Chekhov A. P.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860 – 1904) was a Russian playwright, writer, and doctor. Known best for his plays, he had also written a great multitude of short stories for and about people of all ages and all walks of life.

Chekhov was born in Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov. His father, Pavel Yegorovich, was a grocer and a parish choir director. A fanatically religious and abusive man, Chekhov’s father was later used by his son in his literary works as the prototype of a quintessential pompous hypocrite. Chekhov’s mother, Eugenia, was the first great storyteller in her son’s life, dazzling her children with stories of her extensive travels with her cloth merchant father.

In 1876, Pavel Chekhov drove his family to bankruptcy and ended up in a debtors’ prison, leaving his family entirely without means. Anton Chekhov was the only one left in Taganrog to sell what was left of the family’s possessions and finish his education. The meager sum left from the sale was not enough for Chekhov to sustain himself and pay for his schooling, driving him to take on all manner of odd jobs, including tutoring and writing short pieces for a local newspaper.

In 1879, Chekhov finished his studies in Taganrog and was admitted to the medical department at Moscow University. Having joined his family in Moscow, he essentially became head of the family, despite having two older brothers. All the while, he continued working and publishing to support his household and pay his own tuition. Upon graduation in 1884, Chekhov’s medical career was off to a rough start, as he contracted tuberculosis and had to seek the help of his medical colleagues. Despite being gravely ill, he told nothing to his family for fear of making their lives more difficult with his sickness. He also continued writing so much that another celebrated writer, Dmitry Grigorovich, wrote him a powerful letter, advising him, as a mentor, to slow down and start honing the quality of his writing, rather than pushing for quantity and, thus, jeopardizing the development of his talent. This letter was one of the great turning points in Chekhov’s literary life, prompting him to consider more seriously what he, as a writer, had to offer to his audience.

During the next few years, Chekhov undertook two large trips, which ended up being significant to him both as a writer and as a physician. The first one took place in 1886. Chekhov went to Ukraine, where he was deeply moved and inspired by the natural beauty of the land. His new surroundings reinforced in him the idea that nature too could be a character in a literary work, as much as a living being.
His second trip in 1890 was far more arduous and extensive. Chekhov traveled by every imaginable form of transport – from horse-and-buggy to steam boat – to the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin Island. He spent three months interviewing the convicts and documenting their living conditions, as well as surveying the overall state of the area and its settlers. His findings were published three years later, and while some considered the gritty and incredibly tough subject matter to be scandalous and unworthy of a cultured, educated man, the work started a wave of outrage against the inhumane treatment of the convicts, and the overall poor living conditions at the remote island.

Exhausted by his travels, Chekhov spent the next few years at his country home in the village of Melikhovo. Unable to remain inactive for long, he challenged himself to be a responsible landlord and a doctor to the local peasants, organizing support for the victims of famine and cholera epidemics, building schools, a fire station, and a clinic, and providing medical services to all who lived in the area, sometimes walking several miles on foot to see a patient.

Complications from tuberculosis, the subsequent hospitalization, and recommendations from other doctors prompted Chekhov to move to Yalta with its more beneficial climate. While he enjoyed the Crimean resort, his new home and garden, and the company of other writers, like Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky, Chekhov never grew to love Yalta, and always sought excuses to go back to Moscow or travel elsewhere. In 1901, he married actress Olga Knipper. Their long-distance marriage, with him residing in Crimea due to the demands of his illness and her remaining in Moscow to pursue her acting career, wouldn’t be out of place today but was considered fairly unorthodox in the early 20th century.

In 1904, Chekhov’s disease took a serious turn. He and his wife traveled to a resort in Germany, where he attempted to allay the anxiety of his family with humorous letters. However, the truth was rather grave – despite his doctor’s best efforts, Chekhov’s condition continued to deteriorate. He died on July 15, 1904, with his wife by his side until the last moment, and having had one last glass of champagne ordered by his doctor.

Chekhov’s plays are still staged in theaters the world over, and his novels and stories are published and read in many languages.

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