Books

A Day at Chekhov’s Melikhovo

Though his time here passed in the constant shadow of death, Anton Chekhov gifted the world some of the most luminous works of art in the seven years he lived in Melikhovo.

Note: July 15, 2018 marks the 114th death anniversary of Anton Chekhov.

If you are a budget traveller, it is never going to be easy to reach Melikhovo. Still less so, if your Russian is limited to spasíbo, izvinite and prasteete.

So, we struggled one bright May morning to find our way to Anton Chekhov’s Melikhovo home, now a museum. The short metro ride from our Moscow city centre hostel to Kurskaya was uneventful, but locating the station platform from where the electrichka for Chekhov would depart was a challenge. The journey by train took a good 90 minutes but, having arrived at the station named after the great writer, we were dismayed to find that the marshrutka (mini bus) that would take us to Melikhovo had given us the slip. There was nothing to do but wait till the next bus came along, and an Uzbeki student helped fill the gap by his lively chatter, an amazing potpourri of Russian, Uzbek, English and – hold your breath –Hindi. He was amazingly well-informed about India, putting my complete ignorance about his home country to shame.

Finally, the bus came along and, after an inevitable fumbling with the tickets, the Russian countryside opened up around us in all its splendid greenness, with the sky, a perfect turquoise-blue, providing a magnificent canopy over the woodland. Large water bodies whizzed past, their surface touched to a shimmering blue-green. How comforting Melikhovo must have looked to Chekhov, bone-weary after his excruciatingly long trip to distant Sakhalin in snow-bound Siberia and already a patient of tuberculosis. He was to spend here seven-and-a-half (March 1892-August 1899) of the measly forty-four years that were granted to him to live. Himself a doctor, he knew he didn’t have a lot of time, and he plunged into Melikhovo with a passion for work that consumes only the truly great.

A view of the main living quarters, with the terrace in front where performances are held in summer. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The body of Chekhov’s work while at Melikhovo is prodigious: three novels/novellas (Ward No 6, My Life and Three Years), two of his most important plays (Uncle Vanya and Seagull), some of the world’s greatest short stories (Gooseberries, The Man in a Case, The House with the Mezzanine, The Student, The Black Monk, A Woman’s Kingdom, The Darling and Peasants being among them) and the monumental Sakhalin Island Diaries – could anyone have done more? He was also a practicing doctor, ran a free clinic on the estate for the desperately poor villages around Melikhovo, and travelled tirelessly, as an unpaid ‘cholera superintendent’, battling a cholera epidemic that raged across the region in 1892-93. He set up three schools, including one right next to the estate that he funded single-handedly and took great care to nurture.

An avid gardener, he laid out a magnificent garden of flowering and shade-giving trees, dug ‘The Pond’ where he encouraged his friends to fish, and frequently entertained friends and other guests from Moscow and Petersburg. Melikhovo is also where he fell in love with his future wife Olga Knipper, leading lady of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre and the most widely-acclaimed actor of Chekhov’s major plays. It must have been a sad day for Chekhov when his failing health, exacerbated by the region’s extremely harsh winters, obliged him to leave Melikhovo for Yalta on the Black Sea.

Chekhov lived here with his family, comprising his parents, his sister Maria and two of his three surviving brothers, adding to and making substantial improvements in the sprawling estate. In the summer of 1894, he commissioned a two-story guest cottage with a terrace overlooking the garden. The lower floor served as his clinic – till a separate building, called ‘the Ambulatory’, was set up for the purpose – while the upper story was made into a guest suite: when he was not entertaining guests, though, it was to this cottage that the writer often retreated, so that he could carry on writing in peace, away from the noise of the main living quarters. Both The Seagull and Uncle Vanya were written here (and the cottage came to be called the ‘Chaika’ – seagull), as were Gooseberries and The Man in a Case. It was here, again, that Olga Knipper was put up as a guest when she visited the Chekhovs in the summer of 1899. Also in 1894, a capacious cookhouse had come up next to a well inside the garden. All the domestic helps, including the long-time family nanny, ate their meals here and lived in several rooms around this building.

A group of chirpy Moscow school-children, aged ten to 15 and chaperoned by two teachers, were just ahead of us as we entered the Melikhovo complex. Throughout their visit, they kept up a lively chatter, displaying a fair degree of familiarity with Chekhov’s life and work. Clearly, they were not here for photo-ops alone. The elderly museum guides in attendance that morning, three somewhat taciturn ladies not given to smiling a lot, seemed rather overwhelmed by the barrage of the kids’ questions. When they turned to us, though, they were thrilled that we had come from India. They regularly receive, they said, many visitors from China – besides from Europe and the US – but seldom any Indians. One of the guides indeed volunteered to show us around the vast estate (though we communicated with her largely by sign-language) after we were done seeing the museum collection housed in the main block, the Chekhovs’s living quarters.

It is a pretty, sprawling, single-story house with a high wooden terrace in the front, light, airy and cheerful. By all accounts, the Chekhovs lived both intensely and pleasurably here, with the doctor’s many poor patients making as many demands on Chekhov’s time and attention as his many friends (and quite many uninvited guests) from Moscow and Petersburg. (It is remarkable how he still made time to produce that astonishingly rich and diverse body of work during those years.) The living room and study walls are lined with paintings by Isaac Levitan and Vasily Polenov, well-known artists and frequent guests at Melikhovo, as well as photographs (many taken by brother Aleksandr) of men Chekhov greatly admired, such as Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev, and of family and friends.

Maria, Chekhov’s sister, was herself an ardent painter, and her sketches, as also her charcoal and sketching pencils and paint boxes are on view in the museum. The Bechstein grand piano in the family living room, with a Beethoven score open upon its lid, reminds you that evenings here were enlivened with music. Lydia Mizinova, a family friend, often sang a Braga serenade or a Tchaikovsky romance in her mellifluous voice as the writer Ignaty Potapenko accompanied her on the violin.

Chekhov himself sang sometimes in a rich bass though, somewhat surprisingly, he only sang church numbers, presumably learnt in childhood. Card games were also played in the evenings, and everyone joined in with gusto. The dinner bell that Chekhov had had placed playfully on a cement column inside the garden stands witness to many lively meals shared by family and friends at Melikhovo. On Chekhov’s writing table you see his famous pince-nez, a catalogue of rose varieties and the writer’s pen and inkwell, while an autographed photo of Russia’s greatest composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, mounted on a metal frame, stands side by side with a photograph of ‘Beautiful Lika’, the singer Lydia to whose soulful singing the Melikhovo estate resonated on summer evenings. Tchaikovsky had visited the Chekhovs at their apartment in Moscow before they moved out to Melikhovo and Lydia was hopelessly in love with Chekhov, before she had a torrid affair with Potapenko, providing Seagull with one of its subplots.

In contrast with the house’s general sense of comfort and space, the bedrooms are all small, almost monkish in their austerity, the only exception being mother Evgenia’s room, which looks somewhat better appointed than the rest. In the museum’s large collection, you also get to see father Pavel’s violin, Chekhov’s starched shirt-collars, his medicine chest and the famous large leather suitcase that he had taken on his trip to Sakhalin, left behind in Tomsk because it was proving to be unwieldy, thought he had lost it, but eventually got it back quite unexpectedly, the family’s tea service including an old red china sugar-bowl from the Taganrog days, and sundry other bric-a-brac. The author’s manuscripts were all safely stowed away in metal safes on the day we visited, and we did not get a glimpse of them but for a few photo-copied pages lying on his desk of which I was unable to figure out the origins.

Chekhov’s work-table in his study, with a photo of Tchaikovsky keeping him company as Tolstoy looks on benignly from the wall. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The estate fell into disuse after the October Revolution, and it did not help that it became part of a kolkhoz when the Soviet Union embarked on its gigantic collectivisation initiative. Though a Chekhov memorial had nominally existed here since 1918, it was not until the 1950s that the museum was built and its vast collection punctiliously put together, thanks mainly to the efforts of Maria Chekhova who lived well into her nineties. The derelict estate rose slowly from its ruins, beautifully recreated and refurbished, and books, manuscripts, paintings, photographs and numerous items of the Melikhovo household were transferred from the family’s Yalta home and from many private collections.

Today the estate also houses an International Theatre School and a children’s theatre, hosts the Melikhovo Spring International Festival, recital competitions and special interactive programmes for children on the annual ‘Seagull Day’ (November 18), while performances based on Chekhov’s plays and stories are staged on the main terrace each Saturday afternoon in summer, when the audience sits in the splendid garden around the terrace where red and pink peonies and blue, white and purple heliotrope bushes – Chekhov’s favourite flowers – add magically to the charming pastoral setting. Sadly, we missed out on the Saturday performance, but sought to make amends by watching at the great Moscow Art Theatre a dramatised version of the somewhat enigmatic 1891 story The Duel, where the actors’ skills and the sublime production values of one of the world’s most celebrated theatre-houses came across powerfully despite the formidable language barrier.

Life at the estate finds copious echoes in many Chekhov stories and plays, the most prominent being Seagull, The Black Monk and My Life. Nemirovich-Danchenko, one of the Moscow Art Theatre’s two moving spirits (Stanislavsky being the other) recalls how evenings and moonlit nights at Melikhovo influenced the stage set for their production of Seagull.

In fact, it is now an established tradition with all Chekhov producers and actors to spend time at Melikhovo before launching a performance based on Chekhov. The museum complex also takes extraordinary care to preserve the estate in as authentic a shape and flavour as possible. Birch, linden and Berlin poplar, as well as eggplant, lettuce and watermelon, all popular with the Chekhov household, are assiduously planted and cared for even today. ‘Chekhov apples’ are grown in the estate’s apple orchard, to be given away to visitors. While showing us around the cookhouse, our by-now-cheerful guide proudly told us (or so I thought) that, even today, a whole family could be fed for a full month on the estate’s produce alone. She radiantly smiled into my camera to give me a photo of her in front of that bounteous kitchen.

Chekhov had less than five years to live after Melikhovo, and even while at the estate, his health deteriorated progressively, as his lungs haemorrhaged often. Unbelievably, though, he lived a full life during those seven years, perhaps fuller than at any other time in his life. Death did cast a shadow on the Melikhovo oeuvre, of course – for example, in The Black Monk, Ward No 6 or The Man who lived in a Case. But he was concerned more with the wasting away of the human spirit, the inalienable something which makes us what we are, and that theme runs right through all his mature work. It was not given to him to return again to Melikhovo, though he often pined to do so, but he soldiered on, bravely and cheerfully, writing such masterpieces as Three Sisters, In the Ravine and The Cherry Orchard while the stage productions of his plays scaled one peak of artistic triumph after another. And yet Melikhovo stands as the high point in his cruelly short life, when all the different strands of his incredible vitality converged and coalesced into an extraordinarily rich tapestry.

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, translator and commentator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.