Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, playwright, one of the greatest short-story writers in history and once-in-a-lifetime adventurer to Russia’s remote far east.
Place and date of birth
Taganrog, southern Russia, January 29, 1860.
Claim to fame
Despite being best-known in the west as the author of plays in which members of the Russian gentry sit around waiting for the samovar to boil, Chekhov clearly had an intrepid streak. In 1890, despite having been diagnosed with tuberculosis, he undertook an extraordinary overland journey by train, carriage and riverboat to Russia’s far east. It took him two-and-a-half months to reach his destination: the North Pacific island of Sakhalin, north of Japan, and the penal colony there, which he described as hell.
Chekhov spent three months on Sakhalin, carrying out a census and writing reports about the place that were published in a work of non-fiction that the New Yorker, no less, called the greatest work of journalism of the 19th century. He interviewed thousands of prisoners and settlers on the island in order to raise awareness of their predicament. The painstaking, courageous social activist that emerges from his writings about the trip is a corrective to the way we tend to see Chekhov outside Russia: as a writer preoccupied with all the flavours of middle-class misery. Journey to Sakhalin deserves to be better known and more widely read, but let’s face it, tales of a Russian prison colony at the other end of the world are always going to be a tough sell.
Chekhov’s expedition to Sakhalin was a bolt from the blue – a quixotic, uncharacteristic explosion of adventurousness similar to the impulse that propelled Bruce Chatwin from a comfortable job in Sotheby’s to Patagonia. Unlike Chatwin, Chekhov never repeated it. He did, however, enjoy the voyage home from Sakhalin, via Hong Kong, Singapore and Sri Lanka, where he unwisely acquired three mongooses that he ended up giving to a zoo.
Dapper, dandyish, a qualified doctor and proud of his work ethic, Chekhov comes across as charismatic and deeply likable. Of all Russia’s great writers, he’s the one you’d be best stuck on a long train journey with. Although, when you think about the alternatives (domineering Tolstoy, gambling addict Dostoevsky and Gogol, with his messianic theories about Russia), that’s faint praise.
Chekhov’s health declined in the years after his return from Sakhalin. He finally succumbed to tuberculosis at a spa in Germany, where he’d gone in hope of a cure. Gorky records that his body was brought back to Moscow in a refrigerated carriage marked “for oysters”.
Always with the numbers! Chekhov’s trip was tough, but not unprecedented. He undertook it because of his concern for the prisoners and what he felt the failures of the penal system said about his country. It was a noble aim, but perhaps not superlative in terms of pure exploration. I’m giving him a 6/10.
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