November 8, 2017

Under the Influence: In Russia With Chekhov Looking Toward America

By Stuart Mitchner

With Russian hacking, Russian interference, and the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution dominating the news, it’s a time to look at another, less insidious side of the U.S.-Russia dynamic. If you extend the possibilities inherent in “hacking” and tweak “interference” as “influence,” then anyone in this or any other country who has been susceptible to the work of Russian writers, artists, and composers has been “hacked.” At 18, I was drunk on the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and the symphonies of Shostakovich, fascinated, thrilled, exalted, under the influence. A lifetime later one of my most trusted sources of positive influence is a Russian whose work was of little interest to me then. In 1975, when Shostakovich was dying, he asked his wife to read him a story by Chekhov. Written in 1890 and titled “Gusev” after the peasant protagonist, it’s a great novel in 20 pages. For concentrated power, human poetry, and sheer breadth of vision, Chekhov’s story is the equal of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, transcending the earth-shaking events of 1905 and 1917 and such matters as the current problematic state of affairs between Russia and America. It was also one of over a hundred Chekhov stories that saw me through 2016, the year in which Russian “interference” apparently helped bring about an ongoing political catastrophe.

Kennan and Svetlana

In fact, our first decade as Princeton residents has a Russian theme, first sounded when a Patton Avenue neighbor invited me over one day to meet Stalin’s daughter Svetlana and her feisty six-year-old Olga. Four years later we moved into a garage apartment behind former ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan, who played a key role in helping Svetlana settle in the Princeton area. Before taking residence at 146-A Hodge Road, we were vetted by Kennan’s son, Christopher, who at age two was playing near the gated front of the embassy residence when some Soviet children came along “smiled at him and gave him a friendly poke through the bars,” at which he “squealed with pleasure and poked back.” According to Kennan’s Memoirs 1950-1963, the back and forth continued until “the guardians at the main gate” saw what was going on and “shooed the Soviet children sternly away.” It was this “small incident” that made Kennan finally lose the patience he’d struggled to observe “in the face of this entire vicious, timid, mediaeval regime of isolation to which the official foreigner in Moscow was still subjected.”

It seems downright Chekhovian that a state-mandated interference with children at play should have a decisive impact on the American ambassador’s becoming Persona Non Grata in the Soviet Union. As I found in one of my first conversations with our illustrious landlord, Chekhov was not only a hero of his but the subject of an unwritten biography. In Memoirs 1925-1950, Kennan refers to a period “of preparation” that led him through “all thirty volumes of Chekhov’s work, plus six fat volumes of his inimitable letters.” Kennan points out that there could have been “no finer grounding in the atmosphere of prerevolutionary Russia than this great body of Chekhoviana, unparalleled as it was in perceptiveness, vividness, objectivity, and artistic feeling.”

The Coast of America

After my own year-long journey through Chekhov’s fiction, I took up his only full-length work of non-fiction, The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin (Washington Square Press), which describes his trek across Siberia and the Tatar Strait to study conditions in the tsarist penal colonies on Sakhalin, a large island in the North Pacific just off the east coast of Russia. The only way Chekhov could obtain official approval of his mission was to describe himself as a census taker, which explains the inclusion of statistics on the ratio of women to men, convicts to settlers, the birth rates, number of female convicts, proportion who become prostitutes, the dispersing of data seasoned with compassion (“the love element plays a fateful part in their sorrowful existence”).

Since the journalist necessarily takes precedence over the writer in The Island, the master’s touches, when they come, are striking. In one moment that seems hauntingly evocative of a primal Russian-American connection, Chekhov is staring at the sea, which “looks cold and troubled. It seethes with fury, and the high gray waves smash down on the sand as though shouting in despair, ‘God, why did you create us?’”

The explosive allusion to God concludes a paragraph that begins with reference to the myth of a beautiful woman. The paragraph that follows takes force from the break between the fury of the waves and the next sentence: “This is the Pacific Ocean … and far away lies the coast of America.”

A friend had actually wired Chekhov to return to Moscow “via America,” an idea he apparently took seriously but gave up because of the expense. Or perhaps it had something to do with what he’s feeling in the moment, his sense of the vast space between him and far away America that leaves him feeling bleak and lonely: “To the left through the fog you can see the headlands of Sakhalin, to the right more cliffs … and not a single living soul around you.” Then his thoughts take another turn: “You ask yourself for whom do these waves roar, who hears them during the night, what are they calling for, and for whom will they roar when you have gone away. Here on these coasts you are gripped not by thoughts but by meditations. It is terrible, but at the same time I want to stand there forever and gaze at the monotonous waves and listen to their thunderous roar.”

If He Had Lived

In 1890, the year he went to Sakhalin, Chekhov was 30. He died in 1904. In 1914 his friend Maxim Gorky declared that had Chekhov “not died ten years ago the war would certainly have killed him, having first poisoned him with hatred towards mankind.”

In all that I’ve read by and about Chekhov, stories, plays, short novels, letters, reminiscences of friends, there’s nothing to suggest that war or anything else could ever make him hate mankind. Gorky himself offers numerous instances of Chekhov’s abiding humanity. After speaking with great warmth about the mistreatment of school teachers “who walk in rags, shiver with cold in damp and draughty schools,” Chekhov becomes “silent, thinking, and then, waving his hand,” he says “gently”: “This Russia of ours is such an absurd, clumsy country.” In Gorky’s account of a conversation between Tolstoy and and an ailing Chekov, Tolstoy is rhapsodizing on one of Chekhov’s stories, comparing it to “the lacework” of young girls “dreaming in designs of all that was dear to them,” weaving “all their pure uncertain love into their lace.” According to Gorky, “Tolstoy spoke with great agitation, his eyes full of tears. It happened that that very day Chekhov’s temperature had gone up and he was sitting there with a high flush on his cheeks, his head bowed, carefully wiping the glasses of his spectacles. He was silent for a long time, then he sighed deeply and said in a low, bashful voice: ‘There are many misprints in it.’”

Aware that he’s given the anecdote a Chekhovian turn, Gorky adds, “A lot could be written abut Chekhov, but it would have to be done in a fine and subtle way which I do not possess. It would be well to write about him in the same manner as he himself wrote The Steppe, a tale with a peculiar atmosphere, so light and so pensively sad in a Russian way. A tale — just for oneself.”

While the phrase “just for oneself” subtly expresses how it is to read Chekhov, I wonder at Gorky’s use of the word “light” in regard to The Steppe, a Russian epic that movingly illustrates George Kennan’s theory that “this great body of Chekhoviana,” with its vast, many-faceted panorama of the human condition, illumines and presages the forces that gave birth to the Soviet Union.

Getting to the Point

As Robert Payne’s introduction to The Island makes clear, the journey to Sakhalin and the arduous months Chekhov spent there almost certainly contributed to “his premature death.” You ask yourself why Chekhov, himself a physician, would risk his already compromised health to study life in one the most remote districts of Russia. In a letter from March 1890 to a friend who tried to talk him out of it, he makes his case in terms that leave no doubt about his feelings for mankind. At first he pretends to see the task as a remedy against his “Ukrainian laziness,” suggesting that the journey would “yield at least two or three days that I shall remember all my life, with rapture or with bitterness.” Then he gets passionately to the point, that Russia has exiled “thousands of people there,” that besides being the only place where you can study colonization by convicts, Sakhalin is the site of “unbearable sufferings, such as only human beings, free or bond, can endure… it is clear that we have let millions of people rot in prison, destroying them carelessly, thoughtlessly, barbarously; we drove people in chains through the cold across thousands of miles, infected them with syphilis, depraved them, multiplied criminals,” and then placed the blame on prison wardens when “all civilized Europe knows now that it is not the wardens who are to blame, but all of us, yet this is no concern of ours, we are not interested.” Finally, characteristically, he says “the only thing to be regretted is that I am the one to go there and not someone else who is better equipped for the task.”

The Language of Men

Surely among the “moments of rapture” Chekhov will remember all his life is when he’s gazing at the waves and thinking of far away America. In “Gusev,” the story Shostakovich’s wife read to him when he was dying, there are intimations of that moment as two dying men stand in the prow of a hospital ship, peering at the sea “that has neither sense nor pity” — “Tall waves are making an uproar for no reason. Each one of them as you look at it is trying to rise higher than all the rest and to chase and crush its neighbor; it is thunderously attacked by a third wave that has a gleaming white mane and is just as ferocious and ugly.”

In the story’s closing sentence, after Gusev’s body is sewn up in sailcloth and tossed overboard, the ocean “takes on tender, joyous, passionate colors for which it is hard to find a name in the language of men.”