Tag Archives: Anton Chekhov

Chekhov’s Little “House,” Melikhovo

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This wonderfully funny little structure is ground zero for modern drama. It is the place on Anton Chekhov’s country estate in the village of Melikhovo where the dramatist wrote The Seagull, the first of his four major plays. The plaque on the front wall quotes Chekhov himself from the back of a photo that he sent to his future wife Olga Knipper on May 5, 1999. Chekhov’s original jottings say, “The outbuilding at Melikhovo. My house where The Seagull was written. With good memories to Olga Leonardovna Knipper.” The plaque reprints just the middle phrase.
We can “observe” the last few days of Chekhov’s work on the play by perusing his letters.
On November 14, 1895, he wrote to Dmitry Garin-Vinding, an actor and playwright then based at the Maly Theater in Moscow, “I have almost finished a play. There are about two days of work left. A comedy in four acts. It is called: The Seagull.
In fact, four days later, November 18, he writes to the singer and writer Yelena Shavrova-Yust, “I finished a play. It is called: The Seagull. It didn’t come out so hot. Speaking in general: I’m not much of a playwright.”
Three days hence, on November 21, he wrote to his friend the famed lawyer and literary dabbler Alexander Urusov: “Incidentally, yesterday I finished a new play that bears an avian name: The Seagull. A comedy in four acts. I will be in Moscow in December (the Grand Moscow Hotel) and, should you wish it, I will send you or bring you this play. I would be very, very happy if you would take upon yourself the labor of reading it. This labor will be somewhat eased because the play will be printed* and you will not need to make out my scribbly writing.” The asterisk to “will be printed” leads to Chekhov’s clarification below that the printing will be done “on a Remington.”
It was not until March 15, 1896, that Chekhov officially sent The Seagull to the authorities (the censor) in order to receive permission for his play to be performed on the imperial stages. Here is that formal request in full:

15 March 1896. Melikhovo.
To the Director of the Imperial theaters. 
A Petition
Of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 

Presenting herewith a play of my composition under the title of The Seagull, in four acts, in two copies, I have the most humble honor of asking that it be submitted to the Theatrical-Literary Committee for permission to present it in the Imperial theaters. 

Anton Chekhov.
15 March 1896.
Lopasnya, Moscow Province.

Such is the modest, yet insistent beginning of a play that would change the way drama in the western world would be written, staged, acted and perceived for well over a century. Actually, for that hefty influence among playwrights let us add the name of Henrik Ibsen, whose plays, most written prior to Chekhov’s major works, were no less groundbreaking. But it has fallen to Chekhov, in part because of the impending partnership with Konstantin Stanislavsky, to be considered the founder of 20th century drama and theater.
The Seagull premiered at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on October 17, 1896. This outing was a fiasco, however, with some members of the audience heaping vocal abuse on the actors, and ending with Chekhov famously skedaddling out of town before anyone could see or talk to him.
The renowned Russian film director Vitaly Melnikov made a wonderful, sensitive film about Chekhov in 2012 that includes numerous references to The Seagull. It’s called The Admirer. The first frames (and later ones too) show Stanislavsky rehearsing the play in the late 1890s, while the whole disaster at the Alexandrinsky is shown in detail later in the film. (In Melnikov’s interpretation a dastardly critic encourages a plant to begin the audience rebellion.) You can watch a decent online version on the Big Cinema site.  The scenes showing the first performance of The Seagull begin at approximately 1:01:00. (Unfortunately, this copy of the film does not include the English subtitles that I created for the director, but it does include the performance of my wife Oksana Mysina as an eccentric and haughty society lady who considers it her right to hound Mr. Chekhov.)
To round out the historical aspect of this post let me add that Stanislavsky’s rendition of The Seagull premiered in Moscow December 17, 1898. This was a production of the Moscow Art Theater, but it was not performed on the stage that the whole world now knows as the Art Theater. Stanislavsky’s homeless troupe performed on the stage of the Hermitage Theater in the Hermitage Garden for the first three years of its existence.

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The outbuilding in Melikhovo consists of just 20 square meters and two rooms, plus a mudroom or entryway. Chekhov kept his doctor’s medicines in this abbreviated front area and on days when he treated the local peasants (always for free), he ran a small red flag up the flag pole in front of the structure. (See photo immediately above.) A miniature widow’s walk, or balcony, was constructed over this part of the house, and it gave a nice three-way view of the surrounding territory. The building is located towards the back (the north end) of the Melikhovo property and is separated from the main house by a large garden, a grove and two lovely walkways. (See one of those in the following block of photos below.) The actual distance between the two houses is not large, but because of the layout of the land the writer’s retreat has a marvelous sense of seclusion to it – especially when the plants and trees are in full bloom.
Only rarely can visitors get inside the outbuilding any more, but I was fortunate a decade ago to spend quite a bit of time in there while making a small documentary film about Chekhov. The main part of the house is split into two narrow rooms. In the first there is just enough room for a large writing table and one chair on either side. In the second there is just enough room for a small single bed that stands along the back wall and runs almost the full length of the room. There is a night table next to the bed and a single functional wooden chair – to help you get your socks off or toss your shirt and pants over the back. Knowing a little about the way writing works, I suspect much of The Seagull was at least imagined, if not jotted down, here while Chekhov napped or rested between writing bouts.
A place like this always makes us answer hard questions. Is it capable of bringing up the ghost of him that made it famous? I won’t lie: the answer for me wavers between yes and no. When I stood before the desk and looked at the blotter and ink well, I didn’t see any letters from The Seagull, or any of the many other works he wrote here, rising into the air as smoke. In the little bedroom the clean white linens did not aid me in believing that I could see Chekhov’s long, hairy legs disappearing beneath them for a nap. But taken as a whole, this is a quite extraordinary little location on the map. The detail that went into the building of it (see the lacy carved wood in many of the photos), the modesty of the place, the comfortably cramped quarters, the presence of Dr. Chekhov’s glass vials still standing on two shelves in the entryway, the sense of isolation and retreat that everything here represents, combined with the richness and the beauty of the nature surrounding it all (even in the “dead” season) all adds up to more than a few tingles running down the spine.
There are a few places in Russia where I love to just stand and stare as my thoughts go where they will. This is one of them.

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Anton Chekhov’s dachshunds, Melikhovo

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Let the debates begin!
Are these dachshunds, bassets, badger-dogs, badgerers or turnspits? Frankly, they look like what I called a wiener dog when I was a kid. You can also find “sausage dog” in dictionaries, although, to my mind, that’s not as fun, or as funny, as wiener dog. I’ve seen people nearly come to blows discussing what species of dog these guys might be. I can’t get worked up enough to join the argument.
These pups here are named Brom and Khina (or, more likely, from left, Khina and Brom – see the text after the jump). They belong to the guy who set his hat down on the rock, and that guy, in the grand conception of sculptor Alexander Rozhnikov, is Anton Chekhov. These sculptured pooches, you see, represent real dogs that Anton Chekhov owned when he lived at his suburban Moscow estate of Melikhovo. (You can see the estate’s kitchen and servants’ quarters in the distance through the trees in the two photos immediately below.) Rogozhin’s idea was that Anton was out for a walk with his little friends and found an apple somewhere, picked it up, put it in his hat and then, for reasons that neither art nor history will ever explain for all of eternity, he stepped away and left the dogs alone for a moment. “As such,” Rozhnikov is quoted as saying on a descriptive tablet near the sculpture, “although Chekhov himself is not present in the sculptural composition, his spirit hovers unseen nearby.”
Chekhov’s dogs were the offspring of two other literary canines, Dinka and Pip, who belonged to the St. Petersburg-based playwright, short-story writer and editor Nikolai Leikin. Leikin was Chekhov’s editor for some time at Shards magazine, and the two were good friends. When he – Chekhov – realized his longtime dream of acquiring an estate with land, he promptly set about bringing to fruition another dream: that of owning some pedigreed dogs. He acquired two of Dinka’s and Pip’s pups, transported them to Moscow, and then out to Melikhovo. This would have been in the spring of 1893. According to that informational tablet near the sculpture (let’s be honest, I’m pulling 95% of my info from it today), the dogs immediately took over the rule of the roost. They “barked at the servants, dragged galoshes all over the house, dug up all the flower boxes, and struck fear into the hearts of all the mutts running around the property. Those mutts had never seen such strange dogs.”

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The dogs received their names from Chekhov’s sister Maria, who chose to name them after substances that could be found in Doctor Chekhov’s medicine bag. Brom = bromide; khina = Jesuit’s bark. Apparently as the dogs grew older Chekhov felt it necessary to address them in a more formal manner, and he added patronymics to their names. Thus they became known around Melikhovo as Khina Markovna (Khina, daughter of Mark) and Brom Isaevich (Brom, son of Isiah).
And now let me stop pretending that I am actually writing this post. Better, I think, simply to quote what is left of the text on the tablet.

Chekhov informed Leikin that, “The dachshunds Brom and Khina are well. The former is dexterous and lithe, polite and sensitive. The latter is clumsy, fat, lazy and sly… They both love to weep from an excess of feelings.”
The writer was very partial to his dachshunds. They followed him everywhere, were funny and punctilious. They were allowed to sleep in Anton Pavlovich’s room; he loved having long conversations with them and he staged hilarious homemade plays [
with them]. Mikhail Pavlovich, the youngest of the Chekhov brothers, recalled:
“Brom and Khina were dachshunds, blackish and reddish, while Khina had such short legs that her belly nearly dragged on the ground. Every evening Khina would come up to Anton Pavlovich, put her front paws on his knees and pitifully and loyally stare him in the eyes. He would change his facial expression and, in a shaky, old-man’s voice, would say:
‘Khina Markovna! You poor thing! You should go to the hospital! You would feel better then, yes you would.’
He would spend an entire half hour talking to his dog, thus keeping everyone in the house in stitches. Then it would be Brom’s turn.”
The sculpture of Khina and Brom was unveiled December 22, 2012 and a new tradition began immediately. People rub the dogs’ noses to make their wishes come true. Now Chekhov’s touching and comical dachshunds greet all visitors to the museum at Melikhovo. Gazing at their thoughtful little mugs, one can’t help but remember Chekhov’s words: “crooked paws, long torsos, but uncommonly smart.”

Special readers please note the date that this sculpture was unveiled. If you are one of the special readers, you will recognize this post as a slightly early birthday wish.

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Ivan Turgenev bust, Moscow

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I have always read an unkind cut into a line that Chekhov wrote in The Seagull. You may remember it; it comes as Trigorin, the veteran writer in the play, talks about his place in Russian letters.
When I die, my friends will pass my grave and say: “Here lies Trigorin. He was a good writer, but he wrote worse than Turgenev.”
This pithy little phrase is the punch line, if you will, of a long monologue in which Trigorin also admits he can’t hold a candle to Tolstoy. But it’s the Turgenev comparison that lives a life of it’s own – a good writer, but worse than Turgenev. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always read a jab into that “worse than Turgenev.” It’s almost as if Chekhov originally wrote “even worse” but then thought better of it and cut that out. And yet the scribbled-out word continues to show through in the text even today.
I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I’m probably wrong. But that’s never stopped me before. Being wrong is one of the ways we find out things about the world and ourselves. So I’ll just go along imagining that I can hear – even if I can’t see it – that crossed-out “even” in Trigorin’s little speech.
But enough of that, for we are here today to do honor to Turgenev. And, damn it, it’s rather hard to do! He was a good writer, but he was “worse” than Tolstoy, “worse” than Dostoevsky, his contemporaries. He was not as daring a writer as Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, not as expressive a writer as Alexander Ostrovsky, not as unique as Nikolai Leskov…
Maybe I got up on the wrong side of the bed today. Yesterday I took these photos of a bust honoring Turgenev (1818-1883) and I thought, “What a nice thing that I finally found something honoring Turgenev.” Because one doesn’t really sense his presence in Moscow. Gogol, Tolstoy, even Dostoevsky, who belongs to St. Petersburg, have a good grip on the consciousness of the city. Pushkin – well, Pushkin is everywhere. Turgenev is generally considered to be among that pantheon, but where do you find him if you’re looking for him in Moscow? Аside from a little bust among a dozen others on the facade of the Lenin Library (about which you can read elsewhere on this blog), it’s only here, at the Turgenev Library at 6 Bobrov Lane. And there’s something rather after-thoughtish about this bust and its environs.
It stands in the courtyard of the Turgenev Memorial Library. Sounds wonderful. Except that the original library, built specifically as a library honoring Turgenev in 1885, was levelled by the Moscow authorities in 1972 when they were “improving streets.” It was rebuilt, using old plans, between 1995 and 2004. It’s a nice copy, but it is a copy and so I chose not to include it in this selection of photos.

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The bust itself is also something of a curiosity. Nowhere on it or on the pedestal does it bear the name of the sculptor. There apparently is a good reason for that, since the image of this marble bust created by Nikolai Kosov is, in fact, a mere copy of a clay bust created earlier by Sergei Konenkov. This clay bust stood for some 30 years inside the library but time took its toll and, even well out of the dangers of Moscow’s severe weather, the clay deteriorated beyond repair. It was then decided to create this marble copy of the original, and to place it where it would be accessible to anyone passing by.
All of this just seems too little and too petty for the man who wrote Fathers and Sons (more correctly, Fathers and Children), The Notes of a Hunter, A Nest of Gentlefolk, Torrents of Spring, the seminal Russian drama A Month in the Country, and much more. This little bust, a copy of a clay original, doesn’t reflect the stature which Gustave Flaubert attributed to Turgenev: “I have considered you a master for a long time. But the more I study you, the more your skill leaves me gaping. I admire the vehement yet restrained quality of your writing, the fellow feeling that extends to the lowest of human creatures and brings landscapes to life.” (That’s pulled from a New York Times review of a publication of the correspondence between Turgenev and Flaubert.) But even there, look at Flaubert’s much sexier, much more explosive comment that the NYT editors pulled up into the title of the review article: “Thank you for making me read Tolstoy’s novel!” (He meant War and Peace, naturally.)
Ai-yai-yai! Does anyone hear a “Gosh, you’re a good writer, you really are, but that Tolstoy, you write worse than him!”
Turgenev, like Trigorin, knew full well what it was like to live in the shadow of those who were greater still.
Then there’s the insult that adds disgrace to injury… Take a close look at Ivan’s nose in these photos. Yes, it’s true. Some nasty, culture-hating street urchin hauled off and gave the marble Turgenev such a whack on the nose that he knocked it clean off. You can see quite clearly where the bust has been repaired.
But by bothering to drag that into my story I have really sunk too low.
Turgenev doesn’t deserve my sarcasm. I am giving free reign today to all that is base and mean in me. Turgenev was the third Russian writer I encountered (following Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in that order). I read him with… I read him with… I read him with thoughts of, “Mmm, this is nice. I wonder where I can get some more Dostoevsky…” Damn, there I go again. But as the Russians say, you can’t toss words out of a song, and what was is what was. And what did, indeed, take place as I swept through Russian literature in my youth (as it swept through me) is that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky put stakes in my heart. Turgenev was nice. Very nice. And then Gogol and Pushkin put me flat on my back. Those are the words of that song, and it’s the only way to sing it.
It’s a whole other thing that I, and maybe not only I, could use a rediscovery of Turgenev. Maybe I’m not seeing him, like Muscovites can hardly see him. Maybe I’m blinded and prejudiced and ignorant and confused. If so, all I can say is: Bring on enlightenment. I’m ready.
Finally, I ran across a piece hanging around in the internet for over two years that indicates there have been conversations about erecting another, more prominent, monument to Turgenev in Moscow. This would be outside the house on Ostozhenka where the writer’s mother lived in the 1840s and 1850s. It is now a Turgenev museum, an affiliate (hear that?! hear that?!) of the Pushkin Museum. Anyway, as far as I know, nothing has ever been done about actually making the proposed monument a reality. Maybe everybody just got bored and fell asleep after bringing the topic up…
Slap my hands! Slap my hands!

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Anton Chekhov House and Museum, Moscow

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Doctor Chekhov (that’s what the little plaque at the top of this post says – Doctor A. P. Chekhov, to be exact) has haunted a lot of dreams over the last 130 years. He began haunting mine long ago, probably when I was in high school in the early 1970s, although the first connection might have happened as early as the late 1960s. I do remember quite specifically the first time I encountered his work in performance. It was at my girlfriend’s house and she had the TV on. One of those Saturday Afternoon Playhouse series things was on and there was a real live Chekhov play unfolding before my eyes. It’s possible that I didn’t happen upon the broadcast by chance, it’s entirely possible, considering my infatuation with things Russian at that time, that I asked my girlfriend to turn the TV on so we could see the broadcast. My memory doesn’t offer me any more details. I’m not going to be able to say which of the plays it was (although I have an impulse to say it was Uncle Vanya), and I can’t say for sure who was performing – although I have a feeling it was a British production. That might be a quirk in my head, however, because, when I was growing up, American actors often imitated British accents when playing Chekhov. I guess they thought it made them sound more cultured. I do remember thinking the whole thing seemed rather stuffy.
These days Chekhov haunts my dreams because he haunts my wife Oksana’s dreams unmercifully. He always has. She often says that Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard because he knew she was going to be born to play Ranevskaya. That nagging dream almost became a reality many years ago when a major director at a major theater cast Oksana in the role of Ranevskaya. It took death to stop that from happening. That, of course, only increased the power of her dreams – often to the point of excruciating pain. She has played bits and pieces of Ranevskaya and other Chekhov heroines in Dmitry Krymov’s experimental productions of Tararabumbia and Auction. But, well into a storied career, Oksana still has not played Chekhov “proper.” That surely is one of the reasons why he continues to haunt her. It has reached the point that Oksana now often sleeps with Chekhov. She puts The Cherry Orchard under her pillow at night and lets the writer’s words seep into her brain from there. I myself hear a few floating around from time to time from my corner of the bed.
But I got carried away here, for my real purpose today is to present the famous house at 6 Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya where Chekhov and his family lived from 1886 to 1890. Today it’s a funny-looking little place, dwarfed by large architectural monoliths to the east. You can just see that somebody at one point or another really wanted to bring in a bulldozer and knock this little two-story building down to make room for something that would either make more money or serve more people. Fortunately, all such impulses have been denied, and the Chekhov home still stands, sticking out like a sore thumb because of its size, its shape and its color. The building now houses one of many Chekhov museums in Moscow and its environs. I hate to say it’s not a very thrilling museum. There are a few paintings, some archival materials – manuscripts and such – quite a few photos, and a fair amount of books. They’re all presented under glass or hanging in frames on walls. You don’t really get much information from them, and you don’t really get a sense for this having been a place where Chekhov actually lived. I personally tend to be most impressed by the exterior of the place, its quirks and its incongruities. It’s always such a joy to walk or drive by this place and to be reminded for a moment, that Chekhov hung out here.

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A lot of great literature was created inside these walls. The big collected works devotes the better part of five volumes to works written during Chekhov’s stay here. A very rough count of the stories conceived here comes to around 165. Some, like “I Want to Sleep,” “The Steppe,” “The Kiss” and “Kashtanka,” were to become classics. These titles bear witness to the fact that it was in this home that Chekhov made the final turn from popular and well-known writer into the territory of one of the leading literary figures of his day. Here, too, Chekhov began truly honing his pen as a playwright. His Ivanov made its first appearance in the world here, in 1887. It is interesting to see the ambivalence that Chekhov’s drama evoked in spectators right from the beginning. The very first newspaper notice regarding the premiere of Ivanov at the Korsh Theater on November 19, 1887 was published a month earlier, on Oct. 9. Here is what it said (my added italics): “A.P Chekhov, as we hear it, wrote a comedy in four acts….”
As we hear it! But maybe we could be wrong! Maybe we got this all mixed up. And, really, what is this Chekhov guy up to anyway?! There it was in plain black and white, before Ivanov, not even one of the major plays yet, had been performed. Is this guy funny or is his work deadly? Folks are still trying to figure that out. He’s still haunting us about that.
Other dramatic works written while Chekhov lived here were some of his great one-acts, The Bear, The Proposal and The Wedding. Also written here were The Wood Demon (which would transform into Uncle Vanya in very different form) and the short play Tatyana Repina.
It was from this house that Chekhov shoved off to visit Sakhalin in the farthest east of Siberia, one of the most important events in his life and writing career. It not only served to broaden and deepen Chekhov’s world view, thus pushing him over the top and into the realm of greatness, but it also surely served to shorten his life. There is no way a man as sick as Chekhov was with tuberculosis should have undertaken a brutally strenuous trip like that. Which only goes to show you – sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
That’s what this place means to me.

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Anton Chekhov plaque and apartment, Moscow

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I now never go out without my camera in my pocket or my briefcase. Today’s post is proof of why. I recently sat in on a dress rehearsal of a new show at the School of Dramatic Art and, afterwards, I had about 40 minutes to kill before I was to meet my wife for lunch. So I started out walking up and down the neighboring streets there in the Sretenka district, and – lo and behold! I happened upon a plaque informing me that Anton Chekhov lived in the building at 3 Maly Golovin Lane between 1881 and 1885.
Now, if I had previously come upon the Chekhov Addresses page on one Chekhov website I might have known that. Or, it’s possible that I would have been so daunted I wouldn’t have bothered to look. This page lists 78 Moscow addresses that are bound up with the life and work of Chekhov! I can see my work is cut out for me now…
According to this site, which provides the added information that Chekhov first appeared in this home in the fall of 1881, and that he and his family moved out in October, 1885, Chekhov occupied at least two different apartments in the building at different times. The site continues:
“[Chekhov’s] family lived in four rooms in the basement for about a year. Then, when Chekhov graduated from university, they moved, in the same building, onto the second floor. Here A.P. Chekhov hung out his sign ‘Doctor A.P. Chekhov’ for the first time. In this same apartment N[ikolai] Leskov visited Chekhov in October 1883 and gave him some of his books. The stories ‘Fat and Thin,’ ‘Swedish Matchstick,’ ‘Surgery’ and ‘The Chameleon’ were written in this building.”
I did a count of the stories, feuilletons, jokes, sketches, letters-to-the-editor, etc., from this period, which are published in the great 30-volume collected works. It comes to a whopping 300 titles, give or take a few. It would appear that the entire second and third volumes in the collected works (along with parts of the first and fourth) were written while Chekhov lived at Maly Golovin.
Russian Wikipedia informs us that Chekhov wrote the story “The Seizure” here, a tale of prostitution. This was a semi true-life story that described the environs of Bolshoi Golovin Lane (formerly Sobolev Lane), a nearby street where a brothel was located. Chekhov wrote to his friend and publisher Alexander Suvorin, “Why doesn’t your newspaper write anything about prostitution? It is, after all, a terrible evil. Our Sobolev Lane is a slave trade market.”

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On January 29, 1883, Chekhov wrote to his friend Gavriil Kravtsov, that his life at this time was “tolerable,” but his health was “alas and alack!” (He was, of course, 22 at that moment.) The letter, in part describing his state while living on Maly Golovin, continues:
“…You work like a lackey, go to bed at 5 a.m. I write on commission for the magazines and there is nothing worse than trying to meet deadlines. I have money. I eat well, I also drink and dress not too badly, but…there is no meat on the bones! People say I have lost weight to the point that I am unrecognizable.
Well, and women, too…
I work in Piter [St. Petersburg] and Moscow, have become well known, I am acquainted with everyone…  It’s almost a cheery life. In summer I will go south to correct my health….”
Chekhov signed this little letter, “A. Chekhov, or, A. Chekhonte, M. Kovrov, Man without a Spleen.”
The building you see in the photos here is only partly reminiscent of the building Chekhov would have known. It was built in 1904 by the architect Leonid Stezhensky. It was a two-story building at that time, and consisted only of the central part of the building we have today. You can see the difference between the second and third floors in the photos here. New parts of the building were added on either side 11 years after Chekhov moved out, and at least some of the upper floors were added the year after Chekhov died. The fancy turrets and arches that belong to the structure occupied by the Eurocement Group in the 21st century were not part of the building Chekhov knew.
And yet, for all the changes made to this structure, this is probably the only building left at least partially intact from Chekhov’s earliest years in Moscow.

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Michael Chekhov home, Los Angeles

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Folks in the western hemisphere know him as Michael Chekhov. His fame at home in Russia is still so strong that he will always be known there by his given name of Mikhail. Michael or Mikhail, this nephew of Anton Chekhov remains one of the most revered figures of Russian theater 60 years after he died in Beverly Hills, CA. To this day his book To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting remains one of the most popular how-to books among actors the world over. Many performers consider his advice to be more practical and useful than Stanislavsky’s, and Stanislavsky himself once said that Chekhov embodied all the theories and exercises that he had developed up to a certain point.
Chekhov was born in 1891 in St. Petersburg, the son of playwright Chekhov’s older brother Alexander. It was a family full of drama. Alexander never married his first wife Anna, a woman who loved vodka as much as he did and who was eight years older than he. After her death, Alexander married the governess of his two children and it was she, Natalya, who gave birth to Mikhail, named for the youngest of the Chekhov brothers.  Alexander was a talented man, a published writer, but his status as the “brother of Anton” was a burden he could not bear. By some accounts, he recognized that his youngest son Mikhail was unique, but never found great love in his heart for him. When little Misha was four years old, Alexander reportedly said of him: “His eyes sparkle with nervousness. I think he will be a talented person.” (I pull this quote and some tales from Yelena Gushanskaya’s article about Alexander in Neva magazine in 2011.)
Mikhail studied acting in St. Petersburg and in 1912 was invited to join the Moscow Art Theater. The following year he began to work with Yevgeny Vakhtangov in the famous Art Theater First Studio. He wrote his name permanently into Russian theater history in 1921 when he delivered a legendary performance of Khlestakov in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of Gogol’s The Inspector General. It was his first major role there after having played several small parts, including that of Yepikhodov and Waffles in his uncle’s plays The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, respectively. The success of his performance of Khlestakov led to him being named the director of the Second Moscow Art Theater, originally intended as an experimental version of the mothership. He played several memorable roles there – including Hamlet (1924) and Apollon in a famous dramatization of Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1925 at the Second Moscow Art Theater).
However, as life, politics and art became increasingly difficult and dangerous activities in the Soviet Union, Chekhov followed the lead of many others in his era: He left the Soviet Union in 1928, moving through continental Europe on to England and, eventually, the United States, where he worked first on the East Coast and then achieved a certain insider’s fame in Hollywood as Michael Chekhov, the coach to the stars.

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The house seen in these pictures is located at 1310 San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills. This is where Chekhov settled in to live and this is where he resided at the time of his death in 1955. It is a relatively modest, but very cozy and attractive, home. It looks across the street at one of those steep, earthen cliffs so common in the hills of Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
While living here Chekhov became Hollywood’s favorite acting coach. Together with his great friend George Shdanoff (Georgy Zhdanov) he ran his acting laboratory and staged shows at the Las Palmas Theater (expect a post about that in the near future).  The number of the great and famous who worshipped Chekhov for his guidance was enormous. It included Jack Palance, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Marilyn Monroe and many, many others. Chekhov himself did some acting in Hollywood, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance in Alfred Hitchckock’s Spellbound (1945). You can see the entire film on YouTube (with French subtitles, even). But if you want to know my opinion, the film to see Chekhov in is The Man from the Restaurant, a silent from 1927 by the great Russian director Yakov Protazanov. Chekhov is absolutely brilliant as the put-upon waiter in a hifalutin eatery.
It took a village for me to find the exact location of Chekhov’s last home, although once things began coming together, they did so quickly. Various roles were played by Lisa Dalton, President of the National Michael Chekhov Association, and Jessica Cerullo, a pedagogue with the Michael Chekhov Association, both of whom sent me leads. I finally nailed the address down when I happened upon an internet publication of a July 18, 1950, letter from Chekhov to the pianist Vladimir Horowitz in regards to help the actor was soliciting for his friend, the sculptor Arkady Bessmertny. It’s quite a story, actually. Let me turn the gist of it over to Chekhov himself in this excerpt from the published letter:
“…I appeal to you almost in despair. My old, good and dear friend, the sculptor Arkady Bessmertny lives in Paris. He is handicapped – his legs have been paralyzed since childhood. When Hitler entered Paris, Bessmertny, as a Jew, had to escape. He then had a three-wheeled motorized invalid chair with hand controls. When I worked and I had money I helped him, but I now am helpless myself – my health is gone, I have no work, and my friend Bessmertny is begging me for help. He needs to buy a motorized chair and it costs $300. Vladimir Semyonovich [sic: Horowitz’s patronymic was Samoilovich], I am tormentedly ashamed, but I see no other way out of this, although I’ve thought a great deal. A few days ago I awoke with the thought: perhaps Vladimir Semyonovich might want to help! Forgive me for God’s sake, but it is so hard for me to think about my friend’s inescapable plight! If you would like to help, dear Vladimir Semyonovich, then here is my address:
Mr. Michael Chekhkov
1310 San Ysidro Dr.
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Yours ever and ever,
Mikhail Chekhov

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Alexei Suvorin plaque, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge.

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Alexei Suvorin (1834-1912) is one of those people that casual lovers of Russian culture may not know, but anyone up to their neck knows quite well. I think it is safe to say that Suvorin is best remembered as Anton Chekhov’s publisher and friend. That’s no small thing already. He would probably next be known as a major publisher – of books and periodicals. He turned the New Era newspaper into a thriving, popular publication. Not everyone appreciated him for that. Even though he began as a relatively liberal, democratically-minded individual, he increasingly was seen as a conservative whose views did not represent progressive thought. Vladimir Korolenko said that Suvorin formed one of the “sad pages in the dramatic history of Russian journalism.”
It is worth pointing out that the relationship between Suvorin and Chekhov, strong as it was at times, was often put under great strain by the two men’s divergent political views. They corresponded often over a 17-year period. We only have access to Chekhov’s 337 letters because Suvorin removed all of his letters from Chekhov’s archive after the great playwright’s death. Whether or not Suvorin destroyed these letters I do not know, although we are told that none of them, aside from a stray postcard or so, have surfaced in the ensuing 110 years.  The Chekhov>Suvorin letters are available online on a bibliographical site.
At the remove of over 100 years, I have the luxury of not choosing sides on this one. I’m primarily interested in looking for a moment at a man who made huge contributions to his country and left a legacy that still is felt today.
Suvorin had a hand in all kinds of different activities, which the Chronos.ru historical website does a very good job of describing. Let me draw directly from it:
Suvorin studied at the Voronezh Cadet Corps, then in special classes of the Regiment of the Nobility, but, having rejected a military career, he took a job as a teacher outside of the city, later teaching history and geography in Voronezh. He began to publish his writings in provincial publications in 1858. In 1861 he moved to Moscow where he became close to writers of a democratic bent, including Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Leo Tolstoy. He earned respect and recognition as one of the best theater critics. He wrote popular books on history, and biographies of great people. At the end of 1862 he moved to St. Petersburg. A talented journalist with good business acumen, Suvorin in 1876 became the owner of the New Era newspaper, which he made popular by skillfully combining the interests of the general public with the interests of court circles. New Era became a household name denoting nationalist agitation in favor of pogroms. … Suvorin was known as a passionate theater-goer and, in 1895 he founded his own theater in St. Petersburg. He was an interesting conversationalist, and a friend of Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and others, He was a sharp observer (who left behind an interesting diary), and a major book publisher, who published numerous book series (The Cheap Library Russian and foreign classics, the All Petersburg, All Moscow, All Russia and Russian Calendar reference books, works on the history of Russia, and others). He amassed a large fortune.

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Suvorin wrote several plays, none of which – to my knowledge – are of particular interest today. They included Tatyana Repina (1899, to which Chekhov famously wrote a brief “sequel” using the same title), Medea (1883, co-authored with Viktor Burenin), Tsar Dmitry the Imposter and Ksenia the Tsarevna (1902), Stock Market Frenzy, Not a Thief if not Captured, He in Retirement, The Honest Word, Women and Men (1887),  and others. He wrote a novel The End of an Era. Love (1893), which, in 1903, he adapted as a play, The Question, with the help of Chekhov. He was also the author of several books of prose: Drama Competition (1860), All Kinds (1866), Essays and Pictures (1875), and the posthumously published Stories (1913). He began publishing in 1872 and, over his life, put out over 1600 books. He was also the owner of a network of bookstores around the country, which gave him the ability to distribute his books easily and quickly.
Suvorov was born in the village of Korshev in the Voronezh region. He studied in Voronezh and worked there for some time before leaving for the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The plaque on this building at 30 Revolution Prospect in Voronezh informs us that Suvorin lived here in 1855. Over the years one suspects he would have had many addresses in town, especially if you count places he stayed when returning to Voronezh, which he apparently did regularly. I wrote a bit here on this site about a trip Chekhov made to Voronezh in 1892 with Suvorin. At that time they both stayed at the Central Hotel, just a few blocks down the road from this building.
I am making the small leap of assuming that Suvorin lived in the building pictured here temporarily because he taught history and geography at the college in the town of Bobrov from 1854 to 1858 or thereabouts. Unless he lived here and traveled to Bobrov for his lectures, that would indicate that his time in this stately, columned building was a short-term affair.
The plaque on this building, which has connections to other famous people and events about which I will write another time, was unveiled in 2003.

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