118960501

A stimulating attempt to explain and understand post-Soviet history through the greats of Russian literature. To wit:

The year is about 1900. A charming but feckless aristocrat, Lyubov Ranevskaya, returns from Paris to her family estate in eastern Ukraine and must sell the house and its famous cherry orchard to pay off a mountain of debt. A veritable social slide show of the era passes through the house: a rich new businessman, Yermolai Lopakhin, the son of a serf who can now afford to buy and cut down the cherry orchard; a revolutionary "eternal student" who announces that he is "above love"; an uprooted German governess; down-at-the-heels aristocratic neighbors; and uppity servants who make fun of their masters.

They are all in the same house, thinking they are talking to each other but actually talking past each other. We see that, and they don't.

The play builds to a dramatic close.

A party is held as the estate is put up for auction, and the ex-serf Lopakhin triumphantly buys it. He extravagantly orders the gypsy musicians to play and then tries to console Ranevskaya, "Oh, how I wish it would all pass and our disjointed unhappy life would change quickly!" But there is no revolution, only more gentle muddle. Everyone just moves on — or back to Paris, in the case of Ranevskaya. Her indolent aristocratic brother takes a job in a bank. Only Firs, the elderly deaf servant, is left behind in the abandoned house, and that is by mistake.

A mixed inheritance, missed opportunities, the triumph of new money, transition without arrival. This is the story of Ukraine, a modern European country of 45 million people that is not really going anywhere.

(Photo: A girl jogs through a lavender field near the Crimean city of Bakhchisaray, Ukraine, on July 4, 2011. By Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images.)