Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

"Тhe Murder"

"The Murder"
Anton Pavlovich Chekov
Melikhovo, near Moscow

PLOT SUMMARY: “The Murder” tells the story of Matvey Terehov, a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian and member of the local parish. After a service, Matvey strikes up a conversation about his earlier life as a factory employee and choir member with a waiter, Sergey Nikanoritch. Like Sergey, who formerly served in a distinguished restaurant, Matvey is dissatisfied with the privation and squalor of his current life now that he has fallen ill and moved in with his cousin, Yakov Ivanitch. Yakov and Matvey do not get along because they have very different approaches to religion. Yakov believes he is a better Christian than most priests, so he celebrates mass at home. Matvey considers this a sin and implores Yakov to attend church. Matvey later continues his life story, explaining that even when youth he was intensely religious. Because of his zealotry, he acted much like Yakov, disrespecting clergymen and seeking to form his own church according to strict rules. He acted like a living saint with his female congregation, until he went over the edge and engaged in an orgy with them. A powerful man in the community explained to him the errors of his ways, and Matvey recognized he could not and should not try to be better than everyone else. Matvey’s friends seem to ignore his life’s tale, and instead discuss the Terehov family fortune he and his cousin have jointly inherited. They believe Matvey should try to claim his half of the money from Yakov.

     The narrator gives a history of the Terehov family and their tavern, as well as their tradition of religious devotion, ending by informing the reader that Matvey and Yakov have always disagreed. It seems Yakov’s religion is based not off of faith but only on keeping “good order” (Section III). Matvey’s earnest faith bothers him no end; his cousin critiques his business practices and worship as sinful. Even worse, Matvey has disrupted his prayer routine. Tensions are also high between Yakov’s wife, Aglaia, and Matvey; they boil over when Aglaia chastises for the illegitimate child he fathered in his youth. Aglaia makes it clear, though, that she is less upset with Matvey’s lack of moral rectitude than with his decision to leave all his money with his mistress, not the family. As Yakov and family begin that evening’s service, Matvey’s friends arrive, and Sergey begs him for money to start a better restaurant. The cousins then fight, and Matvey asks for his share of the fortune, but Yakov rejects him. Yakov leaves to collect a debt, but is delayed on the road and returns home worrying that his moneylending may make him a bad Christian. Again, Sergey arrives to ask for money, but Matvey ignores him and chastises Yakov for his religious practices.

     A defensive Yakov argues that Matvey’s failure to properly fast makes him the real apostate, and the cousins physically confront each other. Seeing this, Aglaia strikes Matvey’s head and Yakov beats him to death with an iron. Sergey then walks in—the family did not realize he was still there—and Yakov buys his silence with the money the waiter had asked Matvey for. Yakov buries Matvey in the forest, but later is caught. The family and Sergey are all sentenced to hard labor, and Yakov loses his contrived religion. The story ends on Sahalin (Section VI), where Yakov is part of a work gang as punishment for attempting to escape. He is extremely homesick and regretful and has turned back to traditional religion. Removed from his family and home, Yakov is truly miserable. 

ANALYSIS: Russian prison literature has long pondered whether or not prison is actually capable of improving a prisoner’s morality and life. In “The Murder,” it seems Chekov is in agreement with later authors like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who argue that prison is a site of personal discovery. Yakov Ivanitch rediscovers an authentic faith while imprisoned and loses the aura of superiority that led him to ruin (Chekov, Section VI). It seems unlikely, however, that this can be the entire meaning of “The Murder,” that an evildoer commits evil and is justly punished, thus saving his soul. Chekov was an avowed atheist, and so the regaining of religion might not be as positive as it on first glance appears.

Instead, throughout “The Murder” religion leads to petty confrontations between Matvey and Yakov, eventually resulting in an escalation of tensions and the titular crime. Religion divides the family between holier-than-thou arrogance and whining earnestness. Instead, a better way to read “The Murder” in light of the Russian Prison Text is that the situation determines the outcome and that identity is fluid. In one context, Matvey shares Yakov’s arrogance and only in another comes to his senses, in much the same way that Sergei Dovlatov argues it is only opportunity that divides the prisoner from the guard (Dovlatov, The Zone, 49).


“'Remember, Matvey, that anything above the ordinary is of the devil.' And now I eat and drink like everyone else and pray like everyone else. . . . If it happens now that the priest smells of tobacco or vodka I don't venture to blame him, because the priest, too, of course, is an ordinary man.” (Matvey, after learning the error of his ways, Section II).

“Cousin, your prayer is not pleasing to God. For it is written, First be reconciled with thy brother and then offer thy gift. You lend money at usury, you deal in vodka – repent!” (Matvey, to his cousin Yakov, Section III).

“His eyes were dimmed with tears; but still he gazed into the distance where the pale lights of the steamer faintly gleamed, and his heart ached with yearning for home, and he longed to live, to go back home to tell them there of his new faith and to save from ruin if only one man, and to live without suffering if only for one day.” (Yakov, in prison, Section VII).

BIOGRAPHY: In 1860, Anton Pavlovich Chekov was born to a poor family in Taganrog, Russia (Hingley, Rayfield 30). Chekov’s family was descended from serfs and his childhood was difficult due to the inability of his father, a grocer, to adequately support the large family (Hingley). His father was also very pious, and his aggressive proselytizing combined with his financial ineptitude created a potent cocktail of misery which helped to form Chekov’s later writing (Hingley). Chekov’s escape came through education: between “a local school for Greek boys” and high school, Chekov received “the best standard education then available” (Hingley), an education meant for “the new middle-class” (Rayfield 30). Meanwhile, his father had removed Chekov’s family to Moscow in an effort to right his financial affairs , leading Chekov to follow in 1879 and enter the medical school (Hingley). He would continue working as a doctor throughout his writing career and, upon his graduation in 1894, became the main source of financial support for his family in Moscow. Throughout his career, even after becoming an acclaimed writer, Chekov still considered himself a physician first and an author second. As he himself put it, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress” (Schwartz 213). His early work bore this out, as he wrote “lowbrow” stories for comic publications under a pseudonym (Hingley).

     Chekov’s career turned around upon moving to Ukraine, where he published The Steppe, his first critically acclaimed piece Though Chekov eventually wrote over 50 published stories (including “The Butterfly,” The Black Monk,” and “Peasants”) he is best remembered for his plays, like The Seagull (Hingley). After several years of prolific writing, Chekov grew tired of relentless criticism of the lack of a clear political stance in his writing, and travelled alone to an infamous Russian prison encampment at Sakhalin (Hingley), about which he wrote a scathing rebuke (entitled The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin). Eventually, in 1892, Chekov bought an estate near Moscow, in Melikhovo, where he wrote many of his short stories and offered new insights into the life of the peasantry (Hingley). Always sickly, in 1897 a resurgence of his childhood tuberculosis forced Chekov to the warmer climes of Yalta. He hated to be apart from the Russian literary center of Moscow and his wife, Olga Knipper (Hingley). Additionally, he fought with producers over their treatment of his plays. In 1904, Chekov’s tuberculosis finally claimed him (Hingley). After the first World War, Chekov came to international prominence, a position he still inhabits more than a century since. 


Chekhov, Anton. (1903). “The Murder.” The Literature Network. Retrieved From:

Hingley, Ronald. “Anton Chekov” Encyclopedia Brittanica hy/Anton-Chekhov. Accessed 21 Feb. 2021

Rayfield, Donald. “What Did Jews Mean to Chekhov?” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, vol. 8, no. 1, 1973, pp. 30–36. JSTOR, Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

Schwartz, Robert. “Medicine is My Lawful Wife’- Anton Chekov, 1860-1904.” The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 315, 2004, pp. 213-214. NEJM,


“The Murder” is one of Chekov’s more obscure stories, making it challenging to find material commenting on it directly. The sources included here, however, address important aspects of the story, notably Eastern Orthodoxy, which may be somewhat unfamiliar to the reader. Understanding some Orthodox concepts can be important to interpreting the story.

Givens, John. “The Century of Unbelief: Christ in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature.” The Image of Christ in Russian Literature: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Pasternak, Cornell University Press, 2018, pp. 16–39. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
Givens’ chapter describes the disconnect between Orthodox belief and ritual among nineteenth-century Russians (Givens, 17). Givens helps to explain the markedly un-Christian activities of Yakov Ivanitch even as he professes strong beliefs by arguing that Orthodoxy became “a purely cultural or background feature” in Russian literature and not a living, dynamic faith (Givens, 23). In fact, Givens discusses nineteenth-century Russian literature as directly attacking the ostensible Christians, like Yakov, who do nothing for those less fortunate (Givens, 24). Finally, Givens gives some mention to the role of icons, which play a minor part in “The Murder” (29).

 Volkova, Elena. “Literature as Icon: Introduction.” Literature and Theology, vol. 20, no. 1, 2006, pp. 1–6. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
This article, the introduction to a volume of Literature and Theology devoted to Russian literature (Volkova, 4), offers an overview of the relationship between Eastern Orthodoxy and Russian literature. Volkova describes Eastern Christianity as drawn to “beauty,” “blessing,” and “art” (Volkova, 1), compared to the focus of Western Christianity on seeking to understand God and the afterlife. This conception of God as beyond mortal understanding can be used to understand “The Murder.” It helps to explain Yakov Ivanitch’s belief that he is just as capable of caring for his spiritual welfare as the clergy (Chekov, part III). This article also introduces other works which help to clarify the relationship between Russian literature and religion in the pre-Soviet era.

Volkova, Elena. “The Salvation Story in Russian Literature.” Literature and Theology, vol. 20, no. 1, 2006, pp. 31–45. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
This second Volkova article introduces the concept of “strastoterpets,” one saintly archetype in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, notable as those who meet their end “without resisting” (Volkova, 32). The many types of saints in Russian tradition helps the reader understand why the peasant women looked to Matvey Terehov as one (Chekov, part II). However, his efforts to save himself from his killers (Chekov, part V) gives final credence to his statement that he is not a saint, and in actuality is “like everyone else” (Chekov, part II). Nevertheless, Volkava posits that many Russian saints are notable for their suffering (Volkova, 33), which indicates that Matvey might be more holy than he himself believes. It might also be questioned whether Matvey is in fact a “holy fool”; Volkova also gives a description of this archetype often misunderstood by Western Christians (Volkova, 35).

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