Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Born on the Black Sea: At Home with Chekhov

The much loved Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, was born on the Black Sea and ended his days in Yalta on the Crimean peninsula. During an epic journey driving full circle around the Black Sea in the summer of 2013, road trip travel writers, Simon Raven and Chris Raven, explore Anton Chekhov's humble beginings on a sea that inspired a literary genius.


View of the Black Sea from Livadia Palace. Yalta, Crimea. By Simon Raven

BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Chris powers the Volvo along a smooth tarmac highway as we make our aerial descent into Yalta. Once a fashionable resort for the Russian aristocracy and gentry, this affluent town on the Crimean peninsula has grown into a popular holiday destination for predominantly Russian and Ukrainian working people on their summer vacation. With the summer season in full swing we pass dozens of tour boats and giant inflatable bouncy castles along the waterfront promenade. The smell of candyfloss and fried food fills the air. On the crowded beach a group of pale, bare-chested guys are drinking beer hidden inside brown paper bags and ogle a couple of girls wearing microscopic bikinis. A painfully skinny old man in a string vest devours a burger next to his plump wife, while families and couples enjoy the warm waters of the Black Sea.

In serious need of an injection of culture, we head off in search of the house where the much loved Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, once lived. I had started reading a collection of Chekhov’s work before leaving England and, inspired by a man who had a great talent for projecting empathy, I feel sad to learn about his long-term illness and premature death aged only 44. Anton spent the last four years of his life in Yalta from 1898 to 1902. Having sold the rights to his complete works to a publisher, he built a beautiful house here that he called the White Dacha.

An eccentric woman in her early seventies shows us around the house. She is wonderfully animated and reveals that she used to perform on the stage. Chris asks her if she can dance, and with an air of confidence she expertly rises onto the balls of her feet and performs a pirouette. The wooden floorboards creak as we explore the sparsely furnished rooms that appear frozen in time. Glancing inside Anton’s office, where he wrote one of his most famous short stories ‘The Lady with the Dog’, I imagine him sat at the wooden desk still deep in thought over the paragraph he is writing. Anton shared this house with his mother and sister and later his wife Olga Knipper, an actress of the stage who performed in a number of his plays. He regularly hosted dinner parties for friends including Leo Tolstoy, the great writer, philosopher and political thinker who wrote ‘War and Peace’; Maxim Gorky, a political activist and founder of the Socialist realism literary method and Isaac Levitan, his close friend and landscape artist.

We return to the main administrative building where Chris greets a woman with a bird’s nest perm and penetrating green eyes. She personally walks us through a chronology of Anton Chekhov’s life in black and white photographs, and points out his actress wife, Olga, performing in the play he wrote ‘The Seagull’. Anton married Olga in 1901, and they lived unconventionally with Olga residing mainly in Moscow and Chekhov in Yalta. He had once written to the book publisher and friend, Aleksey Suvorin, “give me a wife who, like the moon, won't appear in my sky every day.” In 1890, Anton undertook an arduous journey by train, horse-drawn carriage and river steamer across Siberia to the Far East of Russia and the katorga, or penal colony on Sakhalin Island north of Japan. During his stay he spent three months interviewing thousands of convicts and settlers for a census. He then sailed on a long voyage back to Russia via Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Travelling full circle around the room, voyeuristically examining every aspect of this man’s life, we reach the door where our journey first began.




Chekhov House Museum. Taganrog, Russia. Photo by Simon Raven

Continuing on our quest to drive full circle around the Black Sea, we exchange the wild rocky coast of the Crimean peninsula for the tranquil north shores of the Sea of Azov in East Ukraine. In the shadow of rising tension in Ukraine we cautiously cross the border into Russia, and cruise alongside enormous Soviet-size fields of corn. Chris overtakes a tractor with a white ceramic teapot wedged over the tow bar. A large steppe buzzard perched on a fence post watches our metal monster zoom by. We soon arrive in Taganrog; a port city founded by Peter the Great in 1698. The Azov Flotilla of Catherine the Great was hosted here in Russia’s first navy base, which later grew into the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Weaving through the quiet suburbs of the city, we pass a row of traditional one-storey houses and park the Volvo near to the large central market. A pot-bellied chap standing at the back of a truck rammed full of watermelons, whistles into the street as we go in search of the house where Anton Chekhov spent his childhood years. Chris asks for directions inside a small electrical shop that smells strongly of cannabis and the mellow guy behind the counter kindly points us in the direction of the Chekhov house museum.

The buildings along Chekhov Street have an air of faded grandeur. An old chap wearing a sailor’s cap and a blue and white striped t-shirt exits his house with a scruffy terrier, and an elderly woman wearing a brown dress sits on the steps outside her home and listens to classical music on a small radio. Admiring a statue of the writer in the suitably named Chekhov Square, we reach the gate of a small white house with a green roof that is set back in a well kept tranquil garden. An attractive woman in her mid-fifties called Nina greets us at the front door. She seems ecstatic to learn we are from England. Her daughter studied law in London, but she now lives in Paris. Escorting us around the tiny house, Nina explains Chekhov’s father, Pavel, was raised in extreme poverty in central Russia and lived as a serf; the lowest social class. He later moved to Taganrog and made a living as a merchant, renting this outbuilding for his wife and two children in 1859. A year later in 1860, baby Anton was born. Nina points out Pavel on a family portrait hung on the wall. He is a tall man with a long beard and staring eyes. Pavel ruled his household with an iron fist, and would regularly beat Anton and his brothers and sisters. He worked for a wealthy merchant, but so desperately wanted to be free. It tormented him that he had to rely on other people for his survival.


Chekhov House Museum. Taganrog, Russia. Samosir Books

Pavel experienced financial ruin in the 1870s, which caused him and his wife to leave Taganrog in a hurry to escape debtors’ prison. They stayed with their sons, Nikolay and Alexander, who were attending university in Moscow. Aged only sixteen, Anton was left behind to finish school and sell the family possessions. He lived during this period with a family friend called Selivanov, who Anton is thought to have later drawn inspiration from for the character Lopakhin in ‘The Cherry Orchard’. In the story, Lopakhin had assisted the family financially in return for their house. Anton had to support himself during these difficult years and finance his education. He would catch and sell goldfinches and found work tutoring other students. He also began to write humorous short sketches for newspapers and magazines. Any spare money he had left he would send to Moscow, and he used his talent for writing to cheer up his family with comical letters from Taganrog. Anton discovered a love of books during these years living alone, and eventually wrote one of his own - a dramatic comedy titled ‘Fatherless’. His brother Alexander had allegedly dismissed the story as “an inexcusable though innocent fabrication.” Arching her neatly groomed eyebrows, Nina reveals that Anton also enjoyed a series of love affairs, one with the wife of a teacher.

Thanking Nina for such a brilliant insight into Anton Chekhov’s early life. She confesses that she had not expected English people to be so friendly.
  ‘People from your country are always portrayed in Russian films and on the news as cruel and cold,’ she smiles. ‘Yet you both seem so nice.’
  I explain to her that the same is true with how Russians and people from the former Soviet countries are portrayed in Britain; yet everyone we have met so far, from border officials to shopkeepers, had been helpful and kind. We debate the possibility that this negative portrayal of the two countries is an example of the propaganda that plagues both our societies, and a reflection of the tension that still exists between our governments; not the majority of peaceful individuals who live within invisible borders.
  Keen to be a good ambassador to her much loved town, Nina recommends we visit the harbour where Anton used to watch the merchant ships arrive and set sail.
  ‘Anton loved to travel like you,’ Nina smiles. ‘He would have travelled more if it had not been for his poor health.’

In addition to his career as a writer, Anton was a trained physician and treated patients for free during the cholera epidemic that struck the country during the Russian famine of 1891-1892. The disease had emerged along the Volga River, and spread rapidly as far as the Ural Mountains and the Black Sea. A chain of unfortunate natural events had led to the famine that caused the outbreak, with unfavourable weather conditions leading to an enormous percentage of the yearly seedlings being destroyed. This resulted in a catastrophic harvest. By the end of 1892 approximately half a million people were dead; mostly as a result of the cholera epidemics that had been sparked by the famine. Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, blamed the Tsarist government and the Orthodox Church for the famine, and the church responded in a typically unreasonable manner by excommunicating him and banning peasants from accepting his charity. Chris reveals that the Tsarist government’s poor response to the disaster is believed to have caused the reawakening of Russian Marxism and populism in Russia.


Taganrog Bay. Sea of Azov, Russia. Photo by Simon Raven
Following Nina’s advice we drop by a small urban park that looks down over the port from the top of the cliffs. Below we can see factories and train carriages piled high with coal. A large ship in the harbour looks ready to set sail. Weaving down a steep coastal road, we stumble across a small beach. Two old men wade through the shallow green water of the Taganrog Bay in their underpants and enjoy an evening swim. I inhale a deep breath as I scan the horizon in the direction of the Kerch strait that opens into the Black Sea. Anton Chekhov had been left to fend for himself in Taganrog from a young age. He had been raised in a port town that he was unable to leave, where many thousands of years before Greek merchants had traded with the nomadic horse bowmen who once occupied this region of the Black Sea. Anton had been fed a diet of Greek literature and philosophy on the Sea of Azov, and it had equipped him to write great stories that continue to inspire us to the present day.


BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
by Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

USA Amazon: Read Black Sea Circuit >

UK Amazon: Read Black Sea Circuit >

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