Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"Bestir yourselves, good Christian folk, in such a terrible mischance!"

She was sorry to part from the village and the peasants. She remembered how they had carried out Nikolay, and how a requiem had been ordered for him at almost every hut, and all had shed tears in sympathy with her grief. In the course of the summer and the winter there had been hours and days when it seemed as though these people lived worse than the beasts, and to live with them was terrible; they were coarse, dishonest, filthy, and drunken; they did not live in harmony, but quarrelled continually, because they distrusted and feared and did not respect one another. Who keeps the tavern and makes the people drunken? A peasant. Who wastes and spends on drink the funds of the commune, of the schools, of the church? A peasant. Who stole from his neighbours, set fire to their property, gave false witness at the court for a bottle of vodka? At the meetings of the Zemstvo and other local bodies, who was the first to fall foul of the peasants? A peasant. Yes, to live with them was terrible; but yet, they were human beings, they suffered and wept like human beings, and there was nothing in their lives for which one could not find excuse. Hard labour that made the whole body ache at night, the cruel winters, the scanty harvests, the overcrowding; and they had no help and none to whom they could look for help. Those of them who were a little stronger and better off could be no help, as they were themselves coarse, dishonest, drunken, and abused one another just as revoltingly; the paltriest little clerk or official treated the peasants as though they were tramps, and addressed even the village elders and church wardens as inferiors, and considered they had a right to do so. And, indeed, can any sort of help or good example be given by mercenary, greedy, depraved, and idle persons who only visit the village in order to insult, to despoil, and to terrorize? Olga remembered the pitiful, humiliated look of the old people when in the winter Kiryak had been taken to be flogged. . . . And now she felt sorry for all these people, painfully so, and as she walked on she kept looking back at the huts.
This is from Anton Chekhov's long 1897 story "Peasants." Apparently the Tsar's censors hacked away at this tale of poverty, ignorance and local government corruption in the wake of the Great Decree. Chekhov found himself in the middle of a very public debate about the future of Russia when "Peasants" was published. The Marxists praised the story, while their opponents condemned it. It is, I think, possibly Chekhov's most overtly political story, though the censors only said that it painted peasant life in too somber a manner. What "Peasants" does is depict an entire subculture in Mother Russia populated by illiterate, impoverished, irreligious, drunken, unthinking and lazy people who have neither use nor reason for hope, and "none to whom they could look for help," which is a finger pointed directly at government, which means His Imperial Majesty the Tsar. A bold story from Dr Chekhov, then. Allegedly (though there is no evidence aside from anecdotes) Tolstoy condemned "Peasants," claiming that Chekhov had betrayed the life of the people. As if Tolstoy knew the life of the people.

7 comments:

  1. The story is "populated by illiterate, impoverished, irreligious, drunken, unthinking and lazy people who have neither use nor reason for hope, and "none to whom they could look for help." Except for the words illiterate and drunken, this could be a description of the characters in The Cherry Orchard. In fact, I will have to return to other Chekhov stories and plays. I will not be surprised to find the description applicable to many of Chekhov's characters.

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  2. While I've read all of Chekhov's plays, I can only remember impressions of them, bits and pieces here and there. I've only read each of them once, and never seen any of them performed; I'm much more familiar with Chekhov's stories, most of which I've read a number of times. All that is to say, I think of the characters in Chekhov's plays not as lazy and trapped so much as stuck and confused. And even Chekhov's lazy peasants and gentry are all individuals, more or less, cut from different cloths. Russia was in a funny place in the late 19th century, though. Few people were happy, nobody knew the way out.

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  3. As I was reading this, The Cherry Orchard came to mind, but honestly, so much time has passed that I'm not sure if they are similar at all. I do remember that the Cherry Orchard characters felt stuck, though. This is nice writing, but it does feel more pointed than some of the other things I have read from him. In that sense, it isn't as interesting.

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    1. Yes, less interesting because more pointed. That's a good observation. I think Chekhov was trying to be Tolstoy in this passage, ironically enough. Chekhov usually didn't draw conclusions in his fiction, so this is a rare moment, I claim. He puts this speech into the words of Olga, but we all know it's just the author lecturing the reader at this point. In 1897 Chekhov had already traveled across Russia to research his book Sakhalin Island, about the penal colony. He'd had one play, "The Seagull," produced, an absolute failure in Moscow. He knew by then that he was suffering from advanced tuberculosis and wouldn't live to be an old man. So I don't know. I still blame Tolstoy, who was by then pressuring Chekhov to write more preachy items, to become some sort of socially conscious artist.

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    2. The best moment in "Peasants" is very subtle. A headwaiter from Moscow returns to his poor village after suffering a stroke and finding himself unable to work any longer. He and his wife and daughter move in with his parents and inlaws, all crammed into a filthy hut. Squalor, resentment, misery, etc. Months later, in the middle of the night, the headwaiter gets up, puts on his dress coat from the Moscow restaurant, admires himself in a mirror for a minute, then carefully puts the coat back into a trunk where he is preserving it, God knows why.

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    3. That does sound like a nice moment!

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  4. Oh, I love that headwaiter moment... I need to go back to Chekhov. Why is life so crammed with things to do?

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