The Irony of Chekhov

I am planning a series of podcasts starting in about a month’s time on the gifts of Russian culture and the realities of Russian history. This podcast series is my own personal protest against the intense wave of Russophobia, and worse outright atavistic prejudice, that has crashed onto the beaches of our society over the last few months.

In preparing for this podcast, I began reading Solomon Volkov, The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn (2008). The first chapter really deals with the writers of the early part of the 20th century – the grand prophet, Tolstoy, the Nobel Prize winner, Ivan Bunin, the Moscow Art Theatre and its gretest playwright Anton Chekhov. Some criticised him for this iciness. A liberal Nikolai Mikhailovsky, who was literary critic, sociologist, and writer on public affairs, damned Chekhov for his lack of passionate involvement with causes and the people: “Mister Chekhov writes away in cold blood and the reader reads along in cold blood.” But, perhaps aware of these high-minded phrases, Chekhov insisted on his own philosophy: one should only sit down to write when one felt as cold as ice.

Chekhov was a great innovator in drama and his short stories. He wrote with spare and direct observation, and took both short stories and plays away from literary conventions that suported set-pieces, over-acting, and dramatic soliloquys. He had a reputation for being ice-cold in his approach to both writing and the social world he observed with a doctor’s ironic detachment. He turned away from Tolstoy and a certain Russian tradition of the prophetic yurodivy (holy fool).

To be frank, Chekhov’s irony is closer to my temperament than to Tolstoy’s moral lectures. I have often felt the same kind of chill when I read writers parading as public intellectuals, and making pronouncements on public affairs they are so remote from determining. Chekhov’s ironic detachment and his knowledge that public affairs require practical judgement, more often than grand visions, were expressed in a letter to a friend in 1894 that complained of Tolstoy’s moral sermons.

“Tolstoy’s philosophy affected me strongly and influenced me for six or seven years… Now something within me protests; thrift and fairness tell me that there is more love of mankind in electricity and steam than in chastity and vegetarianism.”

Chekhov, Sobranie sochinenii (Collected Works) vol 12 pp. 49-50, quoted Volkov Magical Chorus, p. 10

Something tells me Chekhov and the innovations in drama he bequeathed to us may appear in my podcast series on the gifts of Russian culture.

Image Source: Anton Chekhov in middle-age, from the

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Start a Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: