Posts Tagged ‘solzhenitsyn’

From Chekhov to Solzhenitsyn: The Writings of Confinement

April 25, 2017

The majority of Anton Chekhov’s short stories are grim vignettes of a troubled and intellectually frustrated people of pre-revolutionary Russia. In many of Chekhov’s works, characters wax philosophically on such subjects as human nature, the contemporarily fraught political climate of Russia, life following the industrial revolution, and so on. Chekhov’s writings, however, always couch his own critiques through his characters, and it is not uncommon for Chekhov to interrupt (or outright ignore) these moments of seriousness and sincerity, leaving the reader with a rather fragmented sense of Chekhov’s own views on these matters. One of his short stories, Ward No. 6, however, is uniquely vivid, charged with mordant critique of the injustices inflicted upon the mentally ill. The degree to which Chekhov’s account is fictionalized remains unclear. It is accepted, however, amongst the Russian people, that Chekhov published Ward No. 6 as a case study depicting the simultaneously ignorant and malicious aspects of Russian medicine. Despite the morbid despair that Chekhov so masterfully captured, this story has influenced Russian intellectuals for a century. It’s a wonder, then, that the obvious links between Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have been rather un(der)explored by literary critics and scholars. For, in reading the works of Solzhenitsyn, one gets the impression that Chekhov’s prescient presence persists in a 21st century Russia.

Chekhov’s influence on Russian thought was such that Vladimir Lenin, the communist revolutionary, once remarked to his sister of the “horror” of reading Ward No. 6. Chekhov’s story was so powerful that Lenin “could not bear to stay in his room” due to the “horror” that had seized him, and went out to find someone to confide in. “‘I absolutely had the feeling,’ he told his sister the next day, ‘that I was shut up in Ward 6 myself!’” And indeed, the narrator of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 takes deliberate care to walk the reader into the ward, where they are then confined and forced to bear witness to its secrets. The story begins with a description of the “burdocks, nettles, and wild hemp” of the hospital yard. As if these thorny, unkempt, weedy images were not enough to deter the reader from entering the hospital – “if you are not afraid of being stung by the nettles” – the bleak images only decay in invitingness. Chekhov’s narrator describes the hospital’s “rusty” roof of the hospital, the “tumbling” (presumably crumbling) chimney, the “rotting” steps of the entrance, and the overall overgrown nature of the lifeless place. Indeed, even the “grey” fence has nails on it which “point upwards,” deterring any possibility of cheerful visitors. Chekhov’s narrator concludes these observations by noting that the whole environment had “that peculiar, desolate, God-forsaken look which is only found in our hospital and prison buildings.” These observations take but a paragraph, and yet the tedium of detail contained within harbors the dread of an eternity – the opening paragraph feels, like Lenin said, real, as though the reader is in fact shut up in Ward 6.

Chekhov’s centripetal introduction to Ward No. 6 only worsens in detail as the reader enters the hospital, as the narrator forces the reader to endure the “sickly smell” of the building, the “heaps” of rubbish lining the building’s interior. The building’s walls are “dirty,” its ceiling is “sooty,” the windows are “disfigured” by iron bars, and the grey, wooden floor is “full of splinters.” Finally, after walking past this disgusting scene, Chekhov’s narrator introduces the “lunatics” of the ward.

Compared to the dismal setting, the five lunatics are surprisingly normal, one of which is described as “upper class,” while the rest are “artisans.” Each ward member’s mental illness is unique: the Jew Moiseika is described as a harmless simpleton (always begging for a kopeck), Ivan Dmitritch Gromov suffers from a (not altogether unreasonable) mania of persecution, and so on. With the exception of Nikita, the brutal porter, each member of the story is described in genuinely pitiable terms. Chekhov’s portrayal of the contextual and causal stories of degenerative mental health illustrates the compassionate view that, unfairly, the “dull” and “stifling” town was what drove people into the ward; that is, the Russian people were bound to end up in the “monotonous” ward. The ward, once entered, functions as all such isolating government institutions are designed: to prevent people from escaping.

It is with these aporetic insights into the inner machinations of the hospital that the morally aggressive tenor of Chekhov’s story first asserts itself. The character Ivan, with whom the doctor Andrey would later argue, muses on theories of justice in relation to his own position in the ward. Recalling Chekhov’s earlier likening of the hospital to a prison, Ivan’s observation that “the agelong experience of the simple people teaches that beggary and prison are ills none can be safe from,” suggests a moment where Chekhov’s own moral indictments arise in the story. Ivan observes how a “judicial mistake” could be at the heart of some of the country’s worst sufferings, and concludes that “people who have an official, professional relation to other men’s sufferings […] in the course of time, through habit, grow so callous that they cannot, even if they wish it, take any but a formal attitude to their clients.” One thing – “time” – is at the heart of this callousness.

Ivan’s indictment of the professional, callous relationship to suffering eventually manifests itself in the ward’s doctor, Andrey Yefimitch Ragin. Chekhov introduces the doctor in optimistic terms. Andrey is described as shabby but intelligent, with a morally alert conscience: “Andrey Yefimitch came to the conclusion that [the ward] was an immoral institution and extremely prejudicial to the health of the townspeople.” Thusfar in the story, Chekhov has given the reader reason to agree with Andrey’s moral concern towards the ward’s institutional efficacy. As Chekhov’s descriptions continue, however, the “callousness” that Ivan described becomes evident. For instance, Andrey loses his status as a sympathetic character through the deadpan delivery of his cynical realization that he is only a cog in the inevitable social machine: “‘I serve in a pernicious institution and receive a salary from people whom I am deceiving. I am not honest, but then, I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” Thus, a culminating moment of the doctor’s waning moral convictions bursts forth in a discussion with Ivan: “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them’” [my italics]. This moment of realization seems to be one of the few moments when Chekhov’s own views bleed through the dialogue of his characters. Andrey’s suggestion that the evils of the ward were “inevitable,” that the very existence of the institution was “pernicious,” as their empty wards magnetically trapped their future patients – all of these observations speak to the existing institutions that Chekhov was clearly critiquing in his short story. Similarly, all of them undermine the attitude that the doctor was “an oracle who must be believed without any criticism even if he had poured molten lead into their mouths.”

Another trenchant critique in Ward No. 6 is displayed through Chekhov’s scrutiny of stoic philosophy, as argued by Andrey. During an exchange between Andrey and Ivan, Chekhov’s position on the question of how to properly address the problem of human suffering is illuminated. By this point in the story, the reader has good reason to scrutinize Andrey’s aphoristic suggestion that “the wise man, or simply the reflecting, thoughtful man, is distinguished precisely by his contempt for suffering; he is always contented and surprised at nothing.” Here, Andrey is parroting Marcus Aurelius, the great stoic philosopher. It is very possible that Chekhov was sympathetic with the stoics’ existential project, as he demonstrates a deep understanding of their ideals, but the passion with which his character, Ivan, refutes Andrey suggests an opposing interpretation:

To pain I respond with tears and outcries, to baseness with indignation, to filth with loathing. To my mind, that is just what is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is, and the more feebly it reacts to stimulus; and the higher it is, the more responsively and vigorously it reacts to reality. How do you not know that?

Ivan continues, arguing that Andrey’s adherence to stoicism is insincere, and in fact “quite unintelligible” to the majority of all men. The reason that the doctor is able to speak with such blasé regarding human suffering, Ivan argues, is that Andrey was “only theoretically acquainted with reality.” Similarly, the doctor is only theoretically acquainted with suffering, hence his stoic view. Chekhov’s own attitude towards human suffering, cloaked within this argument, starts to take shape through the bickering of the ward members.

Chekhov’s commentary on human suffering is left unspoken for the majority of the story’s final pages, until, suddenly, Andrey finds himself thrown in the ward with Ivan and the others. Upon realizing that the new ward member was the (now former) doctor, Ivan hoots with excitement, “You sucked the blood of others, and now they will suck yours. Excellent!” In other words, Andrey no longer will be able to maintain his strictly “theoretical” understanding with suffering; he is now one of the “lunatics” that he was in charge of. “Cursed life,” grumbles Andrey, “and what’s bitter and insulting, this life will not end in compensation for our sufferings, it will not end with apotheosis […] but with death.” As Andrey curses his new condition, he tries to find any possible way to break the monotony of the ward. He looks out the window, observing the yard, the moon, the fence, and thinks, “This [is a] prison.” Again, the analogy between prisons and hospitals becomes unignorable. The key connection, for Chekhov, seems to be in the forced “waiting” that is shared both in prisons and in hospitals; it is in the waiting that insanity truly develops, that psychological suffering becomes unimaginable:

[Andrey] bit the pillow from pain and clenched his teeth, and all at once through the chaos in his brain there flashed the terrible unbearable thought that these people, who seemed now like black shadows in the moonlight, had to endure such pain day by day for years. How could it have happened that for more than twenty years he had not known it and had refused to know it?

It is with this realization that Andrey finally regains some sympathetic qualities to his character. After beginning to experience the suffering of others, he can finally begin to understand it as well. Like so many of Chekhov’s prescient writings, this discussion of human suffering would remain relevant throughout the eminent Russian revolutions, specifically in the labor camps where unspeakable, incalculable amounts of human suffering were inflicted on the Russian people.

One can find the perennial relevance of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6, its critique of contemporary institutions, and its investigation into the problem of human suffering, all within the writings of another powerful Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Chekhov’s influence is most explicitly acknowledged in the “Interrogation” chapter of Solzhenitsyn’s infamous (and formerly banned) book, The Gulag Archipelago:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia […] not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

This insight must not be taken lightly, and is nested in a broader discussion – the topic Solzhenitsyn’s chapter refers to – of the tortures inflicted on Solzhenitsyn and others in the Gulag. Half a century divides Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, and so one senses in Solzhenitsyn’s writings a matured view of mental health from Chekhov’s 19th century understanding. To that end, one of the largest differences between these authors is the aforementioned normalcy with which Chekhov cloaks the conditions of the ward members. That is, the characters of Ward No. 6 all seem to have fallen ill gradually, with little explanation; Solzhenitsyn suggests that the Gulag was enough to reliably produce insanity. And it is no coincidence that Solzhenitsyn evokes the insane asylum in the same sentence that he mentions Chekhov’s characters.

As Chekhov’s story condemns the tendency of institutions to fill themselves (specifically the hospital, but also the prison system), so too does Solzhenitsyn indict the system of Russian prison camps. Though these prison camps were entirely unlike any prison contemporary to Chekhov’s life, one can still trace a similar critique through Chekhov’s writings and into Solzhenitsyn’s. The early chapters of Gulag Archipelago describe the soaring rates of arrest in Russia – which led to Solzhenitsyn’s own imprisonment – the contagiousness of which spared no one. “The circles kept getting bigger,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “as they raked in ordinary believers as well, old people, and particularly women.” The “circles” Solzhenitsyn describes refer to are the concentric social circles which grew exponentially as the definition of a “traitor” broadened. Whereas Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs began arresting people on ostensibly evidential grounds, soon they were arresting people to inspire political fear, citing “incidental irrelevancies” as warrant for arrest. And thus one can see the connection to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the warnings embedded in Andrey’s observation that “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them.’” It’s as though Solzhenitsyn’s writings demonstrate the veracity of Andrey’s cynical pronouncement in Ward No. 6. For as soon as the parameters expand of what constitutes grounds for arrest, naturally more arrests were made in Russia. This influx of arrested citizens would require more, larger institutions and, thus, “someone must be shut up in them” [again, my italics].  

The parallels between the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov are so obvious, that even Solzhenitsyn’s gloomy description of the prison -an unintelligibly dismal venue – echoes the depressing introduction to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6. “We have been happily borne,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way – down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings.” Immediately this description of the “crooked streets” recalls the “narrow footpath” leading to the hospital in Ward No. 6. Furthermore, the adjectives in Solzhenitsyn’s description – “rotting,” “rammed earth” – match with the objects in Chekhov’s story – the rusted roof, the iron gratings, barbed fences, crumbling brick, and so on. Solzhenitsyn goes further, however, to explicate the authorial intent which Chekhov has hidden in Ward No. 6, namely that “We have never given a thought to what lies behind [the walls of the institution]. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.” While Solzhenitsyn is writing of prison walls, as opposed to hospital walls, the broader principle rings true throughout Chekhov’s story. Not only has Chekhov already made the connection between the “God-forsaken” atmospheres of prisons and hospitals, but one can also find a double meaning in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. It’s as though Chekhov wrote Ward No. 6 because we have “never given a thought” to what lies behind the hospital walls; furthermore, “we have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.”

A final, crucial consideration regarding the similarities between Ward No. 6 and Gulag Archipelago is in the way both authors pull the reader into a confined space along with the prisoner or ward member. As Chekhov’s introductory description makes the reader feel like a patient being escorted into the ward, so too does Solzhenitsyn drag the arrested reader into the Gulag: “And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut once and for all.” Solzhenitsyn’s description is startling in its brevity – “all of a sudden” the gate “swings quickly” open – and yet also suggests the agony, through precision of detail, that one must have felt while being grabbed. Solzhenitsyn names the series of body parts these prisoners are likely to be grabbed by, which evoke the multiple “white male hands,” indiscriminate in their treatment of the prisoners. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s analogy of the human body being treated like a “sack” reinforces the inhuman, impersonal nature of the prison guards. And, as the doors to the ward close forever on Andrey, a physical barrier between the doctor’s old “sane” life and his new “insane” one, so too do the prison gates close between Solzhenitsyn’s old and new life.

A less explicit connection between the writings of Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn is to be found in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Though the titles share the word “Ward” in their title, the narrative arc of the two stories – Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward – could hardly be more different. The ward of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, unlike Chekhov’s, is number thirteen, the cancer wing of the hospital. Time had progressed many decades since Ward No. 6, and the characters within Solzhenitsyn’s ward are written very differently. Yet, there are intense similarities as well throughout both stories. Early on in the novel, Solzhenitsyn repurposes a nearly identical description from Gulag of the “door to all your past life” being slammed behind you upon entry into the ward: “it frightened you more than the actual tumor.” This could also be said of Chekhov’s mental ward, and the fear Andrey feels upon his entry as a patient. Similarly, Solzhenitsyn’s protagonist, Pavel Nikolayevich, shares the same disdain for the “uncultured creatures” of the town and the ward that is displayed in Chekhov’s character, Andrey, and his pretentious arrangements and tastes. And, as with Chekhov’s ward and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, characters in Cancer Ward remark on the idea that “even if [the hospital staff] do let you go home, you’ll be back here pretty quick […] once [the doctor has] grabbed you with his pincers, he won’t let go till you croak.” This common theme, as it runs through the works of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov, maintains the idea that institutions function to prevent escape, even if patients don’t belong in them.

The Chekhovian parallels in Cancer Ward continue, recalling Ivan’s accusation in Ward No. 6 that Andrey’s intellectualism was insincere, that his theoretical understanding of suffering was insufficient to truly understand suffering. Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, reminds Dyomka, another ward member, that “education doesn’t make you smarter.” Dyomka questions this, to which Kostoglotov clarifies, “Life, that’s what [makes you smarter].” Though the power dynamics of this scene differ from Chekhov’s ward, there is still the intense debate of ideas – distinguishing the differing values of theoretical versus practical education and understanding – which seems to be Solzhenitsyn speaking, like Chekhov, through the characters in the ward.

As Chekhov’s story describes the callous, professional relation to suffering that doctors have, so too does Solzhenitsyn’s story remark that “an unpleasant feature of all public hospitals is that nobody stops for a moment to exchange a few words.” The impersonal haste of hospitals is reflected more in the contemporary story of the cancer ward than in Chekhov’s mental ward. Likewise, even Solzhenitsyn’s doctor parallels that of Chekhov’s doctor, Andrey, recalling – through a more contemporary lens – the desensitization of doctors to their patients. Kostoglotov, in a rare moment of gentle conversation, remarks to the doctor in charge of his care:

‘No sooner does a patient come to you than you begin to do all his thinking for him. After that, the thinking’s done by your standing orders, your five-minute conferences, your program, your plan and the honor of your medical department. And once again I become a grain of sand, just as I was in the camp. Once again nothing depends on me.’

This exchange recalls, not only the “callous” professional interactions of doctor and patient, but also Andrey’s nihilistic declaration that “‘I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” The tone of Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, has the same tenor of feeling like “nothing” is of consequence for their position in the ward. Like Chekhov’s characters, the physical space of the ward – the sheer proximity of it, the closeness, the “God-forsaken” nature of the building – shapes the interactions more than any moral qualities of the characters themselves.

As though the parallels were not enough between the prose, plot, setting, and other crucial features of Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward, there is the deeper political critique of their stories. As John Arnold suggests in his book, Life Conquers Death, “just as Chekhov’s Ward 6 was read as an allegory of Tsarist Russia, so Cancer Ward can be read as an allegory of the contemporary Soviet Union.” Arnold’s analogy is apt, especially in that Chekhov’s critique of Russia was less overt than Solzhenitsyn’s. Though, the concern remains, that “the allegorical method of interpretation” tends toward “simplistic [political] exegesis,” thus, we should limit such speculation when explicit evidence isn’t present in these texts. And yet, as Jeffrey Meyers argues in his article, “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease,” there is an undeniable connection between the project of these two writers: courageously confronting disease, profound sympathy for the diseased, a “transformation of the clinical into the poetical,” and the moral examination of social pathology. Even if we are to ignore the similarities between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn in terms of style, detail, prose, or subject matter, these writers indisputably have overlapping moral concern with aspects of Russian medicine and confinement.

It would be impossible to exhaust the literary connections between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn’s writings within the space of a single essay. Rather, other critics have suggested, “[Chekhov] is indeed a cultural inheritance and always present in the consciousness of any Russian reader,” an inheritance which can certainly be seen in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. A plethora of possible connections remain between Solzhenitsyn’s time in the Gulag Archipelago and Chekhov’s similarly autobiographical exploration of Russian penal camps, as recounted in Sakhalin Island. Natalia Pervukhin goes so far as to suggest that Solzhenitsyn practically litters his writings with references to Chekhov – forty in one book alone. These connections, rich as they surely are, would require an entirely additional literary investigation to bear out.


Works Cited

Arnold, John. Life Conquers Death: Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Print.

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, Richard Ford, and Constance Garnett. “Ward No. 6.” The Essential Tales of Chekhov. New York, NY: Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015. N. pag. Print.

Meyers, Jeffrey. “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 1983, pp. 54–68.,

Pervukhin, Natalia. “The ‘Experiment in Literary Investigation’ (Čexov’s Saxalin and Solženicyn’s Gulag).” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 35, no. 4, 1991, pp. 489–502.,

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Cancer Ward. New York: Dell, 1968. Print.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956. an Experiment in Literary Investigation. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007. Print.

Wilson, Edmund. To the Finland Station: A Study in Writing and Acting of History with a New Introduction. New York, NY: Noonday, 1999. Print.