Happy Birthday Anton Chekhov!
By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK
Rosamund Bartlett is a writer, translator, and lecturer, specialising in Russian literature, and translated the best-selling edition of Chekhov’s About Love and Other Stories for the Oxford World’s Classics series. She is also the author of Chekhov: Scenes from a Life (Free Press, 2005). She was also heavily involved in a recent set of events celebrating Chekhov at the Hampstead Theatre in London. In the original post below, to coincide with Chekhov’s 150th birthday, she talks about her campaign to restore his house in Yalta.
Anton Chekhov was born 150 years ago this week, in a little whitewashed house in the southern port of Taganrog. Forty four years later, his life was already over, his body ravaged by the tuberculosis he contracted when he was in his twenties. He could have squandered his talent, like his elder brother Nikolai, and led a dissolute life, but he chose instead to value his creative gifts. He earned his literary stripes the hard way, by writing first for comic journals and newspapers, but he ended up becoming the greatest writer of his generation. He could have rested on his laurels after receiving accolades as both prose writer and dramatist, but he kept on writing, and producing masterpieces, even when he was too sick to prune his roses. He could have happily left his medical training behind after he qualified as a doctor, but he went out of his way to treat the peasants who lived near his country house, and supported efforts to provide community health care. He could have lived off the fat of the land, but provided for his parents and sister, quietly built three schools, planted trees, and undertook a grueling journey to the island of Sakhalin to make a study of its notorious penal colony. He was a consummate artist who went against the grain of Russian tradition by resolutely refusing to act as a moral guide, and a person of rare integrity who preferred to lose his closest friend rather than endure his anti-Semitism. He also never took himself seriously and indeed was cracking self-deprecating jokes until the very last. For all these reasons Chekhov’s 150th birthday is worth celebrating.
Because Chekhov was a writer with such a deep and compassionate understanding of human nature, the problems he deals with in his stories and plays are as relevant now as they were when he was writing about them, and not just to his fellow Russians. Chekhov has insights for anyone who has had a setback in life, or experienced the bewilderment of feeling one thing and saying another. Chekhov’s enduring appeal in England was certainly very clear last week at the Hampstead Theatre where Michael Pennington and I presented a week of story readings, informal performances and discussions to celebrate his anniversary – they were a complete sell-out. The proceeds are all going towards the restoration of Chekhov’s house in Yalta, which was turned into a museum soon after his death, and is unique in preserving its interior just as it was when he left it in 1904. When I visited two and a half years ago, I was shocked to find half the house shut to visitors. The museum’s director Alla Golovacheva showed me the wallpaper peeling off the walls in Chekhov’s study, due to mould, and explained there was simply no money to pay for adequate heating during the cold winter months. It was fine during Soviet times, when the museum was funded directly by the Ministry of Culture, but now that Ukraine is independent, funding has almost completely dried up. The Russian government does not want to look after a museum no longer on its territory, and the Ukrainians feel few obligations towards Russian writers. True, presidential hopeful Viktor Yanukovych proclaimed Chekhov’s importance in a recent TV discussion with Yalta residents in which he was asked about the fate of the museum, but he also referred to Chekhov as a “Ukrainian poet” (wrong on both counts). It does not exactly inspire confidence…
It was heartwarming that so many distinguished figures in the theatrical and literary world wanted to take part in our week at the Hampstead Theatre. There was a great atmosphere in the theatre, and we now know we have raised £60 000 to pay for essential repairs to Chekhov’s house. Part of the reason I started the campaign to restore and preserve Chekhov’s Yalta house and garden, where he spent the last years of his life, was because it was here that he wrote his last two great plays and some of his greatest stories. The house is beautiful and evocative. But my motivation was also about standing up for the cultural values which are now under threat as a result of rampant consumerism and corruption – the house is such a great symbol of the very best achievements of Russian culture, and of the life of a great man and artist, and we should cherish and look after it. Happy Birthday Anton Pavlovich!