Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright and writer, was born in January 1860. By the time of his early death in 1904 he had a high reputation in Russia. A century later, he received international recognition as one of the most influential writers of our time.
His life and work have been well studied. But little attention was paid to his interest in the conservation of the natural environment in general and Russia’s forests in particular.
Chekhov had an urban upbringing: he was born and raised in Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov in southern Russia. And then he studied medicine in Moscow. However, he subsequently spent considerable time in the countryside. Working as a doctor or relaxing.
This led him to appreciate two opposing views of rural life. On the one hand, urban-educated professionals viewed rural Russia as a vast open-air laboratory. Where they sought to improve the condition of the peasantry through education, medicine, and other forms of modernization.
On the other hand, many Russian writers considered the village to be the heart and soul of the nation. The home of its traditional and spiritual values. The contradiction between these two points of view was evident in many of Chekhov’s works.
Chekhov’s love for nature
In his 1895 short story, “A House with a Mezzanine,” he contrasted the position of a landscape painter who spends hours simply looking at the sky, birds, and trees, with the position of his beloved. Which supports practical measures for the benefit of the peasants.
The artist argues that interference in the life of the peasants through the creation of hospitals, schools, libraries and other innovations leads only to a new kind of slavery. Which blocks the spiritual development that makes life worth living.
Chekhov’s love for Russia’s nature was evident both in his stories and in his travel notes. He wrote about a journey through the south of Russia in “Steppes” in 1888.
And he described his expedition through Siberia to the settlements on Sakhalin Island. On this journey, he met the taiga – vast coniferous forests. Which lie between the steppe in the south and the tundra in the north. On the contrary, in the central European part of Russia, most of the primary forests consist of deciduous species.
Chekhov expressed his sadness at the destruction of centuries-old forests in his short story Rothschild’s Violin (1894). And, more prominently, in other major plays. All of them take place in the wooded countryside of central European Russia. And they were inspired by the long summer holidays he spent with family and friends at country dachas south of Moscow.
In Chekhov’s first big play Ivanov, staged in 1887, the eponymous landowner admits that his estate is being ruined. And that “forests groan under the ax.” This theme was developed in his next play Leshy.
This is the nickname of Khrushchev, a landowner and doctor who passionately wants to protect the forests. He complains that millions of trees are being cut down. Only because people are too lazy to use peat instead of wood as fuel.
Khrushchev also argues that deforestation destroys bird and animal habitats and dries up rivers. And planting trees softens the harsh climate and thereby helps to civilize man. However, his arguments cannot convince a friend to stop burning wood for heating or building wooden barns.
In 1892, Chekhov bought the Melikhovo estate, about 50 miles from Moscow, in the middle of a large forest. Shortly after moving there, he spoke enthusiastically about the spiritual and practical benefits of living in the forest. “The presence of a deity is felt in the forest.”
Probably, when Chekhov lived in Melikhovo, he rewrote Leshy as a new play Uncle Vanya. First staged in 1899.
In Uncle Vanya, Astrov, a physician, helps tend a government plantation and was awarded a medal and a diploma for his efforts. His impassioned call for forest conservation is the longest speech in the play. But, as in “Leshem”, this remains without attention.
Elena, the professor’s young retired wife, believes that Astrov’s love for the forest gets in the way of his true calling: medicine. Astrov admits his anxiety may just be a whim. But later in the play, he studies a map he has compiled of environmental changes over the past three generations.
The map shows that most of the forest has gradually disappeared. And with it, much of the wildlife, small farms, monasteries and windmills.
Chekhov’s reference to a detailed land use map is interesting because at the time he wrote such data were rare. And not only in Russia, but also in other places. Astrov admits that deforestation would be acceptable if workshops, factories and schools replaced forests.
However, this did not happen, as the area was still suffering from the old ills: swamps, mosquitoes, typhoid, diphtheria and fires. As well as poverty and lack of roads. However, Astrov fails to interest Elena in the need to preserve the environment.
In Chekhov’s next play, Three Sisters (1901), the sisters yearn to escape from the boredom and cold of their provincial home and live in Moscow. Thus, the theme of the play is urban, not rural melancholy. However, even in The Three Sisters, Chekhov offers the opposite point of view. When two army officers admire the beauty of the local birches, maples and firs and the “real Russian” climate of the area.
The role of forests in Chekhov’s plays reflected the environment in which the majority of the country’s population lived. At the beginning of the 20th century, 39 percent of European Russia was forest. And in some parts more than two-thirds. For example, in areas south of Moscow, where Chekhov spent a lot of time.
The use and maintenance of these forests is a matter of great public and private concern. The Emancipation Manifesto of 1861, which emancipated the serfs, left most of the forests in the hands of large landowners. More than half of the forests belonged to the state, a third – to private landowners. The rest of the church or the peasantry.
Chekhov was not the first Russian playwright to appreciate the nature of the forest. Or mentioning his role in rural life. Ivan Turgenev (1818-83), for example, in his 1848 play A Month in the Country, extolled the beauty of oaks and birches and contrasted their strength with the weariness of human characters.
What was new in Chekhov’s plays was the emphasis on the need to preserve Russia’s forests. This was facilitated by their rapid destruction caused by the growing demand for timber. The population of the Russian Empire doubled during Chekhov’s lifetime, and most people lived in the countryside. And relied on forests for heating, craft materials, and income.
The Cherry Orchard
Despite his love for the forest, Chekhov himself was more of a gardener than a forester. In 1897 his failing health, he had tuberculosis, forced him to sell his estate in Melikhovo. And later he moved to Yalta, to the Crimea, where the climate was much warmer.
There he built a house and laid out an orchard and a vegetable garden. There are many references to gardens in his works, especially in his last play, The Cherry Orchard. Which premiered in 1904. The performance begins with the sight of cherry blossom trees and ends with the sound of axes chopping them. In the play, Lopakhin, a merchant and the son of a serf, advises the landowner to divide the cherry orchard into plots and rent them out as dachas to the townspeople.
The plot of The Cherry Orchard echoes Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1871 play The Forest. In which a landowner widow sells part of her forest to a timber merchant, a former serf.
The merchant claims that there is nothing but trouble with the forests. The peasants steal the forest, and the servants return from the forest not only with mushrooms and berries. The widow, however, retorts that an estate without a forest is not real estate at all. An opinion that would have been supported by most of the landowners of that era.
They valued forests both for their hunting opportunities and for their timber, which was a useful source of funds.
The fate of the Cherry Orchard symbolizes not only the end of the old rural social order, but also the urbanization of the village. This process manifested itself in Russia by the beginning of the 20th century. This was facilitated by the rapid expansion of the railway network.
Lopakhin, an upstart merchant, suggests that the new suburbs will eventually begin to cultivate their land. And thus, in turn, will become villagers. However, the threats posed by suburban development were very real. And they were not limited only to Russia. In England, as in Russia, cherry orchards were also cut down and sold for development.
Conservation of national forests
Despite the importance of conservation issues in Chekhov’s plays, he did not write them as calls to action. He described both Leshy and The Cherry Orchard as comedies. Although these are comedies of manners and ideas, and not comedies in terms of their plots and situations.
Chekhov was not on the side of either the defenders of nature or the timber merchants. And he only considered it his artistic duty to give convincing portraits of characters with different views on a variety of topics.
Subsequent disputes between them are not resolved, and this is one of the distinguishing features of Chekhov’s drama. However, he denied that he had no principles and was clearly concerned about the destruction of Russia’s forested environment.
The rural world depicted by Chekhov came to an end with the 1917 revolution. The new regime created state-owned forestry enterprises. However, their focus was on exploitation rather than conservation of the national forests.
Deforestation proceeded at a rapid pace during the Soviet era. And continues to this day, which has recently been facilitated by the huge demand for wood from the Far East. Nevertheless, Russia still contains more than one-fifth of the world’s forests. Much more than in any other country.
Moreover, there are signs that the Russian government is now more aware than its predecessors of the need to conserve forests. Both for global and national reasons. Chekhov would have welcomed this new concern for the conservation of forests. But, probably, I would be surprised that it is not shared by everyone.