Reflections on a Russia in transition

The Cherry Orchard: A Comedy In Four Acts - Anton Chekhov

What really sucks is when you have just finished reading a play and a tram trundles by the pub that you are in with an advertisement for that particular play, which finished the day before. Okay, maybe I should have my ear to the ground of the Melbourne theatre scene a little bit more, but still, that is just bad luck in the extreme. At least the fringe festival has some Chekhov plays showing near where I live, though they are the one act plays as opposed to the longer plays that make up the book I am currently reading at the moment.

To understand Chekhov we really have to understand the Russia that he was writing in at the time. Russia has basically been on the outer fringes of the European world for, well, forever. While it was not necessarily the last country in Europe to industrialise (considering many of the Southern European nations quickly fell behind the countries such as France, England, and Germany et al), it was still a very backward nation. However, like what we are seeing now with places like China, who are rapidly modernising, Russia went through a massive growth spurt in the late 19th century as well. In fact, most of Russia's famous literary artists came about during this period as well.

The Cherry Orchard is a play about change, and this was what was happening in Russia at the time the play was written. Basically it is about a woman who returns to Russia from France because she has become bankrupt. She lives in a palatial mansion with a cherry orchard nearby, however the mansion and the orchard simply do not produce enough money to be able to pay off the interest that has accrued on the debt, let alone the debt itself. The woman (and I am not even going to try to remember the long and convaluted Russian names) is representative of the old elite of Russia, while the person that ends up buying the orchard represents the new rising class of businessmen.

What is happening now in Russia (and by now I mean the time that the play was written) was what effectively happened in France in the era leading up to the French Revolution. In France the noble class had become lazy and indolent, and layered down by debt, while the rising capitalist class was being drained of all of their money to pay this debt. A similar thing was happening in Russia at this time, however this play does not necessarily deal with this struggle. Instead what we are seeing is that the centre of power is shifting from the landed nobility to the industrial classes. The Cherry Orchard represents old Russia, and the desire to cut it down represents the initiatives of the industrial class moving in and bringing in change.

The play is effectively about resistance to change, and how that resistance is, well, to coin a phrase, futile. The woman clutches to the cherry orchard in the same way that the nobility clutches to the old ways but change is inevitable, as is reflected that the cherry orchard is bought and finally cut down. There is no way that the woman can preserve the orchard in the same way that Russia simply cannot remain in the medieval world as the modern world quickly encroaches upon her and brings about the change that has swept the rest of Europe.