither, though, was he a slavophile, like Dostoyevsky, who believed in Russia's spiritual superiority.

Instead he was constantly dismayed by Russia's backwardness. "Everywhere you see evidence of how well the English look after those who work for them," he wrote after visiting Hong Kong following his stay in Sakhalin. "Perhaps the English do exploit the Chinese, the Sepoys and the Hindus, but on the other hand they give them roads, running water, museums, Christianity. You [Russians] also exploit people, but what do you give them in return?" This time it was Soviet censors who expunged this passage from his published letters."

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