When did I come to be so at home in my mind with a writer who lived halfway around the globe, wrote in a language I don’t read, and who died more than a century ago? Like many of my students, I didn’t get there automatically. As Virginia Woolf says,
“Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed—as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”
In my case I had a good teacher who helped me to understand, for which I’m grateful. Chekhov, in addition to writing plays such as The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya, which are continually produced, wrote some 700 or 800 short stories that have strongly influenced prose writers from Hemingway to Alice Munro. There’s a maturity, calm, and depth of vision in Chekhov that’s still useful here in the green flash at the end of the world. A Russian writer said recently in the Telegraph, “We have taken a different road from utopians like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and Chekhov turns out to be the civilised person's best companion. Chekhov's world is now ours.”
Now I find myself literally in Chekhov’s world, though there’s a certain amount of culture lag that makes me question it every few hours: I’m walking down a street in Moscow? City of tsars, the Kremlin, Soviet parades with their missiles and tanks, the Bolshoi; a city with a history back to the 12th-century and one with enough hometown pride that when Napoleon came, Muscovites burned the city rather than let his armies use it for the winter, and where the Nazis lost more than a quarter-million men trying to take it?
Now of course it’s the city with the greatest number of billionaire residents, where you’re told not to drink the water because it’s unsafe. Mercedes and Porsches roar past the Salvatore Ferragamo shop, and even with the Times reporting rising anti-American sentiment, people on the street tend only toward the friendly and mildly surprised. Some public parks do swarm with OMON paramilitary police with automatic weapons and giant riot trucks, but they don’t seem to be looking for American bloggers. Red Square was closed this morning, no reason given, and around it and the Kremlin there are scanners, gates, sentries, detector wands, and a bag-check room with an airport x-ray machine in it; in these spaces it’s still possible to earn some hard looks. “Open!” a soldier shouted at my wallet after I put it in a tray at the security checkpoint. Frenchy says, “You think things are tense now. Wait until winter and Putin turns the stopcock on heating oil and gas to Western Europe.”
Moscow is built to impress, and it does, though there are times I think I could be in any major city. We’ve done fine without speaking Russian or even knowing the Cyrillic alphabet at a glance, though an app for iPhone called Word Lens has been very useful for understanding that the historical plaque on a building merely says it was the first PR firm in town, not a political-historical-literary-artistic place of note. For 30 minutes the first evening I wondered if there was a state conglomerate named “Pectopah” running all the places to eat then realized it was the Cyrillic spelling for restaurant.
As usual, Frenchy and I have worn ourselves out getting to know the place, as we did in Vilnius, Lithuania, and in our fatigue we’re feeling we’ve earned something and are laughing a lot. We were having dinner the other night at a place with bear on the menu, and he dropped one ball of tasteless butter spread on another tasteless ball of green cheese spread, and I said, “Hey, you dropped that shit on that other shit,” and he started laughing, and I said, “You commingled it,” and suddenly we were both laughing so hard we were crying. Had to be there.
The Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius was the occasion for this trip, and I enjoyed that city. Frenchy and I spent our last night there at a terrace bar near the Insitut Francais. The building is named for writer Stendhal, who stayed there briefly while Napoleon’s Grand Army was in full rout from Borodino. But Chekhov was the main reason for the trip, and why I flew through Moscow instead of Warsaw or Paris.
Friday morning we had breakfast here across from the Moscow Art Theater, where Chekhov and Stanislavski worked together on Chekhov’s most famous plays. Women in high heels and sheath dresses hugged and air-kissed near a statue of Chekhov, which gazes down from its pedestal morosely. Later we walked to Chekhov’s Moscow house, which he occupied from 1886-1890, with his sister Maria and brother Mikhail. It’s a two-story building, maybe 1200 square feet, on what’s now one of the busiest ring roads around Moscow, across many lanes of traffic from a McDonald’s, Subway, and Sbarro. The room of most interest to me of course was his study with his writing desk, where he must have written the stories “Easter Eve” and “Gusev.” The museum has many photos and paintings, including a couple from his friend Isaac Levitan, as well as some family and personal belongings, such as his pince-nez. The nameplate on the front door, said to be original, still reads Dr. Chekhov.
Saturday we took the metro out to Novodevichy Cemetery to visit his grave. There was a long walk too, on both ends, compounded by indirection and my leaving the map and tourist guide in a station of the metro and having to go back to find it. The cemetery is Moscow’s Pere Lachaise, for lack of better comparison, though Novodevishy is much more dress-right-dress, with 14 platted divisions broken down into as many as 61 rows. People with similar interests in life are laid to rest near each other, so Chekhov and his wife Olga (a leading actress of her day) is near Stanislavski, writers Aleksey Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, and Mikhail Bulgakov, and painter Levitan in “2 Division.” Several “Heroes of the Revolution” occupy 11 Division.
Mortally sick after years with tuberculosis, which was incurable, Chekhov and Olga went to a spa in the Black Forest so he could rest. Olga writes that on the last night of his life:
“Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe [I’m dying]. The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: ‘It’s a long time since I drank champagne.’ He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child….”
His body was transported to Moscow in a railway car for fresh oysters, a detail that offended Maxim Gorky, but was right both for the refrigeration it provided and for the comic touch Chekhov would have loved: One of his early literary stories is called “Oysters.”
Novodevichy Cemetery was as full of tourists as Disneyland, and more groups poured off buses one after another at the curb outside the walls. I waited a long time until I was alone then introduced myself, offered my compliments, and told the good Doctor I’d bought a bottle of Russian champagne in a 24-hour minimart on ulitsa Rozhdestvenka to share with him. But given the crowds and cemetery matrons on patrol, and the fact that I’d bought it hot and carried it in my daypack all day in the sun, I was led to understand Anton would rather Frenchy and I enjoy a toast to him at a more opportune moment.
We walked down past Luzhniki Stadium, host for the 2018 World Cup finals, and along the largest sports and park complex I’ve ever seen. By the time we’d walked around its fenced perimeter to the Moscow River, we’d seen the park, a monster truck display, a rock concert, slam-dunk contests, a swimming pool, food stands, bike rentals.... “We walked until hell wouldn’t have it,” Frenchy says, and by the time we finally climbed gratefully on the metro we’d run out of water hours earlier, our feet hurt so badly they’d gone numb, and we were sunburned, soaked, and dirty. In this condition we limped up Petrovka Street, where we’ve been staying. Chekhov says of Gurov, protagonist of his most-anthologized story, “Lady with the Dog”:
“He returned to Moscow on a fine frosty day, and when he put on his fur-lined overcoat and thick gloves, and sauntered down Petrovka Street, and when, on Saturday evening, he heard the church bells ringing, his recent journey and the places he had visited lost their charm for him.”
I’ll remember a number of things about Moscow, which we’re not done with yet. In the Kremlin Armory, eg, it’s not the shiny, plated, bejeweled things, but Peter the Great’s boots, Catherine the Great’s ink pen, the 14th-century helmet from Byzantium made of conical metal with a sharp, round brim. (“I hope his head was well-calloused,” Frenchy said.) The discovery, after inspecting the undercarriages of the late 16th-century coach that James I of England gave Tsar Boris Godunov and the many coaches of Empress Elizabeth, that the entire carriage box is held up off the chassis by wide leather straps, forming a kind of suspension. How did I never know that? Or that rounding the corner of the Bolshoi you enter the welcome shade of Petrovka? That Chekhov's writing desk is covered in green baize?
These are not my only interests in Russia. But they’re the ones I can get a hold of, so far, this far from home in place, time, history, and context.