on the stages of Europe and the United States. The West is mistaken when it takes Chekhov for a typical Russian writer.

Although he admired Tolstoy greatly, Chekhov nevertheless felt strongly that prophecy was not the writer’s job. His alienation reflected the realities of the new Russia, moving from the peasant commune to a developed capitalist society. The “peasant” anarchist Tolstoy wrathfully denounced that path. His ideas, populist and quasi-Christian (with strong Buddhist overtones), had not only formed the consciousness of the modern Russian intelligentsia but had also created an influential paradigm for the behavior of the politically astute writer in general. When Russia’s movement toward a Westernized market-based society was interrupted by the revolution of 1917, the Tolstoy model reigned supreme for a long time: in the Soviet era art was seen as a direct tool for improving human nature, and the didactic element in culture came to the forefront. (See Shklovsky’s paradoxical idea of Tolstoy as precursor of socialist realism.) In that sense, Chekhov was an opponent of Tolstoy and his followers in life and art. Chekhov’s ideology was diffused in the artistic fabric of his work and it is very difficult to separate it out.

This does not mean that Chekhov had no ideals at all, as both liberal and conservative commentators of the day had charged. But those ideals were secular, sober, and incomparably more pragmatic than the views of Tolstoy. Tolstoy was rightly compared to a prophet: his moral sermon was passionate and unambivalent. “Do not kill,” “Do not eat meat,” “Abstain from sex,” “Live according to the Bible,” Tolstoy admonished. Many people obeyed, hoping to make their lives better. But Chekhov back in 1894 wrote to Suvorin: “Tolstoy’s philosophy affected me strongly and influenced me for six or seven years…. Now something within me protests; thrift and fairness tell me that there is more love of mankind in electricity and steam than in chastity and vegetarianism.”17

After Chekhov’s death, Tolstoy compared Chekhov’s style to the Impressionists: “You watch a man seemingly smear whatever paints come to hand without any selection and the strokes seem to have no relationship to each other. But you step back a bit and look, and the whole forms a complete impression.”18 This admiration for Chekhov’s innovation extended only to his prose; as Tolstoy himself told Chekhov: “I can’t stand your plays. Shakespeare wrote badly, and you’re even worse!”19

This may appear bizarre now, but Tolstoy was not alone in his dislike of Chekhov the playwright; Gorky, Bunin, and many critics at the beginning of the century had serious reservations about his work. The premiere in 1896 at the Imperial Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg of Chekhov’s first mature play, The Seagull, was a disaster with a squall of hostile reviews, like the one in Peterburgskii Listok: “This is a very badly conceived and clumsily crafted play, with an extremely strange content, or rather, with no content at all. This is a muddle in poor dramatic form.”20

It is not clear what would have happened to Chekhov the playwright if a boldly innovative theatrical organization had not sprung up in Russia. It revolutionized the art of the stage not only in Russia but throughout the world. The Seagull was produced again in 1898 by the recently formed Moscow Art Theater (MAT). Surprisingly, this enterprise was launched by a mediocre playwright, Vladimir Nemirovich- Danchenko, and an amateur actor, Konstantin Alekseyev-Stanislavsky. These unlikely candidates intended to reform the Russian theater radically; they believed it (correctly) to be in shambles. Routine reigned on the stage then—in direction, which was rudimentary, in wooden acting, and in incongruous scenery.

For these Russian theatrical revolutionaries (Nemirovich-Danchenko was an aristocrat, Stanislavsky from a wealthy merchant family) the guiding star was Chekhov’s modern sensibility, which the traditional stage could neither understand nor accept. It is not surprising that the old guard saw it all as a muddle: after all, Chekhov had totally rejected the concept of the “well-made play,” with its intricate plot twists, over-long monologues and artificial dialogues resembling opera duets. A Chekhov play is usually put together from bits of detached phrases and the action has been moved to the subtext. In the finale of The Seagull, the suicide of one of the characters is introduced this way: “A vial of ether has exploded.” In Uncle Vanya the line “Ah, it must be very hot in that Africa—a terrible thing” summarizes the tragic ending of an entire life. People on the stage collide and go their separate ways like microbes under the microscope of a doctor, which Chekhov was by training.

Chekhov’s modern ideology was inculcated into the social discourse primarily from the stage of the MAT. This is how the Symbolist poet Alexander Blok described a MAT production of a Chekhov play in a letter to his mother: “It is a corner of the great Russian art, one of the accidentally preserved, miraculously unsullied corners of my vile, filthy, stupid, and bloody motherland.”21 Another poet, Osip Mandelstam, would write later, somewhat ironically: “The Art Theater is the child of the Russian intelligentsia, flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone…. From childhood I recall the reverent atmosphere that surrounded the theater. Going to the Art Theater for a member of the intelligentsia meant practically taking communion, going to church.”22

It is possible that Anna Akhmatova’s ironic attitude toward both MAT and Chekhov, which so shocked me when we met in 1965, came from Mandelstam. “Chekhov is not compatible with poetry,” said Akhmatova. Her anti- Chekhov stance seemed paradoxical, but it reflected Akhmatova’s aversion to the cultural intelligentsia mainstream of her youth, which she felt was strongly influenced by MAT and Chekhov.

The very concept of intelligentsia is specifically Russian. It implies not only an educated person—scientists, scholars, writers, journalists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, and college students—but a certain liberal outlook. Psychologically, the intelligent (with a hard G), unlike the white- collar worker, had a civic conscience, valued freedom, and sought to liberate the lower classes.

The traditional Russian perception is that the intelligent was first and foremost an altruist serving the ideals of good and justice. This matched MAT’s program, which brought together aesthetics and ethics for the first time in Russia on such a high artistic level on the stage. MAT became a kind of club for the intelligentsia.

Ironically, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, like Chekhov, abhorred politics. But politics caught up with them, forcing its way into their hothouse of high art. The audiences stayed on after premieres for a lecture by a critic on the play. After the lecture, lively topical discussions continued outside the theater. Young people debated with particular passion.

“People with a deep spiritual wound go to the theater,” wrote a reviewer in 1905, speaking primarily of MAT. “The theater is the only place where a Russian citizen feels like a citizen, where he meets with others like himself and involves himself in the formation of public opinion.”23 Andreyev described people leaving MAT after a performance of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters with the sense that they had to seek a way out of the “black mist” of life that surrounded them. They perceived the play that seemed to have no point or idea as an epitaph for an era.

Chekhov literally created a new audience. After The Seagull, all the premieres of his new plays at MAT—Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904)—became milestones not only in the country’s public life but in the personal lives of many viewers as well. It was reflected in the enormous number of letters written to MAT, containing gratitude, personal confessions, and requests for advice. Replying to one of these sincere epistles, Stanislavsky sermonized in 1901, “Do you know why I abandoned all my personal affairs and took up the theater? Because the theater is the most powerful pulpit, more powerful in its influence than books or the press. This pulpit fell into the hands of the rabble of humanity, and they turned it into a place of depravity…. Mytask is to explain to the modern generation, to the best of my ability, that the actor is a prophet of beauty and truth.”24

Chekhov didn’t take these self-aggrandizing declarations of Stanislavsky’s too seriously. Although many people

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