by Julia BALABANOVA, department head, Department of Development, Information Technologies and Public Relations; Chekhov Memorial Museum at Melikhovo, Moscow Region, Russia
The Melikhovo memorial estate of the great Russian story writer Anton Chekhov is among this country's foremost museums. For seven years, from 1892 to 1899, Chekhov lived there together with his next of kin. It is here, at Melikhovo, that he created over forty world-famous masterpieces of his, such as the long and short stories Ward Six, Rothschild's Violin, The Women's Kingdom, The Student, The Black Monk, The Muzhiks, lonych, About Love, Anna on the Neck, Three Years, The House with a Mezzanine as well as the plays The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. The Chekhov memorial museum, dedicated back in the 1940s, has over 25 thousand items in its stock. Our guests can see for themselves what Melikhovo looked like when its host was there and, what is most important, what Anton Chekhov was like in those years.
THE MELIKHOVO ESTATE PURCHASED
"I am awfully fond of what we in Russia call an imenie (country estate). This word has not lost its poetic flavor yet," Anton Chekhov wrote in October 1885 to Nikolai Leikin, the publisher of the fun magazine Oskolki (Fragments). Seven years after that he purchased a small estate at Melikhovo, twelve versts (about 8 miles) away from the railway station Lopasnya south of Moscow. So it did not happen by chance—the writer had a longtime dream of moving out of town, over to the countryside. Besides, he needed a bit of fresh air to recover after a long journey to Sakhalin in the Far East that harmed his health. Upon his return from that journey, Chekhov said in one of his letters, "If I am a physician, I want patients and a hospital; if I am a man of letters, I must live amongst people, but not on Malaya Dmitrovka [a street in inner Moscow], together with a mongoose... I need just a bit of public and political life, while life indoors within four walls without nature, without people, without homeland, without health and good appetite, this is no life at all." There were other reasons, too, that prompted Chekhov to buy a country estate, namely the hurly-burly of life in Moscow and the high cost of living there. His family and even acquaintances searched high and low for a proper place. At first there were plans to buy a farmstead in the Ukraine, but the deal failed to come off, much to Chekhov's regret. Then they started looking up in newspaper ads, and finally agreed on Melikhovo, for its manor was a combination mansion and country house. Once the estate belonged to the local gentry who had the manor built in a formal classical style. The next owner, decoration artist Nikolai Sorokhtin, added an ingenious terrace to the eastern façade of the manorial house and had it adorned with arched stained glass windows. That added more to the country look of the house.
Chekhov, touring Russia's famine-stricken provinces, was unable to visit Melikhovo then. Therefore he asked his sister, Maria, and younger brother, Mikhail, to go there to take a look. The writer was dead set to buy a countryside estate as soon as possible or, he threatened, he would leave abroad. So they had to hurry. Once at Melikhovo, Maria and Mikhail saw all of its structures painted in bright, fresh colors. The roofs were painted green and red, and against a backdrop of white snow (for winter it was) the estate made a good impression. The Chekhovs did not
procrastinate with its purchasing, and in the winter of 1892 Anton became Melikhovo's owner. His near and dear ones moved thither on March 1, 1892, and he, on the fourth of the same months.
This event opened a new page in the family chronicle. For Anton Chekhov in particular. As tenants of sundry Moscow flats, often uncomfortable and dreary, his next of kin (Pavel Yegorovich, the father, Yevgenia Yakovlevna, the mother, sister Maria) found a safe refuge at long last after their longtime wanderings.
Renovation work on the estate grounds moved into full swing the same spring. The new owners pulled down or rebuilt whatever they did not like. Anton Chekhov was most active in all that. He had a well dug next to the manor, to be followed by an outhouse kitchen, servants' quarters and farmyard fenced off, in the Ukrainian style, with a wattle hurdle. There came a bathhouse, a threshing barn and a stable.
Anton Chekhov's motto was: Go ahead and plant, build, create and grow, as his sister Maria recalled. She took care of the kitchen garden and orchard, while Anton busied himself with the trees-he planted saplings and tended them. Chekhov senior, the father, cleared the paths and laid out new ones (he made daily entries in his diary about progress made, this diary is at the Central Archives of Literature and Arts in Moscow). Egg-plants and artichokes grew in the kitchen garden, and there was also a gaggle of goslings in the yard. Two lovely dachshund puppies were sent in from St. Petersburg, Henna (the sandy one), and Bromide (the blacky), both became the writer's pets.
Anton Chekhov showed interest in everything. He got up at four or five in the morning and, after a cup of coffee, stolled out into the orchard and inspected every fruit tree and bush. He clipped twigs or else squatted next to some tree trunk, watching. Chekhov planted 60 cherry-trees and 80 apple-trees with his own hands, and he tended roses and tulips, the flower plants he loved best of all. Being a passionate angler, he let out crucians and tenches into a small pond near the house. He ordered to dig a new large pond and had young trees planted round it. In three months or so the estate changed beyond recognition—it had a herd of cattle and a field farm where work proceeded by the book. Summing up his experiences, Anton Chekhov wrote to his friend, the publisher Alexei Suvorin on October 10, 1892, "Thanks to our Kulturtraeger effort Melikhovo is now out of recognition to us, and looks most comfortable and beautiful."
Chekhov was well known at Melikhovo and all over the district as a good physician, patron of public schools and a juryman of the Serpukhov district. In good touch with local peasants, he attended their local assemblies at which public affairs were negotiated. He never turned down numerous requests: he let the country folk widen the cattle road at the expense of his land and abolished rents for cattle drivers; he gave away some of his land for good. He allowed to mow grass and make hay in his forest. He gave money for digging a large pond and building a fire depot in the village. And he did not spare himself as a medical doctor either, much in demand as he was among his neighbors*.
"From the first days as we settled in Melikhovo, everybody got wind that Anton Pavlovich was a physician," his
* See: M. Saprykina, "Medicine, My Lawful Wife", in this issue of our magazine.—Ed.
younger brother Mikhail and his first biographer, recalled. "People came and went, they brought in patients in carts and waggons, or took the writer to the sick. From the early morning wenches stood at his home, and kids were there waiting for medical assistance. He came out, tapped and sounded, and let no one go without medicine."
His coming to Melikhovo concurred with a cholera epidemic that had spread from the south to heartland Russia. Anton Chekhov helped local folks combat this plague: he spent his own money for equipping the Melikhovo emergency room, he rented a home for an out-patients clinic and had it supplied with the necessary facilities, and obtained permission to invite a female medical assistant. The precinct in his care, and those were twenty-five villages, had not a single cholera case.
Chekhov was also actively involved in public affairs. Thus, he insisted that a post office should be opened at Lopasnya (the town of Chekhov today, where the Chekhov Letters Museum had been opened). It was inaugurated in due course on the first of January 1896. He asked his friends to buy postage stamps for the post office. Chekhov made a casual mention of that in his letter to Alexander Kiselev, an acquaintance of his. "A post office has been opened since we came here; a bridge has been built across the river, and fast trains are now stopping here. Next spring work is to begin on the highway." It was a road between the railway station of Lopasnya and Melikhovo. The local administration (zemstvo, or the public council) had trouble shelling out for the project. Chekhov had an awful lot of work to do to push it through. Even on leaving Melikhovo for Yalta in the Crimea (1899), Chekhov continued to show great concern about that road.
Chekhov displayed great interest in the All-Russia census of 1897 and volunteered as a census taker. To the end of his days he kept a briefcase with the census sheets filled in on his rounds of the peasant izbas.
CONSTRUCTION OF SCHOOLS
"It would be nice for each of us to build a school, a well, or something of the kind to be remembered by, and not let our life vanish into eternity without a trace," Chekhov jotted down in his notebook. Indeed, while at Melikhovo, he devoted nearly five years to school construction—he made personal solicitations with the zemstvo authorities, drew plans, purchased building materials, and hired workmen. He had three schools built; the first one was in the community of Talezh, of which he was appointed a warden on November 19, 1894. "Next spring 1 shall be building a new school in the village where I am a warden; I should make a plan and estimates beforehand, go here and there, and so forth," Chekhov wrote to the publisher Alexei Suvorin on October 20, 1895. He felt he had to attend personally to the job at had. That is why he looked into many plans and drawings of schools to be built in the Serpukhov district. A
perfectionist by nature, Chekhov wanted school buildings to be ideal in all. Local zemstvo activists, and good acquaintances of his, helped him thereby. For one, his neighbor Prince Shakhovskoy (grandson of Feodor Shakhovskoy, one of the Decembrists, army officers who took part in the uprising of December 1825), and Ivan Vitte, a practicing surgeon. Chekhov devoted a lot of time to this undertaking-throughout 1896 he often mentioned in his letters about the goings-on.
Being in poor health, Anton Chekhov had to spend the winter months of 1897 in Nice, France. But he never stopped thinking about the carryings-on in his Melikhovo estate. He asked his sister Maria, "Find out how many boys and girls are there at the Talezh school and consult Vanya [Vanya—Ivan Chekhov, his brother who taught school in Moscow; he helped Anton Pavlovich in the selection of teaching aids, textbooks, manuals]; buy Xmas gifts for them. Felt boots for the poorest... And something more striking for the girls."
Guests to the Chekhov memorial museum can see a Certificate of Merit awarded to Ivan Stopkin, a pupil of the Talezh public school; the certificate was signed by Anton Chekhov as the school's warden. Incidentally, Chekhov tried to attend all school examinations... Yet another relic-a book from the school library turned over to the museum by the Bochkov sisters who taught at the Talezh school: a collection of poems by Spiridon Drozhzhin (1848-1930); its title page bears an autograph, 'Anton Chekhov".
Anton Pavlovich had another school built, it was in the village of Novoselki. His sister Maria Pavlovna, greatly concerned about her brother's affairs and actively involved in them, recalled that in 1897 a peasants' deputation came to Chekhov with the request to help build a school for them. In March of the same year his condition suddenly changed for the worse, there came episodes of blood-spitting; only his relatives and close friends were admitted to him at the Ostroumov hospital where he was confined at the time. He insisted that Nikolai Zabavin, a schoolmaster from Novoselki, should be let in without fail. Anton Pavlovich kept in touch with him all the time, he feared the school would not be ready by the beginning of the school year on the first of September because of his lingering illness. The individual and group contributors who donated funds for the construction of that school were the Serpukhov Assembly of Dramatic Art Connoisseurs (that brought together such local zemstvo activists as the Serikov brothers, artist Sergei Tipikin, stage director Roman Tikhomirov): together with Chekhov's friends-authoress Yelena Shavrova and her sister Yelena Darska-ya—they staged two little comedies to raise the money. The billboard carried this advertisement: "For the Serpukhovo zemstvo school in the village of Novoselki." The school was consecrated on the 13th of July 1897.
The third school, in the community of Melikhovo proper, was completed in 1899. The year before Chekhov rented an izba home to house it for the time being and shouldered the cares involved in its construction and opening. Again, his sister Maria stood at his side as a good helpmeet. Infected by her brother's doings, she desired to build yet another school on her own. She came up with the idea to raffle off three studies by Isaac Levitan*, and
* See: O. Bazanova, "Russia Alone Can Beget a True Landscape Painter", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2008.-Ed.
the proceeds thus gained went into that project. Melikhovo garden apples were sold for the same purpose as well.
Chekhov saw to it that the school furniture was good and comfortable, and so he placed an order of furniture pieces to the designs sketched by Professor Erisman, a hygiene expert. Adequate books and manuals were likewise provided for. Some are among the museum's exhibits (those found in the attic of the Melikhovo school).
A "magic lantern", or an early kind or projector for showing slides on a screen or wall, is a special chapter. This photocamera-like object with a bent tube stood on the teacher's desk. It flashed "live pictures", a thrilling event for school kids. On such occasions the classroom windows were shut off with curtains, and a white sheet pulled across the wall. A small kerosene lamp was placed into the aperture back of the lantern, and here they came, the magic pictures. The children, who had not ever been to anyplace but their native village, were carried into other lands, they plunged into seas and oceans, visited big cities, saw queer animals and learned about various physical phenomena. Few schools could afford a wonder like that, and the magic lantern was passed on from one school to another.
In 1899 the Chekhovs left Melikhovo for good and moved to Yalta in the Crimea that became their domicile. Nevertheless their interest in the affairs of the schools they had built did not slacken. Maria Pavlovna continued as the Melikhovo school warden up until the year 1918.
Several generations of children finished the Chekhov-built schools. Unfortunately the Talezh school did not survive: in 1934 it was taken apart, its logs were used for building a firehouse at Lopasnya. but the two other schools are still there, they are now part of the memorial exposition. A typical class of a zemstvo school and lodgings of a country schoolmistress have been reproduced anew within the Melikhovo school. After major renovation, a new exhibition, "In the World of Chekhov Heroes", was opened in the Novoselki school.
"EXPECT SWARMS OF GUESTS"
While in Melikhovo, Chekhov played host to many guests. He was often visited by playwright Ignaty Pota-penko, translator and authoress Tatyana Shchepkina-Kupernik, artist Isaac Levitan, reporter and prose writer Vladimir Gilyarovsky, stage director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, and other eminent persons. Jules Legras, a French scholar and novelist who lectured at Bordeaux University, often came to Melikhovo. He became one of the first translators of Chekhov into French. In his book Au pays russe (In the Land of Russia) published in Paris in 1895 he described his first meeting with Chekhov in 1892.
The Chekhov home in Melikhovo was always full of joy and music. There was a lot of merry-making. The guests talked about the arts and music. As one of the guests, Ignaty Potapenko, recalled: "Our days were filled with music and singing. Lydia Stakhievna Mizinova, a good musician and a great friend of Anton Pavlovich and all his family, was at the grand piano, singing. Anton Pavlovich would ask her to do pieces he liked best of all. Chekhov was fond of Glinka's romances, piano pieces by Liszt, Chopin, Grieg, Beethoven... But Tchaikovsky was especially dear to him—the desk in Chekhov's study had
a photograph of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, inscribed "For A.P. Chekhov from the ardent admirer. P. Tchaikovsky. 14 Oct. 89."
"It so happened that during a lively talk or music Anton Pavlovich went out all of a sudden, but not for long, he was back in a few minutes, coming out of his study, where he had just put down two or three lines that composed themselves in his head," Potapenkowenton. "He did that rather often in the course of the day. Evenings, at about midnight, as the party broke, and everybody left for their rooms, and the lights were off, the lamp burned on in his study."
Now and then too many guests came to stay in the Melikhovo house, and there were problems of accommodating them. The hosts decided therefore to build a small outhouse for the purpose. "My outhouse has turned out small, but it is wonderful," wrote Chekhov on June 26, 1894, to Alexei Suvorin. "The carpenters took just 125 roubles for the work, and made a toy of it that could have claimed as much as 500 roubles if bargained off." Mikhail, the writer's younger brother, said: "It was a small home of two tiny rooms, one of which could hardly take in a bed, and the other, a writing table. At first this little outhouse was meant for guests only, but then Anton
Pavlovich moved in, and he wrote his Seagull there. This outhouse was built amidst berry bushes, and one had to pass through the apple-tree orchard to get in. It was pleasant to stay within this hideaway in spring, when the cherry- and apple-trees were out in blossom; but it was snow-driven all over in winter, one had to dig through deep trenches to man's height..." Chekhov, very fond of this retreat, moved into it for solitude, where none of the many guests could disturb him. His heroes came alive under his pen during long autumn nights. Burning the midnight oil, Chekhov stayed late. Next came the daily routine: sick peasants, calls to patients in neighboring villages. In the warm season Chekhov received patients in the anteroom of the outhouse. A red flag was flown from the balcony of the little house—it meant Anton Pavlovich was in, all set to receive patients.
The outhouse still carries a memorial plaque, "My home where The Seagull was written." These words were addressed to Olga Knipper (1868-1959), an actress of the Moscow Art Theater, whose acting quite overwhelmed Chekhov. He married her in 1901. Chekhov was staggered as he saw her in Czarine Irina's role in Alexei Tolstoy's play Czar Fyodor Ioannovich. A few days after, Chekhov went to Yalta, for the winter season, and he penned these
lines to his friend Alexei Suvorin: "By the way, before my departure I attended the rehearsal of Fyodor Ioannovich. I was pleasantly touched by the intelligent tone, genuine art wafted in from the stage, though no great talents were acting. Irina looked grand to me. Her voice, nobleness, candor—so good as to get my throat itchy... Had I been in Moscow, I would have fallen in love with Irina." Chekhov did not forget the gifted actress.
Back from the Crimea, he invited her to Melikhovo—he sent her a photograph of his hideout, and wrote on the reverse side, "My home where The Seagull was written. To Olga Leonardovna Knipper to remember me by." Olga Knipper liked the estate, and she long remembered her stay there. "I spent three wondrous sunny spring days in Melikhovo, a small estate of the Chekhovs near Serpukhov... Anton Pavlovich, so joyous, so merry... He showed me around his 'domain': the pond with crucians—he was so proud of them, a passionate angler that he was; the orchard, the flower-beds... I was absolutely captivated— by the manor and the outhouse where The Seagull was written, by the orcard, the pond and the blooming trees and the calves and the ducks and the country schoolmistress strolling with the schoolmaster down the garden path." Olga Knipper-Chekhova visited Melikhovo again in 1958 as a long-awaited guest of honor. It was then that she presented the museum with the photo autographed by Anton Pavlovich.
At the time of her first visit the Chekhovs were getting ready to move to Yalta. The estate would soon be on sale: some belongings would go to the new home in Yalta, and others—to the Moscow lodgings of Anton's brothers; Chekhov would make a gift of his writing-table, armchairs and bookcase to the Melikhovo school.
MELIKHOVO: YESTERDAY AND TODAY
Unfortunately life did not spare the Melikhovo estate in the aftermath of the October Revolution of 1917: in the late 1920s the cozy and hospitable manor fell into disrepair and was pulled down. The whole estate was a dismal sight, the abomination of desolation. By sheer miracle the little outhouse alone survived the ravages of time, and it was destined to become the first Chekhov museum in Melikhovo conducting guided tours. In 1939 came an official decision to set up a larger Chekhov museum as part of the Serpukhov local history museum. In 1944 it was opened to visitors. Pyotr Solovyov, posted there together with Ivan Basov, an artist, became its first superintendent. As major restoration works got underway, Solovyov asked Chekhov's sister, Maria Pavlovna, for assistance. In her letter she made a detailed description of the house and its premises, and sketched the building. In the meantime Solovyov started making rounds of the neighboring districts in search of Chekhov memorabilia. He interviewed peasants who still remembered Anton Pavlovich.
All through the 1940s the Serpukhov natural history museum replenished its stock with documents, books and other items for their subsequent exhibition at Melikhovo. A lithograph of Anton Pavlovich painted by Sergei Khorin (the artist depicted the writer's suit and hair by means of chunks of texts from his works) became the first exhibit obtained in a second-hand bookshop in Moscow for Melikhovo. The central library of Serpukhov donated three books published in Chekhov's lifetime: Short Stories, Motley Stories and Kashtanka supplied with autographs. It also contributed the issues of the Severny vest-nik (Northern Herald) magazine that carried the first publications of the works A Boring Story and The Name Day. Artist Maria Drozdova, who was friendly with the Chekhovs, gave her sketches, too. Six letters that Anton Chekhov wrote to Vladimir Glukhovskoy, a veterinary doctor, in 1896 were the most significant acquisition of that period. These letters came from Nikolai Bolotnikov, a Serpukhov resident, who in his turn received them as a gift from Glukhovskoy's son. The Serpukhov museum collected many other items for Melikhovo as well.
Solovyov also appealed for assistance to the Moscow-based State Literary Museum where two experts, Claudia
Vinogradova and Olga Kudryavtseva, outlined the plan of the theme exhibition, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. The Melikhovo outhouse had been renovated by the beginning of 1941. The former refectory was likewise turned over to the newly established museum.
The Chekhov branch of the Serpukhov museum of local history was inaugurated at Melikhovo on January 29, 1941. There were plans to go on with the work of collecting and itemizing further materials for Melikhovo. But the war outbreak in the summer of 1941 interfered with these plans. Only toward the close of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 could the resumption of the Melikhovo museum's work be on the agenda again. Its status of a museum branch was no longer adequate, it had to be elevated: Melikhovo was to become a Chekhov museum in its own right. A great amount of work had to be done toward this end: restore the manor, enlist skilled personnel capable of reproducing the Chekhov estate as it was, in its original aspect and atmosphere.
The stock of the Melikhovo museum numbers more than 25 thousand items. Among the most precious ones are 35 Chekhov's autographs, 270 photographs of the writer, his family and friends as well 200 lifetime publications, 200 family memorabilia, 400 rare books dated from the 18th and 19th centuries... Pictorial materials are well represented, too: 70 canvases by Isaac Levitan, Vassily Polenov, Emmanuel Braz, landscapes by Alexei Stepanov and Prokofy Seregin. Our collection also includes pictures and drawings by Chekhov's sister Maria and brother Nikolai.
Our guests can see the manorial house built anew, the outhouse where Chekhov wrote The Seagull, the school put up at Chekhov's initiative and the new exposition, Doctor Chekhov's Surgery. Our guests can stroll down the "Lane of Love" which still keeps the memory of the author's footsteps, and sit in the shade of the fragrant memorial garden. They can take a walk around the pond and enjoy the sight of the kitchen garden, dubbed A Piece of France.
The Melikhovo museum now has two divisions in the town of Chekhov, and these are the Museum of Chekhov's Letters, and the estate Lopasnya-Zachatyevskoye (the former estate owned by the Vasilchikovs, Lanskoys, Pushkins and Goncharovs; the manor is still there, along with an old park with a string of cascading ponds; next to the Church of St. Anna's Conception (Zachatye) is a necropolis, the resting place of Alexander Pushkin's offspring). Staying in Melikhovo, Anton Pavlovich corresponded with about four hundred people, and he wrote over two thousand letters, most of them mailed through the Lopasnya post office. These letters have been retrieved and added to our stock. The post and telegraph office now looks the way it was under Anton Chekhov. The lodgings of the postmaster and his family in the same building now feature a display, A Living Letter, on Chekhov's epistolary heritage.
Pictures supplied by the author
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