chapter  7
25 Pages

Modernization and change: The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard offers a perspective on the changing social, economic and political order in Russia at the end of the twentieth century and political and personal responses to this. The older generations represent the old feudal order, whereas the younger characters have grown up since serfdom was abolished. The play was begun in 1902 and premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904, six months before Chekhov’s death. The 1890s had seen the problems in many rural economies worsening, with heavy taxation, depression in peasant farming, cholera and typhus epidemics. Criticism of the regime for its failure to find long-term solutions for the peasants’ situation had become increasingly open. Crop failures in 1901 were followed by a number of violent peasant protests in provinces of Russia and other parts of the empire, and increased political tensions and unruly public behaviour had come with peasant migration to towns (Hosking 2001: 364). Also, by 1903, almost one-half of all private land in Russia (excluding peasant land) was mortgaged, forcing the landed gentry to sell their estates and join the professional or commercial classes (Chekhov 2005: 335 n). By 1905, this had declined to 22 per cent, of which one-third was rented to the peasantry, much of the rest being run by incompetent managers (Braun 2000: 112). The Cherry Orchard deals with the sale of such an estate and one of its former owners, Gayev, takes a job in a bank to survive. The play as a whole demonstrates shifts in class identities and social relationships (Lopakhin is the first main character from the merchant class in Chekhov’s plays) and the increasing redundancy of a social order where the upper classes do not work and are served by a vast, impoverished peasantry.