The Horse Stealers

Chekhov, Anton

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: May-27-2003


During Christmas week, Yergunov, a hospital assistant, is returning from a trip to another village when he gets caught in a snowstorm. He stops at a local tavern, where Kalashnikov, "an arrant scoundrel and horse-stealer" and Merik, "a dark-skinned peasant who had never been to the hospital," were also seeking shelter. Lyuba, the barmaid, cries, "Ugh! The unclean spirits are abroad!" The men start pondering the question of whether devils exist, and Yergunov tells the story of how he actually encountered a devil one day, while he (Yergunov) was out in the field vaccinating peasants.

When the storm quiets down, the men prepare to leave. Yergunov attempts to leave at the same time as Kalashnikov, because he is afraid the man will steal his horse, but Lyuba stands suggestively in front of the door, inviting Yergunov's caress. "Don't go away, dear heart," she murmurs.

Meanwhile, Kalashnikov proceeds to steal the horse, which, in fact, belonged to the hospital. After these delaying tactics, Lyuba raps the duped man on his head and tosses him out. Some months later, after he has lost his job because of drunkenness, Yergunov passes the tavern, wondering wistfully what it would feel like to be a thief.


To me, the crux of this story lies toward the beginning, in the conversation regarding the existence of devils. Yergunov states the alternatives: "If one reasons from science, of course, there are no devils, for it's a superstition; but if one looks at it simply, as you and I do, there are devils . . . " But who are they? Unlike the evil spirits of religion and folk tales, Chekhov's devils are indigenous to the human world, rather than to a supernatural realm. Chekhov's devils don't control the weather, but they do steal horses.

The story has a strain of dark comedy. Yergunov is a puffed-up drunk of a medical assistant, surely not the "good guy" a reader might want to identify with. Yet, the poor fellow doesn't deserve to have his horse stolen. Try as he might--after all, he knows that Kalashnikov steals horses--his best attempts to protect himself fail. The flesh is indeed weak, and he succumbs to Lyuba's charms. The story documents just another step (or misstep) in his career as a loser.


First published: 1890. Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett.

Primary Source

The Tales of Chekhov, Vol. 10: The Horse Stealers and Other Stories



Place Published

New York



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