What made Chekhov a revolutionary writer? He refused to judge

Angst and Desire
4 min readJul 6, 2023

In 1890, Chekhov wrote a story called ‘The Horse-Stealers’, about a pair of horse thieves who dupe a drunken medical attendant and steal his horse. When Chekhov’s publisher friend Aleksey Suvorin read the story, he challenged Chekhov for failing to come down hard on the thieves. This is how the writer responded:

You scold me for my objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, the
absence of ideals and ideas, and so on and so forth. When I describe my horse thieves, you want me to state: stealing horses is evil. But nobody needs me to tell him that. Let juries judge horse thieves; my job is simply to show what they’re like. So I write: if you have dealings with horse thieves, what you ought to know is that they’re no beggars and have plenty to eat, that they make a cult of what they do, and that horse thievery is more than stealing, it’s a passion. Oh, it would be fine to combine art and preaching, but personally I find it extremely difficult, all but impossible, for technical reasons. If I’m going to describe my horse thieves in seven hundred lines, I must speak and think as they do, feel as they do. If I added a speck of subjectivity, the images would come apart and the story would lack the compactness stories of that length need. When I write, I rely on the reader, assuming he will supply the subjective elements missing in the story.

The reasons he give are practical — proselytising would intrude on the story — but perhaps he’s also being a little too humble and insincere. Perhaps his true reason is more fundamental.

In other letters he’s less shy expounding his theories on the role of the writer and artist.

In my opinion, it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as God, pessimism, etc.; his job is merely to record who, under what conditions, said or thought what about God or pessimism. The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness. […] Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is, the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.

In Chekhov’s formulation, the writer is not the master of the story, but something more modest and passive, taking a backseat to his characters. He’s there to observe and record them as honestly as possible. It’s through this method that the host of Chekhovian characters, from the full gamut of society, come alive. A few months later he was still making his point to Suvorin:

It is bad for the artist to take on something he doesn’t understand. We have specialists for dealing with special questions; it is their job to make judgments
about peasant communes, the fate of capitalism, the evils of intemperance, about boots and female complaints. The artist must pass judgment only on what he understands.

Chekhov feared letting his own judgements and prejudices weigh down his stories. He was the opposite of a propagandist. It’s not that he didn’t have strong opinions, it’s more he didn’t trust himself to write what he didn’t fully understand. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904–5 was animating Russian society at the time. Chekhov himself was expecting a swift Russian victory. He even considered joining up as a doctor. But when a visitor of his suggested writing a play about the war, he insisted:

Twenty years have to go by. There’s no way of talking about it now. The writer’s soul must be at peace or he can’t be impartial.

Or perhaps he was wary, like any good philosopher, of his own thoughts. He wasn’t immune to the passions that seizes us all, but he didn’t want it in his writing.

In one letter, he admitted to the writer Dmitry Grigorovich:

I still lack a political, religious, and philosophical world view — I change it every month, so I’ll have to limit myself to the description of how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die, and how they speak.

Rather than a weakness, this lack of a world view was something sacred to Chekhov, something he wanted to protect. Writing to the radical poet, Aleksey Pleshcheev, he stated:

The people I fear are those who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and violence in all their forms. […] Pharisaism, dull-wittedness, and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations; I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. That is why I cultivate no particular predilection for policemen, butchers, scientists, writers, or the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies.

In the words of George Saunders, who discussed Chekhov’s work extensively in his wonderful book on writing, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, “If he has a program, it’s being wary of having a program.”

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— Chekhov quotes sourced from Henri Troyat’s biography of Chekhov.



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