Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island

Robert Fulford: Chekhov at 150 and the Russian writer’s longest road
Robert Fulford, National Post   Published: Monday, March 22, 2010

“I have seen Ceylon, which is paradise, and Sakhalin, which is  hell," said Chekhov of his trip in 1890. “I have seen Ceylon, which is paradise, and Sakhalin, which is hell,” said Chekhov of his trip in 1890.

In 1890 Anton Chekhov, a promising 30-year-old writer, set out across Siberia to a remote prison island, Sakhalin, which was much closer to Japan than to Chekhov’s home in Moscow. In the days before the Trans-Siberian Railway, reaching Sakhalin required an epic journey of two and a half months. At that point no one understood that the 20th century would make Chekhov the world’s most influential writer of short fiction as well as the most enduring of modern playwrights. Still, Sakhalin was a surprising interruption in what was already a burgeoning career.

Anyone who reads about Chekhov encounters a reference to Sakhalin. I’ve run into it dozens of times and have often wondered what it meant to him. Recently I decided to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth by finally reading his book, Sakhalin Island (Oneworld Classics paperback, 2007) in the translation by Brian Reeve, with detailed notes and Chekhov letters connected to Sakhalin.

His account demonstrates Chekhov’s characteristic intelligence and sympathy, but there are good reasons why biographers pay little attention to this trip. It didn’t directly affect his writing, except for one story, The Murder. No Chekhov plays are set in a prison colony. It’s never been clear why he went there. Was he anxious to forget the audience that had rejected his second play, The Wood Demon? Was he tired of Moscow’s politicized literary scene? Was he trying to forget a failed love affair? Was he fighting boredom (a serious affliction for him) by choosing a new and risky experience? Or did he imagine Sakhalin as a bracing antidote to a superficial view of humanity? Was he, as I suspect, afraid that his professional life as a writer was endangering his sense of reality?

For the sake of his health, he should not have gone. Though he denied it, he had developed the tuberculosis that would kill him, at the age of 44. As early as 1884 he developed a dry cough and began spitting blood. As a doctor he must have guessed what this meant. During the 1880s there were many nights of violent coughing. The death of his brother from TB in 1889 was surely a warning.

What Chekhov needed was rest in a warm climate. Instead he sentenced himself to the hard labour of a long trek by horseback, horse-drawn carriage, river steamer and on foot. In the first phase of the journey he endured terrifying cold, day and night. With many rivers flooded he often had to travel through turbulent water in unreliable boats. In the next phase, the enemy was mud. Often, after his carriage stuck, he had to get out and walk for hours, every footstep laborious.

Finally his path led through a region of forest fires. Smoke filled the air, depositing layers of ash in his lungs.

Once on Sakhalin, he set to work making a census, which provided his excuse for meeting the prisoners and guards. He was interested in the Russian system of internal exile, which many considered progressive and humane.

Prisoners, after serving some of their sentences in jail, were allowed to live in private houses within Siberia. Some convicts, finally granted most rights of citizens, were still banned forever from returning to European Russia, the civilized core of the empire.

While in jail prisoners wore leg irons. On his first morning on Sakhalin, Chekhov awoke to “the rhythmical clanking of prisoners in iron passing down the street.” He soon began to despise the theory that the exile system encouraged rehabilitation: “Sakhalin is a place of the most unbearable suffering that can befall a man, free or shackled. It’s clear that we have let millions of people rot in prisons. Our country has forced people to walk in fetters in the cold for thousands of miles, infected them with syphilis, and dumped them all into the hands of red-nosed prison wardens.”

Chekhov learned that, while jail time was hard, release into a dubious independence was harder. The authorities gave prisoners sections of swampland covered in trees, instructing them to make this land arable. Each prisoner was equipped with only an axe, a saw and a spade.

They cut down some of the forest and dug ditches to drain the swamps. While they did this they lived in tents. It rained most days and was seldom warm. “During a period of several weeks, a person will not be able to shake off for one single minute the sensation of piercing damp and feverishness.” Headaches and rheumatic pains through the body were symptoms of this “Sakhalin fever,” Chekhov wrote. Many gave up in despair. Some tried to run away, were captured and returned to jail and their leg irons.

Russia attempted to following the Australian example of colonization by felon. But under the Czar nothing similar could be accomplished, since Russia’s exiles had no control over their lives and therefore no desire to create a workable community. Sakhalin was a failure.

Many of the male convicts had wives and children. Women sometimes followed their husbands to the penal colony; in other cases male and female convicts married. Chekhov noticed that the arrival of a child was never greeted as a sign of hope. Everyone assumed that there wouldn’t be enough food. “All the same,” Chekhov decided, “the most useful, the most necessary and the most delightful people on Sakhalin are the children.”

The exiles understood this, at some level. “They inject an element of tenderness, purity, gentleness and joy.” Only the children could save the exiled men and women from despair by keeping them attached to life.

On Sakhalin Chekhov watched floggings, learned about wardens embezzling the food of helpless prisoners and noticed that many of the women prisoners were forced into prostitution. The educated professionals drank vodka all day long. “There were times”, he wrote, when “I felt that I saw before me the extreme limits of man’s degradation.” His survey done, Chekhov made his way home via Singapore and Ceylon. When it was over he said that “I have seen Ceylon, which is paradise, and Sakhalin, which is hell.” Sakhalin had taught this chronicler of human yearning, evasion and disappointment how badly people could, given the chance, treat each other. It was probably the costliest and most painful part of a great writer’s education. more>>

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