Tag Archives: Anton Chekhov

Lidia Yavorskaya, London

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I have Natalia Dissanayake and her wonderful book Russian Lives in London (Russkie sud’by v Londone) to thank for today’s post. The photos have been lying around in my archive for several years, waiting for a reason to be used. Surely I had a reason to take them – there must have been some Russia-connected event that took place here at some time – mostly likely a performance of the Ballet Russes. Then I happened to pick up Dissanayake’s book the other day and, as I often do, I leafed through the pages looking for interesting stories. It’s chock full of them, I’m never disappointed. And sure enough, on pages 290 to 292 I came upon the tale of Lidia Yavorskaya, about whom I knew very little other than the fact that history claims she was a model for Anton Chekhov’s Arkadina.
Yavorskaya was a star in Moscow at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, and she had a good deal of success in London as well. Born in Kiev in 1871, she studied with Vladimir Davydov in St. Petersburg, and in Paris with François Jules Edmond Got, an actor of the Comédie-Française. With her parents opposing her desire to be an actress, she simply forged ahead. She married – against her parents’ will – and quickly divorced him when it became clear he did not support her either. She debuted in 1893 in the city we now know as Tallinn, Estonia, and quickly found herself playing star roles in Moscow at the famed independent (non-state) Korsh Theater. Two years later Alexei Suvorin invited her to St. Petersburg to take the lead with his troupe in the Literary-Art Circle Theater. She remained in St. Petersburg for over a decade, continuing her successes. However, she once again showed her independence by taking the brave step of leaving her position at the theater when she refused to perform in a play that she deemed to be anti-semitic. She performed for several years in a theater of her own making, the Novy, or New, Theater, where she favored cutting-edge, contemporary drama – Anton Chekhov, Lev Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Henrik Ibsen, plus plays by her husband Vladimir Baryatinsky. According to Dissanayake, the New Theater was particularly popular with young people. However Yavorskaya and Baryatinsky struck out in 1907 on a series of tours that took them to Russian provincial cities as well as, eventually, Vienna, Paris and London. It was in 1909 that they arrived in London. According to Dissanayake:
“[Yavorskaya’s] small troupe had such success at His Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket Street, that people began urging the actress to perform in English. She spoke French and German fluently, but she had to put a good deal of work into her English pronunciation and, despite excellent results, she limited herself to playing foreigners. She debuted in John Pollock’s Rosamund and a one-act play by her husband, Nablotsky’s Career, at the Little Theatre on what was then known as John Street. There she also played Nina Zarechnaya in The Seagull, and at the Kingsway Theatre staged the first production in England of Chekhov’s vaudeville The Bear.”
So, there we have Yavorskaya at His Majesty’s Theatre, as it was known from 1901 to 1952. It is, of course, currently known as Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Life, however, interrupted what looked like was going to be a sustained period of success for Yavorskaya. Her husband, homesick, headed back to St. Petersburg at the beginning of World War I. She followed him, but was blindsided when he asked for a divorce in 1916. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church granted Baryatinsky’s request and forbade Yavorskaya from remarrying for some time. She, however, always the rebel, headed back to London in 1918 after getting the Russian government to remove the ban, and married the playwright John Pollock in 1920. She died a year later of throat cancer at the age of 50. She is buried in a church cemetery in Old Shoreham, Sussex.
There are plenty of opinions about Yavorskaya. One Russian site boils down many of them into a single paragraph:
The popular dramatic actress Lidia Yavorskaya was one of the most controversial figures in the theatrical world of the early 20th century. One could not deny her astonishing work ethic and dedication, but that was combined with vanity, egocentrism and ambition. Theater critic Suvorin called her a phony creature, made of pretense and envy. Chekhov considered her an intelligent woman, but an overly loud and mannered actress. Despite this, they had an affair and it is said that Yavorskaya served as the prototype for Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull.”
Other sites collect a whole bunch of catty comments about Yavorskaya by famous or semi-famous people. But if you know how to read these things, you see the limitation is stronger on the part of the writer or speaker than on the part of the individual being described. There is something mean and petty in a lot of the comments. I suspect we see more of the actress in Dissanayake’s description of her:
She was very interesting, with big, gray-blue, ‘mermaid’ eyes, a quick smile, golden curls, a beautiful figure, light, energetic movements and a kind of snake-like grace. Those who loved her said, ‘She’s no beauty, she’s better.'”
After returning to London in 1918 Yavorskaya was very outspoken in her opposition to the new Soviet regime, even as she did much to collect money to help feed the hungry in the Soviet Union. She was the chair of the Britain-Poland-Galicia fond, and she created the Society for Aid to Russian Artists, Victims of the Bolshevik Regime.
The anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin dubbed her Lidia Miss Freedom (Lidia Svobodnitsa) for her convictions and actions.
In her final years, Yavorskaya continued to perform in London at such venues as the Royalty Theatre on Dean St., the Coliseum on St. Martin’s Lane, the Ambassadors Theatre on West Street, the Scala on Charlotte Street, and elsewhere. It was at these latter two venues that she performed the title role in Anna Karenina, one of the highlights of her career.

 

Anton Chekhov monument, Zvenigorod

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On July 14, 1884, the 24 year-old Anton Chekhov wrote to his friend, the writer and editor Nikolai Leikin, “In front of my window there is a hill with pines, to the right there is a prisoner’s house, and further to the right there is a shabby little town, formerly a capital city…” The town he had in mind was Zvenigorod, where the monument you see pictured here was erected in 2010, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth.
Chekhov had an acid tongue and pen, and legion are the little and big towns and cities that bore the brunt of his sarcasm over the years. No small effort has been spent in most of those places to find later comments that might lead us to think that the good doctor’s caustic comments weren’t as bad as they seemed, or were later overturned by other, softer opinions. That’s true in the case of Zvenigorod, where most of the texts about Chekhov’s few months here go on to quote him much later in life when he even expressed the wish to his future wife Olga Knipper that they could marry in Zvenigorod. According to an anonymous piece on Chekhov in Zvenigorod in the internet, Chekhov in 1901 wrote to his future bride, “”It really was quite nice in Zvenigorod, I worked there in the hospital once… it would be nice not to go home from the church, but to go directly to Zvenigorod, or get married in Zvenigorod.”
It’s true that Zvenigorod was an important, if brief, way-station for the new doctor and future writer. It was here, just following his graduation from the school of medicine at Moscow University, that he first practiced medicine professionally. There was only one doctor in the city and it was his duty, when leaving on vacation, to find a replacement for his time of absence. Chekhov was the choice, in this case. He spent two weeks as the temporary supervisor of the regional hospital in Zvenigorod, apparently seeing hundreds of patients and taking part in autopsies. It is considered that his stories “The Dead Body” and “The Investigator” published, respectively, in 1885 and 1887 in Petersburg Newspaper under the pseudonym of A. Chekhonte, were inspired by his experiences here.
Zvenigorod has done a decent job keeping the memory of Chekhov alive. The house where he lived with his brother Ivan  on the Istra River is still standing. The hospital where he worked bears his name, and on the hospital grounds both a bust and a plaque commemorate his presence there. It is safe to say I will never again have the opportunity to find and photograph those items, so fans of Chekhov’s life in Zvenigorod will have to dig deeper than this to find information and images of them. My train of knowledge stops here.

This monument – relatively large once you find it, and quite elusive until you do – stands in a city square between Ukrainskaya and Moskovskaya Streets. It was done with an admirable degree of professionalism and affection by sculptor Vladimir Kurochkin. As his website shows, Kurochkin has done a number of sculptures on artistic themes (primarily Russian writers and Western painters), but the bulk of his public works – busts and monuments – has been devoted to military figures.
The Zvenigorod Chekhov is rather routine. Everything is in place, the dog, the walking cane, the pince nez, the goatee, the overcoat… everything you might expect to see in a likeness of Chekhov. The facial similarity meets our expectations, and – no small thing, I suspect, – the hands are sensitive and gentle. Another nice aspect is the bench on which Chekhov sits. It is part of the monument, so that visitors are encouraged to sit down with the great man on common ground and share some thoughts, or even give his dog a scratch behind its perky ears.
This is the “great” Chekhov here, not the young man who came to begin his career in medicine, but the famed and respected writer who apparently even considered buying a dacha in Zvenigorod in 1903, about a year before he died. He came back to visit the town with the potential purchase in mind, but nothing ever came of it. Perhaps that explains the somewhat blank look in his eyes?
If I’m coming across as underwhelmed in my response to this monument, it’s because I am. But I think the surroundings also have something to do with it. The park itself, for all its motley greenery, is quite faceless. Furthermore, Chekhov is shoved way off to the side for some reason. He is backed right up against a fence that cannot hide the nondescript contemporary city street right behind him. He’s not really part of either world – the modern city or the generic park.
Having said all that, however, I will admit that there is always something pleasant about being able to walk up to Anton Chekhov and sit down with him as if for a chat. It’s not the excitement, humor and intellectual stimulation you get from wandering around Leonty Usov’s brilliant monument in Tomsk, but it’ll do if you’re in Zvenigorod and in the need of some Chekhov.

 

Vikenty Veresaev house, Tula

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Vikenty Veresaev, real last name Smidovich, was born in this house in Tula in 1867. He lived here until 1884, when he left for St. Petersburg to study literature and history at St. Petersburg University. Even as his various professions and aspirations took him to other cities for long periods of time – notably Tartu, where he studied medicine, and later Moscow, where he was a famed writer – this was a home he would return to frequently. Its address today is 82 Gogolevskaya Street (Peshekhonskaya Street when Veresaev lived here), just five blocks from Tula’s main drag, then called Kievskaya Street, now called Lenin Prospekt.
Veresaev is one of an elite club of Russian writers, whose first job was as a medical doctor. The most famous of them are Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Aksyonov, Grigory Gorin and Alexander Rozenbaum. In fact, Veresaev felt so called to medicine that he chose to take it up as a profession after already completing his first degree as a historian-philologist. He officially became a doctor in 1894 upon graduation from Derptsky University in Tartu (it actually had been renamed Yuryevsky University in 1893 – and is now known as the famed Tartu University).
Veresaev moved to St. Petersburg in 1894 where, in 1896, he took up a position at the city’s hospital for contagious diseases (later to be named Botkin Hospital) where he doubled as a resident physician and the head of the hospital library.
Veresaev had had inclinations to write ever since his school days. His first publication was a poem called “Contemplation” in 1885. He published his first story, “Enigma,” in 1887. By this time he was using the pseudonym of Veresaev. Even as he completed his medical studies, Veresaev was embarking on an active literary career. He wrote and published numerous short stories in the early 1890s and, in 1892, he published a series of essays, The Kingdom of the Underworld, about the life of miners in Donetsk. For the most part he published his work in the Marxist press. The same year that he graduated from medical school, 1994, he published his first significant novella, No Way (aka No Road), following it with another highly-touted work, Pestilent Air, in 1898. Both works captured the growing sensation among Russian youth (and not only youth) that the stagnant political and social realities of the time were leading the country to a crisis. At this time Veresaev was more or less in complete agreement with liberal and social groups. In fact, his decision to become a doctor had been influenced by his desire to have the opportunity to “go to the people” and help them. The notoriety that Veresaev earned with No Way and Pestilent Air turned to downright popularity when,  in 1901, he published his first major, and still best-known, collection, A Doctor’s Notes (aka Memoirs of a Physician). Here he shocked some and thrilled others with unblinking portraits of real life told from the viewpoint of a doctor. Veresaev addressed the mixed reaction in his introduction to the collection as a book:
This resentment strikes me as symbolic. We so fear the truth in all things, and are so unaware of how important it is, that all we need do is barely open up one small corner of it for people to begin feeling uneasy: Why did you do that? What is the use? What will the uninitiated say? How will they understand the truth presented?
Plus ça change, I guess I want to say to that!

Notes of a Doctor not only put Veresaev into the first ranks of contemporary Russian writers, it also brought down on him the attention of the Russian secret police. For his “crime” of protesting the brutal treatment of students demonstrating against the government, he was sent back to Tula in 1901 to make it easier for the authorities to keep an eye on him. In 1903, however, he was allowed to return to Moscow, and, shortly thereafter, was drafted into service as a military doctor for the duration of the Russo-Japanese War. This led to his next prominent work, a series of essays written from 1904 to 1906 about his experiences at war.
From roughly 1905 until the Russian Revolution in 1917, Veresaev wrote and published less than he had in the past, although he did not stop writing altogether. Significantly, he published a work titled A Life Alive: On Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in 1910. At the time it may have seemed like an unexpected foray into history and criticism, but, in fact, this would be a pointer to his future. Also in 1910 Veresaev travelled to Greece where his lifelong love for that culture was reawakened. When he reemerged after the revolution, it was primarily as a literary historian. It was his second birth, if you will, as a writer. His books about Gogol, Chekhov and Pushkin have been highly regarded ever since they appeared in print in the 1920s and 1930s. Of particular value are Pushkin in Life (1926) and Gogol in Life (1933).
According to one online Russian-language biography, “Vikenty Veresaev linked his literary destiny with the ‘new life,’ in this he echoed Maxim Gorky. His writing style is characterized not only by vivid realism, but also by the subtlest psychological observations about his own experiences. Autobiography was a distinctive feature of his work.
Translation was another field of activity that Veresaev devoted himself to for almost his entire adult life. He began toying with translation as a young man – he knew ancient Greek – and his translations of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad are still read today. He was awarded the Pushkin Prize in 1919 for his translations of ancient Greek literature, and he was awarded the Stalin Prize (first degree) in 1943 for the sum of his life’s work.
One doesn’t see much commentary about this former liberal’s attitude to events as they unfolded in the early Soviet years. There is, however, his novel Deadlocked (1922), which showed an aversion to the violence being unleashed at the time by the Bolsheviks. In any case, two facts stand out – 1) his increased interest in the past in his writings after the Revolution, and 2) his receiving of the Stalin Prize, something that was always handed out by the Leader as thanks for perceived loyalty. Veresaev appears to have receded into a relatively safe space in the years leading up to and including the Purges, when so many of his colleagues would have suffered or disappeared.
A few words on Veresaev’s parents who were rather remarkable people themselves. His father Vikenty Smidovich was of Polish and German extraction, and was one of the leading Tula doctors of his time. He founded the first hospital in Tula as well as the city’s first sanitary commission, which sought to minimize unhealthy public practices. Veresaev’s mother Yelizaveta Yunitskaya was a noblewoman from the Mirgorod area of Ukraine. She also had Greek ancestors. The organizer of the first kindergarten in Russia in 1872, she gave birth to 11 children, of whom eight survived.
Veresaev died in 1945, just less than a month after the end of World War II. He was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery.

 

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

Click on photos to enlarge.

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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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