In 1861, Russian Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs. This act, called the Liberation, ended a form of servitude that emulated the feudal system of people belonging to the land that dated back to medieval times. In the aftermath of Liberation, some of the aristocracy continued to flourish while others perished and some of the hardest working serfs, in turn, rose through their hard work to the highest rungs of the social ladder. Although Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard forty years after this historic event, the fallout, so to speak, from this monumental shift was still being felt.
This new social paradigm can be observed in The Cherry Orchard. Madame Ranevsky, who has failed to manage her cherry orchard estate and squandered her money on an unfaithful Parisian lover, has fallen on hard times. Her mortgage payment is due and she does not have the funds to cover the payment. Her former serf Lopakhin, a shrewd businessman, tells her she must cut down the cherry orchard and build villas for the newly emerging middle class. However, unable to change her way of thinking, she continues to act the aristocrat to the end and thus loses her estate to her former serf Lopakhin.
The liberation of Russia's serfs by Tsar Nicholas II serves as the historical background for The Cherry Orchard. The Liberation freed millions of people who otherwise would have lived out lives of servitude on Russian estates with no opportunity for freedom. Seemingly then it would seem that everyone in Russia, thirty years after Liberation, would have become accustomed to freedom or liberty with opportunities for mobility and social advancement. Yet, many of Chekhov's characters seem to be frozen or inert-in other words, not free at all. In regards to freedom, they fall into two groups: those who are free and positively approach the future and those who are imprisoned in the past.
First, there is no doubt that Trophimof, the play's idealist, feels free. Indeed, he refuses Lopakhin's offer of money because after all he "a free man; nothing that you value . . . has the smallest power over me" (43). Similarly, although Anna has been brought up amidst aristocratic splendor, she has a mind of her own and can see how her spendthrift mother tosses away money. Anna desires an education and a new future and her act of leaving the estate ("goodbye old house, goodbye old life") with Trophimof casts her as a free spirit. There is no doubt about Lopakhin who has utilized the Liberation to move up rapidly through the social ranks. Even Dunyasha the young servant has moved socially upward by adopting lady-like mannerisms, and the aristocrat Gayef has become a banker and seems happier at the end of the play. Although a landowner, Pishtchik at first seems to be imprisoned by his mortgage but he changes after coming into money and actually pays back money to Madame Ranevsky.
On the other hand, Madame Ranevsky remains frozen, imprisoned in time and unable to move forward. She cannot accept that she has lost her money, her estate, indeed her way of life. Even at the end she gives her purse away to her departing peasants. She will return to Paris to an abusive lover sure to leave her penniless. Barbara also seems to be unable to move, forced to take a job she doesn't want, and resigned to hard work because she doesn't have money. Similarly, Charlotte will retain her role as governess because she is limited by financial restraint: "don't forget to get me a new place, please. I can't do without it" (44). More than anyone, Firs the elderly former serf has never been liberated and he will die forgotten and alone.