Sakhalin through the eyes of Chekhov

Chekhov – homo sachaliensis

In the spring of 1890 Anton Chekhov (1860 -1904) left Moscow and traveled to Sakhalin, an island on the eastern coast of Russia. At the time Sakhalin was used by the authorities as a penal colony. Chekhov wanted to go there for three months to make a census of the involuntary population of the island.

So if no-one went to Sakhalin voluntarily, why did Chekhov, who already knew he had tuberculosis, want to go there? In 1888 the famous Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky had died. Chekhov, who had always been fascinated by the accounts of explorers, wanted to follow in his footsteps, even if only once. As a doctor, Sakhalin seemed to him the perfect place for a humanitarian investigation. As a writer, it would provide him with an opportunity to talk to some hardened criminals.

Also in 1890 the authorities were not exactly keen to have an outsider take a look in their kitchen. Chekhov did eventually get permission, although immediately some telegrams were sent to warn the local authorities. And so Chekhov became the first Russian writer to travel voluntarily to a penal colony.

The Trans-Siberian Railway had not yet been constructed. The tracks ended in Tiumen. Chekhov had wanted to travel further by ship down the river, but although it was already spring, the river was still frozen and he had to travel by carriage on an excruciatingly bad road instead. He finally reached Sakhalin after eleven weeks of traveling.

Sakhalin was such an unwelcoming and unpleasant place that no-one (apart from the indigenous peoples the Gilyaks and the Aino) stayed there any longer than necessary. The hostile climate made it virtually impossible to grow any kind of crop. There were schools, but the teaching was left to former prisoners who had no previous teaching experience. The local hospitals lacked even the most basic equipment. On the one hand some of the prisons were regular gambling houses, with the guards being just as addicted as the prisoners; on the other corporal punishment was given for the slightest offence. A surprisingly large amount of wives had followed their sentenced husband to Sakhalin; only to regret it as soon as they set a foot on shore. A large part of the female population had to prostitute themselves to survive, whether they were convicted criminals or the wives of convicted criminals.

The accounts that Chekhov wrote about his experiences and impressions were hugely influential. The idealistic purpose of the penal colony was that the prisoners would become better people there. Chekhov’s factual and straightforward eye witness account of what actually happened in and around the Sakhalin prisons, opened the eyes of society and improvements were made. Nonetheless one cannot help thinking that even nowadays, 130 years later, Navalny awaits a similar fate, and that not that much has changed.

In spite of his less than smooth travels, Chekhov never lost his sense of humour. Take for instance his description of a ‘typical’ Siberian bedstead: “In the corner stands a bedstead, piled with a whole mountain of feather mattresses and pillows in pretty cases; to clamber up this mountain you have to place a chair beside it, and the instant you lie down you sink. The Siberians love to have a good sleep in a soft bed”.

Or here describing the typical, stupid and random ways of the islanders: “…, while in the lower reaches the Gilyaks were capturing for their dogs immeasurably healthier and tastier fish than those which were being prepared in the Tymovsk District for human beings”. (The fish swims upstream, and the quality of the fish decreases rapidly the further upstream it gets).

And finally: “Nowhere is the past so swiftly forgotten as on Sakhalin, precisely because of the extraordinarily high mobility of the exile population, which changes radically every five years here (…) What happened twenty to twenty-five years ago is regarded as being profound antiquity, already forgotten and lost to history.

Although that last bit is not true anymore, because thanks to our excellent Chekhov we know exactly what it was like and who was there on Sakhalin island during the summer of 1890.

Books read:

Sakhalin Island – Anton Chekhov, translated by Brian Reeve

Chekhov – Henri Troyat

Anton Chekhov, a Life – Donald Rayfield


Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

By the way, I did join forces again with Rebecca Budd and with Dave Astor at the end of 2020 for another podcast!


30 thoughts on “Sakhalin through the eyes of Chekhov

  1. Yes, fascinating… I’ve read a bit of camp literature and a few recent novels set in Soviet camps. But an eye-witness account from the early history of these places is something else again.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Thank you, Elisabeth! Sakhalin Island will be a great supplement to novels by Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn (20th century) I’ve read on this subject. The significant difference between exile to forced labor camps and being sent to confinement in actual prisons, is unfortunately meaningful only to those who have suffered in either or both. Which was worse punishment, being confined in a cell or being confined in a “camp?” A nice, soft bed and sleep was probably the best part of their miserable day. It seems Chekhov was the forerunner of an undercover investigator. 🙂

    Liked by 7 people

  3. What a good point! Yes, Dostoevsky’s “From the House of the Dead” and Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. There are descriptions in Chekhov’s “Sakhalin” of brutal treatment of prisoners (one in particular) that are dreadful and unforgettable.

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  4. Oh yes, in that sense it’s extremely interesting; Chekhov was an outsider, and his account is straightforward. But I think that during Soviet times any improvements that were made after Chekhov’s publications, were thrown out the window again.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you, Mary Jo! Sakhalin Island is indeed a great addition to both Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. And you’re absolutely right, Chekhov had to be a bit cunning to get his material.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Yes, some of the stories a dreadful and unforgettable. I think I know which one you have in mind, Roger. But to Chekhov’s credit, it’s not all misery and gloom. But certainly an eye-opener!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Elisabeth – I did not want to go into detail, but it was a flogging. When I read this part (a long time ago), I was weak in the knees. I don’t know if I could read it again. But, sometimes, when I think of cruelty and punishment, I think of this scene in the book. I never forgot it. There is a flogging in “The House of the Dead” too, but this is worse.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. There’s a long history of penal institutions being set up for the purposes of reforming people rather than punishing them. Here in Australia, in C19th Tasmania, there was the Port Arthur penal settlement which put the worst offenders into not only solitary isolation but also total silence. They were masked and physically separated all the time, even at church, so that they never saw another human being not even the guards and the only sound they ever heard was God’s ‘improving’ words. It was thought that this would make offenders reflect on their sins and become better people. It didn’t of course. It drove them mad, literally.
    But it was no different in principle to the Soviet or Chinese idea that camps would re-educate people, and by that we mean making them cooperative with the existing social system, whatever it is. It’s the principle on which youth detention is supposed to work too. For most prisoners in modern prison systems, it’s also supposed to be about rehabilitation and return to society, though punishment and revenge is glaringly obvious in the very long gaol terms they dish out in the US.
    The Soviet and Chinese re-education camps were/are brutal and the criticism is deserved. But it’s interesting that in the West we pay more attention to their failings with offenders than our own because we don’t approve of the political system they’re trying to re-educate their offenders to accept.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Lisa, you’re so right. The purpose of penal camps is not to make ‘better people’, it is to make cooperative people, to break the free will. And the sad truth is that many people who are put into a position where they have power of another human being, will abuse that power.
    It’s a depressing thought. I hope that Chekhov made the world at least a tiny bit better…

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I was going to check in because I was thinking “I haven’t seen a post from The Russian Affair in a while” but then I got on and saw the date of the last post, and was like “Oh, it’s hasn’t been all that long, I guess.”. Hope everything’s okay, all the same!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Interesting blog, it reminds me of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in Crime and Punishment he wrote:”Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary.”
    I tried to write a blog about him , hope you also like it:

    Liked by 2 people

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