The Slow Onset of Catastrophe in the Russian Summer
The action of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard takes place between May and August, just about the period anyone with the means in Russia moves to a house in the countryside, a dacha. The play begins with the aristocratic profligate Ranevskaya arriving from abroad at her mortgaged estate, with its lush, renowned cherry groves. It ends as she and her family depart to the sound of axes cutting down the trees to make way for a strip of bourgeois dachas planned by the merchant Lopakhin. The audience has known this was coming since Lopakhin explained his real estate scheme in the first act. The play is not really about that. It’s about time spent in anticipation of an impending catastrophe, while hosting summer gatherings, in long conversations over cool drinks, staying up late, and sleeping in or getting up early.
In other words, it’s about a typical Russian summer. The dacha season arrives fast. One day it’s cold, muddy and wet, then suddenly everything is in bloom and heat hangs heavy over fields already turning golden. The sun lingers in the sky until ten, then eleven. Sunsets last an eternity, followed by a twilight that lasts another, then one more for the dawn. Both solar effects—the quick onset of long days and the sun’s slow motion across the horizon at a highly acute angle—follow from Russia’s northern latitude. They shape the sensibility of summer, with preternaturally long days and schedules thrown into synchronized disarray. Friends and family disperse across the landscape to read by the river or walk the woods, assemble for extended, chatty meals, then part to go fishing or study Latin. Light falls bright at a low angle, bloodying the rocks by the shore. Another meal. Then other tasks. Or a nap. There’s only a hint of the unhappy ending to come. Time for everything, yet the day still isn’t over. It’s never over.
Until autumn comes on as fast as summer did, bringing driving rain, snow and endless darkness. Summer in the north is a short, precious gift. Or maybe a form of self-delusion. Actually, the base meaning of the word dacha is “gift”—the first were apparently estates Peter the Great gave his favorites. And there remains something aristocratic about Russian summer leisure—both the slowed schedule and the sense of living on borrowed time, as Russian aristocrats did for a century of elegant dinner parties on credit before they were expropriated by the Lopakhins and murdered by the Lenins. Yet even though they are long gone, the gene of dacha temporality still breeds in Russia. Chekhov got that right: Ranevskaya’s estate is being cleared, but just to make way for more if lesser dachas.
In their seminal work on literary plot, the Russian Formalists described the device of “retardation”—slowing the action by means of digressions, twists, nature descriptions and the like. The plots of all of Chekhov’s great plays retard time excessively before a catastrophic end—following the shape of Russian summers. But only his last, the Cherry Orchard, actually arcs over a single summer. Possibly, Chekhov hit on summer temporality as a metaphor for the sense of impending disaster he had been describing his whole career, which afflicted all of Russian society before the revolutions, the first of which followed precisely a year after the play’s premiere.
Possibly, though, we should see this relationship the other way around. Maybe time in Russia and in the Cherry Orchard is shaped like a Russian summer, because summer has shaped Russians’ sense of time. Russian historical experience alternates between untenably extended eras under inert leaders when nothing changes and writers hole up and compose long novels, and, on the other hand, moments of convulsive transformation when the world turns upside down and blood flows in the streets. Russian literature, too, is replete with works in the Cherry Orchard’s temporal mode—from Pushkin’s Feast in Time of Plague to Dostoevsky’s The Devils to later “Chekhovian” works, like Mikhalkov’s Unfinished Work for the Mechanical Piano. (Tom Stoppard, to his credit, managed to capture this mode in his Coast of Utopia.)
Of course, my angle of vision on Russian culture and history may be skewed. I sat down to write this essay at the dacha I’ve been renting for the past decade—a classic, late nineteenth-century wooden house near the water. Its owner, an aging princess (really), couldn’t come this summer because of her failing health. I worry that some Lopakhin or other might get his hands on the place—it would be a good site for a lucrative complex of modern summer homes. Soon, we’ll pack up and plunge back into the hot mess of America. All the same, it’s a beautiful day. I’ve written an essay, friends are arriving, and we’ll heat up the Russian bath this evening and cook food over a fire.