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.
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!