Over one hundred fifty years after his birth, Anton Chekhov is as relevant as ever. He is one of the most widely translated and imitated writers in the world, known for classic works such as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. His works are performed as far afield as Tokyo, Santiago, and New Delhi. One could argue that no other writer had more influence on modern drama and short fiction, and some would go much further. Chekhov’s legacy lives on in his literature and all the writers he has influenced, but also in his contributions as a human being who advocated justice, compassion for those who struggled, and concern for the environment.
Chekhov’s Compassionate Spirit
Numerous scholars, activists, and writers admire both Chekhov’s work and how he lived his life. Chekhov scholar Simon Karlinsky reflects on his humanitarian activities: “his life was one continuous round of alleviating famine, fighting epidemics, building schools and public roads, endowing libraries, helping organize marine biology libraries, giving thousands of needy peasants free medical treatment, planting gardens, helping fledgling writers get published, raising funds for worthwhile causes, and hundreds of other pursuits designed to help his fellow man and improve the general quality of life around him.”
The Russian novelist Vasily Grossman writes in his novel Life and Fate: “Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history—the banner of a true, humane Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man.” The controversial and provocative African-American intellectual Cornel West writes about Chekhov’s compassion and significance:
I find the incomparable works of Anton Chekhov … to be the wisest and deepest interpretations of what human beings confront in their daily struggles … His acute sense of the incongruity in our lives is grounded in a magnificent compassion for each of us … Chekhov leads us through our contemporary inferno with love and sorrow, but no cheap pity or promise of ultimate happiness. (The Cornel West Reader, xv-xvi)
Chekhov listened to and understood his fellow man. His stories and plays frequently center on everyday issues that are timeless, such as loneliness, love, family, aging, and death. But it is not just Chekhov’s writing that is relevant for us today, but the values he stands for: humility, tolerance, pragmatism, and compassion.
Humility in the Face of the Mystery of Life
It is very likely that Chekhov’s tolerance stemmed from his humility. He realized that life was a mystery, and neither he nor anyone else had all the answers. His opposition to dogmatism arose from this understanding. A doctor by training, Chekhov attempted to approach reality with scientific pragmatism, as well as imaginative insight. For example in the short story “The Duel” (1891), the main characters emphasize that “nobody knows the real truth.”
In an age and country of dogmatic utterances about political truths comparable to our own, Chekhov’s realization of truth’s complexity made him more tolerant, open-minded, and pragmatic than many other intellectuals. He believed that ideology skewed the understanding and depiction of reality. He regarded “trade-marks and labels as a superstition,” and disliked being labeled, as he said, by those “determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative.” Chekhov’s recognition of the complexity of truth also made him wary of any religious certainties. In 1897, he wrote in his Notebook, “Between ‘there is a God’ and ‘there is no God’ lies a whole vast tract, which the really wise man crosses with great effort.”
Seeing life unskewed by ideological blinders, he realized it was a tragicomedy. Whether depicting the tragic or comic, he hoped that when people realized how badly they lived, they would “create another and better life for themselves.” Chekhov’s tolerance and compassion were linked with his empathy.
Commitment to Environmental Justice
Chekhov’s care for others helped influence his environmental views. He was especially concerned about all the deforestation he saw occurring around him. The speech of his Dr. Astrov in Uncle Vanya (1899) expresses Chekhov’s own views:
Why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever … Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the wildlife is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes poorer and uglier every day.
Because of his concern for wildlife, Chekhov was also concerned about the effects of pollution. In his short story “In the Ravine” (1890), he depicted the evil consequences of factory pollution for a neighboring village.
Learning from Chekhov
Despite the tuberculosis that eventually killed him at age forty-four, Chekhov seldom complained about his fate and continued to work and care for others until the end of his life. The writer Alexander Kuprin, who knew him in his final years, wrote that he “never tired of hoping for a bright future, never ceased to believe in the invisible but persistent and fruitful work of the best forces of our country,” and that “the motif of the joyous future which is awaiting mankind … was audible in all the work of his last years.”
In the United States, we experience more than our share of hype, self-promotion, partisan know-it-alls, and dogmatic pronouncements. At such a time, it is refreshing and instructive to listen to the wise, tolerant, pragmatic, and empathetic voice of the modest Chekhov, who hated self-promotion and dogmatism and loved beauty, nature, truth, and goodness.
Cornel West said a decade ago that he found inspiration in Chekhov’s “refusal to escape from the pain and misery of life by indulging in dogmas, doctrines … or political utopias.” Similarly, we can find encouragement from Chekhov today. We can follow his example of facing our complex problems with compassion, empathy, tolerance, and a passion for justice. While Chekhov may not be a man of our times, he is certainly a man for our times.
About the Author
Walter G. Moss is an Emeritus Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University and the author of the two-volume A History of Russia (here and here) and Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.For a list of his other recent books, essays, and reviews, see here.
Republished with revisions from The History News Network.