Reform and Upheaval in Nineteenth-Century Russia
Chekhov was writing during a period of great social, cultural, and political upheaval. The uncertainty of the times can be felt in much of his work, as his characters often struggle to find their place in a social order that they no longer understand. This period of flux began when Tsar Alexander II succeeded Nicholas I in 1855 and immediately began instituting governmental, educational, and economic reforms. The most notable of these was his emancipation of twenty million serfs in 1861. Reforms pertaining to local governments largely took place in 1864, when Russia was divided into districts. Six years later, the formation of elected city councils was established. However, both new organizations isolated their constituents by raising taxes. Judicial reforms were also enacted in 1864, and judicial systems in major cities were modeled after Western courts. Censorship also became more lenient, but after a failed assassination attempt on the tsar in 1866, censorship was again increased. Alexander II additionally oversaw military reforms throughout the 1870s.
Revolutionaries dissatisfied with these sweeping changes finally succeeded in assassinating Alexander II in 1881. He was replaced by his son, Alexander III. The new tsar sought to undo much that his father had done, and he founded a branch of governmental police known as the Okhrana. The power of the districts and city councils was greatly reduced as well. Religious censorship was also instituted. Anti-Semitism was encouraged while non-Russian peoples and those worshiping outside the Orthodox Church were all subject to persecution. State universities were subject to increasing restrictions. In the meantime, Russia was falling behind as the rest of Europe pushed into the modern age.
The Age of Realism
Given the political, cultural, and social upheaval in Russia during the nineteenth century, the literature of the day was understandably preoccupied with political and social issues. Because direct political commentary was censored by the government, social critique was largely relegated to the realm of fiction, where it could be discussed indirectly. Realism was a hallmark of this approach, and Russian writers began to increasingly detail the cruder aspects of life in Russia. In addition, literary forms such as the short story and the novel, which had grown increasingly popular in western Europe, began to grow in popularity in Russia as well.
These circumstances all converged to give rise to the Age of Realism, a movement that reached its peak in the 1850s but remained popular into the twentieth century. Early nineteenth-century writers credited with fathering the movement include Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Vissarion Belinsky, and Nikolai Gogol. The best-known writers of the Age of Realism are Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. All three writers have enjoyed continued international fame. Somewhat lesser-known writers of the movement include Nikolai Leskov, Alexander Ostrovsky, and Ivan Goncharov. Without exception, all of these writers’ works focus on social critique. Though Chekhov was writing roughly twenty years after these predecessors, his work is nevertheless affiliated with the Age of Realism. Yet, while Chekhov was a realist, his work focuses less on social critique and more on the failures of the individual within society. Like Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Anton Chekov, Published by Gale Group, 2001.