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This, I learned when visiting Anton Chekhov’s estate at Melikhovo a few weeks ago, was the first monument ever raised to Chekhov in Russia. The bust (bronze on a granite pedestal) was sculpted by Georgy Motovilov and unveiled in 1951. Since Aug. 30, 1960, according to act No. 1327 (supplement No. 1) of the Sovet of Ministers of the Russian Federation of the Soviet Union, this bust has been considered a work of art of federal significance. Motovilov was best known for his bas relief work in many of Moscow’s metro stations, but he clearly had a soft spot for Chekhov. He also created a statue of Chekhov in Yalta. Other “literary” sculptures include monuments to Alexei Tolstoy in Moscow and Nikolai Nekrasov in Yaroslavl. He received a Stalin prize for his bas reliefs of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in the Kaluzhskaya metro station in 1950. One rather suspects it was this award that led to his receiving the commission to be the first Russian sculptor to honor Chekhov. In any case, commissions like this were often handed out in such a manner. When Motovilov (1892-1963) died he was done the great honor of being buried in the cemetery at the Novodevichy monastery.
The Chekhov bust is a very nice one, oldish-looking now, of course. But that is a plus in this case. It has that sense of Soviet reverence. Chekhov here is a Great Figure, entirely realistic, distant in many ways, yet also human. I think one of the nicest things about it is its placement on the grounds of the Melikhovo estate museum. For our purposes now it is stuck off in a corner, quite hidden by trees and bushes. You almost want to think that this must be especially pleasing to Chekhov, if he ever bothers to look down upon this spot. It is a place of quiet and peace and repose. It’s true that the bust was erected at the end of what used to be the main, ceremonial entrance to Melikhovo in Chekhov’s time. He had a beautiful, long alleway put in and lined it with some three dozen various kinds of lilac bushes. It must have been an extraordinary sight in Spring to come in from dirty, bustling Moscow to visit the writer and to trundle down this gorgeous lane for the last half-kilometer or so of the trip. But that was when Chekhov lived here. Today that entrance is locked up and, I presume, is only opened for very big VIPs, if at all. Thus, although Chekhov is here to greet folks coming in, nobody comes in this way anymore. In fact, this bust stands with its back to the area where most of the museum visitors now enter and walk around. And, as I say, you rather get the feeling that Chekhov, the bust, likes it that way.
I often travel out to Melikhovo with Americans visiting Moscow. Their initial reaction when I suggest it is always one of excitement. It has never failed. The magic of Chekhov, its hold on the people of the world – especially theater people, but not only – is endless. I got the same reaction when Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz was in Moscow a few weeks ago to attend the Moscow premiere of his play Anna in the Tropics at the Stanislavsky Electrotheater. His interest was seconded by his agent Peregrine Whittlesey, whose mother Eunice Stoddard had worked with Konstantin Stanislavsky when the latter was finishing his books on acting. The idea to suggest the trip came to me during a public talk where Nilo and I, along with several others, were talking about his play, Leo Tolstoy, and Russian culture. Nilo mentioned that his favorite writer is probably Chekhov. Here is how I jotted down his comment as I sat next to him at the front table: “I haven’t used any other Russian themes in my plays, but Anton Chekhov is probably my favorite dramatist. The longing and nostalgia of his characters is close to mine.”
Nilo was very generous as Peregrine and I aimed our cameras at him time and time again. Below you can see one of the shots I got of him with the Chekhov bust. There is something similar in their reserved gazes.