Why Sakhalin?

Joseph Frank

  • Chekhov: Scenes from a Life by Rosamund Bartlett
    Free Press, 395 pp, £20.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 7432 3074 4
  • Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters translated by Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips
    Penguin, 552 pp, £12.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 14 044922 1

Chekhov biographers are lucky: they don’t have to face the problem of spending a good deal of time studying the life of someone they are liable to end up disliking intensely. Lawrence Thompson was selected by Robert Frost to be his official biographer: after literally living with his subject, the biographer found the poet to be very far from admirable; and the work he produced bore clear evidence of this shift in sentiment.

I spent more years than I like to recall with Dostoevsky. On the one hand, I admired his literary genius and capacity to portray guilt-ridden figures unable to stifle their moral conscience – a conscience I assumed to be identical with his own. On the other hand, there was my hostile reaction to many of the social-political ideas he accepted and propagated in the later phase of his life. Moreover, although he was not the monster portrayed by some biographers, at least implicitly guilty of the crimes depicted in his novels (there were rumours to this effect during his lifetime), he was notoriously prickly. Indeed, his attitude towards foreigners who questioned him about his work, as we know from the account left by the Vicomte de Vogüe (whose book on the Russian novel brought Dostoevsky to the attention of the European literary world), was anything but friendly. No such problems bother students of Chekhov, Russian or otherwise. On the contrary, it is difficult to think of a writer of equal fame and importance who, on close inspection, proves to be such an admirable and sympathetic human being.

Rosamund Bartlett’s work is not a conventional biography, unrolling the familiar facts of Chekhov’s life once again, but rather a study of the world in which he lived and wrote. ‘It is difficult for us,’ she writes, ‘to penetrate Chekhov’s character through his relationships with people because of his inscrutability and reserve’: as a way round this she has chosen to shift her emphasis ‘to his relationship with the places in which he lived’. As a result we get a plethora of lively and quite interesting information about all sorts of ancillary aspects of Chekhov’s life, ranging from the ancient Greek past of his birthplace, Taganrog, to the Chekhov Museum opened in Sri Lanka in 1999. The chapters proceed geographically according to the succession of places in which Chekhov lived, or to which he travelled; and the events of his career, as they relate to these locations, are filled in regardless of when they occurred. The selection of letters edited and translated by Bartlett, in collaboration with Anthony Phillips, provides a valuable supplement to what she herself calls ‘an impressionistic approach’ (as well as being marvellous in their own right).

The history of Taganrog, a southern city on the Sea of Azov, goes back to the Scythians and the ancient Greeks, not to mention the Mongol and Ottoman Empires, and Bartlett explores it at length in a first chapter ranging from Herodotus to the Crimean War. The city was heavily bombarded by the British fleet, and Chekhov’s father and mother (he was not yet born) moved inland to escape the danger. At this time Tolstoy was writing his Sevastopol Sketches, and Bartlett suggests (no reference is given) that many years later, when Tolstoy had become ‘something of a paternal figure’ for the younger writer, ‘the war would be a favourite topic of conversation for Chekhov and Tolstoy when they were both living in the Crimea for health reasons.’ It was also the war that impelled Chekhov’s mother to press his father, whose own father was a freed serf, to raise the funds necessary to join the merchant class so as to be exempt from military service.

Pavel Egorovich Chekhov thus became a meshchanin, a member of the merchant class and proprietor of a small grocery which ‘sold everything from rhubarb to castor oil and was open at all hours’. Merchants as a group were looked down on in educated Russian society, and had been satirised as ruthlessly grasping and backward in outlook in Ostrovsky’s plays. One of Ostrovsky’s main themes was the pitiless domestic tyranny that prevailed in such households, and in his childhood Chekhov experienced this. Bartlett follows other biographers in assuming that, despite Chekhov’s denials, a character in the novella ‘Three Years’ is really a portrait of his father. ‘I remember my father starting to teach me, or to put it more simply beat me, before I was five years old,’ the narrator recalls. ‘He flogged me with a birch rod, boxed my ears, and hit me round the head, and every morning when I woke up the first thing I would think about would be: was I going to get beaten?’ Much later, in a letter reproaching his older brother Alexander for his behaviour to his wife and their cook, he wrote: ‘Despotism and lies also destroyed our own childhood, so much so that we become sick and fearful when we remember it.’

Despite such memories, Chekhov’s behaviour towards his father and mother (whom he supported first in part and then entirely) was exemplary; and he helped other family members as well in time of need. With time, too, he came to value aspects of his upbringing and of his father. Typical of the merchant milieu was an intense religiosity, which Chekhov deplored. In ‘Three Years’, he wrote that the children ‘had to go to matins and early mass, kiss the hands of priest and monks and read akathists’ – a series of prayers praising God. He and his brothers also sang in the choirs that his father, who learned to play the violin and paint icons, loved to direct – to the exhaustion of the participants. These activities provided Chekhov with a detailed knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy that surfaces again and again in his works and that perhaps only Nikolai Leskov could match. Chekhov called Leskov ‘my favourite writer’ in a letter after the two had first met, and quotes the half-drunken Leskov as having said: ‘Thee I anoint with oil, even as Samuel anointed David … You must write.’

Like so much else in Chekhov’s work, his relation to religion is ambiguous. In a letter to Diaghilev a year before his death, he wrote: ‘I can only regard with bewilderment an educated man who is also religious.’ But while intellectually he could not accept his father’s faith, he understood – and sympathised with – the emotional importance of faith for the Russian people. A beautiful story, ‘The Student’, expresses sentiments that it is difficult to believe did not stir in him as well; and according to Bartlett, it was a story he particularly cherished.

In it, a young man, a seminary student, is walking in a wood on a spring evening that has suddenly turned icily cold and gloomy. The change of weather impels him to think of the terrible Russian past, and of a present filled with poverty and hunger, ignorance, anguish and oppression. But then, noticing a fire fed by two peasant women, he approaches and tells them the story of St Peter, also seeking warmth on a bitter night; they break down and weep at Peter’s denial of Christ and Peter’s own tears at his betrayal. What had occurred in Palestine 19 centuries ago, the student now sees, still has a relation to the present; it is not only the horrors of Russia’s past that are still alive. As he leaves, filled with exaltation and a feeling of happiness, Chekhov notes that ‘he was only 22.’ This typically ironic touch does not really weaken the evocative power of the Christian affirmation, which relieves, even if momentarily, the sombreness of the student’s initial thoughts; and Chekhov referred to this story when countering the often made charge that his work offered only pessimism and despair. The excellent critic Leonid Grossman once called him ‘a probing Darwinist with the love of St Francis of Assisi for every living creature’.

Even before finishing at the gymnasium at Taganrog, Chekhov began to write comic anecdotes and stories, which he sent to his brothers in Moscow. A few years later he was publishing them, under the pseudonym of Antosha Chekhonte, in a humorous magazine called the Alarm Clock. He won a scholarship to study medicine at Moscow University, and in 1879 went to join his family there; they had left Taganrog three years earlier after the grocery failed and his father was threatened with the debtors’ prison. Chekhov had already begun to contribute whatever he could from his literary earnings, and even part of his scholarship, to relieve their poverty. His connection with Taganrog did not cease, however, and he went back for several visits. What struck him in 1887 was the ‘Asiatic’ aspect of the decaying port, its leisurely way of life and its inhabitants’ total unawareness of anything beyond the simplest demands of existence; none of the relatives he was visiting ever read a newspaper or a book. ‘There are 60,000 inhabitants who just eat, drink and reproduce, but they have no other interests.’ Later, he regularly sent shipments of books to the Taganrog library – he provided them with all the French classics while living in Nice – and participated in plans to build a museum.

He turned out a mass of comic anecdotes and brief stories for one journal or another in Moscow and then Petersburg to supplement his income as a medical student. In 1884 he got his degree and for about four years practised as a physician. Literature, he said in a letter, was his mistress: medicine was his wife. These roles were reversed once he began to take himself seriously as a writer, but whenever he was living in the country the peasants would form a long line in front of his dacha asking for treatment – which he always provided free of charge. During a cholera epidemic in 1892, he was enlisted by the district council to head the efforts to contain it. ‘The peasants,’ he wrote in a letter, ‘are coarse, dirty and suspicious; but the thought that our efforts will not be completely in vain stops one noticing any of this.’

Chekhov’s attitude to his writing changed as a result of a letter from Dimitri Grigorovich, a minor writer chiefly famous as a survivor of the great generation of the 1860s. He had shared a flat with Dostoevsky in 1845, when the latter was working on Poor Folk; and he was one of the two writers (the other was Nekrasov) who took the manuscript to the influential critic Belinsky, so ensuring its success, an incident recounted in Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer (1873). Chekhov met Grigorovich on a visit to Petersburg, and a short time later he received a letter from him expressing admiration for his work, and urging him to respect his talent and stop writing for deadlines.

Grigorovich had been much impressed with a story, little more than a sketch, called ‘The Huntsman’. It depicts an accidental meeting in the countryside between a handsome peasant, raised a notch above his station by his prowess as a huntsman and fisherman supplying food for an aristocratic table, and the woman to whom he had been married 12 years earlier. The marriage had been a forced one, performed while the huntsman was drunk and intended as a humiliation by their patrician serf-owner. The wife implores the huntsman to visit her; but while he scorns any renewal of whatever relationship they may have had, he turns back to press a rouble in her hand before vanishing into the landscape. The brief work is rich in both social commentary and human feeling, and one can well understand Grigorovich’s plea. ‘Your letter,’ Chekhov replied, ‘beloved bearer of good tidings, struck me like a bolt of lightning. I almost burst into tears.’ Hundreds had read him, he said, but no one else had seen him ‘as an artist’.

It was during his last year at medical school that Chekhov began to cough up blood, but he refused to acknowledge that he was in the early stages of tuberculosis and wrote of it in a letter only as a ruptured blood vessel. Even when the true nature of his coughing could no longer be concealed, from himself or anyone else, his letters constantly downplay its effects. His younger brother Nikolai, a gifted artist and illustrator and a confirmed alcoholic, died of tuberculosis, with Anton nursing him during his last days. Although it’s difficult to gauge the effect of Chekhov’s illness on the character of his work, one may well attribute some of its fatalism, of the inevitable disappointment of most human hopes and ambitions, not only to his personal situation but to what he experienced day after day in his medical practice.

Chekhov was a handsome and attractive man, and he flirted with a good many women; but his reluctance to marry may well have been influenced by the constant sense of his own mortality, as well as by the more practical financial reasons usually invoked. He was briefly engaged to a Russian-Jewish girl, and certainly had love affairs as well as more casual encounters; one minor author published a generally discredited book after his death claiming to have been the object of a platonic grand passion. He was remarkably discreet about his love-life, and has been aided by the prudishness of the various editors of his letters. Bartlett includes a letter detailing an encounter with a Japanese prostitute made available only recently in the latest complete edition. Three years before his death, Chekhov married Olga Knipper, an actress in the Moscow Art Theatre whom he met when she took a role in The Seagull. Even though he was deeply in love, perhaps for the first time in his life, it was only in response to her entreaties, and out of fear of a definitive break, that he consented to a small wedding, which he concealed from his family and friends until it was over.

Chekhov’s intimates, familiar with the fragility of his health, were astonished at his decision in 1890 to visit the Sakhalin Islands, a godforsaken Russian penal colony in the Pacific. To reach it required a three-month journey, often under the most primitive and punishing conditions. The prologue to Bartlett’s book is entitled ‘Chekhov the Wanderer’, and she views him, with a good deal of justification, as possessed by an irresistible wanderlust that he was rarely able to satisfy. At this point, however, his life had reached a crisis that impelled him to do something. For one thing, his trip followed hard on the death of Nikolai, which he could not help but see as foreshadowing his own. His state of mind is revealed in one of his gloomiest works, ‘A Dreary Story’. Here he describes the life of a world-famous Russian scientific celebrity who, old and dying, realises that his life as a human being has been a failure, that he has emotionally alienated even those he loved and valued most. The reason is that ‘in all the thoughts, feelings and conceptions I form about everything, something general is lacking that would unite them all into a single whole.’ What he lacks is ‘what is known as a general idea or the god of the living man. And if there isn’t that, there’s nothing.’ Chekhov always vehemently denied that any of the opinions uttered by his characters were really his own; but there is good reason to take this lament as reflecting his own gloom. Another blow was the failure of his play The Wood Demon (later revised as Uncle Vanya). These two disasters combined to send him halfway round the world.

The question still arises: why Sakhalin? Part of the answer is contained in an unusually impassioned letter to Suvorin, who had said that nobody found the place interesting. In reply, Chekhov insisted that Russians should make pilgrimages to Sakhalin as the Turks to Mecca:

It is quite clear from the books I have been reading … that we have let millions of people rot in jail, and let them rot to no purpose, treating them with an indifference that is little short of barbaric. We have forced people to drag themselves in chains across tens of thousands of miles in freezing conditions, infected them with syphilis, debauched them, hugely increased the criminal population, and heaped the blame for the whole thing on red-nosed prison supervisors.

Even though Chekhov enjoyed part of the trip, writing enthusiastically about the Siberian landscape, what he encountered in Sakhalin was beyond his worst expectations. ‘It seemed to Chekhov,’ Bartlett writes, ‘that he had already arrived in Hell.’

Russian readers expected him to write something similar to Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, detailing his impressions; instead, he visited every prison habitation on the island, filling out, with the help of a native Buryat priest, more than eight thousand questionnaires about prison conditions with the answers he received from the illiterate inmates. At a dinner with the governor-general of the region, he was assured that conditions were far from intolerable; but what he found was quite the opposite – ‘prostitution, starvation and brutal corporal punishment’. The Island of Sakhalin, published two years later, created a considerable stir with its unvarnished depiction of prison conditions, and led to some minor reforms being made. Chekhov also castigated ‘our intelligentsia’, which has ‘been saying for twenty to thirty years now that criminals are a product of society, but how indifferent it is to that product.’

In 1892 he bought a small estate not far from Moscow called Melikhovo, where he could satisfy his passion for hunting, fishing and gardening, and where he lived with his father and mother and his sister Masha, a schoolmistress who visited at weekends. Even in their days of poverty the Chekhovs had always been hospitable, and numerous guests, both personal and literary, as well as the families of his two older brothers, came down to enjoy what Chekhov had initially thought would be a country retreat. By the second summer, it was necessary to build a cottage in the garden for the overflow, and in it the master of the house wrote The Seagull. It was in Melikhovo, too, that Chekhov set up an impromptu clinic for the surrounding peasantry. He became a school examiner, visited the 57 schools of the district, and raised funds for building three more. Bartlett provides an amusing excursus on the Russian enthusiasm for croquet, which was played at Melikhovo and continued to be played in Russia through the 1920s and 1930s.

It is revealing that, in the midst of all this charitable activity, Chekhov should have written one of his most devastating portrayals of Russian life, ‘The Peasants’. It was mutilated by the censors because of its unsparing grimness, and one brief passage will illustrate why it aroused the wrath not only of the censors but of the left-wing Russian Populists who, like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, tended to idealise the peasantry. These are the thoughts of a city-bred character who came to live in the country, and is just about to leave it:

Who maintains the pubs and makes the peasants drunk? The peasant. Who embezzles the village, school and parish funds and spends it all on drink? The peasant. Who robs his neighbour, sets fire to his house, and perjures himself in court for a bottle of vodka? The peasant. Who is the first to revile the peasant at district council and similar meetings? The peasant. Yes, it was terrible living with these people; nevertheless they were still human beings, suffering and weeping like other people, and there was nothing in their lives that did not provide some excuse.

This last sentence, well supported by the callous treatment the peasants suffered at the hands of visiting officials, strikes the customary Chekhovian note.

Melikhovo was abandoned after the death of Chekhov’s father, but another reason for leaving was the massive haemorrhage that Chekhov suffered during a meal with the editor Aleksei Suvorin in Moscow. It became clear that he could no longer endure the climate of the Moscow region. From this time on, he spent the winter months in warmer places further south (twice in Nice), and eventually built a house near Yalta, in a Tartar village (few Russians chose to live there) overlooking the sea. His arrival in Nice was announced in a local newspaper, the Franco-Russian Messenger, owned and largely written by Mordechai Rozanov, the Russian-Jewish owner of a local bookstore with whom Chekhov became very friendly (shades of Daniel Deronda). The newspapers at that time were full of stories about the Dreyfus case, and his contacts with Rozanov and others no doubt aided Chekhov’s transformation into an ardent Dreyfusard. This led to a cooling of his relations for a number of years with the notoriously anti-semitic Suvorin. On leaving Nice in April 1899, Chekhov made a detour through Paris in order to meet Dreyfus’s brother. ‘He was the only major Russian writer,’ Bartlett notes, ‘to take an active stand in the affair.’

For the last five years of his life, Chekhov spent the winter in Yalta, which provides the background for one of his most famous stories, ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’. In a Russian-Jewish bookstore owned by Isaac Sinani, a member of the Karaite sect (the Karaites refuse the rabbinical tradition), he met Maxim Gorky, whose early stories he admired, and Ivan Bunin, with whom he became quite intimate and who left an uncompleted book about Chekhov among his papers. He resigned his membership of the Russian Academy of Sciences when Gorky’s election was cancelled because he was under police surveillance.

Tolstoy, with whom Chekhov was on very cordial terms, also came to Yalta occasionally for his health. ‘I have loved no man as I have loved him,’ Chekhov said in a letter, adding that ‘when literature has a Tolstoy, it is easy and gratifying to be a writer.’ But while second to none in his admiration for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and acknowledging that ‘there was a time when I was strongly affected by Tolstoy’s philosophy,’ he found it impossible to accept the writer’s later religious ideas:

But now something inside me protests … reason and justice tell me there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam than there is in chastity and abstaining from meat. It is true that war is evil and courts of law are evil, but that does not mean I have to go about in bast shoes and sleep on top of the stove.

Instead, appalled by the number of penniless consumptives flocking to Yalta for the same reason as himself, but living from hand to mouth and dying from neglect, Chekhov worked with local charities to raise money for a sanatorium.

He wrote a number of first-rate stories during these last years, but most of his attention was devoted to his plays. Like the stories, which depend on mood (nastroenie) rather than on plot or character development, his plays, too, with their lack of a central theme and disconnected dialogue, met with considerable resistance. The first performance of The Seagull was a disaster, not only because of the novelty of the play’s structure but because the actors were still using the declamatory style of the Russian stage. Once Chekhov had persuaded Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko to adopt a more casual style of acting at the Moscow Art Theatre, the plays were a huge success. By the time of his death at the age of 44 – just after he finished The Cherry Orchard – he had become the dominant figure in Russian literature.

All through his life, Chekhov was assailed by critics – even by some who admired his work – urging him to come forward with a clear-cut moral and social message. He was obviously critical of many of the injustices and cruelties of Russian society, but it was impossible to align him, on the basis of his work, with any of the social-cultural and political movements agitating the intelligentsia. When faced by such criticism from a close friend like Suvorin, who remarked that, while posing the issue of pessimism, he never resolved it, Chekhov replied:

It doesn’t seem to me that it is the job of writers of fiction to decide questions like God, pessimism etc … The writer’s task is only to describe those who have said or thought something about God and pessimism, how, and in what circumstances. The artist should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness.