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Anton Chekov - Religion and Politics

Anton Chekov - Religion and Politics

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Published by: jp_rajendran on Feb 22, 2011
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"To hell with all the great men and their philosophies"Anton ChekhovChekhov's political and religious beliefs are among the most misunderstood of any of the greatRussian writers of the late 19th century. If one is to understand Chekhov one must understand hispolitical and religious philosophy. In addition these views are significant in that this author contendsthey motivated him to write on certain subjects. Chekhov's style was impressionistic and his choiceof topics became his vehicle for expressing personal concerns and his compassion. Yet he wasobjective in his detail and the general impression he created. His choice of topics made Chekhovmore than a "mindless, young giant." It made him a window through which the reader might focushis subjectivity. Chekhov's subjectivity lay in the placement of those windows. It is necessary topresent those beliefs as he most clearly revealed them in his letters or as they are conveyed in theremembrances of his contemporaries.The most abstract of Chekhov's beliefs dealt with his religious views. In his notebooks Chekhovrepeatedly stated that "Between the statements 'God exists' and 'there is no God' lies a whole vastfield, which a true sage crosses with difficulty."However, Chekhov believed the Russians picked only one of these extremes. That which lay betweenthe poles was of little or no interest to them.1Chekhov did not appear to be as concerned with Godas he was with the ritual and lifestyle related to religion.As a child, Chekhov received a traditional religious upbringing forced upon him in an authoritarianmanner by his father. He was compelled to sing in the choir, read the epistles and psalms in church,regularly attend services, and perform altar boy and bell ringing duty. As a result of this compulsionand other factors in his youth, his early religious experience seemed quite gloomy. In the finalanalysis he wrote, "I have no religion now."2 Organized religion or idealistic words were not important to Chekhov. He believed that one shouldnot focus on the "forgotten words of Idealism." A person's own sense of purity and the freedom of one's soul was much more important to him. If a person did not believe in God, he should fill the gapcreated with something other than sensationalism. For Chekhov, it was terrible, simple, and difficult,". . . one must seek, seek on one's own, all alone with one's conscience . . . ."3 In regard to religion, Chekhov saw a difference between Russia in general and the intelligentsia inparticular. Chekhov felt that at the turn of the century the intelligentsia played with religiousmovements because it had nothing to do. In general, he believed the educated segment of societyappeared to be moving further and further away from religion. He declined to comment on whetherthis was good or bad. He believed the religious revival movement at the end of the 19th century wasa toy of the bored intelligentsia, not of Russia as a whole.4 Chekhov saw the dynamic of his age's culture not in organized religion, but in the beginning of ahumanistic effort. This effort on the part of the educated was designed to thrust society into the
modern age. It would be easier to see God in this effort than in the pretentious preaching of aDostoevskii.5In the act of achieving this modern world, man would see God as clearly as two andtwo are four. Chekhov felt modern man in his effort to create modern culture through science andindividual initiative was beginning an effort which would last for thousands of years, but that thereligious movement of the intelligentsia was from the past. The religious movement among thebored intelligentsia was the survival of the gloomy, old traditional religion which Chekhov thoughtwas dead or dying.6 Chekhov seemed to view religion between the two poles of "God is or is not" as a culturalphenomenon. He did not reject what he saw as good or useful in the religious tradition. He was notone to dismiss concepts such as Heaven cheaply. He looked at it from the poor man's perspectivewhich was quite different than that of the intelligentsia from a wealthy background. Chekhov sawHeaven as a needed rest after hard work and that if it was as beautiful as the earth could be then itwould be a good place.7Nor did Chekhov reject churchmen just because they were churchmen.Chekhov spoke highly of the local priest who often had lengthy visits with Chekhov. "He's awonderful fellow, a widower with illegitimate children."8 Chekhov's attitude toward religion and his humanistic perspective were on occasion misunderstoodand led to confused conclusions. Chekhov refused to accept one or the other of the Russian extremepositions as to whether God did or did not exist. Chekhov, a rational man, dwelt in the great grayarea between the extremes. As a humanist, he saw value in the ethical principals of Christianity buthe rejected any bigotry or narrowness of thought cloaked in religious trappings.Boris Zaitsev, a Russian emigre, believed that Chekhov was actually a believing, orthodox Christian,whether he knew it or not. This attitude was held by many emigres and was the core of Zaitsev'sbook, Chekhov.9 Chekhov's attitude toward religion can be seen when he wrote to his sister while he was in Francefor his health. It was the first time he was away from Russia at Eastertime. He was terribly lonely andexperiencing a real sense of cultural alienation. He didn't hate the West, he just loved Russia andmissed being home for the holidays. It was not because he believed or did not believe in theresurrection of Christ that he wrote to his sister, 'Christ has truly risen.' No, it was a traditionalgreeting and a lonely echo of times of family happiness on the most important holiday of thecalendar. It was part of him and his culture, but it was not intellectually part of his ideology.He condemned the religious hypocrites and pharisees but also accepted the positive aspects of religion such as the family bond it created at Easter. Whether God existed or not, Chekhov, thehumanist, saw value in what the bonds of religion could bring out in the family. He also realized themotive force religion could provide for positive action, and the basis it provided for an ethical systemfor mankind.Chekhov resisted political labels just as forcefully as he resisted religious ones. He particularly hatedpolitical labels and the mindless criticism hurled back and forth between political camps. Chekhovwas frequently angered by the liberal press that claimed he lacked principle because he would notwrite obviously political tracts in favor of the Zemstvo, the new courts, freedom of the press, andfreedom in general. He felt that a paper like Russian Thought, which criticized him for his lack of 
political activities, had not left any real mark on society either and should not criticize him until itdid.10 Chekhov was afraid of political labels. He refused the labels of liberal, conservative, gradualist orindifferentist. He was none of those. Chekhov maintained that all he wanted to be was a "free artistand nothing else . . ."11 While refusing political labels, he believed that he had not hidden his respect for the Zemstvosystem nor for such reforms as trial by jury.12He had also presented some important political pointspublicly. Chekhov was quoted as having said that a constitution would soon be proposed inRussia.13In a conversation with the scholar Kovalevsky, he said that he anticipated the equality of the peasantry and the eventual disappearance of the landed gentry from the Russian countryside.14 It is also significant that Chekhov had given up Tolstoi's teaching of nonresistance toevil.15Chekhov, who believed in personal action, could now accept doing something about evil aspart of his ideology. He accepted these ideas but refused any liberal or conservative label.The notions of liberalism or conservatism were never at the heart of Chekhov's works. He believedthat it was his purpose as a writer to balance truth against lies. This was what was at the heart of hiswork, not political labels.16At the same time, Chekhov believed that he had clearly stated his viewsand did not want to be thought of as a spineless coward afraid of being thought liberal orconservative. Those labels just did not apply. He associated with liberals, conservatives and radicals.He maintained that he had "never been secretive" about his views.17 One can we Chekhov, like Luther, saying 'Here I stand'. Chekhov's problem was that he stoodsquarely in the middle.Even though he rejected labels, he felt that he had a clear cut "ideology." Chekhov rejected the viewthat his stories lacked ideology. He felt that his stories showed sympathies and antipathies but theheart of the matter was not political. His ideology had truth at the center. He believed his workprotested ". . . against lying from start to finish. . . ." "Isn't that an Ideology?"18 Central to Chekhov's philosophy was his stress on truth. He also refused to accept the notion thatpolitical ends justify the means. He found that "repulsive means for good ends make the endsthemselves repulsive." Chekhov's commitment to truth led him to promise that if he were apolitician he would never disgrace his "present for the sake of his future" even if he were promised"tons of bliss for a pennyweight of base lies."19 He saw the same problem with stereotypes as with political labels. Chekhov believed that hypocrisy,stupidity and tyranny were present throughout the society not just in merchants' homes and policestations. Chekhov saw these qualities ". . . in science, in literature, among the younger generation."As a result, he did not favor any particular group because he looked ". . . upon tags and labels asprejudices."20 Chekhov's philosophy was committed to the primacy of humanity and its right to ". . . health,intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable . . ." Chekhovbelieved man had the right to ". . . freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the lattertwo take."21 

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