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Chekhov for the 21st Century. Carol Apollonio and Angela Brintlinger, eds. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2012, 335–47.       “A Cigar in the Fresh Air”: Chekhov’s Yasha Lives! Angela Brintlinger Readers  of  Anton  Chekhov’s  plays  and  stories  generally  close  their  books  or   leave  the  theater  without  a  clear  sense  of  what  the  author  wants  them  to  think   or  how  the  author  intends  for  them  to  act.  Vladimir  Kataev  has  written  that   Chekhov  is  an  epistemological  rather  than  an  ontological  artist.1  This  may  be   part  of  the  problem.   Readers—especially  readers  of  Russian  literature—know  what  to  do  with   ontological   fiction.   They   find   it   much   more   accessible.   As   Kataev   explains,   this  kind  of  fiction  offers  assertions  rather  than  questions.  This  is  who  we  are;   this  is  what  we  think  of  life.  But  with  Chekhov’s  works,  we  don’t  know  the   answers.   Instead   we   find   ourselves   asking   more   questions:   “How   can   we   know   anything?”   “To   what   extent   is   our   knowledge,   our   understanding   about  the  world,  about  man,  and  about  God  true?”  We  seek  answers  to  these   questions  and  more,  but  Chekhov  does  not  help  us  in  our  search.   In  Chekhov’s  time,  critics  complained  about  this.  Lev  Shestov,  for  exam-­‐‑ ple,  asserted  that  Chekhov  killed  people’s  hopes  and  caused  despair.  Others   considered  Chekhov  to  be  dangerous:  it  was  necessary  to  “protect”  readers   and  theatergoers,  especially  the  young,  from  “infatuation  with  [the  so-­‐‑called]   ‘decadent’  spirit”  of  his  plays.2  Some  years  after  Chekhov’s  death,  Vladislav   Khodasevich  blamed  him  for  not  doing  anything,  not  acting,  but  merely  “ob-­‐‑ serving  the  decline”  of  Russian  society.3     Perhaps  Chekhov  seemed  so  dangerous  precisely  because  he  refused  to   answer   ontological   questions.   Since   he   did   not   dictate   how   one   should   act,   what   measures   one   should   take,   Chekhov   was   transformed   by   his   contem-­‐‑ poraries  into  a  carrier  and  disseminator  of  the  “decadent  spirit.”  That  deca-­‐‑ dent  spirit  was  perceived  to  be  poisoning  the  youth  of  Chekhov’s  time.  But   today’s  youth  are  equally  susceptible.                                                                                                                             1  V.   B.   Kataev,   “Vmesto   zakliucheniia.   Spor   o   Chekhove:   Konets   ili   nachalo?”   in   Chekhov  i  drugie:  Predshestvenniki,  sovremenniki,  priemniki  (Moscow:  Iazyki  slavianskoi   kul’tury,  2004),  368–69.   2  “Оградить”   от   “увлечения   [так   называемым]   ‘упадочным’   духом”;   E.   A.   Polot-­‐‑ skaia,  “Vishnevyi  sad”:  Zhizn’  vo  vremeni  (Moscow:  Nauka,  2003),  39.   3  “созерцал   распад”;   V.   F.   Khodasevich,   “O   Chekhove,”   Koleblemyi   trenozhnik:   Iz-­‐‑ brannoe  (Moscow:  Sovetskii  pisatel’,  1991),  250.   336 ANGELA BRINTLINGER This   essay   looks   primarily   at   the   recent   work   of   Galina   Shcherbakova   (1931–2010).   Quite   literally   taking   a   page   from   Chekhov’s   book,   Shcherba-­‐‑ kova  published  a  collection  of  stories  in  2008  with  the  title  Yashka’s  Children.   In   these   stories   the   author,   herself   a   child   of   the   Soviet   twentieth   century,   shows  that  for  Russian  society  the  beginning  of  the  twenty-­‐‑first  century  also   presents  plenty  of  problems  worthy  of  lament.   In   contrast   to   Chekhov,   however,   Shcherbakova   advances   a   concrete   thesis,  one  that  we  might  perhaps  call  ontological,  and  offers  her  own  answer   to   certain   “eternal   questions.”   For   her   stories,   Shcherbakova   takes   specific   Chekhovian  titles  (“Vanka,”  “The  Lady  with  the  Dog,”  “The  Darling,”  “The   Death  of  an  Official,”  “Sergeant  Prishibeev,”  “The  Man  in  the  Case,”  and  so   on)  or  gives  new  variants,  such  as  her  three  different  “Steppes”  (“The  Ukrain-­‐‑ ian   Steppe,”   “The   Russian   Steppe,”   and   “The   Israeli   Steppe”),   and   she   re-­‐‑ writes  Chekhov’s  stories  in  a  contemporary  vein,4  demonstrating  in  each  that   Soviet  and  post-­‐‑Soviet  people  have  emerged  from  Chekhov’s  The  Cherry  Or-­‐‑ chard.5  Shcherbakova  asserts  “this  is  who  we  are”—but  the  portrait  is  far  from   flattering.   In   Shcherbakova’s   view,   today’s   Russians   have   nothing   to   recommend   themselves.  Instead  they  have  begun  to  resemble  Chekhov’s  Yasha  from  The   Cherry   Orchard,   whom   she   describes   as   a   peasant-­‐‑born   lackey:   unpleasant,   rude,  uneducated,  and  self-­‐‑willed.6  If  the  old  Firs  from  the  same  play  is  a  rep-­‐‑ resentative   of   times   past—an   honest,   loyal   servant,   a   former   serf   who   has   spent   his   life   serving   and   watching   over   his   Russian   noble   family—and   is   fated   to   be   buried   in   the   estate   house   along   with   the   old   grandfather   clock   and  past  times,  then  Yasha  represents  a  new  generation:  insolent,  impudent,   greedy,  grasping,  a  “new  man”  whose  goal  is  to  climb  into  a  higher  class  but   who  has  no  respect  for  the  rules  of  polite  behavior.                                                                                                                               4  Radislav  Lapushin,  in  his  review  of  the  American  book  Celebrity  Chekhov,  “adapted   and  celebritized  by  Ben  Greenman”  (New  York:  Harper  Perennial,  2010),  writes  that   what   truly   surprised   him   about   this   book   was   how   little   was   required   to   adapt...


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