The truly early years
It’s undoubtedly amusing, to try and image important people as babies, but apparently it’s valid for everyone. Even to Anton Pavlovich Chekhov who was born, as a baby, on the 17 of January or the 29 of January – depending to which calendar one goes by1.
It is customary to say that people come into the world. Chekhov, therefore, came to Taganrog, a seaport at the sea of Azov, southern Russia. Not a place where one expects greatness to be conceived, unless equipped with genetic advantages and exceptional personal talent. Anton, so it seems, had plenty of both.
The severe responsibility, which Chekov carried on his back all his life, lay heavily on him from early childhood: Anton was no ordinary, carefree baby but a grandson of a freed serf, Yegor Mikhailovich Cech, who – in 1841, redeemed himself and his family from the burden of vassalage for 3,500 rubles2. His father, Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov, was a local grocer. His mother, Yevgeniya Yakovleva Morozov, was the daughter of a rich Draper. His two older brothers were Alexander and Nikolai and his three (future) younger siblings were Ivan, Misha and Masha.
Anton’s father was everything a child would never wish to find in his parent: a hard, impatient, irritable and crude man, who used to shout, burst and whip. A stubborn and impatient man, who tolerated no exceptions in all matters concerning religion. He was a devoted Orthodox Christian, who practiced and forced all the commands meticulously. And yet, one must emphasis that Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov was not an essential bad person: he did not hate his children and did not abuse them out of pure evil or rage. The education which he inflicted upon his family was the same education which was inflicted upon him – the common education in all of Russia: compassion weakens. In life, one must struggle to survive.
But people are people. And feelings are always there, even if they need to burst out in order to speak up.
Anton spoke the language of pain.
Pavel – the language of frustration.
Indeed, Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov was a frustrated man. His father, who wished to secure a better future to his children, had send Pavel to serve as the bookkeeper for the mayor of Taganrog. He had carried his responsible part with expertise and humility. For ten years he was subjected to bad treatment and poor wage but said nothing. He is merely a petty servant, who often starved, slept on the floor and bowed his head for the blows. It is therefore easy to understand his intense ambition to break free from the burden of servitude and became a man at his own right.
In 1857 he succeeded to fulfill his dream: with the money of his savings, which he had accumulated stubbornly for years, he bought himself a grocery and became an independent grocer.
But Pavel’s heart was not in the grocery business. His nature was more of an artist than a trader: he played the violin, sang and painted with oils. All his life he was compelled to work in occupations he did not like, first from circumstance and later as a default from worsening alternatives. The only advantage of his new line of work was his autonomy: in his shop Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov was finally a free man.
In body, that is.
His tormented psyche was still captive in its prison and it wished to escape at every chance: business was weak and Pavel hated the store. He did not desire women or wine, but found comfort in the Church. He loved the ceremonies, the prayers, the scent of the Incense, the tinkling of the bells. There he lived his real life. All the rest – the house, the family, the buyers – were secondary.
Yes, Pavel hated the store and loved the church.
Anton, very much because of his father, hated them both.
The store was awful: frozen during the winter and infested with flies during the summer, overloaded with unorganized merchandise. It was a cold, dark, neglected and untidy place.
Due to Pavel’s frequent absences, his mature sons had to step in and carry the burden. Thus, after school, Anton was called to sit behind the counter. He was not allowed to play, was not allowed to sleep – he could barely concentrate on his homework due to the freezing cold or due to noisy customers who turned the store into a cheap pub. Pavel had two apprentices – Andreusa and Gaverusa. They were only boys themselves, the sons of a Ukrainian peasant woman, who had left them in the hands of Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov thinking she was giving them a bright future. But Andreusa and Gaverusa were miserable, beaten, starved children. Due to the fact that they were at their five years apprenticeship period, they were not even paid. Anton later expressed his opinion of these two boys in two stories – Vanka and Sleepy.
On top of physical side, one should add Anton’s impression of the buyers, who came to the store as though it was a social club. Henri Troyat, the biographer who wrote the Chekhov biography – Tchekhov, states that young Anton heard everything and understood everything. In spite of his young age, he witnessed poverty, ugliness, laziness and stupidity up close – an experience which generated his bleak outlook of life.
In contrast, Irène Némirovsky, another of Chekhov’s biographers, reveals a different aspect. The grocery store, according to her, provided considerable inspiration for young Chekhov. She depicts his presence there as an enriching, almost magical experience to the boy with the heart of an artist. He imbibed the characters of the customers, Greeks, Jews, Russians, Catholics and merchants – their languages, their gestures and their separate stories. Anton observed them all.
In regard to his attitude towards the Church, there is very little room for interpretation: “I received a religious education in my childhood” he wrote his friend, I. L. Shtcheglov, “with church singing, with reading of the “apostles” and the psalms in church, with regular attendance at matins, with obligation to assist at the altar and ring the bells. And, do you know, when I think now of my childhood, it seems to me rather gloomy. I have no religion now. Do you know, when my brothers and I used to stand in the middle of the church and sing the trio “May my prayer be exalted,” or “The Archangel’s Voice,” everyone looked at us with emotion and envied our parents, but we at that moment felt like little convicts. Yes, dear boy! Ratchinsky I understand, but the children who are trained by him I don’t know. Their souls are dark for me. If there is joy in their souls, then they are happier than I and my brothers, whose childhood was suffering.”3
Yevgeniya Yakovleva Morozov, Anton’s mother, was very much aware of all this suffering.
After all, she lived it herself.
As a mother of six, with an often absent husband, Yevgeniya was the cook, the seamstress, the washerwoman and the one who collapses under constant fear and difficulties. She lived in a permanent state of distress and worry. There were times in which she tried to restrain her husband’s severe demands, to protect her children from the burden of hard work and religious rituals, but she could not overcome his threatening. Troyat presents her as a characterless woman, exhausted due the closeness of her six pregnancies. According to him, Pavel treated her as a servant and continually criticized her. Némirovsky, on the other hand, describes her once as a thin woman, with gentle features, soft and quiet, and once as a fragile and frightened creature, who cried and complained aloud about her husband and her misfortune.
No one listened to her. The family became accustomed to her endless tears.
However, Yevgeniya was the family’s storyteller, the one who told her children about the long and weary journeys she made as a young girl4.
Due to their poverty and the hardship, Yevgeniya found it difficult to pay full attention to her children, especially to Anton, for whom she had special affection. She used food as compensation: she fed her children as a way to show her love of them.
Pavel’s love of his children manifested itself in a different way – in his concern for their education and their professional future. He decided to send them to the school of the Greek community, a step designed to connect them with the sons of merchants and successful craftsmen. His endeavor did not bear fruit: Anton did not understand the language and was kept behind in his studies. He failed his exams repeatedly. He was almost expelled due to his father, forever insisting of his presence in the store.
It’s about time good things begin to happen
1873 was the year in which Anton discovered the world of theater.
It began at the age of thirteen, with the Operettas La belle Hélène by Jacques Offenbach. The stage fascinated him. It was a magical world, new and exciting, from which he could never get enough. He watched Hamlet, Revizor (The Government Inspector) by Nikolai Gogol, Woe from Wit (or The Woes of Wit) by Aleksander Griboyedov, the adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, melodramas and vaudevilles. In order to play the role of the spectators, Anton and his friends had to dress up, due to the fact that the School Board prohibited the pupils from entering the theater, which was considered by the School Board a place of free thinking and lack of discipline. Needless to say that this prohibition only increased Anton’s enthusiasm.
It all seemed so exciting in face of his boring family life, in which nothing ever happened.
When he watched the actors on stage he realized just how powerful their influence was over the audience. He considered life of theater to be glorious, in spite of its falseness. He longed to be part of it.
And so he did.
He and his brothers founded the Chekhov’s Family Theater.
They performed before their parents and neighbors, and were great success.
Anton, encouraged by the good reviews, earned the courage to write and star in plays.
Because every stage has it backstage
In June 1875 Anton was invited to stay as a guest in the county house of Chekhov’s family friend: the brother of the tenant who rented a room in the house. The blazing sun had caused Anton to forget the danger of bathing in a frozen river. He swam and consequently became sick with peritonitis. He was rushed back to Taganrog and was treated by the school’s German – Russian doctor. The caring and devoted treatment left an unforgettable impression on young Anton and he decided to become a doctor, so that he will be able to help others, in their time of need.
This decision seemed less realistic, as his grades were shameful, due to the chain of failures as described above. He was transferred to a Russian school by his father, but again was unable to succeed in his studies, for the same reason of his forced constant attendance in the store.
His father’s attitude was a living hell.
For Alexander and Nikolai, Anton’s two older brothers, it became unbearable: they hated Pavel. Alexander considered him to be a violent, greedy and hard man. At the age of nineteen he moved to his principal’s house, were he lived and served as a teacher to the principal’s children until he graduated with honors. Nikolai, three years younger, wished to pursue his artistic talents for painting, and to register in a school for high arts. He joined his brother and they both moved to Moscow.
Their departure shook the Chekhov’s family: Pavel was furious at the audacity of their leaving and was also deeply hurt by their betrayal. Yevgeniya and the younger children had little to say. The main burden was cast on Anton’s slim shoulders. The intensifying difficulty caused him to find a refuge in a weekly newspaper – The Stammer – that he had founded in the past with his two older brothers. He edited and published it by himself after they left. In it he had described characters from everyday life in Taganrog. Its success was immediate. His friends waited impatiently for the appearance of each edition. After they read it, Anton sent it to Moscow, for Alexander and Nikolai to review.
On one occasion, Alexander’s harsh criticism nearly brought the newspaper to its end, but Anton persevered.
The sharp turn – the beginning of a change
Unsurprisingly, Pavel Yegorovich’s business gradually deteriorated. The grocery store, was poorly managed and bore very little fruit. Pavel’s ambition, to build a new home for his family, failed due to theft and deceit of those involved in the construction of the prospective building.
Alexander and Nikolai could not help: they had worked themselves into exhaustion in order to provide for themselves, though other rumors said that their life in Moscow was devoted to drinking and other trivial affairs.
Pavel prevented his other children from attending their schools and kept them in the store to help, but the more he tried to better the situation, the more it worsened.
In 1876 he was declared bankrupt.
In a desperate attempt, he borrowed 500 rubles from the local bank.
He could not return the money.
In those days, the sentence of a debtor was prison. Pavel did not dare to risk such punishment.
Thus, in the middle of the night, he fled alone to Moscow, leaving his wife and four children, to handle the chaos he left behind.
Life breaks down and rebuild again
Yevgeniya struggled to survive. She sent Anton to the lone shark, in order to try and sell the house, or at least to mortgage it. But the lone shark was not interested. She then tried to appeal to her relatives, for any kind of help. They had all turned her down. “Salvation” came from an unexpected source: the tenant, who lived in their home, Gabriel Parpnitivitch Sliwanov, offered to help the Chekov family and save their house. His position as a court clerk had enabled him to do much more than just “help”: Sliwanov paid Pavel’s 500 rubles debt, but took over his home, drove his wife and four children out into the street and put the furniture up for auction sale.
In the absence of any other option, Yevgeniya took her two youngest children, Michael and Maria, to join her husband and two grown sons in Moscow. Anton and Ivan were left behind. Not long after, Yevgeniya’s relative adopted Ivan for several months, after which he too left for Moscow.
Anton was left alone.
Troyat colors Anton’s distress in gloomy shades; the new landlord was arrogant and haughty. He had given him a small corner to stay in and a plate on the table, but in exchange Anton was required to teach his nephew. Anton would have gladly rejected the “hospitality” of the man who stripped his parents of all their property. But he could not. He was too poor to allow himself to be so proud. Therefore, he bore all the humiliation and lived for one purpose – to successfully complete his studies and move to Moscow.
Némirovsky observes thing differently: Anton was sixteen years old. He was already considered a man. It was only natural for him to provide for himself and Anton got by: his new landlord had given him a place to sleep and eat in exchange to private lessons, but that pupil was about Anton’s age and the two became friends. Therefore, Anton did not feel bitter or humiliated when he had to live in a house that had been his own. He did not complain about his misfortune. In fact, he was the one who consoled his family. He sold the few remaining pots, pans and jars that were left, and sent the minimal cash with a cheerful and encouraging letter to his family.
Anton was never spoiled and now, for the first time, he felt free. He was free! He had no father to tell him what to do, no hated store to sit in, no church in sing in. He was no longer a child with a threatening whip hovering over his head. He felt like an adult. The feeling was intoxicating.
The truth, as usual, is between these two very different versions. Anton’s letter to his cousin, Mihail Chekhov, expresses it only too well: “… If I send letters to my mother, care of you, please give them to her when you are alone with her; there are things in life which one can confide in one person only, whom one trusts. It is because of this that I write to my mother without the knowledge of the others, for whom my secrets are quite uninteresting, or, rather, unnecessary. . . . My second request is of more importance. Please go on comforting my mother, who is both physically and morally broken. She has found in you not merely a nephew but a great deal more and better than a nephew. My mother’s character is such that the moral support of others is a great help to her. It is a silly request, isn’t it? But you will understand, especially as I have said “moral,” i.e., spiritual support. There is no one in this wicked world dearer to us than our mother, and so you will greatly oblige your humble servant by comforting his worn-out and weary mother…”5
Several months later, Anton visited his family in Moscow. Their letters had prepared him for the problematical situation he was about to encounter, but did not prepare him enough. The reality was much worse than he had ever imagined.
The Chekhov family lived in a rented room with only one mattress, placed directly on the floor for the entire family. Nikolai and one of his painter friends stole logs from carts in order to set a fire in the fireplace. Yevgeniya woke up before dawn to sew. Pavel, who once worked as a construction worker, was unemployed. He ran around the city, supposedly looking for a respectable job, while in fact drinking with friends. Maria was fourteen years old. She was in charge of cleaning, cooking and washing. There was no money to send her to school. Apart from the chores, she knitted woolen scarves, for which she was paid fifteen – twenty Kopek each. The older brothers also brought in some money: they gave private lessons, copied lectures and wrote in small illustrated magazines. But Alexander had to support a woman whom he had seduced, who recently left her husband. Nikolai spent most of his time getting drunk.
Pavel remained the tyrant: he continued with his demands and preaching, set a strict to-do list for his children and beat them when they disobeyed. The new neighbors disapproved of his educational methods, but Pavel remained firm in his stubbornness. He became more religious, drinking to excess as a source of refuge and to forget his troubles.
The trip to Moscow made an impression that changed Anton’s life:
Firstly – he considered himself responsible for helping his parents and family. It was his duty to redeem them from their poverty.
Secondly – Moscow was the place to be. Anton had fallen in love with the city. The colors, the characters, the voices, the endless choices, the dirt and the grime together with the beauty and splendor – he adored it all. His return home was only temporary: soon he would return to the city which had captured his heart.
Looking back, one can say that these were the insights which steered the life of Anton Chekhov, however Anton Chekhov did not make up his mind to help, due to his trip to Moscow. He chose to do so because this was his true nature and was the way in which he perceived his place in the world. He chose to consider himself as the only person who could salvage his family from all their mistakes.
His attraction to the big city was not only the whimsical desire of a provincial boy, facing the magnitude of the real world. His artistic soul could not settle itself in one place for a long. In many ways, Chekhov always remained the boy who was captivated by the promises of journeys. Every new place was a chance for an adventure. Every change in circumstance was a momentary escape from reality which was hard to bear. He needed to dream.
Chekhov thus returned to Taganrog – only in order to run away from it again, the first moment he could.
For three years, Anton worked to pay for his own tuition, and sent his paltry wages to his family in Moscow. He was now able to devote himself to his studies steadily improving his grades. He read endless books, wrote plays (some lost forever – among them – The Hen Has Good Reason to Cluck, He Met His Match) and stories, which he had sent his brother Alexander in Moscow, despite his fierce criticism in the past.
This was the time in which Chekhov understood that he had to practice self discipline, a characteristic he held for the rest of his life.
He was free but with responsibilities.
In these years, alongside his daily battle to survive, Anton occupied his time with the most important and central aspect in the life of every youngster – love.
He was handsome but shy, which kept him from bragging of his relationships.
It is evident that he was… well, busy.
Moscow – first stop
The dream, to graduate school and reach the big city, had become reality.
When Anton arrived in Moscow, the family had already changed eleven apartments, each worse than the next. The present one was a basement. Outside prostitutes were making a living. Ten people crowded together, including two new tenants from Taganrog, whom Anton persuaded to stay during their academic studies, thus adding to the family’s income. Alexander did not live with them and Pavel came home only once a week. In their absence, and with Nikolai drunken and indolent, Anton had become the paternal authority, the decision maker. But Anton did not exploit his power. Quite the contrary: his clear observation, his humility and wisdom, alongside all the lessons he had learned in Taganrog finally manifested themselves. He was indeed the only person who could help his family in their misery.
Unlike the painfully naïve student Vassilyev, the protagonist in A Nervous Breakdown, this part of the world was well known to Anton. That imaginary S. Street in his story was described in a colorful cheerfulness with human wretchedness – “…two rows of houses with brightly lighted windows and wide-open doors, and hearing gay strains of pianos and violins, sounds which floated out from every door and mingled in a strange chaos, as though an unseen orchestra were tuning up in the darkness above the roofs … And in this indifference to the noisy chaos of pianos and violins, to the bright windows and wide-open doors, there was a feeling of something very open, insolent, reckless, and devil-may-care.”6
Pavel Yegorovich did not approve the exchanged regime, which took place without him, but over time and thanks to the honor Anton continued to shower upon him, he too eventually accepted the new reality. Thus, under the new leadership of the nineteen year old head of the family, the atmosphere in the Chekhov household changed dramatically. Anton was both gentle and compassionate. He preferred persuasion to threat, by providing personal example. He vowed to improve himself and to educate his family, by trying to convince them that they were a “real human beings”.
Anton took care not only of his family’s economic well-being but also of their ethical and moral attitudes. He wanted to replace their self-pity and to encourage them to feel the joy of working. Even whilst worrying about his own academic future, he continued to care for the education of his younger brother and sister, supporting them and pushing them to express their talents in creative ways. He fought to restore the honor of the family name.
These were not the aims of a common teenager. This was the agenda of a young man, who had learned from personal experience that avoiding the hardships of life can only happen when people work hard to change their own destiny. Anton was not rigid as his father, weak and feeble like his mother, self centered like Alexander or lazy drunkard like Nikolai. He was a man who took upon himself the responsibility and the daily fight as a way of life, a man who took upon himself personal and professional goals, and then acted on them, despite the complexity of life.
And complex it was.
The University and medical school were a disappointment for Anton. The University with its dismal appearance and the medical school – they both lacked inspiration to think or learn. It was constant memorizing. His fellow students seemed to him wild and rude, unkempt and sloppy with their long hair. Worst of all was the doubt and self questioning, that he may never succeed to learn everything his scholarly professors had tried to teach him. He was afraid he might never graduate and that he would never live to fulfill his dream to help others and never know the taste of professional respect.
His quiet, serious and thoughtful manner accompanied him during this period; as his colleagues grouped together with their loud protests, He listened to them, as he listened to everyone, but he took no part in any demonstration or revolution. Anton focused on his studies.
It was not that he was indifferent to suffering. He believed that the only possible redemption comes from man’s own decision and actions. He believed that the Russian individual, before complaining about his misfortune, should try to rise above the situation by working. He believed that social progress is possible thanks to education and the will of the individual to improve oneself.
Writing becomes alive
Writing became Chekhov’s main occupation in these years. He wrote to support his family and to pay for his academic tuition.
His first works were comic and short, according to the requirements of various magazine editors, but many stories were rejected. His first story – A Letter to a Scholarly Neighbor – was published in a small humorous magazine, The Dragonfly. Anton earned five Kopeks for a line. He did not feel pride in his achievement and used several pen names. He was happy to make a relatively easy living thanks to his writing. He still considered medicine to be his future career, but the initial success for his writing and the pay that came with it, encouraged him to continue. Slowly but surly writing occupied his leisure hours. He enjoyed this work and often started and finished a story in one evening.
Nine stories were published in The Dragonfly that year, thirteen the following year. Two years after that he already published a hundred and twenty nine stories – none of them signed under his real name. His literary pen names were as varied as his stories: “The doctor who lost his patients”, “The man without a spleen”, “My brother’s brother”, “Odysseus”, “Antonsh” or mostly “Antonsh Chekhovta” – a nickname which was given to him as a young boy by his teacher of religious history. In spite of his increasing success, for every story published – dozens were rejected, often accompanied by offensive reviews: too short, too long, some dull, trivial and lacking substance and meaning. Anton resented the harsh criticism and decided not to submit anything again to the The Dragonfly.
Némirovsky, as usual, tends to brighten up his history, claiming that Anton was not discouraged: he burned the manuscript and quickly wrote another in its place.
Anton also tried to publish a play, Platonov (or Without Patrimony), but the play was rebuffed and it drove him straight back to writing short stories. His decision, not to re-publish in The Dragonfly, made him turn to The Alarm Clock and to the Observer newspapers. His wage was now six Kopeks a line.
It seems that life was taking a smoother path: the whole world inspired Anton, but as much as he loved audience and company, he often found it difficult to reconcile with the constant bustle around him. There was always noise, guests and family members, asking for his attention. Since he could not relinquish either his studies or his writing, difficulties began to accumulate. Soon they manifested themselves as emotional distress.
To be in the right place at the right time
The change came in October. As Anton and his brother Nikolai walked the streets of Moscow, two people traveled around in a carriage – the poet Falmin, who was Anton’s friend, and the writer, editor and publisher Nikolai Alexandrovich Leykin, whose amusing stories Anton had read as a young boy in Taganrog. Leykin needed a talented but cheap writer for his newspaper – Fragments. Falmin noticed Anton and Nikolai and pointed at them: there you have two for one. One is a writer, the other – an artist. Leykin liked the idea and stopped the cart.
The chemistry between the two was immediate. So was the job offer, eight Kopeks a line. Anton accepted Leykin’s proposal. As usual, he worked tirelessly but even after gaining a regular column – Lists about life in Moscow – he could not come to turns with Leykin’s demands, to deal only with comical topics and be of a much shorter length. “A fun story in a one hundred words” was not a challenge, but a heavy burden. It haunted Chekhov before, during and even after he wrote, forcing him to check, not the quality of his stories but the number of words in them. Any deviation from the required limit would not be published. Anton pleaded before Leykin to extend his right to write one hundred and twenty lines, and to redeem him from the constant need to be funny and amusing. On the other hand, Chekhov was not too sure that his serious stories would be as welcomed by his readers. He himself felt that caution was required, so that they would not ask him to stop writing.
Leykin finally came around. He allowed Chekhov to write more and more seriously.
The readers remained loyal.
The critics, however, cared for him much less.
Dr. Chekhov is born
Anton Chekhov graduated medical school on June 16th. His doctor’s certificate had released him from military service and granted him a respectable position in the community. He began to specialize in a hospital outside Moscow and even filled in for the director of the village hospital, who was on a short holiday.
However, he did not forsake his literary dream. He chose six of his best stories and with Leykin’s help funded 1,200 copies of his Melphonna tales. In spite of the critical acclaim, the book did not sell well, possibly due the pen name – Chekhonta – which misled the bookshop owners and the readers alike to mistakenly consider the collection as a children’s book.
He wrote one book, which was published as a series of stories, and a one – act – play, which was banned by the censor.
His medical practice, on the other hand, earned him a decent living, although he still treated a significant number of patients gratis.
In early December, his hectic world had shattered. Chekhov developed TB. He recognized the symptoms but choice to ignore them. He refused to rest and worked even harder to support his family.
By 1880, he had already published 300 very different stories for Moscow’s and St. Petersburg’s newspapers, using his pen name. Thus the name Anton Chekhov existed in one place only: on the brass plate on his door.
Medicine is a serious matter and literature is only a game, he used to say. Therefore, one should use different names for each occupation.
Hard work begins to pay off
Anton rented a Villa in the family estate of his friends, the Kiselyov, and moved there with his family for the summer vacation. His writing continued incessantly, from the crack of dawn until late at night, but his many friends, his family and even the villagers took advantage of his medical knowledge and disturbed his writing.
When they all returned to the city, Anton moved his family to a new, roomier apartment. He resumed his hectic work. His tuberculous symptoms returned, but he continued to ignore them.
Again, Anton complained about the noise and bustle of the endless visitors but at the same time admitted that he needed people around him. He did not like being on his own. It made him feel lost and frightened.
Leykin, whom Anton corresponded with regularly, invited him to visit St. Petersburg. In October Anton replied: “… You advise me to go to Petersburg, and say that Petersburg is not China. I know it is not, and as you are aware, I have long realized the necessity of going there; but what am I to do? Owing to the fact that we are a large family, I never have a ten-rouble note to spare, and to go there, even if I did it in the most uncomfortable and beggarly way, would cost at least fifty roubles. How am I to get the money? I can’t squeeze it out of my family and don’t think I ought to. If I were to cut down our two courses at dinner to one, I should begin to pine away from pangs of conscience. . . . Allah only knows how difficult it is for me to keep my balance, and how easy it would be for me to slip and lose my equilibrium. I fancy that if next month I should earn twenty or thirty roubles less, my balance would be gone, and I should be in difficulties. I am awfully apprehensive about money matters and, owing to this quite uncommercial cowardice in pecuniary affairs, I avoid loans and payments on account. I am not difficult to move. If I had money I should fly from one city to another endlessly.”7.
Leykin offered to pay for Anton’s entire visit to St. Petersburg. He eventually accepted and there, for the first time, Chekhov realized just how respected and admired he was by his readers. He was amazed at the enthusiastic welcome and from the praise that was showered on him. He now considered himself careless in his writing, not having been aware that so many people read him. This new consciousness made him terrified.
In St. Petersburg another important meeting took place, between Anton and Alexey Suvorin, a media tycoon, founder and publisher of the most famous magazine of the era – Modern Times. Suvorin offered Chekhov an increased salary (twelve Kopeks a line). The young writer, completely taken by Suvorin’s charm, accepted the offer immediately. However, a typhus epidemic broke out in Moscow and prevented him from devoting himself only to his literary pursuits. Anton’s health was at risk of infection and he almost collapsed due to the workload, but in spite of all, he was able to submit a fine collection of stories, among them The Huntsman, The Offender and Misery.
Anton did not want to use his own name in his writing, fearing severe criticism and a possible humiliation to his family. He refused to consider himself a legitimate writer.
A surprising letter from Dmitry Grigorovich had changed his mind.
Dmitry Grigorovich was one of the most beloved and respectable Russian authors of his time.
Forty years prior to this letter, he has sent a similar not to another young writer: Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
An excited Anton replied following:
“Your letter, my kind, fervently beloved bringer of good tidings, struck me like a flash of lightning. I almost burst into tears, I was overwhelmed, and now I feel it has left a deep trace in my soul! May God show the same tender kindness to you in your age as you have shown me in my youth! I can find neither words nor deeds to thank you. You know with what eyes ordinary people look at the elect such as you, and so you can judge what your letter means for my self-esteem. It is better than any diploma, and for a writer who is just beginning it is payment both for the present and the future. I am almost dazed. I have no power to judge whether I deserve this high reward. I only repeat that it has overwhelmed me.
If I have a gift that one ought to respect, I confess before the pure candour of your heart that hitherto I have not respected it. I felt that I had a gift, but I had got into the habit of thinking that it was insignificant. Purely external causes are sufficient to make one unjust to oneself, suspicious, and morbidly sensitive. And as I realize now I have always had plenty of such causes. All my friends and relatives have always taken a condescending tone to my writing, and never ceased urging me in a friendly way not to give up real work for the sake of scribbling. I have hundreds of friends in Moscow, and among them a dozen or two writers, but I cannot recall a single one who reads me or considers me an artist. In Moscow there is a so-called Literary Circle: talented people and mediocrities of all ages and colours gather once a week in a private room of a restaurant and exercise their tongues. If I went there and read them a single passage of your letter, they would laugh in my face. In the course of the five years that I have been knocking about from one newspaper office to another I have had time to assimilate the general view of my literary insignificance. I soon got used to looking down upon my work, and so it has gone from bad to worse. That is the first reason. The second is that I am a doctor, and am up to my ears in medical work, so that the proverb about trying to catch two hares has given to no one more sleepless nights than me.
I am writing all this to you in order to excuse this grievous sin a little before you. Hitherto my attitude to my literary work has been frivolous, heedless, casual. I don’t remember a single story over which I have spent more than twenty-four hours, and “The Huntsman,” which you liked, I wrote in the bathing-shed! I wrote my stories as reporters write their notes about fires, mechanically, half-unconsciously, taking no thought of the reader or myself. . . . I wrote and did all I could not to waste upon the story the scenes and images dear to me which — God knows why — I have treasured and kept carefully hidden.
The first impulse to self-criticism was given me by a very kind and, to the best of my belief, sincere letter from Suvorin. I began to think of writing something decent, but I still had no faith in my being any good as a writer. And then, unexpected and undreamed of, came your letter. Forgive the comparison: it had on me the effect of a Governor’s order to clear out of the town within twenty-four hours — i.e., I suddenly felt an imperative need to hurry, to make haste and get out of where I have stuck…
I shall put an end to working against time, but cannot do so just yet… It is impossible to get out of the rut I have got into. I have nothing against going hungry, as I have done in the past, but it is not a question of myself… I give to literature my spare time, two or three hours a day and a bit of the night, that is, time which is of no use except for short things.
In the summer, when I have more time and have fewer expenses, I will start on some serious work.
I cannot put my real name on the book because it is too late: the design for the cover is ready and the book printed. 8 Many of my Petersburg friends advised me, even before you did, not to spoil the book by a pseudonym, but I did not listen to them, probably out of vanity. I dislike my book very much. It’s a hotch-potch, a disorderly medley of the poor stuff I wrote as a student, plucked by the censor and by the editors of comic papers. I am sure that many people will be disappointed when they read it. Had I known that I had readers and that you were watching me, I would not have published this book.
I rest all my hopes on the future. I am only twenty-six. Perhaps I shall succeed in doing something, though time flies fast.
Forgive my long letter and do not blame a man because, for the first time in his life, he has made bold to treat himself to the pleasure of writing to Grigorovitch.”9
Grigorovich’s vote of confidence changed Chekhov’s life. Grigorovich was the first authorized figure who confirmed Chekhov’s talent and believed in him. Until now, the lack of faith in the world around Anton had made him question his own abilities. He was now able to think of himself as an author.
Any criticism now made Chekhov more sensitive and vulnerable. The critics did not change their harsh views, but in light of Grigorovich’s praise, Anton could no longer address them with the same indifference as before.
1886 saw the recognition of Chekhov as a writer of genius.
Together with the significant changes in his creative world, his body grew weaker and weaker due to tuberculosis: “… I am ill. Spitting of blood and weakness. I am not writing anything… If I don’t sit down to write to-morrow, you must forgive me — I shall not send you a story for the Easter number. I ought to go to the South but I have no money… I am afraid to submit myself to be sounded by my colleagues. I am inclined to think it is not so much my lungs as my throat that is at fault… I have no fever.”10
Anton had many romantic episodes: starting from the receptionist in Modern Times and ending with the pretty friends of his sister. Anton did not suffer from the absence of female companionship, but never moved beyond the initial courtship phase. He did have once serious relationship, with Dunya Efros, a young Jewish woman, and even intended to marry her, but Dunya needed to convert from her religion. She refused. Her turbulent reaction had cooled Anton’s ardour, but did not cause him to withdraw his offer. He realized that her tempestuous personality would evidently lead to their inevitable separation after one or two years of marriage. Dunya decided not to wait that long and canceled the engagement herself.
During that time, Anton published his story Mire, revolving around a rich unexpected Jewish girl, who was a honey trap for young and old men alike.
Chekhov started 1887 as a physician and ended it as a writer. Alexander’s wife had typhoid, as did Grigorovich. Anton treated them both.
Meanwhile Suvorin gave Chekhov a surprisingly generous offer: an advance for the amount of 300 rubles for the publication of another collection of stories (At the end of the day). This gave the exhausted Anton the ability to return to his hometown Taganrog, eight years after he had left it.
The homecoming, unfortunately, was a disappointment.
Compared to the big city, Taganrog seemed to Chekhov like an underdeveloped world. Everything offended him, repulsed him and alienated him instead of pulling him closer. It made him wonder why he took such a long, difficult journey to begin with, but did not want to return to Moscow until he had seen the steppe again.
Near Tagnarog he wrote his famous story, The Steppe, which dealt with a carriage trip around the steppe through the eyes of a young boy, who was sent to live away from home. That year Chekhov also wrote Calchas and Ivanov, at the request of Fiodor Korsh, the owner of the Korsh Theatre. Anton believed in the play, but after attending the first rehearsal, and the premiere, he lost all confidence. On November 20 he wrote to his brother Alexander a long, well argumented letter, explaining his dissatisfaction and his frustration:
“Well, the first performance is over. I will tell you all about it in detail. To begin with, Korsh promised me ten rehearsals, but gave me only four, of which only two could be called rehearsals, for the other two were tournaments in which messieurs les artistes exercised themselves in altercation and abuse. Davydov and Glama were the only two who knew their parts; the others trusted to the prompter and their own inner conviction.
Act One.—I am behind the stage in a small box that looks like a prison cell. My family is in a box of the benoire and is trembling. Contrary to my expectations, I am cool and am conscious of no agitation. The actors are nervous and excited, and cross themselves. The curtain goes up … the actor whose benefit night it is comes on. His uncertainty, the way that he forgets his part, and the wreath that is presented to him make the play unrecognizable to me from the first sentences. Kiselevsky, of whom I had great hopes, did not deliver a single phrase correctly—literally not a single one. He said things of his own composition. In spite of this and of the stage manager’s blunders, the first act was a great success. There were many calls.
Act Two.—A lot of people on the stage. Visitors. They don’t know their parts, make mistakes, talk nonsense. Every word cuts me like a knife in my back. But—o Muse!—this act, too, was a success. There were calls for all the actors, and I was called before the curtain twice. Congratulations and success.
Act Three.—The acting is not bad. Enormous success. I had to come before the curtain three times, and as I did so Davydov was shaking my hand, and Glama, like Manilov, was pressing my other hand to her heart. The triumph of talent and virtue.
Act Four, Scene One.—It does not go badly. Calls before the curtain again. Then a long, wearisome interval. The audience, not used to leaving their seats and going to the refreshment bar between two scenes, murmur. The curtain goes up. Fine: through the arch one can see the supper table (the wedding). The band plays flourishes. The groomsmen come out: they are drunk, and so you see they think they must behave like clowns and cut capers. The horseplay and pot-house atmosphere reduce me to despair. Then Kiselevsky comes out: it is a poetical, moving passage, but my Kiselevsky does not know his part, is drunk as a cobbler, and a short poetical dialogue is transformed into something tedious and disgusting: the public is perplexed. At the end of the play the hero dies because he cannot get over the insult he has received. The audience, grown cold and tired, does not understand this death (the actors insisted on it; I have another version). There are calls for the actors and for me. During one of the calls I hear sounds of open hissing, drowned by the clapping and stamping. On the whole I feel tired and annoyed. It was sickening though the play had considerable success…”11
Moscow’s reviews were as usual critical. Therefore, Anton decided to try his literary luck in St. Petersburg. There his fortune changed at once: copies of the manuscript, which he had sent to his friends and acquaintances before his arrival, were enthusiastically accepted.
The writing, the rest and the success: Life goes on as usual
Encouraged from the positive reviews in St. Petersburg, Anton wanted to make some changes in his play, but when he returned to Moscow to resume his writing, he was completely captured in the magic of another work – The Steppe. The readers were equally captivated. The story was published in the March issue of The Journal of the North Precursor. Its effect was stunning.
Anton wrote another one act play, The Bear, before returning to St. Petersburg. Last time he visited there, he stayed with his brother Alexander and his sick wife. But on this visit, he lived with Suvorin, with its luxurious and prestige life style.
On returning to Moscow, the squalour and crowding of the family home, with the constant coming and goings, drunkenness etc., was a “millstone around his neck”. He needed to get away. From May to September he rent a villa in Lucca, Ukraine, and spent time there, with the owners of the estate in which it was situated, had friends to visit and also visited Suvorin’s luxurious resort in Crimea, Ethos, Sukhum, Batumi, Tbillsi and Baku.
The deadly symptoms of his tuberculosis reappeared in Moscow, but Anton, as usual, continued to overlook them.
In spite of his illness and family troubles, mostly concerning Alexander and Nikolai, Chekhov won (October 7) the prestigious Pushkin aware for his collection of stories – At the end of the day.
It is time to stop
Anton’s writing continued to shine. In January the rehearsals began in St. Petersburg of his revised play Ivanov. The play’s success was unprecedented: it swept through the city. But the fame eventually tired Chekhov. Again he wished to run away to the quiet, where he could indulge in his favorite sport – fishing. His letters became more and more bitter:
“… There are moments when I completely lose heart. For whom and for what do I write? For the public? But I don’t see it, and believe in it less than I do in spooks: it is uneducated, badly brought up, and its best elements are unfair and insincere to us. I cannot make out whether this public wants me or not. Burenin says that it does not, and that I waste my time on trifles; the Academy has given me a prize. The devil himself could not make head or tail of it. Write for the sake of money? But I never have any money, and not being used to having it I am almost indifferent to it. For the sake of money I work apathetically. Write for the sake of praise? But praise merely irritates me…. Altogether my life is a dreary one, and I begin to get fits of hating people which used never to happen to me before. Long stupid conversations, visitors, people asking for help, and helping them to the extent of one or two or three roubles, spending money on cabs for the sake of patients who do not pay me a penny—altogether it is such a hotch-potch that I feel like running away from home. People borrow money from me and don’t pay it back, they take my books, they waste my time…. Blighted love is the one thing that is missing.”12
Anton was a man of contradictions: a man who needed society but was overwhelmed by incessant harassment. As a child he swore to protect his family but was now was exhausted by their endless problems. He could never truly rest. Every moment of relaxation was accompanied by guilt. Writing was an essential purpose as it had a financial necessity.
Chekhov was tired: tired of the fight, of the criticism and of playing the role of savior.
As if this was not enough, Anton was a sick man, no matter how hard he tried to deny or disguise it. Chekhov carried on, under the weight of the duties he took upon himself, until he snapped.
It happened when his brother Nikolai died.
Nikolai’s dying was long: he had typhus and tuberculosis. Anton treated him with great care, constantly reminded that the suffering was caused from the same disease he himself had. He did not leave his brother’s side, until mid June, when his older brother Alexander came to stay “to change guard”. Anton left Lucca, but the following day received a telegram, that Kolya (Nikolai) had died. It was as though Nikolai had waited for Anton to leave.
Anton had anticipated the news, but was devastated with grief. Alexander later wrote to their father, Pavel: “All are weeping. Only Anton does not cry, and that is a bad sign”.
Anton handled the funeral arrangements.
Anton supported his mourning family.
Anton was the one who fix arranged everything for them all.
He returned to Moscow he resumed his writing. Life returned to normal, but routine for Chekhov was nonstop: he was praised as a brilliant and talented author but failed miserably as a playwright. For the first time he had a burning sensation, no longer produce stories on demand but wished to create genuine works of art. He needed freedom to reunite with himself. That year he published A Dreary Story, about a protagonist who seeks inspiration and a purpose to life.
During Law School, Anton’s younger brother, Mikhail Chekhov, attended a lecture about prisons and penal colonies, including Sahalin. Anton came across his notes and found the inspiration he was looking for. He was now determined to visit Sahalin.
The journey to Devil’s Island
“I am going in the full conviction that my visit will furnish no contribution of value either to literature or science: I have neither the knowledge, nor the time, nor the ambition for that… I want to write some 100 to 200 pages, and so do something, however little, for medical science, which, as you are aware, I have neglected shockingly. Possibly I shall not succeed in writing anything, but still the expedition does not lose its charm for me: reading, looking about me, and listening, I shall learn a great deal and gain experience. I have not yet travelled, but thanks to the books which I have been compelled to read, I have learned a great deal which anyone ought to be flogged for not knowing, and which I was so ignorant as not to have known before. Moreover, I imagine the journey will be six months of incessant hard work, physical and mental, and that is essential for me, for I am a Little Russian and have already begun to be lazy. I must take myself in hand. My expedition may be nonsense, obstinacy, a craze, but think a moment and tell me what I am losing if I go. Time? Money? Shall I suffer hardships? My time is worth nothing; money I never have anyway; as for hardships, I shall travel with horses, twenty-five to thirty days, not more, all the rest of the time I shall be sitting on the deck of a steamer or in a room, and shall be continually bombarding you with letters.
Suppose the expedition gives me nothing, yet surely there will be 2 or 3 days out of the whole journey which I shall remember all my life with ecstasy or bitterness, etc., etc…. So that’s how it is, sir. All that is unconvincing, but you know you write just as unconvincingly. For instance, you say that Sahalin is of no use and no interest to anyone. Can that be true? Sahalin can be useless and uninteresting only to a society which does not exile thousands of people to it and does not spend millions of roubles on it. Except Australia in the past and Cayenne, Sahalin is the only place where one can study colonization by convicts; all Europe is interested in it, and is it no use to us? Not more than 25 to 30 years ago our Russians exploring Sahalin performed amazing feats which exalt them above humanity, and that’s no use to us: we don’t know what those men were, and simply sit within four walls and complain that God has made man amiss. Sahalin is a place of the most unbearable sufferings of which man, free and captive, is capable. Those who work near it and upon it have solved fearful, responsible problems, and are still solving them. I am not sentimental, or I would say that we ought to go to places like Sahalin to worship as the Turks go to Mecca, and that sailors and gaolers ought to think of the prison in Sahalin as military men think of Sevastopol. From the books I have read and am reading, it is evident that we have sent millions of men to rot in prison, have destroyed them—casually, without thinking, barbarously; we have driven men in fetters through the cold ten thousand versts, have infected them with syphilis, have depraved them, have multiplied criminals, and the blame for all this we have thrown upon the gaolers and red-nosed superintendents. Now all educated Europe knows that it is not the superintendents that are to blame, but all of us; yet that has nothing to do with us, it is not interesting. The vaunted sixties did nothing for the sick and for prisoners, so breaking the chief commandment of Christian civilization. In our day something is being done for the sick, nothing for prisoners; prison management is entirely without interest for our jurists. No, I assure you that Sahalin is of use and of interest to us, and the only thing to regret is that I am going there, and not someone else who knows more about it and would be more able to rouse public interest. Nothing much will come of my going there.”13
The preparations for the trip were hectic. Anton wanted to read everything that was ever written about Sakhalin. Maria and Alexander assisted. He received a travel certificate as a journalist from Modern Times and was given introductions to influential people who would help him in his journey, by Suvorin.
Anton left a will, appointing his sister Maria to his sole beneficiary and made sure to pack especially warm clothes for his travel.
In April, came the moment: his entire family with a few friends accompanied him to the railway station – three of them (his brother Ivan, his friend Isaac Levitan and Olga Kondnsuva, who was secretly in love with him) also escorted him to the Saragevo station. His journey was long, tiring and tedious. The means of transportation poor, the weather was freezing with barely a sight of human habitation in the wide tundra. A healthy man would surely have found it difficult. It took over four months for Anton to adapt to the harsh conditions.
Sakhalin had five penal colonies, populated by prisoners and former prisoners, who were obliged to remain in the island, after they had finished serving their sentences. Some wives followed their husbands and supported themselves by selling their bodies to anyone who could afford it.
The governor of the region, Baron Corph, allowed Chekhov free access. He informed Anton that the prisoners had a difficult but tolerable life. The reality, as he discovered, was very different: chained, forced laborers, working on their bellies in narrow coal mine tunnels. The hospital had a shortage of the most basic medicines; patients slept on the floor or on boards. Entrance to the church was prohibited to the prisoners. The guards ruled absolutely and there was no way to challenge their violence. Officials had all the rights whilst the prisoners had none. Most of the inmates lost all sense of human dignity; they stole from one another, snitched on each other, drunk heavily and played cards at night and were in complete subservience to the guards.
Anton saw the great injustices and was witnessed to many cruel punishments. The beatings were the worst for him: they tormented his own nights as well. There were moments when he felt he had seen the extreme boundaries of human degradation. In his letter to Suvorin, when he was on his way home, he concluded by writing: “I have seen everything, so that the question is not now what I have seen, but how I have seen it. I don’t know what will come of it, but I have done a good deal. I have got enough material for three dissertations. I got up every morning at five o’clock and went to bed late; and all day long was on the strain from the thought that there was still so much I hadn’t done; and now that I have done with the convict system, I have the feeling that I have seen everything but have not noticed the elephants. By the way, I had the patience to make a census of the whole Sahalin population. I made the round of all the settlements, went into every hut and talked to everyone; I made use of the card system in making the census, and I have already registered about ten thousand convicts and settlers. In other words, there is not in Sahalin one convict or settler who has not talked with me. I was particularly successful with the census of the children, on which I am building great hopes.”14.
The children who lived in the penal colony with their parents drew Anton’s special attention. They were another part in the grim mosaic of Sakhalin’s depressing reality: many of them lived in ignorance as to whom were their parents. All lived without supervision, care or attention. They were hungry, neglected and indifferent to the prisoners. They played soldiers and inmates. They understood what an executioner was.
On his way to the island, he traveled by a steamship, which also carried chained prisoners. One of these prisoners, was followed continually by his six year old daughter, who was clutching at the shackles with her tiny hands. This event was engraved in Anton’s mind.
In all, Chekhov stayed in Sakhalin for three months and two days. His journey home took additional two months. This time it was almost a joy ride: although he refused to sail through the United State due the cost of the ticket, or through Japan, due to the fear of Cholera, his travel revealed new cultures: Hong Kong was expensive, vibrant and modern. Ceylon (Sri Lanka) – was paradise on earth with its palm trees forests and dark skinned women.
The Red Sea was depressing, but Sinai was exciting.
When he finally returned to Russia, he was overwhelmed with happiness:
“… Hurrah! Here at last I am sitting at my table at home! … I have now a happy feeling as though I had not been away from home at all. I am well and thriving to the marrow of my bones… I worked (in Sakhalin) at high pressure… I know a very great deal now, but I have brought away a horrid feeling. While I was staying in Sahalin, I only had a bitter feeling in my inside as though from rancid butter; and now, as I remember it, Sahalin seems to me a perfect hell. For two months I worked intensely, putting my back into it; in the third month I began to feel ill from the bitterness I have spoken of, from boredom, and the thought that the cholera would come from Vladivostok to Sahalin, and that so I was in danger of having to winter in the convict settlement… God’s world is a good place. The one thing not good in it is we. How little justice and humility there is in us. How little we understand true patriotism! A drunken, broken-down debauchee of a husband loves his wife and children, but of what use is that love? We, so we are told in our own newspapers, love our great motherland, but how does that love express itself? Instead of knowledge—insolence and immeasurable conceit; instead of work—sloth and swinishness; there is no justice, the conception of honour does not go beyond “the honour of the uniform”—the uniform which is so commonly seen adorning the prisoner’s dock in our courts. Work is what is wanted, and the rest can go to the devil. First of all we must be just, and all the rest will be added unto us…”15
Indeed, his trip to Sakhalin had made an indelible mark on Chekhov, but in spite of his eagerness to write and to tell the world of his impressions and conclusions, reality soon found a way to demand his attention once again.
Chekhov, the landlord
Chekhov often spoke about his journey to Sakhalin and even managed to send thousands of books to the children on the island. However, not everyone welcomed his efforts and willingness to talk. His critics accused him of the deterioration in the quality of his writing. They blamed him for poorly imitating Dostoevsky’s visit to a labor camp. They argued he wanted to make a name for himself at the expense of the prisoners. Many frowned upon his close relationship with the wealthy and influential Suvorin, and described him as Suvorin’s pet boy. Anton did not pay attention to their criticism and did not let it affect his daily routine or his writing.
Anton gladly accepted Suvorin’s invitation to join him and his son on their trip to Europe: everything was so different from his previous, ascetic and hard journey but with the first rains his enthusiasm waned. After the cultural and elegant Vienna and the spectacular Venice, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples were a great disappointment.
He tired to visit everything, but eventually began satiated with the art in these cities. He did not approve of Monte Carlo, whose residents seemed to live for money, gambling and shopping. Paris baffled him, with its social and political freedom.
His primarily concern was the high cost of the trip: Anton had to accommodate himself to the luxurious ways of his rich friends that raised debts. It was his obligation to return them, unthinkable conduct from a man who devoted his life to the welfare of his family.
1891 was a busy and confusing year for Anton. His travels had tired and body and exhausted his mind. He needed to settle down, to stabilize his life into a healthy routine, but none of the houses which he had rented – with his family – was suitable for this purpose. He was torn between his commitment to finish writing about Sakhalin and the need to earn a living from his short stories. This year he was also busy writing the novella The Dual, which he preferred to finishing the summary of the information about the island. This left with a considerable sense of remorse.
It seems that contradiction controlled every aspect of his life: he needed company but was aggravated by the constant visits. He had many flirtations but could never seriously commit.
His attitude towards the great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy was ambivalent: he harshly criticized his famous story, The Kreuzer Sonata whilst he deeply admired the charity work Tolstoy did for the Russian peasants.
Anton also wanted to assist the sick and the oppressed, but his illness prevented him from doing so. His own personal perception of his role in the world, struggled between his profession as a doctor and his occupation as a writer: “If I am a doctor I ought to have patients and a hospital; if I am a literary man I ought to live among people instead of in a flat with a mongoose, I ought to have at least a scrap of social and political life—but this life between four walls, without nature, without people, without a country, without health and appetite, is not life, but some sort of … and nothing more.”16
Chekhov found the solution to his mental distress, physical and financial problems, in the country. More accurately, in purchasing his own country house.
It was a mansion with three hundred acres of grounds, near Melikhovo, forty miles south of Moscow. Opens spaces, fresh, clean air and quiet, allowing him to write.
He decided to spend nine months of the year here and three months in St. Petersburg.
In 1892 Chekhov settled in Melikhovo with his family: his parents, his sister Maria and his younger brother, Michael.
The grandson of a former serf, a poor boy who was left alone after his father’s bankruptcy, a student who struggled to survive had become a landlord at the age of thirty-two. Although Suvorin had loaned him the four thousand rubles, required for the contract and even signed the necessary guarantees, Anton knew that his achievement had come thanks to his hard work and this realization filled him with great pride.
The estate needed extensive renovation and maintenance work. All Chekhov’s family were enlisted for the task. Anton conducted the operation. He was overwhelmed with joy: “Living in the country is inconvenient. The insufferable time of thaw and mud is beginning, but something marvellous and moving is taking place in nature, the poetry and novelty of which makes up for all the discomforts of life. Every day there are surprises, one better than another. The starlings have returned, everywhere there is the gurgling of water, in places where the snow has thawed the grass is already green. The day drags on like eternity. One lives as though in Australia, somewhere at the ends of the earth; one’s mood is calm, contemplative, and animal, in the sense that one does not regret yesterday or look forward to tomorrow. From here, far away, people seem very good, and that is natural, for in going away into the country we are not hiding from people but from our vanity, which in town among people is unjust and active beyond measure. Looking at the spring, I have a dreadful longing that there should be paradise in the other world. In fact, at moments I am so happy that I superstitiously pull myself up and remind myself of my creditors, who will one day drive me out of the Australia I have so happily won…”17
Life in Melikhovo was a golden era in his life. Here Chekhov wrote The House with an Attic – The Artist’s Story, Gooseberries, Peasants, My Wife, Neighbors and Ward Number Six, alongside many other stories. The family lived under one roof, each one in his own world: the mother toiled in the kitchen, the father was occupied with his religious speeches (which only intensified in his old age) in the living room. Anton wrote in his study and Maria supervised. In her bedroom hung a large portrait of her brother Anton, to whom she devoted her whole life. She did the work of four people, zealously defending the writer’s peace of mind.
She worshiped him, admired him unreservedly and unconditionally. She had sacrificed her life for him. Due to her great love, she did not think about marriage: she already had one great man in her life, and she could not even consider the option of turn her back on him for marriage.
Anton had the same attitude: Why should he need a wife when he had Maria?
The two of them respected each other, cared deeply for each other and needed no one else.
His life in the country did not change Anton his self discipline: he ate little, slept little, woke early, had a cup of coffee and then went to work, often writing at his desk, sometimes by the window, overlooking the garden.
His occupation as a physician also prospered: the number of his country patients increased steadily, exceeding those in Moscow. They often came from a distance of twenty miles or more, walking on foot or being carried on carts. There were times in which the line of women and children before his door started from early morning and continued until late noon. From the majority of them, mostly peasants, Chekhov still did not charge them for his treatment. His expenses for drugs were considerable, but the highest cost was the cost of travel to visit patients. This often took many hours, reducing the time he had to dedicate for his writing. However he was rewarded by being able to meet many different characters, who provided him with creative inspiration.
That which he wished to avoid in Moscow – the constant stream of visitors – haunted him also in Melikhovo. Although he could not exist without his guests, this time they truly over welcomed their stay. They distracted his mind interrupted his line of thought: he was still the friendly host, witty, passionate, restrained and funny, but in order to write he had to step into the garden, away the range of their laughter and singing.
When Cholera broke out in Moscow and its surroundings, Chekhov accepted the request of the Regional Council and stood at the forefront of the struggle against the disease, in an area which numbered twenty – five villages, four factories and an Abbey. He read the latest essays on the subject and ordered to build sheds for the isolation of the sick. Since he lacked money to pay the bill for these shacks, he turned to his friends, neighbors, rich industrialists and urged them to donate. He ran around from village to village, teaching the farmers how to save themselves from the scourge and additionally handled cases of Typhoid, Diphtheria and Scarlet fever. In a few weeks he saw a thousand patients.
Chekhov was not oblivious to the beauty of Melikhovo, with the corn crop harvested in summer, the magic of the garden, the abundance of cucumbers and cabbages. This could have been the happiest summer of Anton’s life, but for the call of Cholera in Moscow.
He felt detached and unimportant, engaged in nothing else but the epidemic. It filled his days and nights unremittingly, but this occupation was alienating him from the one thing he wanted to do – writing.
In spite of his personal reservations, his dedicated efforts finally bore fruit.
Dealing with the demanding and complex situation had sharpened Chekhov’s consciousness concerning the kindness and diligence of good people, who worked for the welfare and well being of the other persons, unlike urban politicians, who harnessed the illness for their own cause, not lifting a finger to help the public.
The peak of Romance
Winter in Melikhovo was the perfect contrast to summer. Anton cheerfulness had vanished, almost entirely, seemed to be buried under the gloominess of the snow. Anton’s desire to travel came to life once more, but his mind was not free to enjoy visits in other parts of the world. Most of all, it was if he just wanted to run away – from himself and from winter depression which came over him. His health continued to decline and his commitments of his family and his work kept him frustrated.
Luckily, the spring and summer improved him mood.
Amongst regular guests of the estate was Lydia Yegorovna Mizinov, nicknamed Lika. Anton first met her when she was eighteen year old. She had the pale skin, blond hair and gray, sparkling eyes. Lika was an assistant teacher at school in which Maria taught History and Geography. Chekhov captivated her heart with his talent, his good features, his delightful smile, but he was evasive and did not return her love.
Olga Kondusova, a young mathematician, was a rival to Lika. When Olga dared to imply the true nature of her feelings, Anton pulled back and recoiled from her company. Olga kept allegiance to her love, and even was a part of the “threesome” who accompanied Anton on his way to Sakhalin. As with Lika, Anton never returned her love.
Lika was also loyal with her feelings and thanks to her friendship with Maria she became a part of the family landscape. Anton wrote her the most emotional letters, filled with admiration and praise – all part of the flirtation game he played: Lika the lovely, the wonderful, the amazing, the golden, the mother of pearl, the devilish beautiful Lika – these were his standard pet names for her.
The ridiculing tone of his letters enabled him to shake off any personal note; he declared that her attractiveness made him dizzy and even expressed jealousy towards other possible competitors, among whom was his close friend Levitan, but he never admitted she had truly touched the inner core of his soul. He asked – almost begged before her to come and visit him, but when he reproached her for her absence and articulated his longings, he wrote under the name of his family. Lika’s nonattendance had disrupted the household lifestyle in an unforgivable manner. It was the things he did not say which indicated a sense of closeness and neediness, which he dare not admit.
His confusion and indecisiveness were a complete torture for Lika, who did not know how to interpret it and what to do in face of his emotional unstableness and the sharp contradictions in his behavior: did he love her? And if he loved her, why would he not marry her?
In order to gain his attention and to arouse his envy, she had embarked in a tempestuous flirtation with one of Anton’s married acquaintance, but Anton’s peace of mind was not disturbed. Lika’s peace of mind, on the other hand, was. She returned to Moscow shaken, miserable and lost and immersed herself into a life of wild nihilism and debauchery. She wanted to redeem herself from her desperate state but she needed Anton in order to do that. She asked him not to ever contact her again, but failed to keep her own request: Although she fully understood the gravity of her condition, as well as the circumstance of her pain and distress, she could not bring herself to free herself from the her love of Anton. She felt completely dependent on him, desperately needing of his love and recognition even when he was indifferent to her, and even when he got involved with a young actress from Moscow – Lydia Yvoroskia.
Lydia personified everything Chekhov disliked: professional enticement, artificialness and temperamental. The rumors the relationship between the author – playwright and the actress became famous all across Moscow, but Lika refused to back down: disloyal to her own desire, to detach herself from Anton, or to her request from her, to remove himself from her, she had tried to win his heart in every possible way, to find out the true intentions towards that Lydia and most begged him, desperately, to write her.
Lika felt she needed Chekhov in order to live.
Maybe it was the easiness of conquest that brought Anton to belittle those women who asked for his love. He was surrounded with young and beautiful women all his life: when he was younger, it was due to his character and good looks. When he matured and became famous, it was because of his power as a well-known author. Many of the women were Maria’s friends, who were always around. Anton was never found without a flock of admiring fans, graceful and devoted. They all wanted to be involved with him. He never had trouble conquering their hearts – they always tried to conquer his.
He enjoyed their company, but when the game went too far, he quickly folded: “By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: everything must be as it has been hitherto—that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her. Happiness continued from day to day, from morning to morning, I cannot stand. When every day I am told of the same thing, in the same tone of voice, I become furious. I am furious, for instance, in the society of S., because he is very much like a woman (“a clever and responsive woman”) and because in his presence the idea occurs to me that my wife might be like him. I promise you to be a splendid husband, but give me a wife who, like the moon, won’t appear in my sky every day; I shan’t write any better for being married…”18
Although Anton became independent at the age of 15 – 16, he never considered himself liberated from the need to support his family – quite the contrary: this commitment was the foundation of his entire existence. Every choice, every thought, every deed and every desire were always conducted in light of the question – was this action serving the best interest of his family? Will he be able to maintain them with dignity?
A wife – marriage – emotional involvement, these were all additional commitments. His family was “imposed” on him, why should sacrificed his heart, mind and money to yet another burden, when he had no reason to need to do such a thing?
But Chekhov was not only the admired, bored man. His perception of the institution of marriage, as he depicted it from his early childhood, was not very encouraging: Pavel Yegorovich use to yell and humiliate Yevgeniya Yakovleva Morozov every chance he got, calling her stupid and ignored her and her will. His brother Alexander lived with a married woman and never stopped complaining about their life together. Just how deep this perception goes, one can learn from Chekhov “couple” stories, which do not portray a very sympathetic picture: The Witch, The Chemist’s Wife, Agafya, The Grasshopper, A Lady with a Dog, The Cook’s Wedding,The Name Day Party and even A Happy Ending - not only do the lack a sense of brotherhood and fraternity, they also express a rough and mutual alienation and dislike. They portray a life spent next to a complete stranger (sometimes even an enemy), obsessed with power games and chasing honor, a loathsome routine and an acute sense of missed opportunity for a better existence.
Anton wanted love and enjoyed being loved, but was not willing to be tied down.
Successes and failures come together
Chekhov’s “ordinary” life continued in its troubled, tormented and unhealthy way, expect for two extraordinary social events: his meeting with Leo Tolstoy and reconciling with his friend Isaac Levitan. Two years earlier the painter had broken off relations with Anton in protest, accusing Chekhov for writing The Grasshopper on Levitan’s alleged relationship with a married mistress. Chekhov denied any involvement but Levitan insisted: there were too many similarities. Now he agreed to forgive his friend the two renewed their longstanding close friendship as if nothing had happened.
But it seems that the clear message – not to use the life stories of his friend and acquaintances as a platform for creative inspiration – was not internalized by Chekhov: he started working on The Seagull – a play which was based on his personal feelings and experiences. It was a slow process; endless interferences disrupted his writing. The pressure to finish it on time had kept him awake and worsened his already bad health. However, despite of the difficulties, The Seagull was completed within less than two months. When it was published, many had found in it clear evidences to the love affair with Lydia Yegorovna Mizinov – Lika with a married man. Chekhov again denied any connection, resented the false accusations and was annoyed by the diminishment of his creativity to cheap and voyeuristic gossip. He was hurt by the intensity of the criticism, which attacked the innovation of the play for choosing speech over action. He changed his work accordingly.
Within a year the play was received by the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The premiere was scheduled on October 17. Anton, who attended the rehearsals, was alarmed by the cast’s behavior: from their lack of understanding of his intentions, their amateurism and superficiality in studying the text and their artificial and exaggerated acting. He was so frustrated and angry that he even considered not attending the debut at all.
Unfortunately for him, he did.
It was a complete failure. The actors were awful. They forgot their lines and found it difficult to act in face of the unruly audience, who did not stop from whistling, stamping their feet and booing.
Critics could not have been more sarcastic: Anton was crowned idiot and his play – silly, incomprehensible, pointless and awkward. Chekhov, embarrassed and grief – stricken, swore he would never write another play in his life: “The play has fallen flat, and come down with a crash. There was an oppressive strained feeling of disgrace and bewilderment in the theatre. The actors played abominably stupidly. The moral of it is, one ought not to write plays.”19
On the other hand, the second and third performances were a huge success. From that point on, The Seagull became mandatory repertoire. Long lines trailed to the box office. Praise was heaped. Chekhov heard of it and of course was extremely happy, but nothing could clear his mind and memory of the disastrous opening night. He did not come to the following performances – his health did not allow it: he had to be hospitalized due to the incessant coughing of blood. His doctors diagnosed TB in the upper lungs and ordered him to alter his lifestyle and to live in the country. Anton found it difficult to accept their recommendation: living the in country meant constant involvement in all matters concerning the farmers, estate management, guests and other bothersome trifles. However, the severity of their words finally penetrated and he decided to reduce some of the heavy load, lessen his medical activities, try to try to rest and eat more. Furthermore, he endorsed their advice to go abroad, to countries with a more favorable climate. He went to Berlin, Paris, Venice, Biarritz and Nice – something he later regretted: these trips did not cause him great pleasure and staying in foreign countries evidently impaired his writing capacity.
Alongside his literary activities – publishing My Life, The House with an Attic – The Artist’s Story, Three Years, Ariadna, Whitebrow, Anna on the Neck and Peasants – Chekhov contributed to Melikhovo not only his services as a physician, but he also financed the construction of three schools, a fire station, a clinic and a post office and supported the reconstruction of a bridge, the local church and surroundings roads. He also began sending Taganrog books, which he donated to the local library, including more than three hundred French classics he had acquired during his stay in Paris. His participation in the census took its toll and challenged his patience to the limit: “… I was pretty sick of the business, as I had both to enumerate and to write till my fingers ached, and to give lectures to fifteen numerators. The numerators worked excellently, with a pedantic exactitude almost absurd. On the other hand the Zemsky Natchalniks, to whom the census was entrusted in the districts, behaved disgustingly. They did nothing, understood little, and at the most difficult moments used to report themselves sick. The best of them turned out to be a man who drinks and draws the long bow a la Hlestakov [Translator's Note: A character in Gogol's "Inspector General."]—but was all the same a character, if only from the point of view of comedy, while the others were colourless beyond words, and it was annoying beyond words to have anything to do with them…”20
A new theater is born
Constantin Sergeyevich Stanislavski and Valdimir Nemirovich Danchenko, an actor and a theatre director and playwright and lecturer of art (respectively) were the founding fathers of the Moscow Art Theatre. The two had developed a new acting technique, which did not believe in dramatic exhibition of emotions, but in accurate performance, such that resulted from a thorough study and understanding of the character and their world. Danchenko, who knew Chekhov and his The Seagull, wanted to present it in his new theater.
At first Chekhov declined. Even though to have a play of his accepted by this theater had been a dream of his, the memory of the debut was too painful. He wanted nothing to do with it.
However Danchenko persisted.
Anton eventually gave in.
The bitter pill in St. Petersburg also worried Danchenko and he invested all his energy in a renewed stage adaptation. Anton spent his time in Melikhovo, recovering and writing, treating patients and continuing with his charity works – in spite of his guests’ constant visits and disruptions.
In September Danchenko invited him to watch rehearsals.
The actors were extremely excited by the presence of the famous playwright and novelist, while Chekhov was moved by the fact that for the first time his intentions were fully understood. It was not his only excitement: during the first rehearsal Anton especially admired the beauty and the acting of Olga Leonardovna Knipper, who played the role of Arkadina. She was a young woman of twenty-eight, with wide face and lively, bright eyes and long black hair. She was a spirited, vibrant woman, intelligent and talented. She came from a good family – her father was a brilliant engineer. Her mother taught vocal lessons.
Olga fell in love with Chekhov at first sight.
Yet, sad news was soon to follow.
On October 12 Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov passed away in Melikhovo, while Anton was in Yalta due to his ailing health. Maria informed him by a telegram. The sad and unexpected news shocked Anton deeply, as well as the medical circumstances – circumstances Chekhov the doctor could have prevented, if only he had been there. Being away from his family at that difficult time only added pain to his suffering.
Pavel’s death was the end of an era in the chronicles of the Chekhov family. Despite all the hardship of his forceful personality, Anton felt only too well how his death draw a line in their lives, separating one period from the other. Moving from cold Melikhovo and settling in Yalta was one important change. Anton bought land and started working – building the house persuading his mother and sister to join him: “… I am buying a piece of land in Yalta and am going to build so as to have a place in which to spend the winters. The prospect of continual wandering with hotel rooms, hotel porters, chance cooking, and so on, and so on, alarms my imagination. Mother will spend the winter with me. There is no winter here; it’s the end of October, but the roses and other flowers are blooming freely, the trees are green and it is warm.
There is a great deal of water. Nothing will be needed apart from the house, no outbuildings of any sort; it will all be under one roof. The coal, wood and everything will be in the basement. The hens lay the whole year round, and no special house is needed for them, an enclosure is enough. Close by there is a baker’s shop and the bazaar, so that it will be very cosy for Mother and very convenient. By the way, there are chanterelles and boletuses to be gathered all the autumn, and that will be an amusement for Mother. I am not doing the building myself, the architect is doing it all. The houses will be ready by April. The grounds, for a town house, are considerable. There will be a garden and flowerbeds, and a vegetable garden. The railway will come to Yalta next year…”21
Maria initially refused to leave the Garden of Eden of Melikhovo in favor of the desolation in Yalta. She rented an apartment in Moscow with her mother. Anton’s health continued to deteriorate and although he tried hard to conceal the matter, he himself understood the severity of his condition. This was why he could not leave Yalta. The news about the dazzling success of The Seagull he received by wire. The audience, so it said, went completely wild.
The author makes room for the playwright
Anton, the passionate young man, became friends with Maxim (Maksim) Gorky, the long time author, basing their companionship on exchanging letters, books and artistic advice.
In order to finance the cost of building his new home, pay his debts and ensure the future of his mother and sister, Chekhov accepted the proposal of A. P. Marx, a well known publisher, to sell the rights of his short stories in the past, present and future for onetime payment of 75,000 rubles. The rights of his plays remained Chekhov’s and after his death would passed to his legal heirs. Despite the unfairness of the transaction, the considerable amount answered Anton’s desire, to ensure the future of his family. Therefore, he embarked in a massive operation to collect all the stories that were published up to this point. He recruited Maria and Alexander and even Lydia Avilovh, his most obsessive and consistent follower, to help him.
Meanwhile, he continued to nurture his new home, supervising the construction and planting tress – cherry, pear, almond and blueberry bushes – literally with his own hands.
He continued with his charitable activities, contributed funds to build a village school near Yalta, donated money to the former boy who served in his father’s shop and to his brother Alexander, who started building his own home outside St. Petersburg. But the stay in the country began to weigh him down, and against his doctors’ advice, he went to Moscow.
The swarm of visitors, guests and seekers of advice pursued him there, at an increasing rate, until they had chased him out of his mother’s and Maria’s apartment to another flat. His callers reached him there as well. However, one guest brought him great happiness – Tolstoy.
When he returned to Yalta, he invited Olga Knipper. She stayed for three magical days. Olga was lively and energetic and knew who to cheer Anton’s mind: she talked trivia to him and did not bother with questions about the theater or of his literary plans. She made him laugh.
Olga noticed that he was living a sad and uncomfortable life, that he was not particular about his meals, that his servants were negligent and his boots were not polished. She saw that his visitors disturbed him in his worked and that he did not have the courage to lock the door to them.
After her stay, Olga traveled to Caucasus, but the mutual longing made her suggest to Anton a reunion in Yalta. They met again and did not want to separate. So they continued to Moscow, where Olga resumed her rehearsals for The Seagull while Chekhov labored on the collection of his stories for the first anthology. However, their bliss did not last long: further deterioration in his health had send Anton back to Yalta. His mother and Maria joined him a month later.
The construction of the house advanced, the weather was wonderful and Chekhov went back to work. He even managed to sell his house in Melikhovo, thanks to Maria’s efforts, but the quiet course of life overcame him once again. He missed Olga, missed the tumult of the city and missed the action and the people on the streets.
At the same time, he welcomed the appeal of Mali Theatre, to present Uncle Vanya – a reworking of his earlier play – The Wood Demon. Although the play was presented from time to time in the provinces, the critical committee demanded that Chekhov make significant changes. Olga Knipper was cast in the role of Yelena.
Although participation in the rehearsals had again caused him great indignant, the premiere was an immense success. Anton heard the news at home, after having already retired for the night – until the endless stream of telegrams woke him.
Olga, my love
Chekhov was chosen as a member of the Academy of Literature in the Academy of Science, alongside Tolstoy and Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko. Needless to say that he did not fuss about this achievement. He continued to live in Yalta, continued to cultivate his garden and continued to write to his sister – also with regard to Olga Knipper, with whom Maria became close. Since he himself was unable to travel, he had asked Stanislavski to take the theater on a tour of Crimea. Stanislavski agreed (not without hesitation). The group started organizing the trip. Olga and Maria came to Yalta ahead of time, but Anton’s severe weakness made the reunion of playwright and the actress virtually impossible. The tour was extremely successful and Chekhov received standing ovations. For the first time in her life, Yevgeniya Yakovleva Morozov, Anton’s mother, attended the show, against his better judgment; he was mortified by her presence and mostly by her responses. Luckily, his fears were proved wrong. It became one of the happiest moments of his life.
When the group left the city, Anton felt desolate.
The loneliness was unbearable and he fled to Moscow and later to Caucasus, accompanied by Gorky and other friends. In July, Olga came back and visited him in Yalta, to stay on the estate. It was the first time the couple was alone, under one roof. This intimacy changed their relationship from friendship to a love affair.
Anton’s love of Olga had brought new light and joy to his life. When she returned to Moscow, he corresponded with her, sending her passionate letters almost every day: “My greetings, dear actress! Are you angry that I haven’t written for so long? I used to write often, but you didn’t get my letters because our common acquaintance intercepted them in the post.
I wish you all happiness in the New Year. I really do wish you happiness and bow down to your little feet. Be happy, wealthy, healthy, and gay.
We are getting on pretty well, we eat a great deal, chatter a great deal, laugh a great deal, and often talk of you. Masha will tell you when she goes back to Moscow how we spent Christmas.
I have not congratulated you on the success of “Lonely Lives.” I still dream that you will all come to Yalta, that I shall see “Lonely Lives” on the stage, and congratulate you really from my heart… My sister tells me that you played “Anna” exquisitely…
Well, the best of health to you, dear, wonderful actress. I have been pining for you.
And when are you going to send me your photograph? What treachery!”22
Although he confessed his love to her, Anton had never asked for Olga’s hand in marriage. His illness prevented him from visiting her while her work in the theater stopped her from visiting him in Yalta. Nevertheless, Chekhov eventually took a trip to Moscow, where he presented to the theater and the actors, his new play – Three Sisters.
The play was not well received. The stay in the city, with its arbitrary outings and late meals – exhausted him and he traveled to Nice, monitoring the actors’ rehearsals and Olga’s performance by correspondence. His letters to her were filled with love and self-awareness: Anton knew how old, sick and restricted he truly was. He understood his limitations. Olga was young, vibrant and energetic. She loved to party, to dress up and to stay out. She nurtured a promising career. Marrying him would make her sacrifice all and Anton was too considerate and sensitive a person to allow her to do so. If she were to stay in Moscow, in the theater, while he will be in Yalta, what kind of life would they have?
She had a life ahead of her. He was ending his.
Nonetheless, he missed her deeply.
Living alongside romance
Anton again was bored to be in one place and from Nice he sailed to Italy, touring Pisa, Florence and Roma. The debut of Three Sisters had won good reviews, but not as enthusiastic as The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. The audience, however, was enthusiastic. Everyone wanted to see the play.
The bad weather drove Chekhov back home. His health continued to deteriorate. His correspondence with Olga did not cease, but while his tone remained adoring as before, Olga’s approach had cooled down considerably: she no longer was willing to accept his indecisiveness and ambivalence. She asked, actually demanded, that Anton marry her. Chekhov, eventually, came around, but conditioned their marriage on one clause: no one is to know of it.
On May 25 Anton and Olga were married in a small church in Moscow before four people: Olga’s brother and uncle and two anonymous students, who were required for the ceremony. The Chekhov’s family was not aware that the wedding even took place. Anton informed his mother in a telegram he had sent her on his leaving for his honeymoon, in which he promised her that their lives would not change. He made the same promise to his sister Maria. After sending the message, he received Maria’s letter, sent to him before she knew anything about his marriage. Maria was shock. Chekhov wrote her again, and assured her that their lives would continue as before: he would live in Yalta, alone, after his return from the honeymoon. He explained that he was already an old man and that Olga’s came from a good family and even said he could break up with her without difficulty, if he only chose, due to the fact that Olga was an independent woman, who supported herself. Maria was not convinced. She felt betrayed and alone. Her life had turned upside down: she had lost her elevated status, both with her brother and with her former best friend. After devoting herself and her life to Anton, his work and his household, she was cast aside, replaced and was no longer needed. She had nothing else. She had lost everything.
When Olga and Anton returned to Yalta, his new wife wished to reorganize her husband’s life: she paid careful attention to his eating, dressing and hygiene. The mother and sister in law did not accept the new mindset. Olga’s aspiration to change Anton’s life was an indictment against the way in which he had lived up until now. More accurately, it was an accusation against the women in his life who enable him to live as he had. The clashes, fights and disputes were quick to out break out and were very slow to subside. In August Olga returned alone to Moscow, when the theater’s rehearsals were renewed. In his letter Anton had asked her to exercise restraint and patience towards his mother and sister.
Although her absence had calmed the situation, Anton’s longing for his wife upset him greatly:
“I am genuinely bored without you. I’ve gotten used to you like a child” he wrote her on August 24, 1901. “I love you, I am bored without you, my joy, my little German, my little girl. You second letter was already shorter and I am afraid your feelings had cooled or that you will get used to the fact that I am not at your side” he mourned three days later, on August 27. “I so desperately want to see you, I miss you and Moscow but what can I do. I think of you and reminded of you almost every hour. I love you, my darling, my sweet” he declared on November 15.
One month. That was how long he endured without her, until he caved in and joined her in Moscow, with his mother and sister. But in Moscow Olga was not only Anton’s wife. She was also a famous actress, who dedicated her days to the stage and her night to social gatherings. Her husband had become only a third priority in her schedule.
When his health declined, Anton was forced to return from Moscow. Olga, despite her grief and tears, remained in city. In her letters she was confused about the duality she felt, between her intense feelings and her yearning to be with her husband and her choice to stay in the city and devote herself to the theater and urban life. She did not understand herself sometime and could not decide between her two great loves. She urged Anton to choose for her, what to do and who to be: the dedicated wife or the famous actress. Irène Némirovsky claims the Olga had suffered greatly. Her love for her husband was passionate and scrupulous. When they were together during the summer or at their short meetings in Crimea or Moscow, they had beautiful, quiet moments. She took care of him. Anton needed his wife and she wanted to be with him and cursed herself for not abandoning the stage. She was tormented by the thought that he was on his own, that he was sad and bored while she was dealing with ephemeral work, instead of devote herself entirely to her love and her husband. But when it seems that Anton was agreeing with her by asking – Do you want to leave the theater? Really? – she immediately protested and said that without her job she will be bored to death, hate everything and be completely miserable. She was not accustomed to idle life anymore, she said, and was not young enough to dare and throw everything she worked so hard for in one moment.
Without a doubt, her actions well reflected her true intentions. She stayed in Moscow, with her theater and parties, away from her husband.
Anton had never asked her for anything: he loved her passion and vitality. She said she needed him but he knew better. And besides, what could he possibly offer her: The role of a caring nurse in sad, dusty Yalta?
He wanted her to live and that she could only do without him.
So he thought.
Living together – and alone
Olga’s absence was eased by Tolstoy’s and Gorky’s occasional visits to Yalta. Their conversations with Anton discussed literature, philosophy and politics.
Anton had spent the long winter writing The Bishop and was in the early stages of planning his play The Cherry Orchard. Olga came for a brief visit, before returning to the theater in Moscow. A month later she wrote to Anton that she had conceived and then, in the same letter, informed him that she had miscarried. When she came to visit him in April she was sick and exhausted. Her illness affected Anton so badly that his own health worsened. Her being in the house was complicated, to put it mildly, as his mother and Maria both accused her and her hedonistic lifestyle as the cause of her miscarriage.
Chekhov could not put up with the constant tension and moved with Olga to Moscow. Her condition did not improve and she was diagnosed with peritonitis – the same disease from which Anton himself had suffered as a young boy. She needed emergency surgery.
Thankfully, her devoted doctor / husband’s treatment was successful. She was completely cured. It was the perfect time for the couple to return to Yalta, but Anton sought to avoid the hostility between his wife, mother and sister. He chose to travel to Urals, leaving Olga in Moscow, under her mother’s supervision. When he returned, he and Olga stayed with Stanislavski’s mother. Although it was wonderful whilst it lasted, in the end Anton returned alone to Yalta and Olga returned to Moscow. In spite of her commitment to the theater, the actress was angry with her husband and with his sister and mother, who – she suspected – were the reason he did not invite her to join him when he went back home. Anton resented the accusation and denied it. Olga did not calm down. She claimed that while she herself was tormented being away from him, he did not need her. It was not her dedication to the stage or her profession that stood between them, but his cold character, his indifference towards her and his perpetual restlessness, which accompanied him wherever he went.
These allegations upset him deeply. He was so angry in his response that Olga finally softened and retracted her accusation.
The two began discussing the possibility of a new pregnancy.
Anton was not occupied with only personal matters at the time: in August he submitted his resignation from the Academy of Science in protest of Gorky’s that election to the institution was cancelled under order of the Czar.
In September Anton returned to Moscow but was unable to stay there more than six months, before retreating to Yalta, due to his advanced illness.
The sharp contrast between urban activity and peaceful, boring life in the country, between being alone and being together with Olga, between frequent travels from place to place, also weakened his soul. He hardly wrote. It took him forever to finish Betrothed. After publishing it he returned to The Cherry Orchard. His failing health did not allow him to create anything more.
Last effort to gain a little more from life
1903 was an agonizing year for Anton the person and for Chekhov, the author and playwright. His health deteriorated to such an extent that writing became a weight he could not bear. With great difficulty and immense struggle he revised and re-edited Betrothed and The Cherry Orchard – his two final works. His weakness and coughing did not allow him to write more than a few words a day.
The publishing of his books was a huge success, but Chekhov himself did not receive any profit from the sales. If it were not for the royalties of his plays, he would surely have gone bankrupt.
When he finally finished with The Cherry Orchard the reader’s response – Stanislavski, Danchenko, the actors and of course Olga – was unanimous. They thought it was the best play they had ever read. They were completely taken with it, starting from the second sentence, and could only find beauty and perfection in every word. Their enthusiastic reactions, instead of appeasing Chekhov’s mind, only agitated and troubled him: he did not believe them and his relentless fear, that the director and cast might misinterpret his intention and properly defeat the purpose arose within him once again. He wished to be in Moscow, accompanied by his wife and sent her affectionate and passionate letters, filled with love and longing.
The intensity of his illness was too much for him. The desolation of the body tormented his soul. Anton sought redemption. In December Olga allowed him to join her and he, without consulting his doctors, was quickly on his way.
Life comes to an end
Moscow revived Anton’s soul, for a while. The vigorous city was a tumultuous place to be in, but at home Anton was left alone. Olga did not give up her all-night parties, without her husband. The rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard had started as scheduled but Chekhov was frustrated with Stanislavksi’s distorted interpretation to his play. The playwright had written a comedy while the director had created a multi layered psychological drama. Anton’s biggest fear had finally materialized: his intentions were missed altogether.
In order to smooth the harsh disagreement between them, Stanislavski chose Anton birthday – January 17 – as the date for the premiere. The circumstances arranged in such a way that this day also marked half a century of Chekhov’s literary work. Stanislavski relied on this milestone as a backup, in case the audience’s enthusiasm would not respond to his visionary interpretation.
The premiere was a festive event, filled with praise and congratulation for the playwright. Anton hated every minute of it. For him, it was as if he had attended his own memorial, while he was still alive. He could barely stand on the stage. He refused to sit and did not say a word during the entire evening. Maria and Olga who sat in the audience were pleased by the honor. The play was received moderately. Later it was warmly accepted by the critics and the audiences, as was the case with Chekhov’s other plays, but Anton never reconciled with the dramatic presentation of his work. In his eyes, all the successes were mistakes. Everyone had misinterpreted and misunderstood what he truly meant to say.
Anton returned to Yalta and then again traveled to Moscow, but this journey was almost a deadly one: this time he could not enjoy the splendor of the city he loved so much. From the moment he came, he was confined to his bed and did not leave if for three months. Olga cared for him faithfully until he recovered. Due to his doctors’ recommendation, he decided to go to Berlin, to be examined by a tuberculosis specialist, Dr. Aueld. The couple set off on June 3. Although the stay in a new place improved Anton’s mood and physical condition, it was but a momentarily relief.
Dr. Aueld’s diagnosis was unequivocal: there was no solution. No way out.
Anton and Olga turned to Badenweiler, a spa town forty miles from Basel. His condition had improved thanks to the treatment of the resort, rest and proper nutrition. A week later boredom began to haunt him again. He was fed up with the German stuffiness, but leaving was out of the question.
The final decline came on the first night of July: at half past midnight he suddenly woke up and demanded to see a doctor. It was the first time in his life he had ever asked Olga such a thing. The doctor came at two o’clock. When Chekhov noticed him, he sat up in his bed, and later, with the last reflex of politeness, said in a peaceful, solemnly German: “I am dead.” The doctor gave him a Camphor Injection. It did not work. The doctor wanted to send of an oxygen tank. Chekhov, clear until the last minute, refused: “it is unnecessary. I will be dead before they will bring it in.” The doctor ordered a bottle of Champagne. Anton took the cup handed to him, turned his fact to Olga and said, with a faint smile: “It’s being a while since I’ve drank Champagne.”
He emptied the glass slowly and lay down on his left side. A few minutes later he stopped breathing. In was three o’clock in the morning, July 2.