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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

Chapter 2 - Chekhov in context


Two crucial historical events frame Chekhov's life, and between them they reveal much about the Russia in which he lived, practiced medicine, formed his opinions, and wrote his works. These were the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, a year after Chekhov's birth, and the Russian Revolution of 1905, a year after his death. Together they defined a Russia still heavily invested in a medieval past while on the precipice of revolutionary change; a Russia rooted in peasant agriculture but undergoing rapid urbanization and industrialization; a Russia ruled by an autocratic tsar but already devising the structures of Soviet communism. Just as Chekhov traced his own ancestry to servitude and shopkeeping, while coming to rub shoulders with industrialists and revolutionaries, so his Russia grew from a vast but remote feudal empire to a political powder keg that would rock the history of the twentieth century.

The Emancipation of the Serfs was the most important of the reforms undertaken by Tsar Alexander II. Millions of peasants, who had formerly been bound to the lands on which they were born and which they cultivated for the benefit of wealthy landowners, were granted the rights of citizens and allowed to buy the land they worked. While this action had many complex long-term effects and did not, at one stroke of the pen, transform the lives of Russia's peasantry, it set in motion fundamental changes to Russia's feudal economy and gave the possibility of geographical and class mobility to a huge segment of the population.

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