Anton Chekhov is remembered for his great works of fiction and – after Shakespeare – is the second most performed playwright in history. But he was also a qualified doctor who made a curious and perilous trip in 1890 to a remote penal colony in Tsarist Russia where he tried to write a medical thesis on the lives of its abject prisoners.
The journey was in fact spurred by Chekhov’s social conscience as a writer and represented the tradition of civic mindedness that dominated the Russian literary scene since the 1860s. His dissertation on the labour camp of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Pacific coast was in the end rejected by the medical establishment of his day, but it has lived on as his only work of non-fiction which next year  will become the subject of a dramatic portrayal conceived and written by a British neuroscientist.
Professor Jonathan Cole, a clinical neurophysiologist at Southampton University, has received just over £100,000 from the Wellcome Trust to bring Sakhalin Island to the stage as a one-man show performed by theatre artist Andy Dawson – the two have collaborated in the past on a medically-influenced performance about physical disability called The Articulate Hand.
The Wellcome Trust, Britain’s biggest medical research charity, normally funds state-of-the-art scientific research but its decision to finance the dramatisation of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island fits into its broader remit to encourage the marriage of the “two cultures” of the arts and sciences.
The aim of the drama is to bring Sakhalin Island and its inhabitants alive as a series of performances or movements that would portray both the horror and the humour of the colony and its inhabitants, Professor Cole explained.
“It’s a one-man thing. There are going to be vignettes. Some will be theatrical, some will be humorous – and some not – and there will passages of spoken text from the time,” he said.
“One of the difficulties of putting art and science together is that one is trying to piggyback on the other. Art has expression but wants something to express,” he explained.
“It’s difficult to get a true symbiosis between art and science. Science has lots of facts and some ideas, but it wants to be able to communicate them, to humanise them. Getting the balance between those two, where both are essential, is really difficult.”
Professor Cole came across Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island – still published by Alma Classics – almost by chance but was immediately smitten by Chekov’s detailed and realistic descriptions of his perilous three-month journey to the island and the people he met there during his two-month stay as a medical practitioner.
The prisoners, sometimes accompanied by their children, had to walk across Siberia to Sakhalin, which lies off the Russian east coast to the north of Japan. It took them three years, an unimaginable and inhumane journey, especially for the children, and that was even before they had begun their sentence of hard labour.
Chekov’s accounts include the heart-rending description of a six-year-old girl running after and holding on to the fetters of her criminal father, and the young teenage boy who had known no other life since his arrival on the island as a baby.
Some of the prisoners were permanently chained to wheelbarrows for years as a sadistic punishment to restrict their movements. Others tried to escape the enclosure of the colony, knowing there was no escape from the island itself.
“Sakhalin Island is by far the longest work of Chekhov, and the one that took him longest to write. It’s his only work of non-fiction, yet it seems to be fairly well ignored by Chekhovians,” Professor Cole said.
“I lot of people would not have considered what effect going to Sakhalin would have had on Chekhov,” he said.
Apart from lancing a few boils, Chekhov does not seem to have practised much medicine on Sakhalin, preferring instead to concentrate on gathering stories and anecdotes of the broken people who lived in the “katorga”, a Tsarist forerunner of the Soviet gulags.
During the time he spent on the island, Chekhov made a census of the colony’s 10,000 inmates, interviewing each one of them personally, ostensibly as a scientific record, but with the observant eye of a talented storyteller. Professor Cole has had many of the census cards translated into English to be analysed statistically to see if they can provide any further scientific insight into the penal colony.
“Chekhov said he used the census to just get his foot in the door to talk to people. He didn’t claim the census would be of much use….We can’t claim that Chekhov at the time was in the forefront of science or medicine. But it allows us to reflect on the medicine of that time,” Professor Cole said.
“One of the reasons why doctors became socially active was to change the conditions to reduce the infectious disease rate….Chekhov said the future of medicine is preventative medicine, which in those days it was,” he said.
Chekhov seems to have been stung by the criticism of his radical friends for not being radical enough, so going to Sakhalin to report on what he saw was an expression of his social conscience, Professor Cole said.
The social reform movement in Russia had begun in the 1860s but Chekhov believed it still had some way to go to bring about real change. “The much-extolled ‘60s did nothing for the sick and imprisoned, transgressing thereby the major precepts of Christian civilisation,” Chekhov wrote in a letter to a friend, the newspaper magnate Aleksey Suvorin, just before he left for Sakhalin in 1890.
“Nowadays at least something is being done for the sick, but for those in prison – nothing. The study of confinement in prison is of no interest whatsoever to our lawyers and legal experts,” Chekhov wrote.
When Chekhov returned from Sakhalin he lobbied for prison reform and seemed to be deeply influenced by his experience – on one occasion saying wistfully that “everything is Sakhalinised”.
But perhaps the best insight into what he thought about Sakhalin comes in another letter to Suvorin written immediately on his return: “Whilst I was living on Sakhalin, I experienced merely a certain bitter taste deep inside me, as if from rancid butter, but now, in retrospect, Sakhalin appears to me to be utter hell.”
Additional research by Ines Connor