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This is to satisfy everyone’s craving for Chekhov porn. I could write the most interesting little essay of my life about some fascinating person you haven’t heard of and I’ll get a handful of brave readers. I can write “Chekhov” and quote the phone book and readers will swoop in drooling from all over the world.
So, swoop in and drool.
I once got in huge trouble being facetious about Chekhov. An editor at a Chekhov newsletter asked me if I’d like to shake up the somnambulant Chekhov community around the world by writing a polemical essay for him – you know, a little thing done tongue-in-cheek? I’d just written a review of a horrible production of Ivanov and I had admitted I was sick and tired of seeing bean-pushing productions of Chekhov, those soporific outings in which “innovation” lurks in the director’s decision to have the actor playing the doctor sit with legs crossed or arms akimbo. I gladly took on the challenge and I unloaded a bit of frustration – leaving plenty of admiration in place for those who know how to read – and always leaving my tongue in my cheek.
It turned out there are a lot of people who can’t read, and who haven’t the vaguest notion what to do with a tongue in a cheek! My humble little essay “Back off, Chekhov!” (the title itself being a pun on the famous essay by Anatoly Lunacharsky, “Back to Ostrovsky!” – I still haven’t seen anybody pick up on that) stirred a real hornet’s nest. I was ridiculed by Chekhovites and Chekhovians the world ’round. Being someone who has always taken Satchel Paige, John Lee Hooker and Bob Dylan seriously, most of the time I don’t look back. So I knew nothing of the tempest in the teapot in which my essay was being boiled to a nub until a friend one day asked me, “What did you do to tick off all the Chekhov people?”
I won’t go into that any more at this point. If you’re interested, I wrote a bit about it in the bibliographical entry to “Back Off, Chekhov!” on my website. Just follow this link then drop down to that title to find the text in fine print. I also referred to the situation in a blog I wrote for The Moscow Times in 2009.
But all of that is prologue to what I’m really up to today – casting about a few thoughts about Chekhov’s brief stay in Tomsk. It’s a place where Anton Chekhov once ate a hearty meal at the Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant, and a place where a – God forbid! – irreverent statue of Chekhov now stands. I wrote about Leonty Usov’s great monument some time ago in this space – go there to see some photos of his fabulous work.
Chekhov came through Tomsk on his way to Sakhalin, about which he wanted to write a book – and did so later. He arrived in Tomsk on May 15, 1890 and took a room at the Rossia Hotel (on the corner of Nechaevskaya and Spasskaya Streets, a structure torn down long ago). It was a hard trip, made on trains, carts, carriages, boats, rafts and maybe even horseback. As such, we must understand that our Shining Example of a Writer wasn’t always in the best frame of mind. Things obviously came to a head in Tomsk. There was a policeman who wanted to talk shop – that is, literature – with Chekhov, but only succeeded in keeping the Great Man from writing. Here is what Chekhov said about him in a letter sent back to Moscow:
“I have been informed that an assistant of the Chief of Police wishes to see me. What is that all about? But my alarm was unfounded. It turns out the policeman is a lover of literature and even writes, thus did he come to me to pay his respects. He went home in search of his drama and, I think, he wants to entertain me with it. He’ll come now and again interrupt my writing…”
Chekhov continued, “The policeman came back. He did not read his drama although he brought it. But he did entertain me with a story. Not bad, but too local. He showed me a gold ingot. Asked for some vodka. I can’t recall a single Siberian member of the intelligentsia who hasn’t asked for vodka when visiting me. He told me that he has acquired a “little love girl,” a married woman, and let me read the petition sent to a high-placed official asking for a divorce. Then he suggested we go take a look at the Tomsk bordellos.”
It’s uncertain how much of that vodka Chekhov himself partook of, but here is how he described his visit to the ladies of the night:
“Returned from the bordellos. Disgusting. Two a.m. Tomsk is a boring city, drunken, not a single pretty woman, filled with Asian lawlessness. The only fine thing about this city is that the governors in it die.”
Oops! What happened to everyone’s refined, sad, pouting, melancholy, wistful, sensitive, kind Anton Chekhov?
The Slavyansky Bazaar, pictured here and built between 1886 and 1888, is practically the only 19th-century building left in this part of the city, on the banks of the Tom’ River. Chekhov ate here around May 16 or 17 and apparently enjoyed it.
“They have a Slavyansky Bazaar,” he wrote to his publisher Alexei Suvorin, hinting, presumably, at the famous Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant in Moscow. “The dinners are good, although getting to this bazaar is not easy – unsurpassable mud. Today (May 17), I’ll go to the bathhouse. They say there is only one good bath attendant in all of Tomsk, a man named Arkhip.”
By the way, a brief digression on bathhouses: My friend Bryon MacWilliams wrote a wonderful book about Russian bathhouses called With Light Steam. In it you learn why a good bath attendant is so important, as well as many other important things.
But back to Chekhov and Tomsk.
“The folks here are good, kind and have wonderful traditions. Their rooms are arranged simply, but cleanly, their beds are soft, made of down with big pillows and their floors are decorated and covered with homemade canvas rugs. … True, one old woman who gave me a teaspoon wiped it on her backside, but at least they don’t sit you down to tea without a tablecloth. They don’t burp in your presence, they don’t hunt in their heads [for lice?], don’t hold their fingers inside the glass when bringing you water or milk. The plates are clean and the kvas is transparent… They bake the most tasty bread. Their pies and pancakes and potato pies are all tasty too…”
Still, the women of Tomsk gave him no peace and inspired no respect.
“The women here are not interesting,” he wrote. “They are cold, do not know how to dress, don’t sing, don’t laugh, and are not good looking…”
Chekhov left Tomsk on May 21 (which, according to the contemporary calendar is June 4). He never returned. The people of Tomsk have never forgotten him.