Anton Chekhov and his journey to Sakhalin

“Sakhalin is a place of the most unbearable sufferings of which man, free and captive, is capable.” (Letter to A. S. Suvorin, March 9, 1890)

On Sunday, Ilmira and I went to the Chekhov Museum downtown. Anton Chekhov, of course, was a famous writer at the turn of the 19th century. His works in realism won him fame and awards and he influenced many of the literary greats of the 20th century including Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway. What may be unknown to Westerners is that Chekhov not only wrote in fiction, but he also made a journey to Sakhalin in the 1890s and wrote a book about his experiences called “The Island of Sakhalin”. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find an English copy of it yet, but Chekhov also wrote extensive letters during his life which reveal his thoughts, attitudes, and emotions.

anton_p_chekhovAnton Pavlovovich Chekhov was born in 1860 in Southern Russia. His father was abusive and abandoned the family in 1876 while fleeing debtor’s prison. The rest of the family went to Moscow while Chekhov stayed to finish his school. After which, he was admitted to medical school in Moscow and joined his family, which he then took the charge of at age 19. In order to earn money for his family and pay his tuition, Chekhov started writing sketches about life in Russia which he printed in newspapers. This future literary giant only wrote for money and considered himself a doctor first and foremost. His stories soon gathered recognition, however, and in 1888, at the age of 26, he was awarded the prestigious Pushkin Prize for his work.

Meanwhile in Sakhalin, the
island was being settled by both Japanese and Russian settlers for a number of years before the Treaty of St Petersburg in 1875 granted Russia full ownership of the island (for the time being). Like Australia and French Guiana before it, Sakhalin was initially colonised by prisoners. Life in the penal colony was extremely difficult and Chekhov, having heard about it, became determined to make the 6650 km (as the crow flies) journey to the Far East.

“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.” (Letter to A. S. Suvorin, March 9, 1890)

On the 21st of April, 1890, Chekhov, despite having tuberculosis, set off on a steamer down the Volga River away from Moscow, beginning the arduous journey. He took the steamer to Tyumen where he began ‘driving’ (horses) across Siberia, all the while complaining about the cold. Despite flooding, harrowing river crossings, and even a crash when uncontrolled carriages smashed into his own, Chekhov soon made it to Tomsk, a city in Siberia where he wanted to see the medical college.

He wrote to his sister about Tomsk saying, “Tomsk is a very dull town. To judge from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull, too.” The town responded in the early 2000s by erecting a statue of Chekhov ‘as seen through the eyes of a drunken peasant, lying in a ditch, who has never read [the beloved children’s story] Kashtanka.’

Despite all the difficulties of the journey, he said, “The Yenissey, the Taiga, the stations, the drivers, the wild scenery, the wild life, the physical agonies caused by the discomforts of the journey, the enjoyment I got from rest — all taken together is so delightful that I can’t describe it. The mere fact that I have been for more than a month in the open air is interesting and healthy; every day for a month, I have seen the sunrise.’ (Letter to N. A. Leikin, June 5, 1890).

Finally Chekhov reached Sakhalin on July 5. Being a penal colony, officials weren’t keen on letting anyone into Sakhalin, so Chekhov had to come up with an excuse for his visit. He decided to take a census of the entire island as a way to interview different people about the living conditions. His training as a doctor also permitted him to give medical assistance on occasion. Today, the governors’ approval for Chekhov’s entry and his medical kit are on display at the Chekhov Museum.

Chekhov claims to have spoken to every person on the island, in that day only around 10,000. He was appalled by the conditions in which people lived, especially the children who had come with their convicted fathers. “I saw starving children and young people in Sakhalin, I saw girls of thirteen prostitutes, girls of fifteen with child… Church and schools exist only on paper, the children are educated by their environment and the convict surroundings.” (Letter to A. F. Koni, January 16, 1891).

The main prison site was Aleksandrovsk-Sakhalinsky, a town on the East coast much further north. Prisoners worked all day building a tunnel through some of the mountains in that area, seven days a week. Ilmira remarked that we shouldn’t complain about our hours as we walked through a replica tunnel in the museum.

Unfortunately I don’t have much more information about Chekhov’s time on the island as he didn’t write many letters, being completely busy with his tasks. Eventually he travelled to the South and stayed in the city of Korsakov, which I’ve visited and blogged about before. After three months on the island, Chekhov admits, “I am homesick, and weary of Sakhalin… [It’s a] depressing existence. One longs to get quickly to Japan and from there to India.” (Letter to his mother, October 6, 1890).

Finally, Chekhov left Sakhalin on October 13, this time opting to sail instead of going overland through Siberia again. His ship put in at Vladivostok and then sailed past Japan, not stopping because of a cholera outbreak there. They did stop at Hong Kong (“an exquisite bay”), Singapore (“I have no clear memory of Singapore”), Sri Lanka (“an earthly paradise! There I… gazed at palm forests and bronze women to my heart’s content”), and then sailed through the Red Sea and Suez Canal (“The Red Sea is depressing”), before finally reaching Odessa where Chekhov got off and took the train that very day back to Moscow, bringing with him three mongooses he had bought in Sri Lanka.

Today, Chekhov is celebrated wildly in Sakhalin. In my opinion, like a shy schoolgirl, Sakhalin is simply impressed by being acknowledged by a famous writer, when even in other parts of Russia, it’s a relatively unknown place. Chekhov also tried to raise money for children on the island and tried to appeal to public conscience about the conditions of the penal colony. Now, in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, there is the Chekhov Museum, the Chekhov Theatre, and the highest mountain in the area is called Chekhov’s Peak. On the East coast there’s even a town named Chekhov.

After completely his journey and returning home, Chekhov had this to say about his time:

“While I was staying in Sakhalin, I only had a bitter feeling in my inside as though from rancid butter; and now, as I remember it, Sakhalin seems to me a perfect hell.” (Letter to A. S. Suvorin, December 9, 1890).

 

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3 thoughts on “Anton Chekhov and his journey to Sakhalin

  1. That’s interesting that Sakhalin even has a museum in his honor after his disparaging remarks! Also, someone was just telling me that Netflix has a documentary on Russian prisons–maybe Sakhalin is featured on that.

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    1. I just edited in some more information: There is a Chekhov Theatre here and the highest mountain is called Chekhov’s Peak. There’s even a town called Chekhov on the island. I think he’s celebrated because he acknowledged Sakhalin’s existence when it’s not well known even in Russia, and he also began to raise money for children on the island after he returned. His disparaging remarks are more at the quality of life on Sakhalin due to the prison system and not really a criticism of the island as a whole, although I found it amusing.

      I doubt Sakhalin would be featured on such a programme since, as far as I know, its prisons closed in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese war resulted in the southern half of Sakhalin becoming part of Japan

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  2. Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I too read some of his letters about Sakhalin and Chekhov’s campaign must have brought awareness to the dismal conditions there, even if it was used as a penal colony.

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