Where It All Goes Down
Turn-of-the-Century Rural Russia
An Empire on the Verge
At the time of Uncle Vanya, Russia was still ruled by tsars (basically, Russian kings; "tsar" comes from the word Caesar and means "emperor"), even if their power was being challenged by socialist ideas and a guy named Lenin. These rabble-rousers had the crazy idea that maybe just being born into nobility didn't mean that you should be able to exploit everyone else's labor and live the high life.
In Uncle Vanya, we see a family that has very poor neighbors, that owns its land but must work very hard to get enough off of it to live, and an intellectual relative who doesn't work or produce anything, really, but spends the money his country family sends him without appreciating where it comes from.
In a lot of ways, the play is like a microcosm of Russia at the time, in particular the lifestyle of rich people in the country who were out of touch, running out of money, and unable to adapt to change. Chekhov doesn't seem to think that these people can change much, and maybe he was right: it took a revolution to break through the kind of inertia we see in this play.
Vanya complains about Serebryakov's actions in the Act 1:
VOINITSKY: [...] This old fish is living on the estate of his first wife, he has to live there because he can't afford to live in the city. [...] Just think what luck! [. . . H]e's got academic degrees and a chair, has become His Excellency, the son-in-law of a senator, et cetera, et cetera. [... F]or twenty-five years, he has occupied a post which shouldn't have been his! (1.121-38)
This is exactly the sort of exploitative situation that will spark the Russian Revolution. Serebryakov, in Vanya's eyes, doesn't deserve the privileged situation he has been enjoying, but all the hard-working people in his family have made it possible for him.
At the time of the play, it isn't here yet, but at the turn of the century, workers and peasants were forming resistance groups and socialist philosophy was spreading. At the end of the 19th century, huge changes were on the way in the form of a bloody revolution and complete political upheaval.