Chekhov’s contemporaries wondered: What sort of Russian writer was he? He had no solution to the ultimate questions. With no “general idea” to teach, wasn’t he more like a talented Frenchman or Englishman born in the wrong place?

No country ever has valued literature more highly than Russia. When Tolstoy published Anna Karenina, Dostoevsky enthused that at last the existence of the Russian people had been justified! Can anyone imagine an English critic thinking England’s right to exist was in question or discovering it in Bleak House?

Nations, it seemed, live in order to produce great literature, and literature exists to reveal great truths. Science, philosophy, and the other arts are all very well, but nothing rivals poetry and fiction. For Russians, literature played the same role as Scripture did for the ancient Hebrews when it was still possible to add books to the Bibl ...