Puškin’s History Sideways: Čexov and Saxalin

Čexov constitutes a curious exception to the “obsession with history” (to quote Andrew Wachtel) shared by the great Russian prose writers. Čexov’s dramatization of the human struggle against the passage of time as something intensely private can be contrasted to his predecessors’ exploration of history as part of the fervent and very public quest for a Russian national identity. That quest began (after Karamzin) with Puškin, and in the year 1999 the poet must be given his due. If the theme of history is strikingly absent from Čexov’s writing, Puškin returns repeatedly to historical themes, exploring them in a wide variety of genres and from many different, “complementary” angles (to quote Svetlana Evdokimova). And yet, as the many excellent essays in the 1998 issue of Čexoviana (Čexov i Puškin) prove, Čexov is one of Puškin’s most faithful followers.

A strongly temporal concern marks the works of both writers; Puškin seeks answers in the past, in origins—particularly those of the Russian hereditary gentry. Čexov, the grandson of serfs, looks only ahead, at potentialities, asking questions as to how things will be in the future (in two or three hundred years). Čexov believes that “only science and its future remain certain.” The proposed paper will attempt to argue that Čexov’s deeply-felt need to contribute to Russian science represents a positivist’s response to Puškin’s challenge to explain the enigma of Russian identity through an exploration of the country’s history. In this sense Puškin the Romantic and Čexov the scientist are men of their own times. The paper will recommend Donald Rayfield’s comment on the “sense of time translated into space” in Čexov’s story “Lights” as a potentially powerful paradigm for contrasting the two writers.

Their contrasting non-fictional projects—Puškin’s Histories of Peter and of Pugačev and Čexov’s statistical study of the convict population on Saxalin Island—reflect a sense of civic responsibility in both writers. What unites them on a deep level is a deeply-felt conviction as to the value of pure art. Tolstoj’s statement that Čexov is “Puškin in prose” draws our attention to the lyric principle that resides at the heart of Čexov’s best stories and traces its origins to Puškin’s lyrics and elegies. It is for this lyric core of their artistic works that offers refuge from public civic concerns that both writers are best remembered and loved. Thus it is that when Puškin and Čexov transcend the concerns of their “time” that they show themselves to be the greatest artists.

A study this ambitious will necessarily take the form of an essay that “only poses questions.” The discussion will be anchored, however, in a brief analysis of the 1887 Čexov story “Veročka,” which addresses the problem of a statistician’s confrontation with the lyric moment.