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Donald Rayfield

Author of Stalin and His Hangmen

18+ Works 483 Members 13 Reviews 3 Favorited

About the Author

Donald Rayfield is Emeritus Professor of Russia and Georgian in the Department of Russia, Queen Mary University of London. He has published the standard history of Georgia's literature and is editor-in-chief of the immense Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary. His Stalin and His Hangmen (2004) show more has been translated into nine languages. With 28 illustrations and 6 maps show less

Works by Donald Rayfield

Associated Works

Dead Souls (1842) — Translator, some editions; Introduction, some editions — 9,373 copies, 120 reviews
Anton Chekhov's Short Stories [Norton Critical Edition, 1st ed.] (1979) — Contributor — 643 copies, 8 reviews
Selected Poems (1973) — Introduction, some editions — 512 copies, 5 reviews
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1865) — Translator, some editions — 250 copies, 2 reviews
Kolyma Stories (New York Review Books Classics) (2018) — Translator — 178 copies, 1 review
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov (2020) — Introduction, some editions — 74 copies
The Devils' Dance (2016) — Translator, some editions — 55 copies, 2 reviews
Kvachi (Georgian Literature) (2015) — Translator, some editions — 35 copies
A Man Was Going Down the Road (1973) — Translator, some editions — 28 copies, 1 review
Confessions of Victor X (1984) — Editor, some editions — 19 copies, 1 review
Manaschi (2021) — Translator, some editions — 17 copies
Chekhov: New Perspectives (1984) — Contributor — 11 copies


Common Knowledge

Canonical name
Rayfield, Donald
Places of residence
London, England, UK
Dulwich College, London
Magdalene College, Cambridge University
Professor of Russian, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London
Queen Mary, University of London
University of Queensland
Awards and honors
Officer of the Order of the British Empire
Short biography
Born in 1942, educated at Dulwich College and the University of Cambridge, for most of his life Donald has been a lecturer and a Professor of Russian. In 1973, he first visited Georgia and has since written a history of Georgian literature, edited a Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary and, recently, published a history of Georgia.

He is also the author of a biography of Anton Chekhov and a study of Stalin and his Hangmen, both of which have been translated into other languages, including Russian. He has translated a number of Russian and Georgian poets, playwrights and prose writers. He is now an emeritus professor, but continues research. He lives in Kent and has a passion for horticulture, especially exotic trees.




As Chekhov's greatest play, "The Cherry Orchard" has long presented challenges to readers, literary critics, and theatre audiences -- challenges that reflect the multiple interpretations that one can apply. As a contribution to the Twayne's Masterwork series, Donald Rayfield's analysis offers some help to readers seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the play's meanings and the playwright's intentions. This book is organized as follows. The first section is titled Literary and Historical Context" and considers in turn (1) "Chekhov's culture and traditions"; (2) the importance of "The Cherry Orchard" and (3) its critical reception. The next part of the book is titled "A Reading", and first summarizes and analyzes each of the 4 acts in turn. It then considers the "metatext", "intertextuality" with regard to Chekhov's own plays and those of other authors, including Turgenev, Ibsen, and Shakespeare. Next, a chapter titled "The Aftermath" considers the legacy of the play, through contemporary times. A chronology of Chekhov's life and works helps round out the book, along with a selected bibliography and an index.

Having read "The Cherry Orchard", and having seen two performances of it by video, I found the Twayne analysis to be rather helpful to my understanding of the play. The first chapter places the play in the context of Chekhov's life, career, and sociopolitical perspective. Chapter 2 proposes that "The Cherry Orchard" is important for 3 reasons: first for "its intrinsic textual richness, its linguistic power, and subtlety as a piece of dramatic prose"; second because of "its position in Russian cultural history as the culmination of all 'realist' nineteenth century fiction and as the first classic of an arguably new 'symbolist' or 'absurdist' literature; and third, because of its role in the history of 20th century drama. Each of these three aspects illustrate the difficulty for those not fluent in Russian, since so much of the play's deeper meanings seem to be lost in translation. Even in its original language, the subtlety and complexity of the play defies understanding; witness the conflict between Chekhov on the one hand and the play's first director and actors, as to whether it is best presented as a comedy or a tragedy (a duality reflected in the subtitle of the present work). Analyses of the four acts of the play highlighted the difficulties. So much reportedly depended on sound effects, use of long pauses, and subtle inflections of speech, yet Chekhov offered but minimal stage directions. Little wonder that the play's directors weren't often successful at carrying out the playwright's actual intentions. Beyond the analyses of the four acts of the plays, I found the intertextual analysis to be useful, in drawing parallels with Chekhov's other plays and with dramatic works by other authors.

At first reading (or viewing), "The Cherry Orchard" is deceptive -- it appears more simple than it is. For readers seeking to understand the subtleties and nuances of this complex play, Rayfield's analysis is likely to be of some value. For my part, it helped choose between the poles of "catastrophe and comedy". It is both, and best characterized as a tragicomedy, one reflective of its author's compassion and affectionate understanding of the hapless people who populate his play. With this perspective, I recommend the 1981 video with Judi Dench as Madame Ranevsky over the 1999 one with Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates. The latter misses the comedic elements and presents the story as more of a tragedy than the author apparently ever intended.
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2 vote
danielx | Dec 18, 2019 |
Solid account of the way Joseph Stalin consolidated, and then abused, his power in the USSR of the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. If you've read "Let History Judge" or "The Gulag Archipelago," much of this is not new; the big advantage this book has is that during the brief period when archives were available in the early 1990s, much vital data was extracted, and it's spread throughout this book. A useful adjunct to some of the recent biographies of Stalin. Recommended.
EricCostello | 8 other reviews | Oct 10, 2019 |
I'm sure there are amusing names for hyper-inclusive biographies, I mean, right down to toilet paper usage (not kidding) - let us just call it the "laundry list bio". Much new information was released in the last few decades, letters etc. of Chekhov's that had been considered too racy by the Soviet state. And racy plenty of it is. Chekhov, rather like Shakespeare, arose from a class only two generations away from serfdom into precarious middle-class (shopkeeping). The parents worked tirelessly and devotedly (which includes beatings, scoldings and whatever else deemed necessary) to encourage the five boys to study hard and make something of themselves. This did not exclude occasionally abandoning them while they went elsewhere to try and make money. (The one sister, Masha, did receive slightly less harsh treatment although she was expected to do her share in the household.) The father, Pavel, was a religious fanatic and the boys grew up memorizing vast tracts of bible and music, reciting and singing the orthodox litany. Rayfield is so intent on laying out the new information that he does not linger over interpretation -- but many have seen that the Chekhovian story structure is musical, theme, development, return to deepened theme (at the simplest) and likely it is from this early influence. Rayfield mentions this here and there, but no deeper looks. As the boys grow up it becomes apparent that Kolia, the painter, is a genius but unstable and that Anton is the most stable and the most intelligent of the lot. Oldest brother Aleksandr is a math/science whiz but also vulnerable to substance abuse. They are all very randy and crude in ways that separate them entirely from, say, Tolstoy and the aristocratic classes. In fact there is something Elizabethan all around in a reaching after everything life could offer, as if knowing it couldn't last long. Russia at the turn of the century had, perhaps, more in common with earlier times than staid and repressed Western Europe. (About to explode into violence, yes.) In a biography of this magnitude I can hardly summarize but I will say that many things surprised me -- among them how careless Chekhov's family were with him, given that he became the de facto head of the family, a famous and admired man, the breadwinner. They were also amazingly restless always hopping on trains to Moscow, Petersburg, back to the dacha in the country, later to Yalta, now and then into Europe . . . and as Chekhov grew more ill these jaunts didn't cease. The weather in Russia is truly appalling most of the year and he found himself stuck in terrible circumstances waiting for trains -- no doubt these speeded on his death. The contradictions are endless. Chekhov knew how important he was: he never let Masha marry (she was not sure she wanted to and he played on it so she would stay head of domestic affairs for him). Everyone knew he was ill and that he should be kept warm and well fed, and yet Masha would go off, or later his wife Olga, and the house would go cold and the food would revert to potatoes and indigestible fatty stews he couldn't stomach . . . His mother was rather hopeless at caring for him too. Dogs were adored then cruelly abandoned. There were interludes, a few years at the dacha Melikhovo where they played at being estate owners and enjoyed themselves but it all proved to be incredibly hard work. I'm rambling -- Rayfield does provide the information for the knowledgeable Chekhovian to draw the parallels between what went on in his family life, love life, and travels and what he put into his works. An exhausting and exhaustive read but worth it for any Chekhovian admirer, which I am. The writing is never anything but solid, clear and so a degree above pedestrian, but Rayfield was trying to get in every scrap of information and he succeeds. ****1/2… (more)
1 vote
sibylline | 1 other review | Jan 21, 2019 |
I have had a pre-occupation with evil rulers of the 20th century. My opinions may change but I am pretty convinced Stalin "wins" as greatest evil leader of that time period. Definitely worse than Mao, probably worse even than Hitler. This book tells part of the story.
vanjr | 8 other reviews | Oct 4, 2015 |


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