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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.