Biography of Anton Chekhov:
By Emma Downey
Before and throughout Chekhov’s lifetime (1860-1904), Russia was affected by the historical events occurring throughout the rest of the world. To understand what influenced Chekhov in writing The Seagull, one must first interpret the historical context surrounding his life and writings. It is important to understand the Russia Chekhov was born into and thus influenced by. Chekhov’s Russia was one of militaristic exertion and sudden social displacement, creating the environment in which Chekhov would create his work. The overall atmosphere was hope mixed with frustration over inequalities and power shifts, giving rise to Chekhov’s focus on character psychology in which his main characters experience the same existential difficulties. It is the historical context around Chekhov’s life that impacts his literary works most, thus it is the focus of this biography.
Humiliated by defeat in 1853-1856 on their own Crimean Peninsula to the British and French, Chekhov’s Russia was further disgraced after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 when it renounced terms it gained from Turkey due to pressure from the rest of the European powers (Clyman 3). The Russo-Turkish Wars were a result of Russia’s attempts gain access to the Black Sea and to conquer the Caucasus, dominate the Balkan Peninsula, gain control of the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, and retain access to world trade routes. Therefore, once the districts of Kars and Ardahan, acquired by Russia in 1878, were returned to Atatürk’s Turkish government, Russia’s regression in international affairs affected its nationalism (Clyman 4). Adding insult to injury, in 1853, Russia sent troops to defend Christians within the Ottoman Empire. Within months, Russian troops had occupied the Ottoman Empire and the Turks declared war. Britain and France were both concerned that Russia would use the war to expand and occupy the Crimea and other Ottoman territory, therefore both declared war on Russia. Russia’s transportation system was not ample enough to supply troops, and the Russian Army suffered an embarrassing defeat.
The loss of the Crimean War served as an exhortation to the Russian government for national improvement, while the defeat emphasized how postliminary Russia was in comparison to the industrialized European world. Russia needed improved weaponry, a reorganization of the military, and most importantly, better transportation networks. Russia in the mid-nineteenth century was fundamentally an agrarian society. “Ninety per cent of the population lived on the land” (Clyman 4) and serfdom was still practiced, although it had been abolished in the rest of Europe over 200 years before (Clyman 4). The war had caused tremendous hardships and serf rebellions were at the heels of a political revolution. Reform was desperately needed and the new Czar, Alexander II (1855-1881) took charge.
The first great reform was to free the serfs. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II freed millions of serfs. They were given some poor land when the government projected that both the serfs and the serf-less estate owners would now be able to make payments to the government and increase Russia’s financial standings, a prediction that was misguided. Older nobility had trouble adapting to the abolishment of serfdom and these land-owning nobles eventually lost their influence to nobles in new industries. Non-nobles gained power through new professions in business and the arts and “clashed with old nobles in the economic and social spheres,” (Clyman 5) as well as the political and administrative spheres. Unable to compete with the freed serfs and more impoverished than ever, by the end of the century many estates were eventually sold to the newer, smaller but expanding middle class. The overall atmosphere was that of optimism combined with dissatisfaction over inequalities and power shifts.
Chekhov, born one year before the emancipation of the serfs in Russia (17), struggled to overcome the slave mentality, as his grandfather was a former slave. The Emancipation of 1861 left serf families, including Chekhov’s, desiring economic success with limited resources. Growing up, when Chekhov was 16, his family store failed and his “father fled to Moscow where his two older sons, Alexander and Nikolai, had gone the previous year to attend the university” (19). Chekhov’s family moved to live with his father, while he stayed to complete his schooling in Taganrog. After high school he “readily took over as head of the family” (19). In “1884, Chekhov graduated from medical school in Moscow and shortly thereafter began his medical practice, which brought him into contact with the broad segment of different social strata and provided him with subject matter for his stories” (19). Many historians speculate that his ex-serf upbringing and economic struggle drove his desire to pursue success financially and socially.
These combined circumstances and the events of his life affected Chekhov’s work. Chekhov’s characters are “all human beings trying to cope with the difficulties of their lives in ways we quickly recognize since they are our ways” (84). The hope and frustration of a politically and socially changing society impacted Chekhov’s indirect and character-focused style. Chekhov depicts characters from all levels of society whose response to life is to fall into a routine. For instance, in The Seagull (1896) both Arkadina and Trigorin have acquired mastery of their respective arts through years of experience, but it has taken a toll. Although Arkadina can conjure up an entire range of emotions at will and Trigorin can spin beauty in only a few phrases, the art of each lacks feeling; “it became routine and almost mechanical” (80). This mechanized feel draws inspiration from the industrializing world of Russia’s modernization.
Chekhov “chooses not to emphasize those quirks that set people apart but to focus on traits shared by all” (Clyman 84), a mentality that is parallel to the attempts made to unite Russia as a nation during Chekhov’s lifetime. Chekhov’s work is a representation of the culminating events leading up to his birth and the historical occurrences happening shortly after. In his writing of “The Seagull”, Chekhov writes of an estate, much like one from 19th century Russia, in which everything from the land is sold to sustain it (Adler 207). He alludes to the old aristocracy previously described, whose concerns with art outweighed their real problems of money and social upheaval. In drawing from his environment and his recent history of Russia, Chekhov’s writing subliminally includes Russia’s militaristic exertion and social displacement. His focus on character psychology reveals their struggle with surviving the existential difficulties of 19th century Russia.
Adler, Stella, and Barry Paris. On Ibsen Strindberg and Chekhov. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Print.
Clyman, Toby W. A Chekhov Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985. Print.
Senelick, Laurence. Anton Chekhov. London: Macmillan, 1985. Print.