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Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

Anton Chekhov When one hears the name of the celebrated Russian writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov, the quotations from his immortal stories and plays occur to them. His three most outstanding plays, the Seagull, Three Sisters and the Cherry Orchard are staged in every theater of Russia, studied at school and read by intelligent public. His fame of a brilliant story writer is never-fading, and his plays are shown all over the world. Chekhov influenced a lot of 20th century masters of intellectual prose both in Russia and abroad, and his talent is greatly revered and worshipped by the audience.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born the son of a grocer and grandson of a serf in Taganrog in 1860. After his father fled Taganrog in 1875 because of bankruptcy, Chekhov's family was kicked out of their house by a former lodger. In 1879 Chekhov rejoined his family, now in Moscow with his father, and enrolled in the University to study medicine. He began practicing medicine in 1884 - the start of a sporadic second career which was to bring him much hard work but little income. Chekhov's first career was that of a writer of humorous material and he began contributing to minor magazines under the pen name of Antosha Chekhonte in 1880. By 1882, he was a regular contributor to the other St. Petersburg humorous journal Oskolki with his short stories and sketches, and a column on Moscow life.

Chekhov's literary reputation grew when he published his first story collection Motley Stories (1886). His next collection In the twilight won him the Pushkin Prize in 1888. Real recognition came with the story Steppe published in a solid magazine "the Northern Messenger". So by 1887, Chekhov was a literary success in St. Petersburg. His first play, Ivanov, was commissioned from a producer who wanted a light entertainment in the Chekhonte style. Produced in Moscow, it was received with a mixture of clapping and hissing. In 1888, Chekhov began publishing his stories in the "thick journals" and survived his career in comic journalism to emerge as a serious and respectable writer. At the same time, he began writing four one-act farces for the theatre.

Checkhov's second play, the Wood Demon (later used as raw material for Uncle Vanya) opened in 1889, but survived for only three performances.

In 1888-1890 Chekhov lived through a moral crisis that had a strong influence on his whole life and work. Though he was under the spell of Leo Tolstoy's ethical views for some time, he joined neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives. He was convinced that for the curing of social plagues personal effort is needed rather than organized activity. This idea brought him to make an appalling 14 thousand km journey across Siberia to visit and report on the penal hard labor colony on the island of Sakhalin where he interviewed the entire population of prisoners and exiles at the rate of 160 a day. These impressions immensely influenced his personality and political views, as well as the themes of his later works.

Upon return, Chekhov settled down with his family in a manor near Moscow. As a doctor, he tried desperately to prevent recurrence of the 1891 famine among the peasants in the back country of Nizhny Novgorod and Voronyesh provinces. He became an energetic and enlightened landowner, cultivating the soil and doctoring the peasants and spent three months organizing the district against an expected cholera epidemic.

Soon the writer was forced to recognize that he was suffering from advanced consumption, having suffered a violent lung hemorrhage. Also plagued by piles, gastritis, migraine, dizzy spells, and palpitations of the heart, he decided to winter in Nice. In 1897, Chekhov moved to the Crimean warmth of Yalta.

After the 1890 experience connected with studying of the Sakhalin exiled convicts' way of life, Chekhov's views on the relationship between art and life considerably changed. His latest stories appeared a versatile analysis of the Russian society with an obviously strong social line.

Though Chekhov claimed that to write plays is not his vocation, he possessed a unique dramatic instinct. Even the plots and the dialogues of his early stories were more that of a drama ones. When Chekhov started to write his Seagull in 1885, he was full of innovative ideas concerning the goals of the literature. But the first night of the play in St. Petersburg in 1886 was a failure - neither the director not the actors understood its innovative character. Chekhov vowed never to put on another play, even if he "lived another seven hundred years." Two years later when Stanislavsky staged this play in the Moscow Art Theater it was an immediate success. Like most of Chekhov's plays, it is full of "dear country boredom… nobody is doing anything, everybody is philosophizing…"

In 1901 another great Chekhov's play, Three Sisters, appeared. Here delicate interweaving of symbolism and reality creates an atmosphere of rare psychological tension. Olga, Maria and Irina with their brother Andrey move from Moscow to the country to support their widowed father. Though at first the sisters overtaken by the horrible reality want to return to Moscow, at the end of the play Olga expresses their mutual decision to stay where they are and work hard: "Oh, dear sisters, our life is not over yet. Let's live!"

The central collision of the Cherry Orchard play (1904) is created through stubborn refusal of the impoverished, impractical but in their own way fascinating landowners, madam Ranevskaya and her brother Gaev, to accept the plan of the merchant Lopakhin. He offers to save their two times mortgaged manor by selling their beloved cherry orchard to be cut down for new summer cottages. Anya, Ranevskaya's daughter, and her admirer Trophimov, "an eternal student", personify the young generation. When Lopakhin buys the manor at the auction and the cherry orchard is doomed, they are glad because it opens an exciting opportunity of a new life to them. Chekhov considered the Cherry Orchard to be a comedy. He insisted on its characters being ridiculous in thinking themselves idealists, fighters for freedom, beauty lovers and the unmerciful destiny victims. But Stanislavsky staged the play as a tragedy.

Chekhov died in 1904 after two heart attacks, in a hotel bedroom in the German spa of Badenweiler. His remains were transferred to Russia and buried in the New Maidens Monastery Cemetery in Moscow.

Here you can find a great number of Chekhov's short stories.