The seagull’s last cry

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Chekhov’s last years in Yalta

The Guardian, November 1997



To love Russia at the onset of winter requires an act of will. From Moscow’s Kurskiy station to the Crimea is a 24-hour journey by train; for six or seven hours there is nothing but boundless prairie, girdled by a band of birch forest,  and five hundred miles of unsheltering sky.

The joy, however, of any long train ride in Russia comes from its enforced idleness, the exhilaration of lying back and doing nothing. After The Seagull’s first night in St Petersburg in October 1896, one of the great theatrical disasters, Chekhov left for Moscow on the first train, a slow train that took 22 hours. ‘So much the better,’ he said. ‘I shall sleep and dream of fame.’

Russian trains cling to old habits of elegance. Although the air-conditioning was bust and the window grimed with soot, the Crimea express had rugs on the seats and a little vase of ox-eye daisies in each compartment. The country, as opposed to the cities, is still devastatingly poor. At Orel, in front of the pretty station garden ankle-deep in birch leaves, Russians swarmed over the platform, holding aloft buckets of apples, bread and vodka and elderly chocolates for sale. Under my window stood a grandmother, barrelled up against the cold. Her hands were empty – all she had for sale was a salted fish, pinned to the front of her stained raincoat.

With the train’s motion I relaxed, gradually setting aside desire for events or colour. The steppe was almost featureless in the cold light. I thought of the stories of Russian soldiers during the war, impressing the British by their ability to thrive in atrocious winter conditions, moving without food support through the snow with only hunting bags slung on their backs; and I remembered what my friend Volodya had said when I admired the sky over Moscow, briefly blue with porcelain clouds. ‘Yes – unfortunately.’ He meant that the waiting for winter was not yet over. ‘Russians are never truly happy, until they know things can’t get any worse.’

To understand Russian optimism, we have to redefine grey and sadness. One is the colour of hope – knowledge that winter is always coming is also knowledge that there will eventually be a spring; the other, the great source of Russian lyricism. Anton Chekhov was forced to settle semi-permanently in the Russian south after the symptoms of his tuberculosis started to appear earlier each year. As the train rolled and jerked, I half-saw why he preferred a real Moscow winter of cold and snow. In one letter from his ‘hot Siberia’ he wrote: ‘It is warm, sunny, the young ladies are yearning for love. But nature here is neither one thing nor the other, like sonorous but empty poetry.’

I had boarded the train to Yalta to try to reconstruct, a century late, a sliver of Chekhov’s Russia. Not the Russia of the dramatist (the great plays must be a challenge to direct and enjoyable for actors, but they are a torment to watch), but the huge, provincial, rural country of the story-writer. To venture a verdict that Chekhov would very likely have hated, he is the twentieth century’s great prose-poet of ordinariness. He died in 1904; but he qualifies for our century for making boredom funny, if for no other reason – Beckett owes him a drink on a cloud somewhere for that. It would be fair to say that his mastery of small-scale, unmetropolitan and apparently trivial conflicts of love, ambition and happiness make him the father of the modern soap.

Due to his tuberculosis, A.P. Chekhov’s career was amazingly concentrated. He died at 44. TB spurred him to work obsessively, at the same time as it was killing him. Even in the 1890s as he ascended towards Tolstoyan rank in Russian letters, because of his disease, his political situation – as a member of a new Russian middle class suffering its first identity crisis – and certainly because of his medical training, he refused to allow that life was a matter of open-ended happiness. As a practising doctor, his stories were his diagnosis. The prognosis, he used to say, was more difficult. His often repeated phrase that ‘in 200 years life will be wonderful’ was laced with irony.

This might make Chekhov sound as though he was not good company. The ghosts of Moscow’s actresses testify to the contrary: Anton Pavlovich, tall and fine-featured, with the refinement of a prince, bedded dozens of them before falling in love with Olga Knipper at thirty-eight. (TB sufferers are frequently compensated, in a way, by extremely erotic natures.)

With his constant reserve, Chekhov  must have been a hard man to love. Few women got what they wanted from him. One story seems to sum up that distance he maintained from others, from the conventional idea of happiness. Shortly after he had finished writing Sakhalin, his reformatory account of the penal conditions on Sakhalin island, he was accompanied by a couple of young actresses to a Moscow photographer’s to have his picture taken. To commemorate the occasion, the three decided to be photographed together. There was the usual horseplay, as always with Chekhov, then, at the crucial moment, having reduced the girls to helpless laughter, Chekhov turned away and set his face like stone. He christened the resulting picture ‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony’.

From Simferopol railway terminus in the Crimean plain there is another two hours by road over the mountains to reach Yalta. Krushchev, taking Lenin at his word – ‘Communism equals Soviet power plus electricity!’ – ordered an electric trolleybus route built in the early Sixties. It is the longest in the world, its power lines rising to 6000 feet and stretching 112 km over the mountains. Descending to the bay of Yalta, it strikes you that Stalin chose well in 1945: this was an impressive place to play the power card, lush, peaceful and magnificently framed in the mountains and white mist floating over the town.

Ordered south, Chekhov did not take to the Black Sea resort. It was the antithesis of Moscow, crammed with doctors, consumptives and bored hypochondriacs – a place of tedium and lust. It was a situation he anatomised in his story ‘Lady With Lapdog’, in which the description of the forty-year-old seducer, Gurov, falling in love with the lady with the white pomeranian was an admission of his own love for Knipper, despite his attempts to resist it. In another story, Chekhov seems to describe himself in Yalta as the doctor Ustimovich – ‘a tall, skinny, unsociable person who stayed in during the day and strolled slowly along the front in the evenings, coughing away, his walking stick pressed to his back with his hands.’

I love Yalta – I had been once before and I had a friend there, another doctor who ran the Livadia sanatorium, in the grounds of the palace where Europe was divided up so that the Cold War could begin. Dr Yuri Zinenko gave rehabilitation to heart attack patients, and was once a well-off professional; now, post-perestroika, he has to scrape by on $100 a month. We went straight to his two-room flat for borshch and cold pork and Massandra sherry. He showed me his Chekhov bookshelf. I asked him if he shared a certain Russian view, that Chekhov was some sort of secular saint.

‘He was just an ordinary man,’ Yuri replied. ‘He did his duty.’

The interpreter, an earnest, solemn woman, interrupted. ‘He was more than an ordinary man. For us Russians, he had a very high morality.’

Hadn’t he visited prostitutes regularly?

Yuri’s wife Valentina, a neurosurgeon at Yalta Hospital and a stern-looking woman in her sixties, could not contain herself. ‘Nyet! nyet! Prostitut! Of course he visited prostitutes! Man want woman! Every man want woman! So natural!’

‘What about his illness?’

From a medical point of view, Yuri said, this would not have stopped him. ‘His consumption was the most severe kind, but this can just make a tubercular patient more active. He had to do everything – to write, to support his family, to practise medicine for nothing, to go to Sakhalin, to build hospitals and schools. Here in Yalta he also sponsored two schools, right up to his death.’

After lunch, we walked down a shaded gully to Chekhov’s Yalta house, a white villa with Mediterranean touches, built by Chekhov in a garden he planted himself. Inside, there was his desk and hard chair, and on the wall the rosewood and brass telephone on which Tolstoy had once called Anton Pavlovich to say he wanted him to be happy, because he was such a good man.

The house was not fussy but it radiated an air of correctness; in person, Chekhov’s cuffs were always white. In a cabinet in the hall were his long boots, his homburg and shirts and an Italian tie, and the eight-buttoned leather overcoat he had worn to Sakhalin, and there was also a photograph of the consumptive author, taken in 1902, showing him with with the irreversible dishevelment of a dying man. Writers’ houses are often nostalgic traps; but there is something about Chekhov’s white dacha that makes it seem as though he has only gone out for an unsociable stroll or to check on progress at one of his schools, and will be back for tea any moment now.

This feeling persisted at School Number 5, when Yuri and I walked through noisy corridors to find the headmistress, a blonde woman with a quiet, musical voice who, because of municipal bankruptcy, had not been paid for six months.

The school had been set up to teach girls, whose education was almost non-existent in Chekhov’s day. ‘Anton Pavlovich used to come in here every week,’ she said, ‘and he would sit in the armchair outside my office and see how the girls were getting on.’

To Gorky Chekhov once said about education, ‘Does it bore you to listen to my dreams? I love talking about this. If you only knew the absolute necessity for the Russian countryside of good, clever, educated teachers!’ If not, he added, the state would collapse like a house built from insufficiently baked bricks. Chekhov felt clumsy when he talked of political matters, and his interest was ruthlessly practical. As he wrote after a visit from Tolstoy, when he was sick in one of the many clinics he ended up in, ‘Tolstoy assumes that all of us will live on in a principle (such as reason or love) the essence and goals of which are a mystery to us. I have no use for that kind of immortality. I don’t understand it, and Lev Nikolayevich was astonished I didn’t.’

Was he a saint? The question seems tawdry, as if to bundle him up in a soundbite and miss the earthly point of his work, literary and medical and educational. He is one of the great puzzles in modern literature. More pilgrims visit Tolstoy’s estate than Chekhov’s dacha, but Chekhov hovers over the Russian psyche more insistently than Tolstoy, Pushkin or Turgenev. The reason could be that genius rarely sets out to make ordinary people freer than itself; but Chekhov did.

Yalta may be quiet and stupid, as Chekhov often thought, but it has lushness and space, ‘the city in a forest’ – and great reserves of generosity. Yuri took a couple of days off work to accompany me, and then invited me to come back and spend the spring with him and Valentina. The next evening, after a morning at Chekhov’s beach house at Gursuf up the coast (where he and Knipper could leave his mother and sister behind), Yuri introduced me to  Elena. She was twenty-seven, half-Russian with black Tartar eyes – another teacher who had not been able to go on teaching without a salary.

‘She is the woman for you,’ Yuri whispered, grinning.

I had to return to Simferopol to catch a plane at the crack of dawn, and Elena offered to accompany me. She had a friend to see. In the taxi, I asked her when she thought she would get married and she confessed she hadn’t been able to find a husband – she thought the men in Yalta ill-educated and insensitive. I pointed out that they had been knocked sideways by perestroika and unemployment, but she said the problem was that she knew what she loved – her university dissertation had been on Wilde, her favourite writers were Joyce, Shaw and Somerset Maugham – and she couldn’t find it in the town where she had grown up. It was a perfect Chekhovian situation – the need for love, the wrong place, the wrong time: stalemate.

I went to bed in Simferopol in the most sinister hotel I have ever stayed at. Dogs barked all night on the porch. When I turned on the taps, the ancient pink rubber hose to the shower writhed.

At five-thirty in the morning there was a knock on the door. Elena. ‘This is such a disgusting place,’ she laughed, ‘I came to make sure you get to the airport.’

You do not have to go looking for Chekhov’s Russia. It is there: brutish, like the villages he described, illiterate drunken farragoes of peasants and mud (though typically he believed that there were huge reserves of talent in them); penniless and mismanaged, its streets blacked-out, its education system a shambles, its fabric trapped between stagnation and a change it has no power to direct; but with fathomless depths of kindness. No irony. No applied postmodernism. No egotism. To tell the truth, I feel slightly flat after my flirtation with the edge of Asia. The string of lights on the Yalta waterfront haunts me, and the headlamp reflections ahead at night on the twin trolleybus cables all the way over the Ai-Petri mountains – London does not mesh with my soul the way those cables did.

Chekhov had little time for any such entity in his stories. Lacking a political, religious and philosophical world view, he wrote, ‘I change it every month, so I’ll have to limit myself to the description of how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die, and how they speak.’

That is the Yalta effect, despite Chekhov’s ambivalence about it. Nothing happens there. Even during the Revolution, the town was largely unscathed. But kiss the lips of Asia, or read ‘Lady With Lapdog’, and you know that there are no minor events in life – only minor writers.


© Julian Evans 1997

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