Leading British playwrights and actors are mounting a campaign to save the Crimean villa where Anton Chekhov wrote some of his most important works, including Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. The building is being allowed to fall into ruin because of tension between the Russian and Ukrainian governments, it is claimed.
The White Dacha, perched on a hill in the Black Sea resort of Yalta, was built for Chekhov after he moved south from Moscow in 1898, seeking a warmer climate in the hope that it might ease his tuberculosis. Although unhappy for most of his five and a half years in the Crimea – pining, like many of his characters, to get back to Moscow – it was here that he wrote his two last plays, considered among his greatest.
The house is of particular interest, because it has been preserved in exactly the same condition in which Chekhov left it, two months before his death in 1904. But after years of neglect, subsidence and rising damp are taking their toll: cracks have appeared in the walls, portions of ceiling have collapsed and mould is spreading. Water has begun to pour into the attic, causing damage to Chekhov's study and drawing room.
Sir Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes are among supporters of the campaign to save the White Dacha, launched at the Pushkin House Anglo-Russian society in London last week by the the Chekhov scholar and biographer Rosamund Bartlett.
After the playwright's death, his sister Masha scrupulously looked after the house. She refused to be evacuated during the Second World War, and forebade Nazi soldiers to occupy her brother's rooms. Since her death in 1957 it has been run as a museum. Vladimir Putin visited in 2003, leaving his visiting card but no donation.
The dacha began to deteriorate after Crimea became a part of Ukraine, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Russian government stopped providing the grants that had kept the house open to the public. The cash-strapped Ministry of Culture and Arts of the Autonomous Crimean Republic, under whose jurisdiction it now falls, says it has no duty to provide funds because Chekhov was Russian, not Ukrainian.
"The Ukrainians really should be supporting this house, it's so important," said Alexander Walsh, one of the campaigners. "It's a tragedy that [the government's] nationalist agenda seems to preclude doing so." The campaign hopes to raise enough money to restore the house by 2010, the 150th anniversary of Chekhov's birth.