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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Anne Lounsbery

"To Moscow, I Beg You!":
Chekhov's Vision of the Russian Provinces

In Three Sisters, Chekhov's characters invoke "Moscow" over and over (and over) again. Lovingly, obsessively, urgently, dreamily they repeat the name of the Russian capital, which ends up sounding like a talisman intended, it seems, to stave off the truth about their provincial lives. Very often the city's name is in the accusative case, suggesting movement toward something, movement that in this play is never initiated. Olga cries, "Yes! Quickly to Moscow!" and Irina concurs, "Go away to Moscow. Sell the house, finish with everything here and-to Moscow …" [1] The last lines of Act II (spoken by Irina) are "To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!" [2] The last lines of Act III (also spoken by Irina) are, "Only to go to Moscow! I beg you, let us go! There's nothing on earth better than Moscow! Let us go, Olia! Let us go!" [3] And as these characters long for the capital they bemoan the meagerness of their provincial life, a life that they see as being "without poetry, without meaning." [4]

But what do the words Moscow and provincial actually mean in this context? Do these terms have anything to do with real places, or not? Of course we know that Moscow is "symbolic" in Three Sisters that it stands in some way for a rich, meaningful, dreamt-of life that is beyond the characters' reach. I am interested, however, in how the play's symbolism relates to larger patterns that structure how relationships between province and capital, periphery and center, are represented in Russian culture, specifically in nineteenth-century literature. Thus this paper concerns the idea of the provinces and provincialism and how this idea is developed and played out in literary texts. Eventually the argument I articulate here will form part of a larger study examining Russian literature's symbolic construction of the provinces and provincialism. My focus is less on the realities of provincial life than on the symbolic weight that the provinces were made to bear in Russian literature and culture from approximately 1840 to 1900.

Russian letters' awareness (or invention) of a "provincial problem" dates back to the eighteenth century (in, for example, the writings of Andrei Bolotov [5] ), but it was the work of Nikolai Gogol that transformed the provincial backwater into one of Russian literature's governing tropes. As a result, an overview of what the provinces mean in Gogol's oeuvre can help illuminate the symbolic constructs that Chekhov was to inherit. In Dead Souls Gogol gives us the Town of N as a "place without qualities," a town that is above all exactly the same as all other provincial towns. [6] Dead Souls repeatedly suggests that any provincial city can stand in for any other; in fact, almost no trait is attributed to N that is not also attributed to "all provincial cities." [7] Such uniformity suggests that any provincial place, even an unfamiliar one, is in effect always already known, since the provincial admits of no real variation, no individuality, no change. And indeed, as the trope of the miserable provincial town evolved over the course of the nineteenth century, this emphasis on the monotonous interchangeability of provincial places remained a constant. [8]

Gogol's Town of N is defined by what it lacks, and in this it reflects a view of the Russian provinces that predates Dead Souls. Russian scholars have argued that the tendency to define provincial places in terms of what they are not originated in the eighteenth century, which is when the noun provintsiia lost its concrete administrative meaning and came to refer simply to the not-capital, to things outside of Petersburg and Moscow. Eventually the designation guberniia (the term adopted under Catherine) began to carry the same connotations, with the result that the adjectives provintsial'nyi and gubernskii finally came to serve less as geographic designations than as qualitative judgments. [9] Similarly, while highly particularized descriptions of both capitals are common in Russian literature, "the provinces"-and particularly the provincial city-have often been represented simply as places that lack what the capitals have. All this reflects what I see as a tendency to collapse the peculiarities of European Russia's huge array of local subcultures into the label "the provinces." [10]

It should be noted, however, that "the provinces" are not everything outside of Petersburg and Moscow, because this term does not refer to rural life per se. Rural life is the village (derevnia, derevenskii), whereas "provincial" typically describes not peasant villages, but rather cities, towns and (sometimes) estates. Thus peasants are not provincials, and peasant culture is not provincial culture. Indeed, peasants are associated with a folk "authenticity," and as I argue elsewhere, it is precisely authenticity to which the provincial sphere has no legitimate claim. [11] Landowners' country estates, regardless of their location, occupy a liminal position: they can be deeply provincial (like those in Dead Souls) or not provincial at all (like the Sheremetevs' huge lavish estate, complete with its own opera company). [12] According to one nineteenth-century ideal, the nobleman's estate partook of the authenticity of village life even while providing the gentry with a space for cultural freedom and creativity, sheltered from officialdom and state interference. [13] Not everyone, however, subscribed to this ideal, which was in any case far from universally attainable. Indeed, nineteenth-century literature represents many estates as markedly provincial places that occupy the same symbolic space as the adjacent provincial towns. In Dead Souls, for example, gentry estate and provincial town are equally "provincial," and are symbolically opposed not to each other but to the capital.[14]

Gogol's provincials dream of the capital because the capital has power to confer significance. In The Inspector General, petty malefactors in an anonymous provincial city may fear the accusatory and unmasking gaze of Petersburg, but they long for it as well-because, it seems, their manifestly insignificant lives promise to take on meaning when subjected to the capital's ordering Logos. One character sums up the provincial view of the capital's signifying power when he begs Khlestakov to inform Petersburg that he exists: "in Petersburg tell all the various bigwigs … that in such-and-such a town there lives Peter Ivanovich Bobchinksy" (note that the provincial place-"such-and-such a town"-goes unnamed even by its own inhabitants). [15] In The Inspector General the capital looks (occasionally, and unpredictably) at the provinces in order to inspect, indict and control; the provinces look back in order to imitate, and to formulate alibis as needed.

In The Inspector General as in Dead Souls, what goes on in the provinces has the potential to evade both the penetrating eye and the ordering force of the capital, for a time at least. As a result, things in the provinces tend to teeter on the edge of chaos: witness, for example, the social disorder and collective delusion that grip the Town of N at end of the Dead Souls, the hysteria among provincial officials attempting to out-bribe each other in The Inspector General, and indeed the memorably random quality of much that characters do and say in both these works. Of course, in Gogol's fictional world, randomness and unintelligibility are in no way confined to the provinces (there is plenty of both in "Nose" and "The Overcoat"), but the provinces seem to provide them with an especially congenial environment. Or perhaps more accurately, in the provinces such randomness and unintelligibility can be readily labeled "provincial," despite the fact that the same conditions may very well hold sway in the far-off capitals as well.

After Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Khvoshchinskaia, Leskov, Turgenev and Dostoevsky (and later, Sologub and Dobychin) all imagine nameless towns that are said to resemble myriad other such towns, each embodying the often horrific pettiness of provincial life. [16] In representing the provinces as a kind of permanent void, they again follow Gogol, whose working notes to Dead Souls conjure up the Town of N as a place embodying what he terms "the highest degree of Emptiness." [17] Here, I think, Mikhail Epstein's characterization of what it means to be provincial is useful. Epstein argues that "a province is located, as it were, not in itself; it is alien not in regards to someone or something else, but to itself, inasmuch as its own center has been taken out of itself and transferred to some other space or time." As a result, Epstein writes, "alienation from itself" is a "structural characteristic of the provinces." This is why provincials are forever yearning for something that is somewhere else, "not here, not at this place, but [over] 'there'" [18]: indeed, this is the yearning that we hear in Irina's desperate exhortation, "Only to go to Moscow!"

By the later nineteenth century, this trope of the wretched and anonymous provincial place had already been well developed by the writers I have mentioned (among others), and Chekhov was to become one of their main inheritors. Here I want to address how Chekhov's artistic world represents the opposition between capital and province. To that end, I will focus mainly on four texts-the play Three Sisters and the stories "On Official Business," "My Life (A Provincial Story)," and "Ward No. Six"-with some attention to Chekhov's other works as well (especially the other plays). While no short list of texts can perfectly represent the province/capital relationship that obtains throughout Chekhov's oeuvre, in these particular works the idea of provincialism plays a crucial role; as a result, taken together these texts cast light on what province and capital mean in Chekhov's work generally. My larger project, as I note above, investigates the trope of the provinces in Russian literature-how this trope developed, and indeed how it insinuated itself even into the work of writers who, like Chekhov himself, did not necessarily subscribe to its often rather reductive and distorted view of provincial life. Thus my reading of Chekhov aims to illuminate both the role played by the trope of the provinces in Chekhov's writing and the role played by Chekhov's writing in the trope of the provinces.

Indeed, Chekhov was among the writers most engaged with the realities of provincial life. Unlike Gogol - who, as S. A. Vengerov charged in 1911, "knew nothing of real Russian [provincial] life" [19] - Chekhov was not only born in the provinces but maintained close ties there, traveling throughout Russia and involving himself in various provincial institutions. Furthermore, he wrote famously sensitive descriptions of the Ukrainian and Siberian landscapes, and in the course of his overland voyage to Sakhalin Island he noted the very real differences among various Russian towns along the way. Thus there is much in Chekhov's writing to believ the claim that specificities of place meant nothing to him, or that he subscribed to a view that collapsed all regional differences into the category of "the provincial."

And yet, Chekhov was also capable of making statements like the following, which is drawn from a letter he wrote in 1890: "In Russia all towns are the same. Ekaterinburg is exactly like Perm or Tula, or like Sumy and Gadyach." [20] While this declaration is clearly not meant to be taken literally, it nonetheless suggests that when he wants to, Chekhov has no problem assimilating specific provincial cities to the idea of "the Russian town," a place virtually indistinguishable from all other Russian towns. Indeed, as my readings below indicate, in the imagined geography of Chekhov's fiction (not his non-fiction), most often (though not always), the provinces are a place where "Ekaterinburg is exactly like Perm or Tula, or like Sumy and Gadyach." [21]

Thus we might begin an analysis of Three Sisters with a very basic question-where exactly does the action take place? Chekhov's stage directions state only that that the play is set "in a provincial town" (v gubernskom gorode); in one of his letters Chekhov elaborates on this very slightly by describing the setting as "a provincial town, like Perm'." [22] But as the sisters' endless invocations of the capital city suggest, the setting might best be described simply as not-Moscow. Beyond that, it is hard to say-and it is probably not very important to say, either. Nothing suggests that in the world of this play the differences between one a provincial town and another a provincial town are particularly significant. "In Russia"-or at least in Three Sisters-"all towns are the same": Chekhov has taken as his setting a version of the anonymous, could-be-anywhere a provincial city, a setting made available to him by a whole series of literary predecessors.

In the characters' descriptions of their city we hear the same emphasis on stasis, sameness, repetition and indistinguishability that we hear in Gogol's description of N. In Three Sisters Andrei evokes his provincial town with a long series of negative constructions: "Our town has been in existence for two hundred years, there are 100,000 inhabitants in it, and there is not a single one who does not resemble all the others, not one hero [podvizhnik] either in the past or in the present, not one scholar, not one artist, not one person in the least bit remarkable." There is nothing to indicate that this town is distinguishable from any other, and nothing to indicate that this will ever change: all the town's inhabitants inevitably become "the same pathetic, identical corpses as their fathers and mothers".[23]

Unlike the town's other denizens, the Prozorov sisters have been elaborately educated. But Masha declares that in a place so "backward and vulgar," "knowing three languages is a useless luxury. Not even a luxury, but some sort of useless appendage, like a sixth finger."[24] This grotesque image of a useless physical appendage with no reason to exist suggests the purposelessness of life in this town, a town that is itself superfluous since it is merely one in a series of indistinguishable N's. Thus life here seems to have no discernible meaning; it is, one might say, illegible. One character tells us, for example, that "the railway station is twenty versts away [from the town], and no one knows why." Another character offers the following absurd reason for this geographical peculiarity: "because if the station were near, then it wouldn't be far, and if it's far, then that means it's not near."[25]

The only thing explained by this brazenly absurd non-explanation is the following: not only is the provincial town of Three Sisters not Moscow, and not only is it not connected to Moscow or to any place else, but also there is no reason for any of this. Similar moments of unintelligibility recur in the play. One character's incoherent French phrases, another's non sequitur literary citations, their desultory efforts at fortune-telling in an effort to predict whether they will ever get to go to the capital-all leave us with the impression that it is going to be very hard to extract any meaning from life in this place. This impression is reinforced by the frequently random quality of exchanges between characters: as Andrei dreams aloud of sitting in a Moscow restaurant, the addled old servant Ferapont replies, "And a workman was telling how in Moscow some sort of merchants were eating bliny, and the one that ate forty bliny, looked like he died. Forty or fifty, I can't remember." [26] A moment later Ferapont continues, just as inexplicably, "and you know, that same workman, he was saying how they got a rope stretched all the way across Moscow … " [27]

Clearly, when Irina complains that her work in the telegraph office is "without poetry, without meaning," this is an indictment of their lives overall: things here are "without meaning." [28] In another scene she cries in despair, "My God! I've forgotten everything, everything … everything is all muddled up in my head. I can't remember how to say window or ceiling in Italian … I'm forgetting everything, every day I'm forgetting … and we will never go to Moscow." [29] Here we see that in Three Sisters as in The Inspector General, what the capital has the power to confer is coherence, meaningfulness. Being in Moscow, going to Moscow, or at the very least believing that one might one day go to Moscow are the only things that can stave off the pointlessness of this life, a life that is threatening to slip into pure randomness, pure sluchainost'.

Are we then to imagine that these characters' lives would become rich and significant, would take on luminous meaning, if they were actually to find themselves in Moscow? Of course not, because "Moscow" as the sisters imagine it does not exist. But this does not change the meaning of the provinces in Three Sisters: as in Dead Souls and The Inspector General, even if the far-off, longed-for capital cannot possibly be what provincials believe it to be, it is nonetheless the ever-elusive signifying ideal that serves to reveal-or perhaps to enforce-the insignificance of provincial lives. Similarly, in Uncle Vanya, we listen to Serebriakov's litany of complaints about the "sepulcher" of provincial life ("trivial conversations … like being in exile … as though I've fallen off the earth and landed on some alien planet" [30] ) in full awareness of the fact that he made nothing of his years in the capital; again, the capital itself offers no solution. And yet it was the idea of Serebriakov's being in Moscow that had once given meaning to those laboring and sacrificing for him back on the provincial estate: "I worshiped that professor … I worked like a dog for him! … I was proud of him, proud of his learning, it was like the breath of life to me," says the disillusioned Voinitsky. [31] "The capital" as an idea represents a promise, even if a vague and distant one, of the kind of significance and purpose otherwise absent from desultory provincial lives.

A similar point is made very explicitly in Chekhov's 1899 story "On Official Business." In this narrative Lyzhin, a young government official originally from Moscow but assigned to work in the provinces, arrives in a village to investigate the unexpected and unexplained suicide of another official. Forced to spend much of the night alone in a hut with the suicide's corpse, a blizzard raging outside, the young man reflects on how "our homeland, the real Russia, is Moscow and Petersburg, while here is just the provinces, the colonies." [32] "How remote," he thinks, "was all this was from the life he had wanted for himself, how alien was all this to him, how trivial, uninteresting."[33]

Most importantly, this character believes that what makes everything around him so trivial is precisely its remoteness from the center, from Moscow. Lyzhin muses, "If this person had killed himself in Moscow or someplace near Moscow … then it would have been interesting, important …; but here, a thousand versts from Moscow, all this was somehow seen in a different light, all this was not life, not people … it would leave not the least trace in the memory and would be forgotten as soon as he, Lyzhin, left [the village]." [34]

What's wrong with the provinces, in Lyzhin's estimation here as in Irina's in Three Sisters, is that things here do not mean anything. Lyzhin keeps returning to the thought that "here there is no life, but rather bits of life, fragments; everything here is accidental [sluchaino], there can be no conclusion drawn from it." For him what is most painful about his situation is not the awful suicide, the intractable poverty, the dirty hut, the snowstorm, but rather the fact that this provincial place has no power to confer significance on any of it. He laments being stranded "in a backwater, in the provinces" precisely because it is "far from the cultural center … where nothing is accidental, where everything is in accordance with reason and law and where, for example, every suicide is comprehensible and one can explain why it is and what significance it has in the general scheme of things." [35] In this passage we see laid out very clearly the idea that only the center has the power to confer order on the phenomena of life, to render them legible. Everything that falls within range of the capitals' ordering Logos (including even an unexplained suicide) will be significant, while everything else will slip into chaos or insignificance.

When I say that this story tells us something about how the province/capital opposition works in Chekhov's world overall, I do not mean to say that Lyzhin is Chekhov's mouthpiece-far from it. Chekhov has Lyzhin himself realize (if briefly and confusedly, literally in a dream) how wrong he was to think that real life does not exist outside the capitals, how wrong he was to tell himself, "all this isn't life, it isn't people … to live, you have to be in Moscow." [36] In a half-awake state at the end of the story, Lyzhin embraces the thought that "some tie, unseen but meaningful and essential, exists … between all people." And again he connects this possibility of meaningfulness to the idea of place: "even in the most desolate desert, nothing is accidental, everything is full of one common idea."[37]

But the belief that Lyzhin seems here to renounce-i.e., the conviction that all significance and coherence are located in the center, and thus that a meaningful life can be found only in the capitals-this seemingly discredited idea is nonetheless what structures the symbolism of place in many of Chekhov's texts. Even when debunked, this organizing principle returns to haunt Chekhov's symbolic geography. For example, in the novella "My Life (A Provincial's Story)" (1896), the title itself - "A Provincial's Story" - invites us to connect the failure and incoherence of the narrator's life to the place where he lives. Here as in Three Sisters, the railroad station is several miles away from the town (this time as the result of the townspeople's ill-considered failure to pay the appropriate bribe), thereby underscoring the town's seemingly irremediable isolation. And the provincial town is described in exactly the same terms as is the town in Three Sisters-sameness, repetition, stupidity, incoherence. Needlessly grim material conditions like bad food and dirty water point to the inhabitants' moral failings: endemic corruption, "coldness and narrowness of opinions"-"how these people lived, it was shameful to say!" [38] The story concludes with this indictment: "Our town has existed for hundreds of years, and in all that time it has produced not one … useful person." Were this "useless" place to disappear suddenly from the face of the earth, the narrator declares, not one soul would lament its passing. [39] Here the narrator's insistence on his town's pointlessness suggests that it would be difficult for him to concur with the hopeful insight granted to Lyzhin at the end of the story "On Official Business," that is, the belief that "even in the most desolate desert, nothing is accidental, everything is full of one common idea."

Once again in "A Provincial's Story," the problem with the town lies not only its many predictable vices but also, and more importantly, in the unintelligibility of life here, its lack of discernible meaning. Over and over the narrator reflects on his town's incomprehensibility, declaring himself unable to understand what this place is and why it is that way: "I couldn't understand why and how these 65,000 people were living … What our town was and what is was doing, I did not know." [40] Over and over he asks questions like, "why is [life here] so boring, so undistinguished, why in not one of these houses … are there people from whom I might learn how to live in such a way as not to be culpable?" [41] There is, it seems, no answer: "I couldn't understand," he repeats, "how these 60,000 inhabitants were living." [42]

The only answer is to get out of town, which is what the narrator's intelligent and sensitive wife does when she finally abandons him. Her husband does not blame her for this, and the text as a whole does not seem to invite us to blame her, either. When it comes to extracting oneself from the provincial mire, perhaps it's sauve-qui-peut. As in Chekhov's story "The Fiancee," in which a young woman quite justifiably ruins her family's life and saves her own by fleeing yet another wretched Town of N, those who are worthy have the right to do whatever they need to do in order to escape. And it turns out that for the wife in "A Provincial's Story" as for the heroine of "The Fiancee" (both of whom end up happily educating themselves in Petersburg), leaving the provinces for the capital really does open the way to a better life. By contrast, in a story like "At Home" (1897), an equally spirited and intelligent young woman who is unable to flee will gradually learn to live within the disfiguring limitations of her provincial environment. This is not to say, of course, that making it to the capital is any guarantee of a meaningful life (witness the main character in "Lady with a Little Dog," who has constructed for himself a perfectly empty life in Moscow), but staying in the provinces is probably a guarantee of stagnation and pointlessness.

This raises an important question about Chekhov's famous story "Ward No. Six": is the hideous life described in this text-a life of confinement, cruelty, cultural deformation-specific to the provinces? Are things so bad here actually because they are in the provinces, in yet another "dirty, wretched little town" located (once again) "two hundred versts from a railway station"? [43] Or is this geographic peculiarity finally incidental to the misery the story depicts? The answer is important if we wish to understand something about how "the provinces" function in Chekhov - do the provinces stand for the provinces, or do they stand for something else? In Gogol, for example, I would argue that ultimately the provinces do not really stand for the provinces, since Gogol's symbolic geography does not allow us to imagine that a better life might be found in some other real place, whether in Petersburg or Moscow or Paris or wherever. Thus in the end it seems that place does not matter very much in the Russian world that Gogol imagines (his Ukrainian world may be another matter). Can we say something similar about Chekhov, or not?

The town that provides the setting of "Ward No. Six" is condemned for all the familiar and fairly general vices we have heard in other indictments of Russian provincial life-its "stifling" character, its society "without any higher interests" leading a "dull, senseless life," et cetera. [44] But here these indictments take on particular power because the narrative's structure leads us into a closed space and then immures us there with the rest of the characters. The opening paragraphs require the reader to follow the narrator ("if you are not afraid of being stung by the nettles, walk down the narrow footpath …") past heaps of moldering trash and a fence with upturned nails into the prison-like hospital yard, and finally into a stinking room dominated by more images of decay, "disfigurement," and captivity. [45] Thus "Ward No. Six" opens with profoundly disturbing images of enclosure and confinement, images that manage to condense all the horror of provincial stasis, isolation, powerlessness, and injustice into one tiny space.

In "Ward No. Six" as in "On Official Business" "A Provincial's Story" and Three Sisters, the setting is explicitly "provincial" but beyond that it is unspecified. [46] It is another anonymous Town of N, and in interpretations of "Ward No. Six" this lack of geographic specificity is part of what has allowed the town and the hospital to be seen as stand-ins for all of Russia, for the suffering and injustice that were thought to grip the whole country in the late imperial period. As Nikolai Leskov said, "Ward No. Six" is everywhere … This is Russia." [47] The characters' tendency to philosophize and thereby generalize the significance of their own sufferings has probably encouraged this reading as well.

Thus we might read these local details as symbolic of something "bigger" than a description of the provinces-"all of Russia," perhaps, or even "the human condition." But in "Ward No. Six" this interpretation (i.e., "provincial horror = everywhere": an interpretation that I see as quite valid in readings of Gogol) raises a problem. If we read Chekhov's story in this way, we are aligning ourselves with the story's most morally corrupt character, that is, with the doctor Andrei Efimievich Ragin, who justifies his passivity in face of the suffering all around him by recourse to "bigger" thoughts. Ragin tells himself that nothing matters, that there is ultimately "no difference between the best Viennese clinic and my hospital," simply because in the end death will win out all the same. [48] The doctor knows that there has recently transpired a genuine revolution in medicine (Pasteur, Koch), that there are ways of saving people and alleviating suffering; he even acknowledges to himself that "such an abomination as Ward No. Six is possible only two hundred versts from a railroad station" in a town run by "half-literate petty merchants." "Anywhere else," he thinks, "the public and the newspapers would long ago have torn to pieces this little Bastille."[49] But he convinces himself that none of this matters, just as he tries to convince one of his incarcerated patients that there is no real difference between his (the patient's) life and that of a philosopher in ancient Greece (the patient begs to differ). [50]

All this, it seems to me, invites us to see the grotesque existence depicted in "Ward No. Six" as quite specific to this provincial place, to see it not as a manifestation of the "human condition" but as a phenomenon that is indeed "possible only two hundred versts from a railroad station." As Ragin himself says, "in our town it's agonizingly boring … there are no new people … but judging by everything [that we hear], in our capitals there's no intellectual stagnation, there's movement-which means there must be real people there." [51] Maybe, then, the ills described in "Ward No. Six" are specific to this provincial place-or rather, maybe these ills are specific to the provincialism of this place, this city that could be any provincial city. The individuating details of life in this one town may not matter, but the fact that this town is not the capital matters very much indeed. "In our capitals," as Ragin muses, there do indeed exist "real people."

If this reading is correct, it points to a crucial difference between what "the provinces" stand for in Chekhov and what they stand for in Gogol. As I argue elsewhere, Gogol's texts draw on the symbolic opposition between provinces and capital, but they do not necessarily endorse the idea that there is truly an essential difference between the two; indeed, in the end Gogol's provinces are no more "provincial" than the capitals. [52] Dead Souls , for example, at times implies and at times states explicitly that there is no essential difference between province and capital, no matter how much the characters and even the narrator may find themselves trapped within this idea. And in The Inspector General, every "Petersburg" attribute is simply invented by the provincial townspeople and projected onto Khlestakov, with the result that the quality of stolichnost'-"capital-ness"-appears as a sort of floating signifier that might well attach itself to anyone or anything. Once his provincial hosts have "taken him for" a Petersburg official, Khlestakov regales them with made-up stories of how he was once "taken for" the commander-in-chief, and the provincials are duly impressed: in this world, being "taken for" something is as good as the thing itself. [53] A text that creates such a world is unlikely to hold out hope that the capital will in reality turn out to be all that different from the provinces. But in Chekhov, by contrast, it seems that the curse of provincialism is in significant part the result of real-world geography. In the "dirty, wretched little town" of "Ward No. 6" with its "senseless life enlivened only by violence, coarse dissipation, and hypocrisy," abuses are allowed to persist only and precisely because they take place in the provinces. [54]

"Ward No. 6" would seem to be the last, grim word on what province and provincialism stand for in Chekhov. And yet, in closing, I would like to complicate this conclusion, at least to some degree, with reference to The Cherry Orchard. The Cherry Orchard, too, is concerned with ignorance, injustice and stagnation, with what one character calls the "filth, vulgarity and asiaticism" that hold sway in a provincial place.[55] And yet in this play, the opposition province versus capital does not really figure. Instead, the opposition at work (implicitly) is Russia versus Europe. Characters arrive not from the Russian capitals but from abroad (from Paris, the distilled essence of "Europe"); they talk of traveling back and forth not to Moscow and Petersburg but to Yaroslavl and Kharkov; "Moscow" is mentioned only in passing, in the same breath as Kiev as a "holy place" symbolically opposed to Paris/Europe. Accordingly, "provincialism" appears to function somewhat differently in The Cherry Orchard than it does in the other texts I have cited.

The setting of Three Sisters, for example, is represented as irremediably and almost ahistorically provincial. But it seems that in The Cherry Orchard, we witness a place in the (historical) process of being provincialized, in the process of having "its own center … taken out of itself and transferred to some other space or time," to quote once again Epstein's description of the phenomenon of provincialism. In The Cherry Orchard Chekhov's characters voice their memories of a time when the orchard was in effect its own center: one notes that the orchard is mentioned in the Encyclopedia, another recalls how they used to send cartloads of dried cherries off to Kharkov and Moscow, and another declares, "if there's one thing in this whole province that's interesting, even remarkable, it's our cherry orchard." [56] Indeed, when this character declares that "without the orchard [she] cannot understand [her] own life," the cherry orchard is made to occupy the same position that "Moscow" occupies in Three Sisters-touchstone, organizing principle, bearer of meaning. [57] What all the characters are recalling is a time before their own place had been provincialized by its new proximity to something else, something more important. As the merchant Lopakhin understands, the orchard is no longer its own place, but rather a place that is close (enough) to another, more central place-it is now land that is "only twenty versts from town," with "the railroad close by." [58] Once it has been provincialized in this way, the country estate can be definitively transformed into real estate, easily divisible into plots for summer cottages.

What becomes clear in this play is that provincialism depends as much on proximity as it does on distance. This underscores, of course, the importance of Chekhov's notes describing what we see on the set of The Cherry Orchard: in addition to the dilapidated garden, the orchard, and the road leading to the manor house, there is "a row of telegraph poles" and in the distance the outline of "a large town." [59] As these notes suggest, The Cherry Orchard, along with Three Sisters, is the play in which Chekhov most explicitly thematizes railroad lines and telegraph poles; and not coincidentally, these are the plays which are most clearly marked by a clear opposition between periphery and center. [60] In these plays as in many of Chekhov's other works with provincial settings ("A Provincial's Story," "At Home," "In the Ravine," and "Murder," to take only a few of many possible examples), railroad tracks, railroad stations and telegraph poles figure prominently; indeed, these technologies of travel and communication are frequently incorporated into the plot (witness Irina's job as a telegraph operator in Three Sisters). Most often the lines of tracks and wires stretching off into a vague distance seem to indicate not any genuine link between a provincial place and anyplace else, but rather an unbridgeable gap (geographic and symbolic) between the periphery and a "center" that is forever out there, "somewhere," far far away.

This points to the fact that a place can come to experience itself as "provincial" only after it is made acutely aware of some other, central place, and of its own distance from that central place and thus from everything that counts as significant (which is precisely what was accomplished by technologies like the railroad over the course of the nineteenth century). [61] In The Cherry Orchard we witness a formerly remote place being brought just close enough to a "center" that it will be made constantly aware of its fundamental distance from and dependence on that center. Thus while the setting of The Cherry Orchard shares certain traits with Chekhov's other provincial settings (most notably "filth, vulgarity and asiaticism"), in this play there is not perhaps the same sense of immutability and stasis that prevails in texts like "Ward No. Six" since to some degree at least we are watching a place that is changing.

In a sense, of course, the newly provincialized place is not unlike Russia itself, and the play invites us to make the obvious comparison: "all Russia is our orchard," one character declares. [62] As characters speak of coming and going to Paris, the least sophisticated among them having learned to bemoan Russia's "barbarism" and "ignorance," all of Russia is made to resemble a little town on the steppe that becomes definitively provincial once the railroad and the telegraph arrive.[63] The more closely Russia is brought into contact with Europe, the more acutely it experiences its own provinciality. This relates to the working hypothesis I have developed while reading some of the many nineteenth-century Russian texts that treat the "problem" of provinciality: maybe we can best account for Russian literature's preoccupation with (and demonization of) the provinces by considering Russian culture's constant, anxious awareness of a European "center," a center that threatens to relegate all of Russia-capitals included-to the realm of the provincial.


  1. A. P. Chekhov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v 30-i tomakh (Moscow 1978), 13: 120. All citations are from this edition; translations are my own.
  2. Chekhov, 14: 156.
  3. Chekhov, 13: 171.
  4. Chekhov, 13: 144.
  5. See Thomas Newlin, The Voice in the Garden: Andrei Bolotov and the Anxieties of Russian Pastoral, 1738-1833 (Evanston: Northwestern U.P., 2001).
  6. The same cannot be said for the places represented in Gogol's early Ukrainian tales, which have more specific identities. For more on Gogol's views of Ukrainian vs. Russian identity, see Edyta Bojanowska, Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism (dissertation, Harvard University, Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures, 2002).
  7. In reality these towns often did look the same, as the result of urban planning practices that had been in effect since the eighteenth century. Indeed, under Catherine every town center was required-in theory, of course-to contain the same combination of public buildings. See Daniel R. Brower, The Russian City between Tradition and Modernity, 1850-1900 (Berkeley: U. of Calif. Press, 1990), 15, 10. See also Yevgenia Kirichenko and Yelena Shcheboleva, The Russian Province (Moscow: Nash dom, 1997), 28, 30-31, 62. This English translation of Kirichenko and Shcheboleva's work was published as an appendix to their Russian text, Russkaia provintsiia (Moscow: Nash dom, 1997).
  8. A passage from Fathers and Sons sums it up: the provincial pseudo-intellectual Kukshina asks, "It's an unbearable town, isn't it?" and her cool interlocutor Bazarov replies, "It's a town like any other." I. S. Turgenev, Sochinenia v 15-i tomakh (Moscow-Leningrad: Nauka, 1964), VIII: 260-261.
  9. Kirichenko and Shcheboleva, , 5, 25.
  10. There are, of course, exceptions to the schematic picture I have just drawn. Indeed, a number of factors serve to complicate the stark province/capital dualism I describe: borderland regions (the Caucasus, Crimea and Baltics), "semi-Russian" places (Ukraine, the Asian steppes), the image of Moscow as both provincial (compared to Petersburg) and authentically Russian, a few writers who might truly be described as regionalists within Russia itself (Melnikov-Pechersky). Nonetheless, this dualism (capital versus province) prevails in many representations of European Russia's symbolic geography. Furthermore, given European Russia's huge size and cultural and linguistic variety, regionalism has played a strikingly insignificant role in the literary tradition.
  11. See my article "'No, this is not the provinces!': Provincialism, Authenticity and Russianness in Dead Souls," forthcoming in Russian Review.
  12. See Kirichenko and Shcheboleva, 38.
  13. See Patricia Roosevelt, Life on the Russian Country Estate (New Haven and London: Yale U.P., 1995), esp. ch. 11, "Ideal Worlds: The Idyll of the Russian Intelligentsia."
  14. Other classic examples of culturally provincial estates include those in Turgenev's "Hamlet of the Shchigrov District," Pushkin's Captain's Daughter and Dostoevsky's Village of Stepanchikovo.
  15. N. V. Gogol', Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1952), IV: 67 (act IV, scene vii).
  16. While many of Russian literature's anonymous provincial places are labeled gorod N (for example in Khvoshchinskaia and Dobychin), in Russian the letter N functions as a placeholder much as X does today in English-"brand X," "city X," et cetera. This usage originated in the eighteenth century, with the N standing for the Latin noun nomen. Therefore the formula gorod N does not automatically call up associations with Dead Souls, although a work of fiction describing a miserable provincial town labeled N is very likely to do so.
  17. The full quote is as follows: "The idea of the city. The highest degree of Emptiness. Empty talk. … The reader must be struck … by the dead insensibility of life" in the provincial town. Gogol', PSS, VI: 692.
  18. Mikhail Epstein, "Provintsiia," Bog detalei: Narodnaia dusha i chastnaia zhizn' v Rossii na iskhode imperii (Moscow: Izdanie R. Elinina, 1998), 24, 29-30.
  19. S. A. Vengerov, "Gogol sovershenno ne znal real'noi russkoi zhizni," Sobranie sochinenii, II, Pisatel'-grazhdanin. Vengerov claims that the writer of Dead Souls (a text so often taken by nineteenth-century readers as an expose of hard Russian realities) spent less than two weeks of his life in the Russian countryside, and that most of that time was spent inside a moving carriage. While Vengerov's literalism is perhaps misguided (since the amount of time Gogol spent in the Russian countryside matters very little to the artistic truth of Dead Souls), his criticism does speak to the unreal quality of the Russian provinces as Gogol represents them.
  20. Letter of April 29, 1890, from Chekhov to his sister Maria.
  21. As this quote suggests, the category of "the Russian town" is capable of encompassing Ukrainian cities as well, since both Sumy and Gadyach are in Ukraine: for Chekhov as for many other nineteenth-century Russians, it was quite possible to figure Ukraine either as a benignly exotic Other or as a version of Ur-Russia, the epitome of Slavicness.
  22. Cited in Emma Polotskaya, "Chekhov and his Russia," in Vera Gottlieb and Paul Allain, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov (Camb., UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 19. The mention of Perm' is rather striking, since a city that far east (in the Urals, at one time considered to be on the edge of Siberia) might be expected to have a slightly exotic or at least distinctive identity in comparison to central Russia's (emphatically and exclusively Russian) provincial towns.
  23. Chekhov, 13: 181-2.
  24. Chekhov, 13: 131.
  25. Chekhov, 13: 128.
  26. Chekhov, 13: 141.
  27. Chekhov, 13: 141.
  28. Chekhov, 13: 144.
  29. Chekhov, 13: 166. My emphasis.
  30. Chekhov, 13: 77, 98 (act II, III).
  31. Chekhov, 13: 80 (act II). Furthermore, in Uncle Vanya Chekhov rejects the idea that life on the country estate transcends the provincialism of the provincial city. One character tries to dissuade another from leaving the estate and going to live "in town" by calling on the putative difference between "provincial" town and "rural" estate: "You're better off here, in the lap of nature, than in some Kharkov or Kursk. Here at least it's poetic … here there are the woods, and the dilapidated manor house in the style of Turgenev …" Chekhov 13: 110. Lap of nature, poetic, in the style of Turgenev: the irony here signals Chekhov's awareness that the heyday of the sophisticated manor house is past, and that the outdated image of a shabby-chic gentry nest can do nothing to obviate the overwhelming sense of provincial stasis that has all the play's characters in its grip. Life "in some Kharkov or Kursk" might indeed be even worse, even more provincial, but the difference is quantitative rather than qualitative. Here as in Chekhov's other plays, the ideal of the country estate as a space of creativity, freedom and possibility is clearly no longer viable.
  32. "Rodina, nastoiashchiaia Rossiia-eto Moskva, Peterburg, a zdes' provintsiia, koloniia." Chekhov, 10: 93.
  33. Chekhov, 10: 92.
  34. Chekhov, 10: 92-3.
  35. Chekhov, 10: 96. My emphasis. Note that the Russian noun "environment" (sreda in "vdali ot kul'turnoi sredy") is derived from the root for "center, middle."
  36. Chekhov, 10: 92-3.
  37. Chekhov, 10: 99.
  38. Chekhov, 9: 205-6.
  39. Chekhov, 9: 278.
  40. Chekhov, 9: 205.
  41. Chekhov, 9: 278.
  42. Chekhov, 9: 269.
  43. Chekhov, 8: 78.
  44. Chekhov, 8: 76.
  45. Chekhov, 8: 72-73.
  46. The village where "On Official Business" is set has a name (Syrnia), but no discernible location.
  47. Cited in Polotskaya, "Chekhov and his Russia," The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov, 20.
  48. Chekhov, 8: 92.
  49. Chekhov, 8: 91-2.
  50. Chekhov, 8: 100.
  51. Chekhov, 8: 97-8.
  52. See my article "'No, this is not the provinces!': Provincialism, Authenticity and Russianness in Dead Souls," forthcoming in Russian Review.
  53. Gogol, PSS IV: 48 (act III, scene vi).
  54. Chekhov, 8: 78, 76.
  55. Chekhov, 13: 223.
  56. Chekhov, 13: 205-206 (act I).
  57. Chekhov, 13: 233 (act III).
  58. Chekhov, 13: 205 (act I).
  59. Chekhov, 13: 215 (act II).
  60. In his notes on the setting of The Seagull, for example, Chekhov mentions no railroad, no telegraph, no views of an adjacent town, and indeed in this play the simple opposition between "province" and "capital" is blurred by the opposition between country estate and various provincial towns that are mentioned throughout (though characters do travel in trains). But even in The Seagull Moscow figures prominently in characters' dreams of success (Nina the aspiring actress goes there to "begin a new life"), and failure is associated with (Nina's) slow descent into smaller and ever more miserably provincial towns ("I must go to Yelets, third class … there the educated merchants will pester me with their attentions. It's a coarse life!"). Chekhov 13: 44 (act III) and 13: 57 (act IV).
  61. This is the idea expressed by the French sociologist Gabriel de Tarde in his 1890 study Les lois de l'imitation: "Paris reigns … over the provinces [because] … every day, by telegraph or train, it sends into all of France its ideas, its wishes, its conversations, its ready-made revolutions, its ready-made clothing and furniture." Thus, Tarde argues, the modern nation itself is "imitation on a large scale." Qtd in Williams, Rosalind H., Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late 19th-c France (University of California Press, 1982), p. 355.
  62. Chekhov 13: 227 (act II).
  63. Chekhov 13: 236, 247 (act III, IV).
  64. Works cited

    Bojanowska, Edyta. Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism. Dissertation, Harvard University, Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures, 2002.

    Brower, Daniel R. The Russian City between Tradition and Modernity, 1850-1900. Berkeley: U. of Calif. Press, 1990.

    Chekhov, A.P. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v 30-i tomakh. Moscow, 1978.

    Epstein, Mikhail. Bog detalei: Narodnaia dusha i chastnaia zhizn' v Rossii na iskhode imperii. Moscow: Izdanie R. Elinina, 1998.

    Gogol', N. V. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. Moscow, 1952.

    Kirichenko, Yevgenia and Shcheboleva, Yelena , Russkaia provintsiia. Moscow: Nash dom, 1997.

    Newlin, Thomas. The Voice in the Garden: Andrei Bolotov and the Anxieties of Russian Pastoral, 1738-1833. Evanston: Northwestern U.P., 2001.

    Polotskaya, Emma. "Chekhov and his Russia," in Vera Gottlieb and Paul Allain, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov. Camb., UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Turgenev, I. S. Sochinenia v 15-i tomakh. Moscow-Leningrad: Nauka, 1964.

    Roosevelt, Patricia. Life on the Russian Country Estate. New Haven and London: Yale U.P., 1995.

    Vengerov, S. A. "Pisatel'-grazhdanin." Sobranie sochinenii, t. 4. St. Petersburg, 1913.

    Williams, Rosalind H., Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late 19th-c France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

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