I’ve never been one for pilgrimages, or trips organized around a certain goal, or travelling for the sake of getting somewhere; I’ve always been, rather, something of a drifter, choosing my restaurants and lodgings and sometimes even villages or islands on a whim, an instinct, a desire to flee the crowds and insinuate myself into a landscape not as a tourist, but as a visitor or traveller.
For the first time in many years at the end of May 2010 I broke my own self-imposed travel formula by joining a tour of Crimea that focused on the life of Anton Chekhov and the years he spent in Yalta and its surroundings, led by a congenial Chekhov scholar and followed by an equally congenial mixture of people of all ages and backgrounds who had one thing in common: a love of Chekhov’s work and a curiosity about the world he lived in, some of which, we discovered, is still very much alive in its way. The tour came about as part of a campaign to save Chekhov’s “White Dacha” in Yalta, where he lived the last years of his life, and which has been suffering from a severe lack of funding since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Yalta Chekhov Campaign, based in Great Britain with both Chekhov scholars and admirers and theatre people behind it, is raising funds for vital repair and maintenance on the Dacha. (My fellow participants from the tour know who they are and I won’t go into a lengthy description of this part of the trip here but, rather, also provide other readers with the link to the excellent agency in Britain that organized the tour and encourage anyone who’s interested to write and inquire about subsequent tours) What I did promise however to my fellow travellers was a description of the trip that I went on after I left them, where I journeyed by rail overnight across nearly all of Ukraine from the south due north to the town of Sumy, where Chekhov spent two summers as a young man, before he became the famous playwright we all know from the portraits with his pince-nez.
My interest in the Sumy summers came from Chekhov’s own descriptions in his letters. He was twenty-eight years old, unmarried, with a family who were both a great support and a considerable burden:Â the best way to please everyone and stay cool, literally, was to get out of Moscow for the summer and rent a dacha on a country estate. The estate was Luka, a few miles outside of Sumy; in those days Ukraine was part of the Russian empire and this was a lush, verdant landscape of gentle hills and winding rivers The family who owned the estate were the Lintvaryovs: mother, three daughters, two sons. The two families became instant friends and their own friends and acquaintances drifted in and out of the main house or the dacha as the summers progressed; there was fishing and swimming, music and recitals, not to mention conversation There were dramas, including a birth, a marriage, a death, and not a few affairs of the heart. Chekhov describes his time there better than anyone else could; my own interest is in the Lintvaryov family and their interaction with their soon-to-be-famous summer guest. I wanted to see as in Yalta what was still alive of that time.
In 1960, the centennial of Chekhov’s birth, a small museum was created in the building that had been the summer dacha; from 1919 until then the estate had served as a school. The dacha-museum is well-kept and visited regularly, despite the loss of Soviet funding. I was a bit of an oddity there, as a foreigner; nearly all the visitors, I was told, were Ukrainian and Russian. The day I visited I joined the tour of a small group of medical students from Sumy, which seemed appropriate.
There are five rooms open to the public: the entrance is a display room with photographs and historical information, a few precious artefacts like Olga Knipper’s evening bag and one of Anton Pavlovich’s pince-nez, donated by his sister. The first room to the left is devoted to Chekhov’s brother Nikolai, who died of tuberculosis the second summer and is buried in the local cemetery. Behind that room, overlooking the garden to the rear, is where Anton Pavlovich stayed; a simple reconstruction of the way the room must have been, with a writing desk by the window, a day bed in the corner, and a small table with medical instruments that were of great interest to my fellows on the tour. The other room to the right of the entrance was where Chekhov’s mother stayed, and directly opposite the entrance was a dining room with a piano where the family entertained.
That’s a rather dry description of a place that in fact is very much alive, full of the spirit both of the era thanks to a tasteful arrangement of antiques that had belonged either to the Lintvaryovs or to Chekhov’s sister Masha, or were donated by well-wishers and of the writer himself. Like my companions in Crimea, the women who look after the museum in all senses of the term–Lyudmila Nikolayevna, the curator; Anna the guide, Alla the caretaker–share an ongoing love of Chekhov’s work and a curiosity in those who come to visit. They refer to their famous ghost, in fact, as Anton Pavlovich, as if he had merely gone down to the river to fish for a while and would be back after sunset with a basketful of crayfish.
They are also very proud of their literary club, which meets at the museum for recitals, lectures, and performances. This is how we keep the intellectual life of the city alive, said Lyudmila Nikolayevna; our local intelligentsia is continuing the tradition begun here so long ago. They adopted me, when they found out how far I had come, and why I was there. I was taken to the back room (which had been Masha’s, and will again be someday soon) and plied with tea and biscuits and questions and more information than my poor head could retain; thankfully there are small guidebooks available and my old camera cooperated.
But for every painstakingly preserved teacup or garden hat or desk lamp in the Chekhov museum, there is an indescribable quantity of elegiac emptiness and absence in the old house across the street that had once been the Lintvaryovs’, a crumbling old brick building where the regulation waist-high green paint of its last incarnation as a school is still visible on the walls through the gutted windows. The school was closed in the early 1990s: the building that had survived two world wars, a revolution, Nazi occupation, the Red Army and hordes of schoolchildren has not survived twenty years of tight-fisted capitalism. Efforts to raise funds or interest the government have failed, thus far; Lyudmila Nikolayevna said even an article in the New York Times was unable to rouse any emigrant, or other, philanthropists from their apathy. Anton Pavlovich, in one of his letters, mentions his desire to create a writers’ colony in Ukraine the old Lintvaryov estate would have been the perfect place.
Although I am not altogether sure it is what Anton Pavlovich would have wanted in the end, in this day and age. Too much of present-day writing or being a writer is about being published, getting in print, being picked up by the media all things Chekhov avoided and disliked in his lifetime. Still, if it were to save the Lintvaryov estate, and the memory of the people who created such a wealth of memories and happiness for Chekhov in his youth it might not be too high a price to pay after all. Certainly there is something there of the summers of 1888-1889, still: the river for fishing, picnics, swimming and swinging out on tarzanka lianas; the bucolic village of Luka, with its country church and jovial priest. The local people of Sumy do not mind that they are so far from the cultural centres of the world; they know what they have to be proud of. Anton Pavlovich wrote, in one of his letters, Abbazia and the Adriatic are marvellous, but Luka and the Psyol are better. His descriptions are filled with the nostalgia of knowing a privileged moment of youth that is all too evanescent; something of his Luka lingers not only in his stories and plays, but also in present-day Sumy.