Restoration drama: How Chekhov's home has fallen into disrepair
When actor Michael Pennington visited Chekhov's home, he expected to find it perfectly preserved. What he found was a cultural tragedy
Thursday 20 November 2008
The calendar in Chekhov's house near Yalta in Ukraine, still shows the day in May 1904 when he left to go to Germany to die. But the wallpaper is barely holding to the walls, the plaster is flaking and mould is spreading. He moved to warmer climes because of his suffering with tuberculosis, the temperature is often six degrees below in the winter, colder inside the house than out. The first floor, where Chekhov slept and where his study was full of the paintings of Levitan and photographs of his friends, is unsafe and shut off. In Chekhov's time, the next-door property was, appropriately, a sanatorium: but the current next-door neighbour has been doing some heavy digging just outside Chekhov's walls and cracks are appearing. His beloved garden is damaged and the whole area urgently needs draining. Chekhov believed in progress feeling, along with Tolstoy, that electricity and steam were useful to man, but the electrical wiring in his house is now a fire hazard and the fire alarms probably wouldn't work.
The Soviet government looked after the house as they did all the heritage sites, diligently, creating the impression that Chekhov or Tolstoy had just pushed their chairs away from their desks and gone to post a letter and would soon be back. But maintenance is expensive and now the Yalta house is in the Ukraine, the Ukrainian government says that, since Chekhov was a Russian, it's up to the Russians to fix things – unaware perhaps of the fact that Chekhov had Ukrainian blood through his grandmother, and originally came from Taganrog, 200 miles from Yalta across the Sea of Azov. The Russians say the opposite, and the money has dried up. The house got €1,300 last year from local government – enough to pay half the museum staff. Since 1991 visitor numbers have dropped from 250,000 to 25,000, so the income from entry fees is negligible.
The house was built in 1898 when Chekhov was buoyed by the success of The Seagull, but also depressed by his father's death and his own deteriorating health. He moved in the following year. He had orchards and running water and every American convenience, including a telephone. It was in a Tatar village, next to the cemetery, and Chekhov was glad to associate with this minority rather than with the Russians.
He immediately planted mulberries, cherry trees, almond and peach, cypress, citrus, acacia and birch. Soon he was padding in bare feet in the dark to answer the telephone bringing him news of the success of Uncle Vanya, before dropping off to sleep and being wakened by the telephone again. When, finally, he put the phone by his bed it stopped ringing. He called Yalta his "warm Siberia", and he missed Moscow, two days and 800 miles away, with a yearning like that of his three sisters, whom he located the same distance from Moscow to the east as he was to the South. The Moscow Art Theatre colleagues came to give a special season for him, staying in the house for 10 days and leaving him the bench and the garden swing from their production of Vanya for his garden. He also missed Olga, the new woman in his life, writing to her in the midst of construction that he bowed as low to her as the depth of his well, 50 feet. Over the next six years she would join him there when she could; she married him in May 1901. She later became pregnant there but lost the baby.
Looking out from his study he could see the seafront, which gave him the idea for The Lady with the Little Dog, and The Cherry Orchard. Here, separated from Olga and with nothing but Levitan's Haystacks and his dachsund "Schnapps" for company, he wrote Three Sisters (boring Crimean rubbish, in his view). He wrote to Olga that his hair was falling out and he was allowed to eat nothing but soup. The play glared up at him from his desk and he back at it; he would think about it for hours and then read the newspaper. In Moscow, the company were running wild, playing in Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken and cabling him they themselves would only re-awaken when they received his new play, The Three Sisters. In the event, the play may have ritualised some of his concerns about his impending marriage with Olga.
In 1902, he completed his last great and beautiful story, The Bishop, an exquisite tale of a man of God who dies on Easter Saturday, feeling not repentance but a calming of the spirit, nostalgia for his childhood, but also the sense that he has somehow missed or overlooked something important in life. Then Chekhov remembers a cable snapping in a mine that he heard when he was a boy; at the same time he has a phantasmagoric idea of ladies in white dresses, and a branch of white cherry blossom coming in through the window: so The Cherry Orchard begins to take shape. By this time he is on a diet of eggs and beginning to struggle with his breath as he bends down in his garden. The play becomes a nightmare to him, three years from start to finish and mostly "as dull as a cobweb". He sends it in, forestalling Stanislavsky's love of realistic sound effects by insisting that the action took place in the third week of June when the corncrake doesn't cry and the frogs are silent.
Chekhov's "White dacha" has survived the Russian Revolution, Civil War, earthquake and Nazi occupation, not least because of the caretaking of Chekhov's sister, Masha, who didn't allow a German officer to use Chekhov's bedroom (he acquiesced most courteously, it seems). Now the threat is different, and it is hard to see where official support is to come from. Vladimir Putin paid a visit in 2003, causing sums of money to be spent on his security which would have got the dacha out of some of its troubles: he made no donation but left a visiting card and a book about Russian handicrafts. At least he turned up : Mikhail Gorbachev, on holiday in the Crimea, planned to but cancelled at the last moment.
However, the Yalta Chekhov campaign, whose directors include Rosamund Bartlett, Chekhov's outstanding translator and biographer, now hopes to raise €200,000 for the vital restoration work, by 2010, the 150th anniversary of Chekhov's birth. It's not unusual for governments to wait for soft-hearted international organisations to save their sites. When it comes to the White Dacha, and what was said, done, written and thought inside its now peeling walls, I'm with the soft-hearted.
Visit www.yaltachekhov.org for information on how to help, further background and pictures. Rosamund Bartlett's new collection of early Chekhov stories, 'The Exclamation Mark', is published by Hesperus. Michael Pennington's solo show on the author, 'Anton Chekhov', plays at Hampstead Theatre on the evening of 26 November and the afternoon of 29 November (020-7722-9301; www.hampsteadtheatre.com)
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