In 1890 Anton Chekhov set off for Sakhalin to conduct a census of the prison and exile population of the island. He was 30 years old at the time and was already suffering from tuberculosis. His letters and the publication of The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin remain compelling documents of the trip, even today. We see a Chekhov who is enjoying writing to friends and family. His observations and comments, his opinions about Russia, the Chinese, the Japanese and the numerous ethnic minorities in Siberia are illuminating, interesting and filtered through his artistic temperament. Always present in the letters and in the account of the trip is the doctor’s eye for precision, forever studying human form and diseases.
On 7 May 1890 he wrote to Madam Kiselyov
I am driving across the plain of Siberia. I have already driven 715 versts; I have been transformed from head to foot into a great martyr. This morning a keen cold wind began blowing, and it began drizzling with the most detestable rain. I must observe that there is no spring yet in Siberia. The earth is brown, the trees are bare, and there are white patches of snow wherever one looks…
This was the terrain that Chekhov travelled and weather that he endured. What is remarkable is how Chekhov makes light of his ordeal, particularly in the letters to his mother and sister. He wrote to Masha, his sister on 14 May 1890
…On the ninth of May there was a hard frost, and today, the fourteenth, snow has fallen to depth of three or four inches. No one speaks of spring but the ducks. Ah, what masses of ducks! Never in my life have I seen such abundance. They fly over one’s head, they fly up close to the chaise, swim on the lakes and in the pools – in short, with the poorest sort of gun I could have shot a thousand in one day….
Chekhov’s medical observations, his continuing practice, his eye for the unusual and exotic, all combine to make his letters vivid and extraordinary records of a past age. In another letter to his sister on 16 may he wrote
One drinks and talks with the peasant women, who are sensible, tender-hearted, industrious, as well as being devoted mothers and more free than in European Russia; their husbands don’t abuse them or beat them, because they are as tall, as strong, and as clever as their lords and masters are. They act as drivers when their husbands are away from home; they like making jokes. They are not severe with their children, they spoil them…There is no diphtheria. Malignant smallpox is prevalent here, but strange to say, it is less contagious than in other parts of the world; two or three catch it and die and that is the end of the epidemic. There are no hospitals or doctors. The doctoring is done by feldshers. Bleeding and cupping are done on a grandiose, brutal scale. I examined a Jew with cancer in the liver. The Jew was exhausted, hardly breathing, but that did not prevent the feldsher from cupping him twelve times.
Even though Chekhov was a doctor he continually understated and ignored the signs of tuberculosis in himself, constantly attributing the blood in his sputum to other causes
For the first three days of my journey my collar bones, my shoulders and my vertebrae ached from the shaking and jolting. I couldn’t stand or sit or lie…But on the other hand, all pains in my head and chest have vanished, my appetite has developed incredibly, and my hemorrhoids have subsided completely. The overstrain, the constant worry with luggage and so on, and perhaps the farewell drinking parties in Moscow, had brought on spitting of blood in the mornings, which induced something like depression, arousing gloomy thoughts, but towards the end of the journey it has left off; now I haven’t even a cough. It is a long time since I have coughed so little as now, after being for a fortnight in the open air.
Chekhov was involved in a collision of three carts/chaises
The result of the collision were broken shafts, torn traces, yokes and luggage scattered on the ground, the horses scared and harassed, and the alarming feeling that we had just been in danger.
The rain was endless
Much rain, a vicious wind, cold…and felt boots on my feet. Do you know what felt boots are liked when they are soaked? They are like boots of jelly.
On 5 June 1890 Chekhov wrote to his brother, Alexander
Siberia is a big, cold country. There seems no end to the journey. There is little novelty or interest to be seen, but I am experiencing and feeling a lot. I’ve battled with rivers in flood, with cold, unbelievable quagmires, hunger and lack of sleep…Experiences you couldn’t buy in Moscow for a million roubles. You should come to Siberia! Get the courts to exile you here.
If ever there was a call to travel, here it was, Siberia, the Taiga, which Chekhov described as follows
The forest is no denser that at Sokolniki, but no coachman can tell where it ends. It seems endless; it goes on for hundreds of miles…When you are going up a mountain and you look up and down, all you see are mountains in front of you, more mountains beyond them, and yet more mountains beyond them, and mountains on either side, all thickly covered in forest. It’s actually quite frightening.
Chekhov wrote to Suvorin on 27 June 1890 about his experience of being entertained by a Japanese whore
When, to satisfy your curiosity, you have intercourse with a Japanese woman, you begin to understand Skalkovsky, who is said to have had his photograph taken with a Japanese whore. The Japanese girl’s room was very neat and tidy, sentimental in an Asiatic sort of way, and filled with little knickknacks – no wash basins or objects made out of rubber or portraits of generals. There was a wide bed with a single small pillow. The pillow is for you; the Japanese girl puts a wooden support under her head in order not to spoil her coiffure. The back of her head rests on the concave part. A Japanese girl has her own concept of modesty. She keeps the light on, and if you ask her what is the Japanese word for such and such a thing she answers directly, and because she doesn’t know much Russian points with her fingers or even picks it up, also she doesn’t show off or affect airs and graces as Russian women do. She laughs all the time and utters a constant stream of ‘ts’ sounds. She has an incredible mastery of her art, so that rather than just using her body you feel as though you are taking part in an exhibition of high level riding skill. When you climax, the Japanese girl picks a piece of cotton cloth from out of her sleeve with her teeth, catches hold of your ‘old man’…and unexpectedly wipes you down…All this is done with artful coquetry.
The Chekhov of the short stories and plays is all together another Chekhov. This is a flesh and blood Chekhov, a man who strains himself for others. A man whose foibles are all too human, but yet are not mere foibles but an opportunity to observe, to reflect and to document. The constant standing apart from the ongoing action is perhaps the mark of the artist. It is what makes the short stories possible, what makes them memorable.
Photos by Jan Oyebode