Thursday, 13 October 2011

Hushed Up Chekhov

In the centennial of Chekhov's death, I wrote the following essay (published in the Jewish Chronicle, December 24 2004) in which I identify the suppression of commentary on the anti-Semitic aspects of Chekhov's correspondence and writings and drama.

In this, the year's end of Anton Chekhov's centenary [2004], many devotees will be unaware that, within international Russian-speaking Jewry, their hero is often vilified.
    In the West a controversy is raging among emigrant critics who claim there's a strain of anti-Semitism editorially suppressed in Chekhov's letters, and who point to a coded Jew-baiting hidden in his writings.
    Specifically, Jewish critics assert that Chekhov's literary career was advanced by influential mentors who were ideological anti-Semites. Certainly, Chekhov's disquieting character flaw was kept well-hidden in the Soviet epoch thanks to discreet censorship.
    Airbrushed out of Soviet history books were these remarks of Chekhov, "... our critics are almost all Jews, who don't know the core of Russian life, and are alien to it, its spirit, its forms, its humour ..."    
    Recently, an American-Jewish magazine condemned Chekhov's alleged silence during the Tsarist anti-Jewish pogroms.
    This accusation prompted me to search in vain within the new centennial collection (Chekhov: A Life in Letters, Penguin) for his correspondence with a certain Jew.
    But nowhere in this selection will you find Chekhov's notorious letter suppressed equally by his principal British biographer and Soviet guardians of the Chekhov legend.
    In 1881, following the rape and carnage of anti-Semitic pogroms, Chekhov writes to his former schoolmate, Solomon Kramariov, "If you are beaten ... I'll come. I like beating up your brother-exploiters ... Let you see in your dreams, Israeli, your move into the paradise! Let the justifiable anger of Russian citizens frighten and undermine your nerves!!!"
    Gallows humour, indeed, and this particular passage has been likewise sanitised by Donald Rayfield in his exhaustive biography. (Anton Chekhov: A Life.)        
    The Penguin selection claims to be the "first uncensored edition" but its editors are careful to shield readers from any hints of Chekhov's youthful anti-Semitism.
    Young Anton was fond of the Judophobic poet, Nekrasov, whose influence on Chekhov's early drama, Platonov, is evident.
     "A Yid stands in higher esteem ... There are fatal words on his forehead: For Sale at Public Auction!" This remark, by echoing Nekrasov's poem maligning a prostitute, equates Jewry with prostitution.
    Chekhov used "Yid" habitually in correspondence.  Similarly, Chekhov's youthful first novel reveals usage of "Yid" to be the norm.
    Unrecorded in the new Penguin edition is Chekhov's letter condemning this novel's publisher: "There's a new administration (Kurepin and Yids) there, more disgusting than the previous one."
    Early in his career, Chekhov fell under the spell, too, of another Judophobic writer, Leskov.
    The charge against Chekhov by Judophile critics is that both he and Leskov were "birds of a feather" who collaborated with reactionary, anti-Semitic periodicals. The entrenched anti-Semite, Suvorin, editor of the Judophobic New Times was Chekhov's lifelong friend.
    There is a sense of intimately shared mockery; on holiday, Chekhov writes to Suvorin: "The place swarms with Jews, among the mangiest specimens ... Jews are cowardly people ..."
    Yet, paradoxically, many years' later, Chekhov became a staunch defender of a Jew, Captain Dreyfus. (In this celebrated scandal Dreyfus was falsely accused of passing French military secrets to the German embassy in Paris.)
    When Suvorin declared New Times to be virulently anti-Dreyfusard Chekhov's opinions rapidly matured, swayed by Zola's famous campaigning article, J'accuse!
    The severing of Chekhov's friendship with Suvorin can be dated from their acrimonious falling out over Dreyfus. Chekhov writes: "The attitude of New Times to the Zola affair has been simply vile."
    Yet, the previous year, Chekhov can write casually: "To defend myself from gossip is like begging a loan from a [Jew]." The Soviets censored the word "Jew".
    Chekhov also writes: "I'm not going to write for The Northern Herald because I don't get on with their Israelites."
    This periodical was published by a woman Chekhov cursed for her "Jewishness".
    One hundred years' later, another woman critic, Viktoria Levitina, writes: "Chekhov is a wonderful legend of Russian literature: humanity, tolerance, tactfulness. There existed a sacramental formula in Russian law-making - 'except Jews'. All Chekhov's virtues don't concern Jews either." Chekhov's humanity is the myth of "a writer who is just considered to be a classical one."
    Judged by this latest Penguin selection, these darker suspicions colouring Chekhov's character are not given space to intrude, a deficiency which denies us revisionist insights to reassess his reputation.
      Not least among allegations of Chekhov's Judophobia is the innuendo that his intended Jewish bride, Dunya Efros, inspired the spirited Jewess in his short story written supposedly as an act of revenge in the year of his broken engagement; its protagonist has "a prejudice against un-Russian faces in general ..." Chekhov referred to Dunya as "Efros with her nose" and a rich zhidovochka.
    Chekhov's play, Ivanov, affirms, too: "Do not marry a Jewess or a bluestocking ..."
    Chekhov's misogynistic anti-Semitic aphorism echoes in our hearts when we consider that Dunya was arrested in WW2 Vichy and gassed by the Nazis.
    With 20/20 hindsight, any critic risks glibness in being too eager to judge.       
    But four years before his death, as late as 1900, Chekhov can still grumble in exasperation with Tolstoy, "I can't think why he bothers to talk to these Jews."

[See page 39. The Full Collection of Works and Letters in Thirty Volumes. Letters in Twelve Volumes. Letters. Volume 1. 1875-1886. Moscow, 1974. The anti-Semitic passage from the diary of February, 1897 is also included in this collection. Oddly enough, the Collection of the 1960s, in 12 volumes, skipped all the letters of 1880-1882. Incidentally, Chekhov refers to Kramariov as "Kramarov" which sounds more Jewish, i.e. son of Kramer = merchant.]

Footnote: a teleological conundrum.

It’s noticeable that the publishing here of the unedited text of my centennial article from 2004 has prompted certain speculations as to my own personal standpoint in relation to the post-pogrom diaspora at the turn of the last century. You’ll perhaps have noted that I wrote in clarification:
The reality of anti-Jewish pogroms in Tsarist Russia is not unknown to my family. My grandmother very closely witnessed, in the East End of London, the impact of Russian Jewish immigrants on communities in England (a mass influx of some 120,000 in the first waves fleeing the Russian empire’s anti-Semitic persecution). Hence, Londoners of the 1880s through to the early 1900s were, like Chekhov, no strangers to Russian Jewish customs and culture and my grandmother’s understanding of them was no less profound than his. In fact, it’s quite probable that Londoners knew more about displaced Russian Jews than Chekhov's countrymen who banished them. 
In reality, my grandparents were also members of a diaspora of sorts – in their case descendants of expelled Huguenots – so their views as Londoners were not coloured by extreme reactionary anti-alienism prejudices against the immigrant condition and the ghettoization of the East End. I will merely note that a common British perception of the refugee Jew in the East End of my grandparents’ times is best summed up by the eminent British socialist, Beatrice Webb, when observing (1888-1889) Jewish immigrant life for Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London.

Beatrice Webb writes of the new arrivals, fleeing persecution, as representing a survivalist class of entrepreneur that, due to their historic experience of persecution, had ‘weeded out the inapt and incompetent’ and sharpened their instincts into ‘an instrument for grasping by mental agility the good things withheld from them by the brute force of the Christian peoples’ and who regarded the best exemplar of their own kind as ‘in a fair way to become a tiny capitalist — a maker of profit . . . [who] feels himself the equal of a Montefiore or a Rothschild.’ Beatrice Webb, needless to add, was one of the founders of the Fabian Society; she coined the term ‘collective bargaining’ and wrote The History of Trade Unionism (1894). The stark conflict witnessed by my grandparents in the East End – contemporary movements towards organised labour versus the immigrants’ sweatshop practices that drove down wages – can therefore be better appreciated as the goad behind my grandfather and his becoming a very early member of the Fabian Society, that champion of co-operative endeavour and advocate of a welfare state and a national minimum wage.  

See also a variant of this article at:

The English View on Pogroms

Today (December 8 2017), astonishingly, I was turning the pages of a little book on East Anglian Dialect (‘Lingual Localisms’), published in London in 1823, and among all the quaint rustic sayings and ‘mitigated oaths’ I found the word, ‘Pogram’

So from almost two hundred years ago, here’s the view of a sophisticated English scholar and etymologist:
POGRAM [original spelling unchanged]: A word that has not been much heard till of late years [i.e. 1821 Odessa pogroms marked the beginning of the 19th century pogroms in Tsarist Russia], though I believe it not to be of recent coinage: indeed I’m pretty sure I have seen it somewhere. It is now generally applied by vulgar churchmen to dissenters of different denominations. Not however to papists, jews, or quakers. The remark that mutual rancour of conflicting sects is inversely as their degree of difference, holds good all the world over. Christians hate each other more than they do Jews or Mahommedans. And the latter, however inveterate against Christians, are yet still more so mutually in regard to sectarian difference: though in fact such difference be unimportant, and comprising no point of faith, beyond who was the fittest man to succeed Mahommed in the Khalifat, or civil and pontifical supremacy. Even the tolerant Hindus, who admit no proselytes, and aver that all mankind are more or less Hindus, have had desolating wars among themselves on points of faith and practice; and hate each other with considerable intensity; greatly exceeding what they feel towards Christians, or Mahommedans. It has been reserved for the Hindus to carry on merciless wars of extermination on a question of physiological function. Yet such are points of history and I believe of fact. The original question was whether their Jupiter of Juno were the most potential in the infancy, or before the infancy, of society?

That last remark, I suspect, teeters very close to iconoclasm yet this writer wrote in the Regency era so it’s not altogether surprising, because this kind of robust opinion was to thrive for over a decade until Victorian stuffiness stifled bluff hearty outbursts like this in the name of good taste.

Silence of the British Press, September 2018.

It should be recorded here that, in the 2018 debates by British mainstream news media on the question of anti-Semitism persisting in the UK Labour Party (September 2018), there was silence on the matter of its enshrinement in the ideological foundations of trade unionism articulated by Fabianism from which the Labour Party sprang. 

Just a further small sample of Beatrice Webb’s writings indicate the source of traditional Labourite/Fabian prejudice.  

In short, the explicit animus levelled by Labourites/Fabians against Jews is defined in Beatrice’s own words: 
‘. . . the immigrant Jew, though possessed of many first-class virtues, is deficient in that highest and latest development of human sentiment – social morality.’ 
Another quote from Beatrice: 
‘In the Jewish inhabitants of East London we see therefore a race of brain-workers competing with a class of manual labourers. The Polish Jew regards manual work as the first rung of the social ladder, to be superseded or supplanted on the first opportunity by the estimates of the profit-maker, the transactions of the dealer, or the calculations of the money-lender . . . ’

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremisCompulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)  


  1. Dear Catherine,
    Try to be more documented next time you write about Tchekhov. Try also not to get mixed up between what Tchekhov thinks and what his characters are saying. Try just to read and to understand the plays and short stories of this writer. Try to be less naive und more objective about Russia's History before you judge. Well, just read "Rothschild's Violin" (feb 1894), a short story of strength and courage. And then I think you'll toss this article to the garbage.
    Best regards

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  2. The reality of anti-Jewish pogroms in Tsarist Russia is not unknown to my family. My grandmother very closely witnessed, in the East End of London, the impact of Russian Jewish immigrants on communities in England (a mass influx of some 120,000 in the first waves fleeing the Russian empire’s anti-Semitic persecution). Hence, Londoners of the 1880s through to the early 1900s were, like Chekhov, no strangers to Russian Jewish customs and culture and my grandmother's understanding of them was no less profound than his. In fact, it's quite probable that Londoners knew more about displaced Russian Jews than Chekhov's countrymen who banished them. As to Rothschilds. A 21st Century reality is that a Rothschild, a notable entomologist, was raised by Her Majesty the Queen to a Dame of the British Empire (equivalent of the honour of a Knighthood in the British honours system) for her contributions to science. This is not a sentimental fiction.

  3. Now you write about the impact of Russian Jewish immigrants on communities in England, and that is really interesting.
    But what does this have to do with your charge against Chekhov and his alleged Judophobia ?
    Did you make the effort to read Chekhov's short story "Rothschild's Violin" before you write this reply ?

  4. As regards an English critic's need to remain objective in any understanding of Chekhov's subjective attitude to Jews of his times (1880s to early 1900s), the objective correlative in my own experience is the actuality, the authenticity, of the presence of Russian Jewry in significant numbers in the East End of London at the turn of the last century, as described first hand to me by my Londoner grandparents. A contemporaneous account. The cultural shift that implies means that a Londoner of my generation and history can read Chekhov's Jewish characterisation with as much understanding as – or with possibly more understanding than, in some cases – native Russian readers whose perspective does not, perforce, extend to immersion in the cultural life of émigré Russian Jewry in the aftermath of Russia's antisemitic purges.