The Cable

For Empathy in Politics and Policy, Check out This Chekhov Checklist

A different kind of Russian story.


There has been much ink spilled on the lack of empathy in politics and policy today — lack of empathy for U.S. President Donald Trump’s voters, for people of color, for people in other countries, and in Trump’s own heart and mind.

And so, amidst talk of walls and tariffs and the media as the opposition and ahead of the first presidential phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, we suggest an empathetic antidote in the form of the writings of the grandson of a Russian peasant, a doctor turned author — Anton Chekhov, whose 157th birthday is this Sunday.

On the one hand, Chekhov might not be the first name to read on foreign policy. “There’s not a lot of writing about foreign lands in a literal sense,” Cathy Popkin, a Chekhov scholar at Columbia University, admitted to Foreign Policy. “But sometimes characters might as well be foreigners to each other. And sometimes there’s a groundswell of hope.”

And so, without further ado, some stories by Chekhov that you, whatever your position, can check out for a lesson on empathy, or what happens when it’s sadly lacking.

Rothschild’s Fiddle,” the story of a man who learns, if only for a moment, not to be an anti-Semite.

Ward 6,” the story of a doctor who visits with inmates and learns that it is very easy to say things like, “There is no real difference between a warm, snug study and this ward … A man’s peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but in himself” only when you yourself are not in the ward.

Anyuta,” the story of a medical student who treats a woman like no more than an instructive prop.

A Nervous Breakdown” the story of a law student who is overcome by the scale of human suffering after meeting prostitutes.

Enemies,” the story of a doctor who is taken to make a strange house call on the night his son dies, and who is consumed by irritation at his client long after he is done mourning his son.

Finally, read “The Lady With the Little Dog.” It’s not really about empathy at all (it’s about a love affair), but it ends with the lines, “And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.”

Because we all need a reminder that yes, life can be, and probably soon will be, much worse.

Photo credit: Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images

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