Illustration of a chopped down cherry tree that was cut into logs

The Cherry Orchard

by Anton Chekhov

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How does Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard represent the historical transformation of Russian society?

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Chekhov, as he does in much of his fiction, captures the upheavals and quiet agon going on in Russian society, situations that not so long after this play was written ended in revolution.

The Ranevskayas were once a wealthy landowning family. They are still very cultured and refined. However, the freeing of the serfs and the rise of new and acquisitive middle class has eaten into their wealth. They are at a point where they need to sell part of their vast cherry orchard to survive. However, they are caught in the past, and so refuse to do so, fearing it will be cut down by hard-headed businessmen more interested in profit than preserving its beauty. By refusing to sell any of it, they end up forced to sell all of it—and it is all immediately cut down.

This play reflects the social reality of agriculture becoming less and less profitable in late nineteenth century, especially when done in the leisurely, wasteful, old-fashioned way that was only possible with serfs (slaves). (We see this too, in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, where a business class comes in and buys the land of strapped upper class people for rock bottom prices, concerned about turning a profit, not working or living on the land.)

Thinking about this play, one might find parallels in the conditions in the Old South after the Civil War, when the freeing of the slaves took the profit out of agriculture, but many old families simply did not want to or could not adjust to the new reality.

Of course, the South was part of a prosperous, rising nation, so it did not face the problems Russia did. Chekhov, observing Russian life, often notes how widespread the putting on blinders was, especially among the middle and upper classes. These classes either didn't want to face how their own situation was changing or face how much the poor were suffering. We can see Chekhov, in the play, as prescient about the disaster that strikes when people refuse to face reality until too late.

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In the interest of the brevity that these question/answers are meant to transpire in, I have edited the scope of your question.  Please feel free to post another question, if you have interest in more information on this topic.

I will direct you to the very concise and informative page in the Enotes Study Guide on "Historical Context" in The Cherry Orchard. Here is a bit of what the Entoes editors have to say about your topic:

In 1904, the year The Cherry Orchard was first produced, Russia was in a state of upheaval.. . .The tensions both in and outside Russia made life difficult for Russian citizens. The middle class began to assume an elevated position in society as many nobles lost their wealth and large, lavish estates. As the Ranevsky family discovers, Russia is changing and the climate is no longer hospitable to those who do not act in their own interests. . . .When the serfs were freed, the landowners were forced to pay for labor, and as conditions in Russia worsened due to war and the totalitarian regime, revolution becomes imminent.

So, Chekhov is capturing a huge shift in the social order of Russia.  No longer are the landed gentry able to live secure and secluded from the plights of the poor, isolated within their estates.  Their power structure began to crumble as they could no longer afford to maintain their lavish lifestyles and homes, and the Revolution itself would seek to bring a more "equal" economic structure, which meant, in effect, that the rich were stripped of their possessions.

In the play, the cherry orchard itself is the most obvious symbol for the "old ways" of the gentry being "chopped down" to make way for the new, modern Revolutionary thought.

For more on this topic, please follow the links to the Enotes Study Guide on The Cherry Orchard.

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