Trembling Under the Blows

Birch grove, Isaac Levitan, 1889.

Many times, so it seems to me, we feel as if our generation was the first one to become aware of a problem or attempt to solve it. I’ve found this not to be true so many times that I’ve become skeptical of such claims. Below is an excerpt from Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Chekov’s prescience is astonishing. He wrote the play in 1897; the Moscow Art Theater premiered it in 1899, one hundred and twenty years ago. The speaker is Michael Astroff, a country doctor.


ASTROFF. You can burn peat in your stoves and build your sheds of stone. Oh, I don’t object, of course, to cutting wood from necessity, but why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever. And why? Because men are too lazy and stupid to stoop down and pick up their fuel from the ground. [To HELENA] Am I not right, Madame? Who but a stupid barbarian could burn so much beauty in his stove and destroy that which he cannot make? Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the game is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes poorer and uglier every day. [To VOITSKI] I read irony in your eye; you do not take what I am saying seriously, and—and—after all, it may very well be nonsense. But when I pass peasant-forests that I have preserved from the axe, or hear the rustling of the young plantations set out with my own hands, I feel as if I had had some small share in improving the climate, and that if mankind is happy a thousand years from now I will have been a little bit responsible for their happiness. When I plant a little birch tree and then see it budding into young green and swaying in the wind, my heart swells with pride and I—[Sees the WORKMAN, who is bringing him a glass of vodka on a tray] however—[He drinks] I must be off. Probably it is all nonsense, anyway. Good-bye.

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich. Uncle Vanya (pp. 11-12). Kindle Edition.

Here is an audio clip of Astroff’s monologue [different translation than above] with a slideshow from Franchot Tone’s 1957 film of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Unfortunately, Astroff’s concerns about the environment and climate change have turned out not to be “all nonsense.” Now, it would be remarkable if our generation was able to claim, truthfully, that we fixed the problem!

Best wishes!

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