Chekhov and Bunin.

In my reading of Chekhov stories I’ve gotten up to Степь [The Steppe], a convenient divider between his early and later stories, and it seems like a good time to post about a couple of those early stories and things they made me think of. One of them is Перекати-поле [Tumbleweed, 1887], translated by Constance Garnett as “Uprooted.” It’s from Chekhov’s Gogolian/Leskovian period, when he wrote a good bit about religion and very little about women; here the narrator is at the Sviatogorsk Lavra in eastern Ukraine, named for the Holy Mountains (Святые горы) among which it was built, for the feast-days of John the Apostle and St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker, presumably May 8/21 and 9/22 (though Garnett’s footnote absurdly says of Nicholas “his day was December 6” — the story is clearly not set in winter, and Nicholas, like all major saints, had several feast-days). Because of the huge crowds, the monk in charge of sleeping quarters asks if he would mind letting a young man, “a short figure in a light overcoat and a straw hat,” share his room; he agrees, and the story is mostly about the interactions between the two. The young man turns out to be a converted Jew, and he tells his life story, from his difficult childhood (he loved learning and longed to read newspapers, but his parents wanted him “to know nothing but the Talmud” and he ran away from home) to his peripatetic life (“when my uncle tried to catch me in Shklov, I went off to Mogilev; there I stayed two days and then I went off to Starodub with a comrade… Later on he mentioned in his story Gomel, Kiev, Byelaya Tserkov, Uman, Balt, Bendery and at last reached Odessa”); now he’s passed his examination as a village schoolmaster: “In Novotcherkassk, where I was baptized, they took a great interest in me and promised me a place in a church parish school.” The narrator says, “Up to the time of my departure we strolled together about the Monastery, whiling away the long hot day. He never left my side a minute; whether he had taken a fancy to me or was afraid of solitude, God only knows!”

As I read, something was nagging at my mind, and it turned out to be one of Bunin’s earliest stories, Святые горы [Holy Mountains] (1895), which I read during my Bunin marathon last year (1, 2). Bunin’s narrator is also visiting the monastery, but his tale is entirely different: half the story is about his attempt to get there on foot, he interacts with no one except a Ukrainian peasant he asks for directions (and gets answers in Ukrainian: “Тодi чума на скот була, так казали, що там пробував такий монах, що знав замовляти…”), and when he arrives he walks past the cathedral and heads straight up the steep stairway to the top of the hill above the monastery, where he meditates on nature and history:

Меня тянуло туда, к меловым серым конусам, к месту той пещеры, где в трудах и молитве, простой и возвышенный духом, проводил свои дни первый человек этих гор, та великая душа, которая полюбила горный гребет над Малым Танаисом. Дико и глухо было тогда в первобытных лесах, куда пришел святой человек. Лес бесконечно синел под ним. Лес глушил берега, и только река, одинокая и свободная, плескала и плескала своими холодными волнами под его навесом. И какая тишина царила кругом!

I was drawn there, to the gray chalk cones, to the site of that cave where the first man of these hills, simple and elevated in spirit, passed his days in works and prayer, that great soul who fell in love with the mountain ridge above the Lesser Tanais [the Donets]. It was wild and deserted then in the primeval forests where the holy man came. The forest stretched out beneath him, dark blue and endless. It choked the shores, and only the river, lonely and free, lapped and lapped with its cold waves against the overhang. And what silence reigned all around!

At one point he says “все думал о старине, о той чудной власти, которая дана прошлому… Откуда она и что она значит?” [I kept thinking about olden times, of that wondrous power that is given to the past… Where is it from and what does it mean?]. It’s pure Bunin, and the contrast with Chekhov is characteristic: the former solitary and meditative, the latter social.

Though Chekhov could include philosophizing as well; in his Свирель [The Pipe], also from 1887, Meliton meets an old shepherd who keeps saying “Всё к одному клонится” [Everything’s heading the same way] and expands thus on his depressing thought (Garnett’s translation; in the Russian text, it’s the passage starting “— Не одни птицы, — сказал пастух” and ending “цветик ли какой, всё к одному клонится”):

“Not the birds only,” said the shepherd. “It’s the wild beasts, too, and the cattle, and the bees, and the fish. . . . If you don’t believe me ask the old people; every old man will tell you that the fish are not at all what they used to be. In the seas, in the lakes, and in the rivers, there are fewer fish from year to year. In our Pestchanka, I remember, pike used to be caught a yard long, and there were eel-pouts, and roach, and bream, and every fish had a presentable appearance; while nowadays, if you catch a wretched little pikelet or perch six inches long you have to be thankful. There are not any gudgeon even worth talking about. Every year it is worse and worse, and in a little while there will be no fish at all. And take the rivers now . . . the rivers are drying up, for sure.”

“It is true; they are drying up.”

“To be sure, that’s what I say. Every year they are shallower and shallower, and there are not the deep holes there used to be. And do you see the bushes yonder?” the old man asked, pointing to one side. “Beyond them is an old river-bed; it’s called a backwater. In my father’s time the Pestchanka flowed there, but now look; where have the evil spirits taken it to? It changes its course, and, mind you, it will go on changing till such time as it has dried up altogether. There used to be marshes and ponds beyond Kurgasovo, and where are they now? And what has become of the streams? Here in this very wood we used to have a stream flowing, and such a stream that the peasants used to set creels in it and caught pike; wild ducks used to spend the winter by it, and nowadays there is no water in it worth speaking of, even at the spring floods. Yes, brother, look where you will, things are bad everywhere. Everywhere!”

A silence followed. Meliton sank into thought, with his eyes fixed on one spot. He wanted to think of some one part of nature as yet untouched by the all-embracing ruin. Spots of light glistened on the mist and the slanting streaks of rain as though on opaque glass, and immediately died away again — it was the rising sun trying to break through the clouds and peep at the earth.

“Yes, the forests, too . . .” Meliton muttered.

“The forests, too,” the shepherd repeated. “They cut them down, and they catch fire, and they wither away, and no new ones are growing. Whatever does grow up is cut down at once; one day it shoots up and the next it has been cut down — and so on without end till nothing’s left. I have kept the herds of the commune ever since the time of Freedom, good man; before the time of Freedom I was shepherd of the master’s herds. I have watched them in this very spot, and I can’t remember a summer day in all my life that I have not been here. And all the time I have been observing the works of God. I have looked at them in my time till I know them, and it is my opinion that all things growing are on the decline. Whether you take the rye, or the vegetables, or flowers of any sort, they are all going the same way.”

Of course that bit about cutting down the forests reminds us of The Cherry Orchard, which brings me to the sound of the bucket in a mine. In that first story, the converted Jew describes one of his many difficult moments:

Был я на одних шахтах тут, в Донецком округе. А вы ведь видели, как люди спускаются в самый рудник. Помните, когда гонят лошадь и приводят в движение ворот, то по блоку одна бадья спускается в рудник, а другая поднимается, когда же начнут поднимать первую, тогда опускается вторая — всё равно, как в колодце с двумя ушатами. Ну, сел я однажды в бадью, начинаю спускаться вниз, и можете себе представить, вдруг слышу — тррр! Цепь разорвалась, и я полетел к чёрту вместе с бадьей и обрывком цепи… Упал с трехсаженной вышины прямо грудью и животом, а бадья, как более тяжелая вещь, упала раньше меня, и я ударился вот этим плечом об ее ребро. Лежу, знаете, огорошенный, думаю, что убился насмерть, и вдруг вижу — новая беда: другая бадья, что поднималась вверх, потеряла противовес и с грохотом опускается вниз прямо на меня… Что будете делать? Видя такой факт, я прижался к стене, съежился, жду, что вот-вот сейчас эта бадья со всего размаха трахнет меня по голове, вспоминаю папашу и мамашу, и Могилев, и Грумахера… молюсь богу, но, к счастью… Даже вспомнить страшно. […] Но, к счастью, она упала возле и только слегка зацепила этот бок… Содрала, знаете, с этого бока сюртук, сорочку и кожу… Сила страшная.

I was at a mine here in the Donets district. You have seen, I dare say, how people are let down into the mine. You remember when they start the horse and set the windlass moving, one bucket on the pulley goes down into the mine, while the other comes up; when the first begins to come up, then the second goes down — exactly like a well with two pails. Well, one day I got into the bucket, began going down, and can you fancy, all at once I heard, Trrr! The chain had broken and I flew to the devil together with the bucket and the broken bit of chain. . . . I fell from a height of twenty feet, flat on my chest and stomach, while the bucket, being heavier, reached the bottom before me, and I hit this shoulder here against its edge. I lay, you know, stunned. I thought I was killed, and all at once I saw a fresh calamity: the other bucket, which was going up, having lost the counter-balancing weight, was coming down with a crash straight upon me. . . . What was I to do? Seeing the position, I squeezed closer to the wall, crouching and waiting for the bucket to come full crush next minute on my head. I thought of papa and mamma and Mogilev and Grumaher. . . . I prayed. . . . But happily . . . it frightens me even to think of it. . . . […] But happily it fell beside me and only caught this side a little. . . . It tore off coat, shirt and skin, you know, from this side. . . . The force of it was terrific.

Now, in another story from that year, Счастье [Fortune], Garnett’s “Happiness,” in which two shepherds and an overseer spending a night in the steppe talk about the treasures supposed to be buried in the area, Chekhov includes the following passage:

В тихом воздухе, рассыпаясь по степи, пронесся звук. Что-то вдали грозно ахнуло, ударилось о камень и побежало по степи, издавая: «тах! тах! тах! тах!». Когда звук замер, старик вопросительно поглядел на равнодушного, неподвижно стоявшего Пантелея.

— Это в шахтах бадья сорвалась, — сказал молодой, подумав.

A sound suddenly broke on the still air, and floated in all directions over the steppe. Something in the distance gave a menacing bang, crashed against stone, and raced over the steppe, uttering, “Tah! tah! tah! tah!” When the sound had died away the old man looked inquiringly at Panteley, who stood motionless and unconcerned.

“It’s a bucket broken away at the pits,” said the young shepherd after a moment’s thought.

And many years later, in his last play (Russian text; translation by Julius West, which I’ve altered to bring out the parallel), there is a famous moment with an offstage sound:

Все сидят, задумались. Тишина. Слышно только, как тихо бормочет Фирс. Вдруг раздается отдаленный звук, точно с неба, звук лопнувшей струны, замирающий, печальный.

Любовь Андреевна. Это что?

Лопахин. Не знаю. Где-нибудь далеко в шахтах сорвалась бадья. Но где-нибудь очень далеко.

They all sit thoughtfully. It is quiet. Only the quiet mumbling of Firs is heard. Suddenly there rings out a distant sound as if from the sky, the sound of a breaking string, which dies away sadly.

LUBOV. What’s that?

LOPAKHIN. I don’t know. Somewhere far off a bucket has broken away at the pits. But it’s very far.

I love the sound of that bucket, echoing down the years and tying stories and play together.

Addendum. I just found another striking parallel: in Степь [The Steppe], old Father Christopher says he’s had a happy life and has no complaints to make, then adds “Не век же вековать, надо и честь знать” [You can’t be around forever, enough is enough]. This is an echo of a line in Свирель [The Pipe], when Meliton, infected by the old shepherd’s pessimism, says “И то сказать, не век же миру вековать — пора и честь знать” [After all, the world can’t be around forever, enough is enough]. I’ve rendered the idiom “пора (or надо) и честь знать” as “enough is enough,” but it can be “it’s (high) time to stop,” “there’s a limit to everything,” “don’t overdo it,” or (in the original sense of taking one’s leave) “it’s (high) time (for me/we/you) to go,” “it’s time I was on my way,” “I/we/you mustn’t outstay my/our/your welcome,” etc.; “честь знать” literally means “to know (one’s) honor.”


  1. Road from Mogilev to Odessa goes almost straight down south and is now on E95. Our uprooted hero makes a detour into (modern day) Moldova (Balti, Bender) or maybe he travels through Balta, which would make it less of a detour.

    Chekhov almost never wrote stories with surprise endings, and this one is no exception, but the last line has to be quoted

    Святогорские впечатления стали уже воспоминаниями, и я видел новое: ровное поле, беловато-бурую даль, рощицу у дороги, а за нею ветряную мельницу, которая стояла не шевелясь и, казалось, скучала оттого, что по случаю праздника ей не позволяют махать крыльями.

    Svyatogor impressions already turned into memories and I saw new things — a flat field, brownish landscape, a little grove by the road and behind it a windmill, which was standing still and appeared to be bored because on account of holidays she was forbidden to flap her wings. [I know that it should be “it” in ordinary English, but it also would ruin poetry].

  2. Yes, that’s a wonderful ending, and the windmill shows up again in “The Steppe.”

  3. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about the idea that heavier things fall faster!

    “Bucket” obviously describes this object very well, but I feel like similar conveyances big enough to hold humans might often get called something else in English. Car? Cage? Platform? Hot air balloons have baskets, but those are actual baskets.

  4. That’s an early ancestor of the Bricklayer’s Tale!

  5. What a marvelous post. Thanks. Today you’re as much hat as language, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.

  6. @AG: I guess I don’t have a clear idea of what size or shape these mine buckets would be. Modern mine elevators, or cages, or whatever one calls them are probably very different. The are rectangular, and, more importantly, they fill virtually the entire shaft. This is actually a key safety feature; rather than being supported just by a cable, the elevator car runs on wall-mounted rails, which, thanks to the famous engineering work of Otis, can be jammed if the cable looses tension, preventing a fall.

  7. Modern mine safety regulations forbid hoisting people in buckets. They use instead man baskets, cages or personnel lifting platforms.

    But in this primitive mine clearly people rode the same bucket which was used to lift dirt and coal.

    So the translation is adequate, but the feeling that something is not right is correct – that’s not a safe operation for sure.

  8. Byelaya, Tserkov

    The comma is redundant.

    приводят в движение ворот

    ворот: windlass

  9. The comma is redundant.

    Good catch. I don’t know if it was Garnett’s fault or the publisher’s; in any case, I’ve deleted it. And I fixed the mistranslation of ворот too — thanks!

  10. David Marjanović says

    Today you’re as much hat as language

    All hat, all language, as they probably say in Texas.

    (“There’s a saying in Tennessee – …”)

  11. (See now my Addendum on the idiom “пора (надо) и честь знать.”)

  12. It seems the “buckets” were old style by early 20th century, as witnessed by the famous folk song “Коногон” (“Pit-pony Driver” (; the engine that lifts the character’s body to the surface is a “cage” (клеть). Chekhov was probably writing from tales of old miners, or perhaps describing old semi-artisanal mines, not industrial collieries with foreign capital that were becoming the rule in his day. Incidentally this song had a very long life, with the lyrics being transformed for a particular occupation; there is a sort of Russian Casey Jones (, apparently pre-revolutionary, and then several war-time versions, well known to this day, where the character was a tankman or an airman ( All variants have the dead or dying protagonist say farewell to the machine he served so well in life and a hint at his beloved soon forgetting him.

  13. Too bad the Russians didn’t keep the tumbleweed (Russian thistle) at home instead of bringing it to North America.

  14. “We gave you Van Cliburn, and you gave us tumbleweeds!”

  15. John Cowan says

    Not so much the Russians themselves as flaxseed shipments from Russia that had some Kali tragus seeds mixed in.

    No less than ten different plant families have species that do the tumbleweed thing.

  16. I thought I’d post this provocative quote from Evgeny Vodolazkin’s essay on Bunin and Nabokov:

    А во-вторых — у великого стилиста Бунина есть то, чего нет у великого стилиста Набокова: Набоков восхищает, а Бунин — простите за невольную рифму — насыщает. Набоков — пирожное, Бунин — хлеб.

    And in the second place, the great stylist Bunin has something that the great stylist Nabokov lacks: Nabokov thrills you, but Bunin (forgive the unintentional rhyme) fills you. Nabokov is pastry, Bunin bread.

    There’s something to that…

  17. David Marjanović says

    (“There’s a saying in Tennessee – …”)

    Oops, I misquoted.

    “There’s a saying in Texas – I know it’s in Tennessee, it’s probably in Texas – …”

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