Sakhalin Island

You think you’re headed in a straight line; there’s a starting point (Moscow, say) and an end point (Sakhalin Island). You have decided to follow the itinerary Chekhov followed, as much as possible, on his 1890 trip to Sakhalin island. Fortunately, this route coincides with that of the Trans-Siberian Railway–well-worn by a host of questing travelers over the years. And just when you reach your goal, you realize that your straight line is a circle, and your quest has just begun.

Originally I thought I might discover some new Chekhov places along the way. It became clear almost immediately, that the geography of Chekhov’s life journey has been fully charted. In Moscow I found lots of good information about the places he had lived, worked, and visited.  My hotel on Sretenka was basically in the middle of what we could call an “early Chekhov” district–the area where he lived in a number of different rented lodgings while a student at Moscow State University. And it was about a block away from Bolshoi Golovin St. (formerly Sobolev Street), the brothel district which served as the setting for his famous story “An Attack of Nerves.” I tracked down several of these addresses, and looked around online, and it soon became clear that these paths were well trodden, and in fact there have been other, similar blog quests. When I popped into Dom Knigi one day and came upon a book that detailed every Chekhov address in Moscow, with a description of what he did while living there, I realized that my quest was evolving into something different. And the buildings all started to look alike anyway.

Dostoevsky demanded to be included on the journey. And we were joined by other Dostoevsky and Chekhov people. For example, in Moscow I met with Russian literature scholars Sergei Kibalnik and Vladimir Kataev, who gave me some great leads.   Soon it became clear that this would be a journey as much from person to person as from place to place. In every Siberian city I visited (except for Khabarovsk), I was hosted by generous colleagues–none of whom I had even met before–who showed me the very best their Chekhov or Dostoevsky place has to offer. And then helped me on my way. So the trip was not about places at all. It was about people.

I did make it to Sakhalin.  Chekhov visited many towns on the island (basically almost every town) as he gathered information for his book The Island of Sakhalin. I visited only one: Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (formerly Vladimirovka).

 

The town remembers Chekhov fondly; there’s a Chekhov Street, a Chekhov Theater, and, most importantly, a Chekhov Museum. It’s actually called “The Museum of Chekhov’s Book Sakhalin Island.

 

   

Like other museums I have visited on this journey, this one offers a multimedia, interactive experience. One can get a sense as to what life was like on Sakhalin when Chekhov visited there (during a time when most of the island was populated with exiled settlers, imprisoned convicts, and ex-cons, and the administrators, officials, and jailers who managed everything. There is a diorama showing what a prison looked like, and  display with mannequins showing what life was like in a prison cell–complete with actors providing video testimony in the voices of prisoners. Check out their cool virtual excursion: http://go.chekhov-book-museum.ru/. I took a lot of photos, but I realized that you will be much better off if you just go to the website and take the tour yourself.

              

The museum collects books relating to Chekhov from all over the world (keep this in mind when you visit, so you can bring some to donate to the collection).

The most important book, though, is the one that inspired my trip, and Sergei’s, and as I am learning, many others’. Its publication in 1891-93  inspired readers of the time (including public figures) to rethink the policies that had led to the creation of the prison system on the island. And it inspired the creation of this museum.

Solicitous and expert deputy museum director Anastasia Stepanenko showed me around the museum and hosted me in her office, where if you look in the middle of the table you’ll see a set of two large books. This is an extraordinary edition of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, with extensive commentaries by Mikhail S. Vysokov (2010). The commentaries are the thicker volume. Basically if you have a question about anything in Sakhalin Island, Vysokov will have anticipated your question, will have answered it. Just look in the commentaries. 

     

When I saw this edition, I was reminded, yet again, of what it is I love about my Russian colleagues’ respect for their literature: their meticulous attention to detail, to respecting what is there in the text, and what is there in the material, geographical, historical, cultural, literary, and biographical world that underlies the text. There is a kind of maximalistic impulse at work, a desire to go deep into the book and retrieve every nuance, meaning, and reference that connects the text with the world. And that world includes us readers.

There’s no need to make things up; the point is to see what’s there. This attention to textual details and to the ways they are anchored in “real things” in the world differs from what I see as dominant in my western scholarly world: a mandate to create new knowledge, or to come up with ever-new angles of interpretation. This mandate keeps us intellectually alert and adventurous. Sometimes, though, it can lead to carelessness with a text, or a tendency to distort what is in there in order to prove a theory or argument about something else. Sort of like what Cinderella’s sisters did in an effort to get the glass slipper to fit.

Anyway, it’s a great book.

Now about circles. Here at the Museum of One Book, I was able to see a special exhibit related to Chekhov’s letters–that very same exhibit that Zhenia of the Melikhovo Museom of Chekhov’s Letters had told me she was going to set up in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

  

It felt like coming home.

There’s much much more to say about Sakhalin, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and Chekhov’s book, and I hope that I will be able to say some of it. That quest continues. But a bit more about circles: I did circle back to Moscow. I have to say, it was extremely disorienting to get on an airplane and cover in eight hours, forty minutes a distance that had taken me forty-two days on the journey out there.

Everyone asks why Chekhov made this trip. The more you think about it, the more complicated it gets. I sure can’t answer the question about Chekhov; I don’t understand why I made this trip myself, much less why someone else did. I didn’t understand when I started the trip, and I still don’t understand now that it’s over. Reaching Sakhalin didn’t make things any clearer. Maybe, like Sergei, I’ll just have to keep coming back.

The night before I left Moscow, I traveled to the Chekhov metro station at Pushkin Square, where I saw a performance of (Dostoevsky’s, sort of) Crime and Punishment: The Rock Opera.  Ask me about it sometime. For now, the point is that everything on my trip came back around to its starting point. And continues to do so.

   

Khabarovsk

After a week on the Amur (which he admired, as he admired most of Siberia’s rivers [with Irtysh being a special case]), Chekhov arrived in “Khabarovka” (now Khabarovsk) on June 30, 1890.  He looked around town, stopped in the library at the military club (voennoe sobranie) to catch up on the newspapers, and was back on his way by July.

I actually spent more time in town than Chekhov–two nights–after a relaxing fifty-two hours on the Trans-Siberian from Ulan-Ude. I lucked into more of that wonderful Siberian babye leto–sunshine and T-shirt weather, which added to the charm of the place.

Khabarovsk, like Chekhov, respects and loves its river, which is lined with a broad pedestrian-and-bike-and-scooter promenade. While I promenaded, a shockingly fast speedboat rushed by. It went by too fast to be photographed. l was actually terrified for the dog and his two friends, who were the only other creatures on the river that evening.

I’ve been around the course a few times, but this was the fastest and loudest speedboat I’ve ever seen. It reminded me that Russians, as we know from Gogol’s Dead Souls, love to “drive fast” (bystraya ezda).

Selifan also roused himself, and apportioned to the skewbald a few cuts across the back of a kind which at least had the effect of inciting that animal to trot; and when, presently, the other two horses followed their companion’s example, the light britchka moved forwards like a piece of thistledown. Selifan flourished his whip and shouted, “Hi, hi!” as the inequalities of the road jerked him vertically on his seat; and meanwhile, reclining against the leather cushions of the vehicle’s interior, Chichikov smiled with gratification at the sensation of driving fast. For what Russian does not love to drive fast? Which of us does not at times yearn to give his horses their head, and to let them go, and to cry, “To the devil with the world!”? At such moments a great force seems to uplift one as on wings; and one flies, and everything else flies, but contrariwise — both the verst stones, and traders riding on the shafts of their waggons, and the forest with dark lines of spruce and fir amid which may be heard the axe of the woodcutter and the croaking of the raven. Yes, out of a dim, remote distance the road comes towards one, and while nothing save the sky and the light clouds through which the moon is cleaving her way seem halted, the brief glimpses wherein one can discern nothing clearly have in them a pervading touch of mystery. Ah, troika, troika, swift as a bird, who was it first invented you? Only among a hardy race of folk can you have come to birth — only in a land which, though poor and rough, lies spread over half the world, and spans versts the counting whereof would leave one with aching eyes. Nor are you a modishly-fashioned vehicle of the road — a thing of clamps and iron. Rather, you are a vehicle but shapen and fitted with the axe or chisel of some handy peasant of Yaroslav. Nor are you driven by a coachman clothed in German livery, but by a man bearded and mittened. See him as he mounts, and flourishes his whip, and breaks into a long-drawn song! Away like the wind go the horses, and the wheels, with their spokes, become transparent circles, and the road seems to quiver beneath them, and a pedestrian, with a cry of astonishment, halts to watch the vehicle as it flies, flies, flies on its way until it becomes lost on the ultimate horizon — a speck amid a cloud of dust!

And you, Russia of mine — are not you also speeding like a troika which nought can overtake?

  • Though I will be reviled for this, I have taken this excerpt from C.J. Hogarth’s quaint version of Dead Souls, Part I, Chapter Xi.  (https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61d/chapter11.html.
  • Repeating here: I love Hogarth’s vocabulary, and the website is very convenient.

The speedboat also reminded me of all the other instances of “driving fast” that I have witnessed, and like Gogol’s pedestrian, I halted, with an inner cry of astonishment, as the vehicle flew, flew, flew away until it was a speck of on the watery horizon:

  • motorcycles: in nearly every city, I’ve found myself on a public street that doubles as a motorcycle speedway. In Petersburg, for example, it is Nevsky Prospect; in Moscow, the viewing platform over the city at Moscow State University. The bikers (young, male) are not wearing helmets. It is not enough for them to race flat-out; they must do it on their rear wheel. As a motorcyclist in my own right (modest, age-appropriate, helmeted, sometimes wearing a reflective vest, and [nearly] always observing traffic laws), I found the spectacle terrifying, exhilarating, and quintessentially Russian.
  • bicycles: in Khabarovsk, as I climbed up that long, long steep from the river to town (on a regular street, for automobile traffic), a young man flew by me, heading downhill in traffic, and dodging parked vehicles and pedestrians, at probably 50 mph: no helmet, and here’s the clincher: hunched horizontally over the handlebars. I halted with an inner cry of astonishment (and admiration).
  • speedboats.
  • horse-carriages in tourist areas, for example, Kizhi: in the USA, undoubtedly fearing lawsuits, horse carriages at tourist attractions proceed slowly and steadily. In Kizhi, the horses actually appear to be having fun: they trot briskly, sweeping their tails in the air. Passengers grip the sides of the carriage.
  • automobiles: I believe I have adequately described the driving habits of certain Russian professionals.

All of this reminds me of the distinctly Russian view of mortality.  In the USA a great deal of effort is expended on making life safe, as if that would ultimately guarantee immortality. Along the way we sacrifice the joys of “going fast.”

Disclaimer: I am not advocating that you “drive fast.”

On two different rides with hosts in Russia, as we settled in, I began to buckle my seat belt (in the back), and my hosts said, “Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

A vast, green, tree-filled park leads up the hill from river to town, where we will seek out Khabarovsk’s Chekhov.

 

Up the hill and to the left is Khabarovsk’s Far Eastern Art Museum:

An elegant staircase leads to galleries featuring paintings from different European countries.

 

This building is that very same Military Club (voennoe sobranie), where Chekhov stopped in to read newspapers during his brief visit to Khabarovka. The muzeishchiki are very hospitable; they turn on lights in showcases for you, and give you useful brochures. They could not identify which room used to be the library, though, so I just assumed (for no reason whatever) that it was the one with tables that you see through the arched doorways. This is probably wrong, and if you know the answer to this mystery, please add it in a comment to the blog.

On the building’s facade you will see a plaque (by Khabarovsk sculptor Yuri Kukuev) commemorating Chekhov’s visit here.

    

 

A couple of years ago, there was some discussion of setting up a square and monument dedicated to Chekhov in the city’s Dynamo Park (https://todaykhv.ru/news/culture/6058/ ), but I did not have a chance to see how things were going with it. The monument, by Khabarovsk artist Vladimir Baburov, might look something like this (look right). This particular Chekhov is carrying a top hat. The trousers here are narrower than in the plaque, which gives this monument the advantage. I hope that the next time I come to Khabarovsk, I will be able to see it in the future Chekhov Square.

One cannot, even in this day and age, get to Sakhalin Island by train. If you’re in a motor vehicle, you must take a ferry. From Khabarovsk, Chekhov proceeded sharply northward to tje far-eastern port of Nikolaevsk, and from there to Alexandrovsky post halfway up Sakhalin’s west coast. If you’re a Trans-Siberian pedant, I mean purist, you must proceed to Vladivostok, the railway’s end point. Chekhov did go to Vladivostok, but on his way back from Sakhalin in mid-October, 1890.

Anyway, in short, I got on an airplane in Khabarovsk and flew, in a shockingly short period of time (one hour, twenty minutes), to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (formerly Vladimirovka) on the southeast coast of Sakhalin Island.

Ulan-Ude

It’s exciting when a quiet place you’ve just visited becomes a world news headline.  The other day, the New York Times reported on a shaman’s visit to Ulan-Ude. The shaman, Aleksandr Gabyshev, was walking westward across Russia; his ultimate goal – to reach Moscow and exorcise Putin’s demons. He says: “In him there is much evil, and he himself embodies the powers of evil, so an exorcism must be done.”  The shaman has been arrested by the “dark forces” of the State, and now finds himself  exiled in Yakutsk facing threat of forced treatment in a psychiatric institution (a time-honored tactic that lingers from the Soviet period). But his visit sparked anti-government protests in Ulan-Ude. Read the story here, then we will proceed:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/09/world/europe/shaman-putin-dissent.html

Regrettably, I missed Shaman Gabyshev’s visit to Ulan-Ude by a few days, though we did breathe the same air. Despite the vast differences of time (over three centuries) and creed (he is most decidedly not an Old Believer), I was struck by some similarities between his mission and that of one of our blog heroes, Avvakum of Tobolsk. (I don’t think I mentioned this, but Avvakum was ultimately burned at the stake in 1682).

Higher forces are at work, demons are threatening Russia; a lone man stands up in the depths of Siberia, looks evil in the eye, and speaks his truth. Others heed the call and before you know it, crowds gather in the streets. Thе man is prophet, poet, holy fool; he is shaman. Mr. Gabyshev’s suicidal challenge to monolithic, absolute power, his clear-eyed sense of mission,  the extraordinary might of the individual against a corrupt state – we saw it all with the archpriest. This is how change happens in Russia, and even when change doesn’t happen, this is how we get glimpses into the often invisible forces of spirit that lurk beneath the transient concerns of the moment. We will loop back to Ulan-Ude’s shamanism in a few minutes.

But first, Chekhov.
Chekhov brought me to Ulan-Ude. He occupies a quiet corner in what Ulan-Ude calls its Arbat – a pleasant pedestrian district down the street from the more formal, official city center with its Lenin statue, government buildings, and theatrical square.  After crossing Lake Baikal on June 14, 1890, Chekhov traveled southeast for about 100 kilometers, until he reached this city, which was then called Verkhne-Udinsk. Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia.

A companion on a walk through town, an anonymous philologist from   Buryat State University, shows me the hotel where Chekhov stayed.

    

and kindly helps orient me in Buryat cuisine.

Ulan-Ude’s physical center teems with reminders of its Soviet history: its imposing Memorial to the Great Fatherland War,  streets named after the same Soviet leaders we saw in our other Siberian towns, a town square featuring and a truly bizarre Lenin head (yes, just the head) dominating its central square.

The thing is huge, and for some reason in the evening was illuminated with an eerie green light.  In Ulan-Ude I found myself in a new world that yet is completely familiar. Here we recognize the layers of history – the  trappings of 21st-century political and economic system resting uneasily in the Soviet architecture, monuments testifying to the ravages of war, the brute power of dictators, the clashes between empire and periphery, and, moving backward to a time whose  buildings are lost, the quiet spirits of the place who continue to fill the air with their truth.

Speaking of tsars, just up the street, at the city’s historical and ethnographic museum, you can see original items belonging to another powerful individual, the blue submarine (or bathysphere) suit that Vladimir Putin wore when he came out here and dive-boated into Baikal in connection with a scientific exhibition. The cute nerpa banner conveys the message that this was a mission to save the environment. The museum is worth a visit even over and above this presidential sighting, as it gives a sense of the area’s diverse history; Old Russian believers built settlements here as they were chased out of European Russia; Buryat communities maintained their way of life, herding animals, living in yurts, and practicing their unique religion with its shamanistic rituals. Buddhism in its Tibetan form  coexisted with the native shamanistic religion. And of course there was Russian Orthodoxy, seasoned with official Soviet atheism in the 20th century.  Among the works on exhibit by Bato Dashitsyrenov in the city’s art museum are extraordinary depictions of shamans in action.

 

The artist also proposed a monument that in my opinion would be a fitting addition, or replacement to the public square, possibly near a Tomsk Chekhov clone. I would take a stab at explaining this monument; it might have something to do with the creation of the world, or a sort of scheme or hierarchy of life, but I will spare you that. It may be some comfort for you to know that I visited this exhibit with two different people, the museum’s director and an art scholar, and their explanations for most of the art on exhibit significantly differed among themselves. I loved this, and was convinced by both interpretations (in addition to my own secret ones, which I will spare you).

I can’t help it, I just love this artist. Check out “See no Evil” and a couple of other masterpieces, basically, I’d say, about the human condition:

            

My host throughout my visit to Ulan-Ude is Professor Svetlana Imikhelova of Buryat State University. Svetlana orients me geographically,  and takes me to the city library, where I learn about the area’s vibrant literary tradition and support for the arts. I am most curious to learn about a famous novel by Isai Kalashnikov, about the life of a Mongolian boy called Temujin, who grew up to be Genghis Khan.

  

Svetlana then entrusts me to the care of the director of Ulan-Ude’s art museum, where, indeed, I encountered, in addition to Dashitsyrenov’s amazing art, many other wonderful works as well, by nineteenth-century works by such famous Russian artists as Repin, Levitan,

Chekhov alert!

Repin, and Kuindji.

Now I just want to say that Ulan-Ude and its environs are an excellent locale for horse-spotting. You will certainly recall Dashitsyrenov’s frolicing horse from Tomsk, I mean, from Ulan-Ude.

I am told that Japanese prisoners of war worked on the equestrian topping for the city’s Theater of Opera and Ballet, which recalls the one above Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, though here there are fewer horses.

 

You (or rather, your inner fantasy child) can take a ride on this pony who stands near the Great Fatherland War monument.

I honestly don’t know who these two horsemen are, but they face the train station from behind, overlooking the most horrifying set of stairs I have ever seen–the innocently named “viaduct” that takes the weary traveler from the train station to her hotel, which google maps claims is an easy walk. You do not start at the top; rather, you had to climb four flights of steps to reach the top, from the train platform (carrying your luggage, which you will soon feel as an unnecessary burden, like all things of this world). The stairs seem to end right above that white car. But in fact, you cross that bridge to your left, and there

there are another twenty (or so, it seems) flights down to street level. Then you walk up a long slow hill, cursing your cell phone with what is left of your voice, until eventually you reach the hotel. Somehow I feel that the equestrian statues there were a kind of warning about this, but cryptic.

Focus.

Travel outside of town with Svetlana –with her son Alexander at the wheel – and you may be lucky enough to see some more horses, these just wandering around, unfenced. This is kind of my ultimate conception of freedom.  My excitement was such that Alexander turned off the road and we kind of chased them for a while. (Special thanks to Sasha for doing this, and for being such a careful, expert driver who prefers the right, the correct, lane). These horses led us to lunch.

 

 

Of the dishes on hand, I had only ever tried the buuza, but in its Mongolian variant, at that. There was a kind of slightly sweet Asian custard, like ice cream but not cold or sweet. My favorite was the sheep liver, but the entrail sausages tucked into sheep intestine were also a savory, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Horses and lunch were a mere coda to the centerpiece of my entire visit to Ulan-Ude: a trip to the famous Ivolginsk Datsan outside of town. If you are not lucky enough to have Sasha drive you, you can come on Bus # 108. If you know something about Tibetan Buddhism, this number will have special meaning for you.

You walk clockwise around the periphery of the datsan complex, circling the prayer drums and twirling them as you go.  The central temple enshrines the 12th Pandito Hambo Lama of the Ivolginsky Datsan, Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov, a revered spiritual leader whose body miraculously does not decay.

Learn details of the story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9ETr7_GtHw&fbclid=IwAR219J3a-R9WIbWkpjEN0dIu1txARjWitYIwnojKw_kiGFIsAylQrnfgT50

His spirit fills the air here, and even as you make your wish and prayer for the future, you know that it is already fulfilled here and now.

I have also left some of my spirit here, and in Ulan-Ude, and everywhere else I have visited on this journey.

 

Irkutsk

Chekhov arrived in Irkutsk 4 June 1890, and stayed in room #10 at the Amur Podvore Hotel at #1 B, Furie Street.

The building stands, though it is no longer a hotel. At the time Chekhov could not have known that some 130 years later, just a bit down and across the street, a fine coffee shop, the White Crow (Belaya Vorona)  would overjoy and refresh a weary Chekhov acolyte from far away.

 

This future visitor’s hotel, located in one of those venerable Siberian wooden buildings that are gradually sinking into the earth, doubles as a kind of creepy doll museum with highly breakable knickknacks in showcases.

Your room looks out onto a picturesque courtyard filled with items that might come in handy someday, or possibly might become part of the museum.

     

Guests are greeted by an extraordinary fish named Vitalik, who enjoys gazing at you and comes over to his window sometimes to be patted.  Down the street you can enjoy some Mongol delicacies under the watchful gaze of a Siberian bear.

 

Though inevitably animals are eaten in Irkutsk, they are also loved and respected.

And you can drink water from the Baikal….

Where were we? Oh, Chekhov! Chekhov liked the city, where he spent a week.

Of all Siberian cities, the finest is Irkutsk. […] Irkutsk is a splendid city. Extremely cultured. Theater, museum, a city garden with music, good hotels…There are no ugly fences, absurd signs and vacant lots with notices that one is not to loiter. There is a bar called the Taganrog. Sugar is 24 kopecks; cedar nuts are 6 kopecks a pound. …Irkutsk has carriages with springs. It’s better than Ekaterinburg and Tomsk. A regular Europe…

Из всех сибирских городов самый лучший Иркутск [….]Иркутск превосходный город. Совсем интеллигентный. Театр, музей, городской сад с музыкой, хорошие гостиницы…Нет уродливых заборов, нелепых вывесок и пустырей с надписями о том, что нельзя останавливаться. Есть трактир “Таганрог”. Сахар 24 коп., кедровые орехи 6 коп. за фунт…В Иркутске рессорные пролетки. Он лучше Екатеринбурга и Томска. Совсем Европа…

And there is a Chekhov street, where life in Irkutsk goes on.

    

Like our other Siberian cities, Irkutsk grew on a riverbank. The Angara brings water here from Lake Baikal, just an hour’s drive away; after passing Irkutsk, it bears this Baikal water north to the cold Arctic. I believe I have emphasized the Siberian clouds sufficiently, and that you do not need to be reminded to notice them.

My consultants had told me to  be sure to see some of Baikal’s famous nerpas (seals). So I took my tourist map, on which the word “nerpinarium” had caught my eye, and hopped on a bus heading up the hill from the train station. The trip entailed some major hiking up the hill from the bus stop. I am pleased to say that I was able to find the Nerpinarium. This was the good news.

   

It turns out, the nerpinarium was not only closed, but closed “na remont.”

(I taught you this important Russian expression a few days ago).

The na remont state of affairs might have been the bad news; but it might also have been just more good news. I’ll go for the latter, for the nerpinarium closure freed some time for some Irkutsk exploration. I hopped on a random bus, to see where it would take me.

As the bus rolled off yet further up the hill from the train station and gave the impression of heading someplace quite far away, I felt the need to get to know my fellow passengers. A lady who was sitting next to me, who turned out to have had a career in the Academy of Sciences here in

Irkutsk, suggested that since I was on this bus already, I might as well take a look around the area, which is where a number of academic institutions are based: Akademgorodok. So instead of watching a performance by Baikal seals, I spent some quiet time strolling and breathing pure autumn air in a hilltop park. This is what I would have made back home, if given a choice between a seal show and a walk in the woods.

I could stay here among these birch trees forever, I think.

I could also stay in the town of Irkutsk, which has a lot of character, and might have looked like this when Chekhov visited.

My guide in Irkutsk is a fellow Chekhov enthusiast, Elena Shishparyonok, who teaches in the Journalism department of Irkutsk State University. Elena and I visit two homes commemorating famous Decembrists  who were exiled here.

The Decembrist Revolt

After an attempted coup in 1825, a number of elite officers, members of the nobility were convicted and sentenced to exile in various locations around Siberia. These were the lucky ones; five of their comrades were hanged.

Feel free to google “Decembrist Uprising” for more of this extraordinary episode in Russian history.

The Decembrists left traces all over Siberia. We first encountered them on their journey in Tobolsk, where the Decembrist wifes gave Dostoevsky the famous Gospel text that played such an important role in his live in and after prison and exile, and in his great novels.

Here in Irkutsk, there are two Decembrist “house museums.” One belonged to the daughter of Sergei Trubetskoy (the original house burned down). Ekaterina Trubetskaya, originally from France, married him followed him into exile for love.

 

     

The other museum is in the original house where Sergei Volkonsky, one of the most famous Decembrists, lived with his wife, Maria Volkonsky, who was a princess, and their children.

  

When I visited, the Volkonsky Museum was featuring an exhibit of nineteenth-century fashion.  Some Decembrists were quite wealthy  and were able to receive money from their families back in Western Russia. I was struck by the sense that these homes were centers of culture in Irkutsk–and still are. It takes some effort, walking through these rooms, to recall the suffering hidden behind the walls of these islands of civilization: the families’ separation from their loved ones back home, and their knowledge that their cause of political reform had failed. Not to mention that their punishment included laboring in Siberian mines and other unpleasant activities…

The city itself has lots to offer, in addition to its museums, monuments, and the Chekhov aura that lingers in the air.

One convenient feature of Irkutsk is its many Beeline shops. Here one can receive free psychotherapy in exchange for letting the specialists admire, I mean play with, I mean use, your passport to solve your cell- phone problems.

Ultimately the therapy session led to the purchase of a second SIM card, which my three therapists assured me was truly mine. There was no mention of an Uzbek double, but his shadowy presence lurks in my phone–for his is the one of my two phone numbers that I have spent considerable effort memorizing. As has become customary in my Beeline sessions, we test the phone’s two numbers and they work just fine, IN THE STORE AT LEAST.

Not least among Irkutsk’s many charms is its proximity to the great Lake Baikal. Elena and her husband Roma drove me out for a day on and near the lake, first at the lakeside town (posyolok) of  Listvyanka, and then at a remarkable museum of wooden architecture on the banks of the Angara.

Chekhov left Irkutsk on the evening of June 11, traveling along the river and reaching Listvyanka (then called Listvenichnaya) on the evening of June 12. Chekhov and his companions (including an Irkutsk Technical School student Innokentii Nikitin) rented a small lakeside apartment. There they waited for a boat that they could ride across the lake.

«Байкал удивителен, и недаром сибиряки величают его не озером, а морем. Вода прозрачна необыкновенно, так что видно сквозь неё, как сквозь воздух; цвет у неё нежно-бирюзовый, приятный для глаза. Берега гористые, покрытые лесами; кругом дичь непроглядная, беспросветная. Прожил я на берегу Байкала двое суток. Забайкалье великолепно. Это смесь Швейцарии, Дона и Финляндии». (Из письма Н.А. Лейкину 20 июня 1890 года, пароход «Ермак»)

Baikal, the deepest freshwater body of water in the world, is a mile deep, and Chekhov reports that its stunning beauty sent chills down his spine, and made him curse Levitan—his friend and Russia’s greatest landscape painter—for not being there. We take a few moments here to fantasize about what the trip would have been like if Levitan had come along.

I was able to dip my hand into the cold Baikal at Listvyanka, and indeed to see down through the beautiful, transparent water. To the hungry, a key feature of Listvyanka is its market, where you pick up some of the lake’s famous omul’ for lunch.

 

The food selection is much better than it was in Chekhov’s time; he commented firmly on the abundance of vodka at the expense of pretty much else.

We have taken a little barn of a lodging […]. Just outside the window, two or three yards from the wall, is Lake Baikal. We pay a rouble a day. The mountains, the forests, the mirror-like Baikal are all poisoned for me by the thought that we shal have to stay here till the fifteenth. What are we to do here? What is more, we don’t know what there is for us to eat. The inhabitants feed upon nothing but garlic. There is neither meat nor fish. They have given us no milk, but have promised it. For a little white loaf they demanded sixteen kopecks. I bought some buckwheat and a piece of smoked pork, and asked them to make a thin porridge of it: it was not nice but there was nothing to be done, I had to eat it. All the evening we hunted about the village to find someone who would sell us a hen, and found no one… But there is vodka. The Russian is a great pig. If you ask him why he doesn’t eat meat and fish he justifies himself by the absence of transport, ways and communications, and so on, and yet vodka is to be found in the remotest villages, and as much of it as you please.

–June 13, tr. Constance Garnett Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1st World, 2004, p. 223

Faring much better than Chekhov, Elena, Roma and I stock up on omul’, caviar, lavash, and berries, and head for the Taltsky wooden architecture and ethnography museum. The museum is an astonishing collection of log buildings from all around Siberia, brought here to the banks of the Angara and rebuilt in a beautiful natural setting.

 

When you enter the wooden tepee hut, your head starts to spin. It happened to all three of us…

       

The experience did help build up an appetite.

Ultimately, the high point may have been our picnic, which in addition to the fishy bounties of the Baikal, featured tea and actual, excellent espresso from a little booth nearby.

Just about as good as life can get.

 

 

Krasnoyarsk

Look, we’re halfway!!

After two thousand versts (kilometers, sort of) of “cold, flat plain, crooked birch trees, puddles, an occasional lake, snow in May, and the desolate, depressing shores of the Ob tributaries” east of the Urals,

…or: after a series of waiting rooms, railroad kupes, bus rides, towns, sidewalks, alleyways, parks, promenades, bridges, museums, monuments, historical sites, cafes, libraries, classrooms, galleries, kitchen tables …

Chekhov

and I

was struck with the “original, majestic, and beautiful” natural landscape that begins with the Yenisei River, near Krasnoyarsk. He even gives way to lyrical flights–something we don’t usually associate with his style (but I’m right here by his side).

Not to offend Volga enthusiasts, but over my lifetime I have never seen a river more majestic than the Yenisei. Yes, the Volga is a modest, mournful beauty, decked out in her finery. But the Yenisei is a mighty, furious bogatyr, a larger-than-life elemental hero who has more strength and youth than he knows what to do with.  On the Volga, man started out with reckless ambition, but ended in a groan, that is a song; bright, golden hopes turned into a kind of impotence that has come to be known as Russian pessimism; On the Yenisei life began with a groan, but will end with a reckless ambition the likes of which we haven’t seen even in our dreams. This is at least what I thought when standing on the bank of the great broad Yenisei, gazing greedily at its water, which with terrible speed and force rushes onward to the severe Arctic Ocean.

from Chapter IX of From Siberia

When admiring the Yenisei, Chekhov speaks my language, though I hit Krasnoyarsk on a fine, warm  “Indian summer” (бабье лето) day, and the water was calm.

Even the smokestacks of the factory over there on the right add to the beauty, and to that story that the Siberian clouds have been telling us throughout our journey.

For citizens of Krasnoyarsk the most important part in Chekhov’s travel notes comes when Chekhov calls their town “the best and most beautiful of all Siberian cities.”  Krasnoyarsk respects and loves the Yenisei, and has

lined its bank with a great long promenade complete with trees, walking paths, park benches, and various attractions. I came here with Natalya Kovtun, Professor and Doctor of Philology at Astafiev Krasnoyarsk State Pedagogical University, and author of books and articles about Russian literature, socio-cultural mythology, utopia, and village prose. These topics, not to mention Dostoevsky and Chekhov (of course) kept us in animated conversation until we reached this high viewing platform.

At which point the mighty river commanded us to be still.

The Yenisei’s spell is so strong that we neglected to turn around (except for this photo). If we had, we might have spotted my quarry: a monument to Chekhov! He occupies a place of honor on the square in front of the Krasnoyarsk Opera and Ballet Theater. I attest that I did breathe the air near the  monument, but ultimately had to steal this photo from the internet:

Картинки по запросу chekhov monument in krasnoyarsk

Now I might be just making this up, but it seems to me that this Chekhov is presented in the Siberian monument mode of Explorer and Conqueror. Anton Pavlovich leans into the wind, which blows his tie picturesquely to the side; it is the same wind that churned those Yenesei waves just a few moments ago. We have seen this heroic style, for example, with Ermak of Tobolsk, or, dare I say, with this very Lenin, whom we saw a couple of posts ago

(or a couple of hours ago here in Krasnoyarsk, a few blocks back into town from the river, on the other side of Gorky Park, or, in fact, in many other cities across the land),

or even the triumphant Dostoevsky, whom Sergei, Nastya and I saw at the moment of his release from the Omsk fortress. (There’s even a tinge of Sir Walter Raleigh, from my neck of the woods.) This particular Chekhov offers quite a contrast to his barefooted Tomsk version.  Which is OK; there are many Chekhovs, and many ways of viewing (and reading) him. Let Krasnoyarsk have this Chekhov. And since Chekhov is my role model, let me, too, stand up straighter, flip my scarf to one side and make a half-turn into the wind.

However you read the Krasnoyarsk Chekhov, it’s pretty impressive he left such a strong mark, given that he spent just one day here (just slightly less than I did). He did not conquer the river, or occupy the territory for Russia, or defend the city against attackers; basically he just passed through–and wrote some things down.

But that was enough. It brought me here, after all.

A stroll around the Krasnoyarsk leads you to treasures such as these majestic wooden buildings, which are nestled into the modern cityscape:

 

Remembering Tomsk, you indulge in a momentary fantasy, dismantling the modern concrete buildings that surround these beauties, and reconstructing in your mind whole rows of them. Many are, rather, were, part of households, which include outbuildings–sheds, barns, a bathhouse–gathered in cozy, fenced-in courtyards. The estate of  the artist Surikov, whose museum you can visit here (as I mentioned in Tobolsk…), gives a good impression of what that way of life was like.

   

On my second day in Krasnoyarsk, at the invitation of senior instructor Oksana Tolstonozhenko I participated in a public discussion with literature and journalism students (“Russian Classics today: a Meeting and Conversation”)  at Siberian Federal University (Here is their website: http://ifiyak.sfu-kras.ru.  Energetic young instructors, Yulia Ulyankina and Yana Bazhenova had prepared an interactive lesson about the ways pop-culture co-opts

literature for its own purposes (for example, using literary characters as models for certain pathologies). Our short but action-packed discussion reminded me of why we always come back to Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov (and the others) when we realize that our “big questions” about justice and injustice, love and duty cannot be answered.  Yana and Yulia quoted from self-help websites that cite literary characters’ experience (Anna Karenina, Raskolnikov) as cautionary examples.

Until you go deeper, you might find yourself using literary plots as sources of advice as to how you should behave when facing impossible choices. But of course we know that the purpose of great literature is deeper than that. I too am Anna, and I don’t need some social scientist to prove to me what is the right thing to do when I reach the crossroads. Door Number One will plunge me into the depths of hell. Door Number Two will leave me frustrated and self-righteous for the rest of my life. Like I don’t know it’s wrong??

It’s called life. Close your eyes and jump in! Join the rest of humanity! Both choices are right, and both are wrong. Anyway, in here, in the book, you get to spend time with someone whose experience you recognize, and whose suffering you share. That’s tragedy, and sorry, it does not provide easy answers.

Or, hey, take a break and read some comedy. Funny stuff also makes life worth living.

Here in Krasnoyarsk, yet again, I was impressed with the seriousness, professionalism, and passion that our Russian colleagues bring to the classroom.  I learned a lot from Yana and Yulia’s ability to make literature relevant to their students’ daily lives, while stimulating them to think critically and deeply.  This alert crop, I learned, contains some budding authors–possibly a new Dostoevsky, or maybe a new Chekhov.  I look forward to seeing their works on the shelves in a few years. And maybe my students back in the US will translate them. Bring it on.

The front row is flanked by, on the right, foreign literature specialist Tatyana Nipa, and on the left,  Russian literature specialist Vladimir Vasiliev, both of them candidates and dotsents.

To my excitement, Vladimir Kirillovich is an expert on one of our blog heroes, the archpriest Avvakum. Duke students take note. This journey of mine is turning out to be, along with everything else, a justification of my own obsession with this crazy Russian genius and his autobiography–itself, like this, a Siberian travelogue. It is always good, when you’re fanatical about something, to find fellow travelers on your journey–or at your stopping points.

I would have enjoyed spending some more time in this very interesting place, but like Chekhov, I had to press on. Yana, Oksana, and a very strong young man and expert Russia driver, Yevgenii,  kindly delivered me to the train station. Like most other Russian drivers I’ve met, Yevgenii prefers to carry your suitcase, rather than rolling it on its wheels. By whatever means, it is a beautiful thing when you don’t have to carry it up all those stairs yourself.

By mid-afternoon, I was speeding eastward through birch forests, flooded meadows, and, when night fell, a black sky teeming with stars, the same ones we never get to see back home in any city.

Novokuznetsk: А Love Story

 

The thing about exile is that it is far away.

Dostoevsky was sent to Semipalatinsk as a common soldier after his release from the Omsk fortress  on March 2, 1854. The city is now called “Semey,” and it is now in Kazakhstan.  Find Omsk in the map (under the “A” in “Russian Federation”) and slide down to the southeast until you see the second little red airplane. Like Omsk and other key locations on our journey, Semipalatinsk is on the Irtysh River.

Outside Dostoevsky circles, Semipalatinsk is best-known as a nuclear weapons testing facility, and the location of the first Soviet nuclear bomb test in 1949. For us Dostoevsky fanatics, though, its key attraction is its Dostoevsky Museum (https://www.fedordostoevsky.ru/museums/semipalatinsk/. In normal circumstances (whatever that means), this would put the town squarely on my itinerary.  But not only do you need to veer wildly off the main route (whatever that is); you also have to get a visa to enter Kazakhstan. I am not proud of this, but I chickened out.

Instead, I decide to follow a love story.

This means a significant detour from the Trans-Siberian, also, I might say, not for the chicken-hearted, to the city of Novokuznetsk (formerly Stalinsk, and before that, Kuznetsk).  A nice straight line would take me from Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk. But down to Novokuznetsk it is quite the zig-zag: a night train from Novosibirsk, a few hours in Novokuznetsk, and then  back on the next night train to Novosibirsk. Seems arduous, but compared with Dostoevsky’s travel from Semipalatinsk to Kuznetsk by dusty horse carriage, it’s nothing.

Your train arrives at 6:00 am.  Too early for breakfast. You’ve figured, OK, let’s get oriented and find the museum, then we can sit and have some coffee nearby for a couple of hours before our date with the muzeishchiki after the museum opens at 11:00.

There’s plenty of time, so why not walk? A half-hour on the hoof down a long, chilly, gray avenue makes it clear that Novokuznetsk is larger in reality than it seemed to be on the map.  So you subject your cell phone to a vicious beating, and then set to learning about public transit. It’s not that hard, really.

Personally, I love transit systems that include conductors who take coins and can answer questions.

Eventually, after a very long spell of gazing out the window at the broad gray avenues of Novokuznetsk (a landscape ominously devoid of eating establishments), I am deposited near this church.  Turn your back to it and look across the street:

Progress! Now for that coffee, a muffin, a dose of wi-fi, the New York Times on my iPad, a nice little dip into the WC….

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!

There are some industrial facilities, a couple of storage lots, a bit of what could be called traffic at 7:30 a.m. (trucks, and and a couple of guys walking on the side of the road in weathered work clothes, carrying what appear to be lunch bags). A car or two. The barking of invisible dogs.

It dawns on me that there will not be coffee, or food. Nor will there be even a place to sit down, for it is muddy on Dostoevsky Street. I try not to think about what I must look like to the natives, train-disheveled, bespectacled, bewildered, scowling at my cell phone.

One good thing; my (OK, all right, our) navigation is good:

Looks pretty closed up–after all, it is 8:00 on a Saturday morning.  Three hours to opening. I could kind of lean on the wall for a couple of those hours, I guess. Or do a Dmitry Karamazov.

I choose the latter. Right about where you see my big-city gray bag hanging on the palings, I make my move. A person of my age and dignity level really shouldn’t be clambering, but after some huffing and puffing and a couple of snags, it works. I’m in!

I dust myself off, neaten things up on my person, prowl the yard, and reconnoiter.

                    

Footsteps…

A man walks through the gate. It was not locked.

It is Alexander Evgenievich. Alexander Evgenievich is the night guard.  He does not shoot me. Instead he gently walks me into the (unlocked) door of the museum and introduces me to Olga, who is sitting quietly there behind the reception desk. He says to Olga, “feed her.”

      

Olga doesn’t seem to notice my bedraggled state, nor the fact that I have just broken into the Dostoevsky Museum. She takes me by the hand and walks me to her cozy house down the street. Oladi, fresh ham, vegetables, and hot tea magically appear. I have fallen down the rabbit hole. Time, which 15 minutes ago was a terrible burden, opens up infinite possibilities at the place Russia does best: the kitchen table.

Once calm has been restored, and we have shared life experiences, and I have savored this sublime breakfast, Olga walks me back to the Museum.

There she hands me over tenderly to the museum’s Deputy Director for Research Elena Dmitrievna Trukhan, who takes me through a couple of special exhibits in the main building. One of these displays artifacts and photographs of theatrical productions of Dostoevsky’s work done here by visiting directors. I am lucky to catch the exhibit, which is to be taken down TODAY. Even better, I meet the photographer, Vladimir Semyonovich Pilipenko, a kind and very alert observer who has traveled all over Russia taking pictures. He’s not about to stop today. Indeed, Vladimir Semyonovich’s photos will soon appear in a report about our day together with Elena Dmitrievna at the museum. http://dom-dostoevskogo.ru/novosti/vizit-prezidenta-mezhdunarodnogo-obshhestva-dostoevskogo.html

The other exhibit is a charming collection of children’s art inspired by the great children’s writer and poet Kornei Chukovsky.

The children have done collages and paper sculptures of Chukovsky characters. Here, as elsewhere on my travels, I’m deeply impressed with the Russian emphasis on arts education, and with the ways museums are reaching out to children, not just as places where they can learn about famous people, places and events, but where they can interact with history and literature, and, importantly, create art themselves.

Yes, science is important. Art is equally important, and you need it for your soul.

Dostoevsky made three trips to (pre Novo-) Kuznetsk, spending a total of 22 days here, all in pursuit, and finally conquest, of Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, whom he married in Kuznetsk in February of 1857. He had met her previously in Semipalatinsk, before her husband was transferred here. Then her husband died here….

1st visit: 2 days in June 1856: during this first visit to Kuznetsk, Dostoevsky learned that he had a rival for her hand (Nikolai Vergunov);

2nd visit: 5 days in November 1856: having received his promotion to the rank of ensign (praporshchik)– he came to make an official proposal of marriage to Maria Dmitrevna;

3d visit: 15 days in January-February 1857: during this visit he married Maria Dmitrievna in the Odigitrievskaya Church, and spent the first days of his married life before returning with her and her son to Semipalatinsk.

Just down Dostoevsky Street from the museum’s main building, you can visit the house of the tailor Dmitriev, where Maria and her first husband Alexander Isaev rented a room.  Wonder what she would have thought if she could have known her house was going to be on Dostoevsky Street? Wonder if anyone thought of naming it Maria Dmitrievna Street?

After posing this question, I received a fascinating answer from Elena Dmitrievna. Turns out, since the house technically did not belong to Dostoevsky, for years officials refused to allow a museum to be opened here. Only with the devoted efforts of local enthusiasts, with the support of the Dostoevsky Museum in Moscow, not to mention the sheer force of historical memory, did the museum finally open in 1980. The curious can read the full story here:

«Додумались» (в плохом смысле) чиновники, работающие в культуре. Очень долгое время они не давали открыть музей Достоевского в Новокузнецке, всячески препятствовали этому, называя дом не «Домиком Достоевского», как зовут сейчас его жители Новокузнецка, а Домом Исаевой, Домом портного Дмитриева. Их аргумент был «железным» и непробиваемым: «Не в каждом доме, где у писателя случился роман, надо открывать музеи».

Такой узкий краеведческий подход к событию (без культурного и литературного контекста) сделал своё грустное дело: открыть музей в Новокузнецке удалось только в 1980 году – то есть спустя 130 лет (!!!) после событий в Кузнецке.   Вообще удивительно, как это удалось сделать! Если бы не помощь руководства музея Достоевского в Москве, если бы не местные энтузиасты-краеведы Новокузнецка, если бы не человеческая память, этого бы вовсе не случилось.   И тогда еще одно место, связанное с жизнью Достоевского в Сибири, навсегда было утрачено.

Anyway, the house–the museum–is beautiful.

 

Elena takes me through the house. It is not an ordinary museum; rather it offers a kind of adventure, a three-dimensional experience or even performance that loops in the story of Dostoevsky’s courtship of Maria with the larger story of the way his time with her influenced his writing. Novokuznetsk is a Dostoevsky city because of Maria’s story. Elena tells me this story, leading me from room to room. Vladimir Semyonovich is with us.

The diorama shows what Kuznetsk looked like when Maria lived here. The different rooms each offer a

part of her story, display documents and artifacts related to her relationship with Dostoevsky, and offer connections to his works. Here, for example, are copies of documents registering witnesses to their wedding ceremony, and Dostoevsky’s own scrawled lists of wedding expenses he had to cover. Elena is an active scholar herself, and works in archives to fill out the pictures relating to these years. For example, she found a document recording that Maria Dmitrievna had served as godmother of a baby (of the local citizen Petr Sapozhnikov) during her time in Kuznetsk. And, it turns out (as other scholars discovered), Maria Dmitrievna served as godmother to another child in that family AFTER her marriage. So the question stands; did Maria Dmitrievna and her husband (?!) make another visit to Kuznetsk?! The research continues.

     

The displays remind us of the ways Dostoevsky drew upon Maria Dmitrievna’s personality when creating characters such as Crime and Punishment‘s Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova, and even Nastasia Filippovna of The Idiot. I take a quiet minute to ponder what it is, anyway, that writers do with life experience… Back in the museum, Dostoevsky’s famous meditation on the impossibilty of shedding the ego–written by his wife’s deathbed–“Masha is lying on the table,” is exhibited here on the wall.

    .

One emerges from the museum full of impressions and thoughts about what life was like for Maria, and about why this person, time, and place were so formative for Dostoevsky’s life and works.

Elena then walks me around Novokuznetsk, to buildings that were standing during Dostoevsky’s time,   

and to the town’s major attraction, the hilltop fortress, which in addition to its historical value, offers a beautiful view over Novokuznetsk:

     

We visit a newly renovated church (glimpsed in the photo above), and a newly built chapel by the train station.

Tolstoy fans will appreciate the fact that Valentin Bulgakov, the writer’s secretary during the last year of his life, was from Kuznetsk. The name is familiar to anyone who saw the recent movie about Tolstoy’s last year, The Last Station, which draws on Bulgakov’s memoirs. On a longer visit I’d definitely visit the district school where Bulgakov’s father served as inspector–now a branch of the Novokuznetsk Ethnography Museum. Elena shows me the monument to him and Tolstoy: “Teacher and Student” (Учитель и ученик).

    

But let us not get distracted. Check out the Novokuznetsk Dostoevsky Museum’s website and many activities, including a virtual tour of an earlier iteration of the museum. And recently specialists in 3D graphics have produced a new virtual visit to the museum’s permanent exhibit, “A Guide to Novokuznetsk”: read about it here: http://www.dom-dostoevskogo.ru/novosti/3d-dostoevskij.html

Here’s the actual tour: http://vrkuzbass.ru/muz/nvkz/fmd/

And more! Check them out:

http://www.museum.ru/M1875

http://eng.md.spb.ru/dostoevskij/drugie_muzei_pisatelya/kuzneck/

https://www.fedordostoevsky.ru/museums/novokuznetsk/

http://dom-dostoevskogo.ru/muzei_dostoevsk/index.html

Take my word for it, Novokuznetsk has a lot to offer, and not just to Dostoevsky fanatics like me.

I am nurtured, mind, body and soul. But I cannot stay….there is a train to catch.

 

Meanwhile, in the Basement

We’ve had our fun with the drunken peasant and grumpy Chekhov, and we’ve spent some time living the life of the mind. But as always, there are other stories to tell.

Do a random sample among my people (in the US), asking about their perceptions of Siberia, and my hunch is that the Gulag will be right up there with snow, vodka, and bears.

Every university (and basically, every institution and individual) in the Soviet Union was touched by the Great Terror of the 1930s (and the other years of terror). Everywhere, behind the scenes of normality lurk the spirits of imprisoned, executed, marginalized, “repressed” (as the polite term would have it) victims. Having begun my study of Russian and Russia during darkest zastoi (“back in the USSR”),  I’ve taken a wild ride through history, as one country disappeared and another took its place, and as people began to recapture their history and to grapple with the extraordinary upheavals of the post-Soviet period.

There’s no end to the marathon I’m on.

As I’ve traveled from city to city this fall, meeting people and getting a sense for everyday life in Siberia in 2019, I’ve also been able to visit sites touched by the country’s darker history. Regions, squares, and streets still bear the names of the perpetrators (Sverdlov, Dzerzhinsky, Lenin), even as museums, statues, and memorials to the victims rise up and find their place.

Tomsk is no exception. Like Tobolsk, the town served as a Gulag transit center; some prisoners passed through on their way to more distant places, others were settled in “facilities” in and around town. I found the Tomsk NKVD Memorial Museum particularly moving. The museum is unique in that it is set in the actual building where prisoners were held and interrogations took place.

To get to the museum  exhibits you descend a long dark stairway and alight in a basement corridor lined with small chambers. These were  were either cells or interrogation rooms. What I found extraordinary in the museum was the abundance of individual stories that it manages to tell, even as it presents the Gulag’s physical geography, its facts, dates, and statistics. Behind each fact and number lies a human tragedy, families torn apart, individuals tortured and murdered, children orphaned. One scary exhibit is a document (one of many) listing quotas of arrests that were assigned to each region. We know this; people were arrested not necessarily for any particular crime, but to meet NKVD quotas. During the height of the Terror, those administrators whose job it was to arrest, interrogate, and sentence people feared for their own lives. In one document a local official writes to Stalin asking for his quota to be raised by a few hundred or thousand–I don’t remember–in the hopes that his zeal in rooting out enemies will spare him from being arrested and shot himself.  In Stalin’s handwriting, the official’s request is “approved.” And as a result, several hundred more people were arrested and executed–and probably, in due time, the desperate man who wrote this particular appeal.

Looking at the various displays with these numbers rattling around in your brain, you learn individuals’ stories. The scariest part is recognizing in these stories the all-too human failings that led people to denounce their neighbors and co-workers. The deadly sins were at work: envy, greed, wrath, and the others, too. If your neighbor was arrested, you might be next in line to move into his slightly better room or apartment. If an over-achieving colleague disappeared, your own crappy work might not look so bad after all.

 

The Tomsk museum and the other museums across the country are built, piece by piece, from testimony of individual family members, colleagues, and friends of victims; from treasured artifacts and items reflecting people’s lives at home and in prison; from photos of individuals and their families; from meticulous archival research by scholars, and even from accidental discoveries made during an afternoon walk. At one point, someone stumbled upon a mass grave site exposed by erosion on a river bank near Tomsk:

If your instinct is to destroy history, or cover up something shameful you did, this and other museums have a message for you. Stories find a way to be told. The ghosts will rise up. As in the Tobolsk Romanov museum, I was struck by the sheer power of facts and stories. In my students’ writing, I purge adverbs. If the facts are there and the story captures the reader, there’s no need to pile on expressions of your feeling, what the Russians call “pafos” (pathos). Just tell what happened, to whom, and when, and that will be enough.

Thank you, everyone who has a story to tell, and thank you, historians (and muzeishchiki) for telling it so effectively.

In US universities students are turning away from the study of history to focus on the world as it is now (or will be in the future, as if we ivory-tower-dwellers knew anything about that). The world around them–at home, in the news, and among their peers–reinforces this message. So, in fact do our universities, whose rhetoric focuses almost exclusively on “the future.”

innovate, invent, discover, collaborate, serve, build, design, create,…get out of the box, move forward

How many major institutions of learning (I’m just talking about the US, now) are touting their role as guardians and custodians of the past? I’m not hearing it.  Our students heed the call: they come to us not to learn things, but rather to think up things and make things. I’m for that, and I want some of those new things myself. And I take great pride when I and my students and colleagues come up with new things. But it is true that new things mostly come from old things.  So let’s not forget to take some looks in the rear-view mirror as we “move forward into the future.”

Outside the Tomsk NKVD Museum–as in so many Siberian towns–stands a memorial to the victims of the Great Terror.

Here is the museum’s website:

http://nkvd.tomsk.ru/about/

Tomsk

 

The Tom River

Chekhov’s trip to Sakhalin was cold, long, uncomfortable, dangerous, and, to judge from his reports from the road, mostly wet. At the end of the 19th century, Siberia’s roads were primarily rivers, running south-north; though the Trans-Siberian railway was glimmering in decision-makers’ minds, things would not get underway until a few years later. If you travel anywhere in Russia during the spring, you are going to get caught in the thaw; all that snow melts, leaving you sopping wet and helpless to get where you’re going. From the window of a speeding trans-Siberian train between Ulan-Ude and Khabarovsk, it’s beautiful…

though your (nice, quiet, female) kupe-mate Liza tells you that the serene, shimmery waterscape you’re seeing is actually the aftermath of a disastrous flood.

All of this inclines the mind to contemplation, musing, philosophizing, and complaining. In Chekhov’s case, some of this mental and verbal activity takes place at post stations (while waiting for horses, trying to dry off, and drinking tea). Some of it finds expression in his travel notes “From Siberia” and letters home, and some of it brews quietly inside, fermenting and mixing with impressions. This potent brew will gush forth when the big trip is over and when, for the first time in his life, Chekhov will settle down in a home of his own. How much the Melikhovo fictional masterpieces owe to this period of suffering and reflection cannot be calculated–but I’ll bet it’s more than we usually think. We may not notice because the references to Siberia in his subsequent fiction are muted and few. And of course the Island of Sakhalin, and The Island of Sakhalin, came in between the experience and the fiction.

Art is an alchemy that science, fortunately, cannot explain.

After his wet crossing of the Irtysh and that short interval with Sergei in Tiukalinsk, Chekhov pressed on through various small villages, including the appropriately named Pustynnoe (empty or desolate), BTW not stopping in nearby Omsk, where Sergei and I began. “Empty” may well characterize the annoyances of this leg of his trip, for he was held up by various absences (or post horses, of boats) on his way to the Tom River. Finally, after a difficult crossing, he made it to Tomsk late at night on May 15. He would spend a week here, leaving May 21 (yes, 1890, despite Sergei).

After wind, rain, icy dunkings and soakings, chills, and a cold, it is only natural that Chekhov would be grumpy upon his arrival in Tomsk. He liked the dinners at the Slavyansky Bazaar (BTW he used to eat at the Slavyansky Bazaar in Moscow too), but not much else, and basically holed up in his hotel room. Chekhov’s bad mood and the few words he said about Tomsk would prove formative to the city’s self-image forever after. Words carry weight whose impact can never be predicted.

Chekhov wrote to his family from Tomsk on 20 May [the important bit is translated].

[…]

Два месяца тому назад умер здесь таганрогский таможенный Кузовлев, в нищете.

От нечего делать принялся за дорожные впечатления и посылаю их в «Новое время»; будете читать их приблизительно после 10 июня. Пишу обо всем понемножку: трень-брень. Пишу не для славы, а в отношении денег и в рассуждении взятого аванса.

[now here’s the snarky bit about Tomsk]

Томск скучнейший город. Если судить по тем пьяницам, с которыми я познакомился, и по тем вумным людям, которые приходили ко мне в номер на поклонение, то и люди здесь прескучнейшие. По крайней мере мне с ними так невесело, что я приказал человеку никого не принимать.

Tomsk is a colossally boring town. To judge from the drunks  I met, and from the local eggheads who came to my hotel room to pay their respects, the people here are utterly stultifying. I had such an unpleasant time with them that I ordered the hotel servant not to receive anyone.

Был в бане. Отдавал в стирку белье (по 5 коп. за платок!). Покупал от скуки шоколат.

Благодарю Ивана за книги. Я теперь покоен. Если он не с вами, то напишите ему, что я кланяюсь. Отцу послано письмо. Послал бы таковое и Ивану, но не знаю наверное, где он живет и куда поехал.

Через 2½ дня буду в Красноярске, а через — 8 в Иркутске. До Иркутска 1500 верст.

Заварил себе кофе и сейчас буду пить. Утро. Скоро зазвонят к поздней обедне.

После Томска начнется тайга. Посмотрим.

[…] Ваш А. Чехов.

Душа моя кричит караул. Помилуйте, мой бедный чемодан-сундук остается в Томске, а покупаю я себе новый чемодан, мягкий и плоский, на к<ото>ром можно сидеть и к<ото>рый не разобьется от тряски. Бедный сундучок таким образом попал в Сибирь на поселение.

A brief nod to the Tomsk postal service here–how else would he have been able to get books from his brother Ivan? (and of course we are curious as to what books they were):

      

Usually only the nasty part about Tomsk in Chekhov’s letter is quoted, but zooming back provides a context.  Exhausted from the road, Chekhov learns of the death of a home-town acquaintance here in Tomsk; annoyed at the cost of doing laundry

(The cost of doing laundry is one thing that I can attest has not changed in Russia hotels over the ensuing 129 years. Chekhov paid 5 kopecks for a hanky to be washed; today to wash the same item will cost you 50 rubles (which I’m going to guess is about the equivalent by 21st-century standards). Yes, you heard me right-almost a dollar. Your jeans will cost $6 to wash. You gasp, then ask yourself which is better: to spend the whole day stomping on your jeans in the shower or to go out questing for Chekhov during your brief time on Sakhalin Island. It took you several decades to get here, remember]. BTW if you are young and nimble enough to stay in hostels (aka dorm rooms with bunks for eight people and one flooded bathroom down the hall that you share with four other dorm rooms and some local fauna who have managed to crawl up all four flights of stairs, because the other bathroom is out of service [your Russian word of the day: na remont]), you can do an entire load of laundry for 150 rubles (less than you’ll pay in a US laundrymat). I have done this. But oh, the noise, oh, the lines, oh, the miasmas… To be fair, I don’t think they want a professor sleeping with them; it’s kind of a reversal of the Vakhta situation in the train kupe. I get it. And I won’t join you guys at Shooters either. Or Facebook you. Live these frisky years of your life free from prying eyes; they will end soon, and before you know it you will have a toddler lurking at your feet, soaking up everything you say and do with his shockingly sensitive radar.

aware of his debt to his dean, I mean Suvorin, and the consequent need to sit there in our hotel room and write; aware that he was not yet even halfway through his journey): it all just compounds the feelings of exhaustion and boredom he brought to Tomsk. It is from Tomsk that Chekhov sent his first travel notes from the road for publication in Suvorin’s New Time. 

PSS Editors’ notes: In the first six chapters he sent from Tomsk, Chekhov did describe the segment of his trip between Tiumen and Tomsk, explaining in a letter to Suvorin that he was writing it for him personally, because he was not afraid of being “‘too subjective and not afraid thаt there were more thoughts and feelings in them about Chekhov than about Siberia.”  (В первых шести главах, отправленных из Томска, Чехов все же осветил отрезок пути между Тюменью и Томском, оговорив в письме Суворину, что писал лично для него, потому не боялся быть «слишком субъективным и не боялся, что в них больше чеховских чувств и мыслей, чем Сибири»)

I don’t disagree with Chekhov all that often, but in 2019 he is dead wrong about Tomsk. My impressions are different.  What I saw was a charming university town with a lovely riverfront promenade and stunning wooden architecture. I could picture living here–though admittedly you have to factor in that I hit town on a lovely warm summer day, and was welcomed by generous, solicitous hosts who showed me Tomsk’s best features. I saw no drunks (meaning, people who might have seemed drunk from the outside).

But really, Chekhov, if a visitor just passing through can draw sweeping conclusions about a whole town from the sighting of a few drunks in the street, how would the rest of us Image result for durham shootersfare?  Take a stroll near Shooters in Durham some random Saturday night at 2:00 am (uh, or whenever), and a whole throng of future elite, educated white-collar professionals might look and sound no better than these  ditch-hugging Tomsk lushes. And, when you factor in the lurking corporate elements in this picture, my hometown Durham would be running neck and neck with something way worse than Chekhov’s momentarily glimpsed Tomsk.

Just saying.

But Tomsk is no dummy. The town would take sweet revenge in 2004.  As part of its celebration of its 400th birthday (commemorated in part by the stone at your right, if you’re on a grown-up computer), the townspeople took up a collection and installed a statue by sculptor Leontii Usov on the river embankment, offering an inebriated local’s point of view on the transient visitor, entitled, “Anton Pavlovich Chekhov in Tomsk, seen by the eyes of a drunk peasant lying in a ditch and never having read  the story “Kashtanka” (Антон Павлович Чехов в Томске глазами пьяного мужика, лежащего в канаве и не читавшего «Каштанку”. The peasant’s viewing position on the ground and his impaired vision have distorted the great writer’s body proportions. It is a nice touch that the Chekhov statue stands within

eyeshot of The Slavyansky Bazaar, the writer’s dining place of choice in Tomsk. Predictably, Chekhov’s oversized feet and tipped vertical axis, along with other irreverent details provoked an indignant reaction from a small segment of pedantic Tomskian egg-heads. Chekhov would never have gone out barefooted! He is our great genius! How can you show such disrespect to our national heritage?

Oh, how I would love to win the lottery and  fund a statue of Chekhov, author of “Fat and Thin,” “The Malefactor,” “Daughter of Albion,” and hundreds of other hilarious send-ups of human nature. My Chekhov would rolling (in laughter) in his grave, or perhaps in a pas de deux with the inebriated peasant. I would try to persuade the (any) town to place it next to some national hero presiding over the city’s central square amid all the government buildings. Why not bring some life, and laughter, and love, and joy, and dare we say, power, into the public square? The millions of kids gathering out there, upon whose thin, passionate shoulders rests the world’s terrifying future,  sure could use it.

The statue in the center happens to be in Krasnoyarsk, but every Russian provincial town has one.

And don’t think you’re off the hook, USA.

I came upon the beautiful, funny horse, by extraordinary Buryat artist Bato Dashitsyrenov, a couple of weeks later (a few days ago) in Ulan-Ude’s central art museum, and I had to double him here for full effect. Most of the writers so urgently commemorated with their statues and street names and museums and plaques had lots and lots of bad days, many of them in the very cities where their statues stand in all their bronze dignity, intimidating the mortals who dare to approach with anything but a pure, blank heart and a bouquet of flowers. We have addressed this with Tolstoy in Kazan. And I’m sure more opportunities will arise. What is wrong with shaking things up a bit? They were people too, despite the divine spark they harbored within, which may be absent, or more likely suppressed, in your run-of-the-mill egg-head.

Really: why aren’t there more funny statues out there? (In this category, Omsk gets an honorable mention).

Speaking of calming down, ahem, fortunately Tanya  (see below) gave me a little model of the Tomsk Chekhov statue, so I did not have

to steal my Galereya Hotel keychain, (an act which, to my shame, I had considered). Just behind the Chekhov statue–which has become one of Tomsk’s most famous

landmarks (hee hee hee), one can pound out a tune on a durable old piano placed out here on the Tom river bank. This, too, is an idea that every single town in the world should borrow, and not just during carefully curated arts weeks.

It’s OK, we don’t bite.

Anyway, if and when he left his hotel room, Chekhov might have seen something like this:

  File:022 Томск Общий вид с воскресенской горы на новособорную площадь (cropped).jpg

As, astonishingly, did I. What might have seemed dank and backward to a big-city traveler surfing through provincial tоwns in 1890, to me has the look of a world heritage site. And I beg UNESCO to come here and protect this incredible treasure: not just one of these houses, but the whole town.

In Tomsk, Dostoevsky, despite his absence, led me into the generous and alert scholarly care of good people, long-term Dostoevsky Campers, professors Elena Novikova and Olga Sedelnikova (both still glowing from their trip to this summer’s International Symposium in Boston). Translation (and Dostoevsky) also conjured up the very kind Tatyana (Tanya) Korotchenko, an acute and sensitive scholar of literature and translation, who once studied in the US, at the University of Wisconsin. Elena and Tanya showed me around the University and introduced me to some colleagues.

Olga and her beautiful white-furred assistant Nika treated me to a calm, but utterly fascinating drive round Tomsk’s wooden neighborhoods. One very nice thing about Olga is that she drives in the right lane, which soothes your nerves and allows you fully to concentrate on the wonders you are seeing around you.

        

Be sure not to miss the Burger Bar.

   

   

In “From Siberia,” Chekhov tells of a conversation he has with a peasant (Petr Petrovich)  at Krasny Yar while enduring a long wait for a boat to arrive so he can continue his journey. In his folksy way, Petr Petrovich warns of the destruction the railroad will bring:

“Around here, if someone’s been as far as Tomsk, he sticks his nose in the air, like he’s been around the whole world and back. But the papers are saying that they’re going to bring the railroad here soon. Tell me, sir, what’s that going to be like? The machine runs on steam – I get that. But if it has to pass through the village, it’s going to break down the huts and run over people!” (Chapter V), May 13, 1890)

These stunning houses  go on and on, and you can’t get enough, and you worry about them like babies, and you wonder if the fire prevention people are on the case, and you feel it’s time to petition UNESCO. And you wish that Chekhov had mentioned these cool wooden buildings, because if he had, people would have paid attention, maybe, and they would have been loved even more, and preserved even better, than they are now. But then you realize that probably everywhere Chekhov went he saw wooden houses like these, because they were a standard thing in Siberia, and the reason you don’t see so many nowadays is of course that wood burns, and rots, and is replaced by more durable, but less beautiful materials. And you remember that the trans-Siberian railroad passed Tomsk by, meaning that there was no incentive for people to gut the town and turn it into an industrial capital like other Siberian cities, with their noise, and pollution, and their spewings into the rivers, and their big roads built on the bones of dead, beautiful wooden buildings, wide asphalt roads cleared for trucks to speed along, delivering heavy things to the train station; streets lined with hulking, ugly concrete buildings to manufacture stuff in, and other buildings to sell that stuff in, and other buildings for workers to live in, and banks to put all that new money in. And all of it rushing to and from the railroad and taking Tomsk’s precious things away.

This phantom, apocalyptic place, railroaded Tomsk, exists only as a sideshadow, an alternative fate that could have befallen the town and swept its world treasures onto the trash heap, along with the spirits of its people. Thank you, Tomsk, for lying low and letting the fast things pass you by. But now that I think about it, the joke, here too, is on the rest of us.

Olga takes me up to the mountaintop, where a fortress was, where there are other streets lined with yet more, beautiful, wooden houses, and a church, and where you can look down over the city. And the Siberian clouds tell their story.

I think that the next person who travels this route should focus exclusively on the sky.

        

Everything is more exciting when you are with your kind, whatever species. But we are nowhere near finished. There is a whole lot more to see in Tomsk.

The University

It’s not really fair to call it “the” university, since there are lots of institutions of higher learning in Tomsk. But my visit happened to be at Tomsk State University, where Elena teaches, and where Tanya was in the graduate program before taking a position at the nearby Tomsk Polytechnic University. There are an awful lot of smart people in Tomsk, Siberia’s university town: formidable scholars, teachers, translators, researchers, and, of course students. The visitor can feel an abundance of human talent and energy here, a heady mix of youth, irreverence, studiousness, lightheartedness, and dedication to the work and business and mission of education.

Tomsk State University is proud to be the first Russian University founded on Asian territory, opened, after much thinking and planning and building, in 1898.Elena and Tanya take me to see two founders of Tomsk University, Professors Florinsky and our old acquaintance from Tobolsk, Dmitry Mendeleev.

  

Elena (on the right), who is professor and doctor (which means a lot in Russia), teaches and researches in the department of Russian and Foreign Literature, and does a lot of outreach through the “Open University” project. Everyone in Russia is talking about ways to celebrate the upcoming big bicentennial of Dostoevsky’s birth, and a number of Siberian universities are going to hold conferences. Elena and Tanya and I meet the Dean of Philology, and there is some discussion of ways to celebrate the occasion virtually.

Tomsk State University is anchored by its stately white central building; here decision-makers work, and the hallways are lined with portraits of founders and famous professors. The room where important meetings are held doubles as a museum featuring artifacts from Siberian peoples.

,                

   

We take a moment to admire the portrait of Faina Zinovievna Kanunova, revered philologist and professor and long-serving chair of the Russian and Foreign Literature Department who won the Russian state prize and many other honors. I take a minute to ponder how many American university professors ever give some thought to the contributions of their predecessors, who made their institutions what they are. Administrators do think about our workplace’s human history, amid all their other concerns, but do professors? It feels like a Russian thing to me.

In Tomsk I felt, as I had before in Kazan and Tobolsk, a kind of tangible human genealogy in the history of intellectual and educational life. These new names join those of Mendeleev and Florinsky, immortalized in the university courtyard, and serve as a kind of family line of which any of us who spend time studying, researching and teaching, can feel ourselves to be a part.

The great achievement of the Literature department is the authoritative and prize-winning twenty-volume scholarly edition of the collected works of the famous nineteenth-century poet Vasily Zhukovsky, many of whose papers are held here.

That the project is based in Tomsk sets it apart from most of the authoritative scholarly editions of Russian writers, which are generally done in Moscow and St. Petersburg by researchers based in central archives.  Here two professors, Department Chair Vitaly Kiselev and Zhukovsky editor Olga Lebedeva, pose with some of the volumes. Spending time with them, and with Elena and Tanya, who share in their pride in this wonderful project, is starting to inspire me to work harder in my own scholarly explorations. You can take joy in this work.  A supportive environment, with people who are happy when you succeed at something, can sustain you during those long hours spent alone in the basement of the library, or wherever you are with your headphones on, and it makes you a part of this dedicated scholarly family–which extends way beyond the walls of your cramped little box, and even the ever-more tightly-guarded borders of your country.

One very charming and human thing is the cabinet here in the university courtyard, that students can leave books in that other students can pick up, if they need them. We have these in various neighborhoods in the US, usually for children. It’s nice to see it at the center of this very public place. And this may be the time to say that in my conversations with Russian colleagues during this trip, they almost universally express surprise at our system of paid higher education. Shouldn’t university education be free, they ask. Why should our young people, the future of the planet, be saddled with debt that some of them will spend their entire lives paying back, just to get an education that will enable them to become thoughtful, ethical citizens and fulfilled adults?

I have no answer for this, except to say that maybe we can be looking more critically at what it is we pay for when we pay for all that education. And of course, to agitate for change (see above about our children out there on the public square doing the heavy lifting). There are other conversations to have, too, about economic disparities, about political and economic corruption, about corporations, about the nightmare of educational reform. Don’t look now, but the Russian national education bureaucrats have introduced a national multiple-guess assessment test that is administered to graduating seniors, the EG, that is torturing everyone in the system–teachers, parents, and students–except for the educational policy makers who BORROWED IT FROM THE UNITED STATES, who are taking great pride in their innovation, because it enables them to quantify everything. I repeat, there is real suffering going on here. My sympathy to one and all.

Where were we?

Well, we could check in with our ongoing theme of

geographical fuzziness. Your town might be located on a border (Kazan, Ekaterinburg), or it might be located in the center of the universe. It seems that Tomsk, is the center of the universe, or at least the Euro-Asian continent. But come on, let’s call it the center of the universe, a place where we all find ourselves at key moments in our lives.

There is much more to tell about Tomsk, the center of our universe at the moment, and much of it overflows the banks of what this blog can hold. But there does have to be a trip to the Tomsk NKVD Prison Museum. Let us postpone this until tomorrow.

First let us take a quick break to draw energy from the Tomsk Tatyana, patron saint of all those who study.

 

Some cool websites about Chekhov and Tomsk:

https://elib.tomsk.ru/page/819/

photos of old Tomsk:

http://rgo-sib.ru/photo/106.htm

His itinerary:

http://chekhov.libsakh.ru/poezdka-ap-chekhova-na-sakhalin/marshrutom-pisatelja/

The notorious letter from Tomsk: http://chehov-lit.ru/chehov/letters/1890-1892/letter-820.htm

 

On and Off the Map

I have begun to believe in magic, in fate, in mysterious forces, in the invisible, and in wishes that might come true. Don’t tell my boss, for my workplace values the rational and empirical, and fully believes that science can explain human behavior, and that everything of importance can be quantified. My clients (a.k.a students) tend to believe this too, and need to be broken in gently. Having come upon an unexpectedly free stretch of time, I decided to follow Chekhov’s footsteps to Sakhalin Island, not fully knowing why.  Beyond that there was not much of  plan. It was kind of like throwing myself into the void. This was a void of space, but it began to fill with people.

And the people showed the way.

At Melikhovo in July, Postal Museum director Zhenia mentioned that she was traveling to Sakhalin Island in mid-September to mount an exhibit at the Chekhov’s Island of Sakhalin Book Museum in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Well, now, that’s funny. I’m heading there in mid-September too. Why don’t we meet on Sakhalin, where we can just kind of continue the conversation that we have begun here, and finish our cup of tea? The distance between the two towns

(5768 miles, or 9,282 kilometers, or eight hours, if you remain completely still and happen to be in both places at once; or 5 days and 5 hours by car (if you wear a heavy-duty diaper, hook yourself up to an IV for a continual coffee drip, and don’t sleep); or 6 days, 1 hour plus 3 hours if by train and plane; or 11 months or more if trudging in shackles in a prison convoy through the famous four seasons of Siberia (1. blizzard; 2. flood; 3. mosquitoes; and 4. golden autumn [zolotaia osen’)]; or 43 days if lurching from town to town in railway sleeping cars and stopping sloppily along the way in the fall of 2019; or 2 1/2 months if traveling by river and peasant cart in the spring of 1890)

seemed utterly irrelevant.  The fuzziness here kind of matches the weird mundanity of the plane ticket I bought for my return from Sakhalin to Moscow. Now please concentrate: the plane leaves Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on October 4 at 11:50 a.m. and arrives at Moscow Sheremetyevo on October 4 at 12:25 p.m.

If this doesn’t seem strange to you, go back and reread that sentence (and all of the above).

Карта путешествия Антона Чехова. 1890 г.
Chekhov’s trip:across the continent by land and river,
then back around the bottom by sea.

Anyway, this entire rant is a plea to pan back from our reflexive habits of calculating time, space, and value in primitive units of measurement such as hours, miles, and dollars. If you do so, you might get the queasy feeling that our ways of measuring time and space entail more voodoo and irrationality than we generally allow ourselves to believe. After visiting the “original” Western-Russia/Siberia boundary, which some people suggested was in Kazan, though others disagreed; and after seeing “the” Europe-Asia boundary near Ekaterinburg, which some guy just kind of drew with a quill pen a couple of hundred years ago; after buying my share of train tickets on websites giving departures in Moscow time, then receiving the ticket files with departures given in local time; after a dip into a shaman’s wooden tepee on Lake Baikal, and then a trip to the Ivolginsky Datsan in Buryatia (which, measuring by ordinary time, to you is a couple of weeks into the future, and to me already in the past), I am becoming ever-more inclined to toss the whole concept of linear time and space down the trash chute.  Here there is freedom to be found.

Excuse me, Carol, don’t be an idiot; you have trains to catch.

In Moscow Vladimir Zakharov showed me the facsimile edition of Dostoevsky’s bible, and said something about a new manuscript edition of Chekhov’s book Sakhalin Island. I thought, no, really, how probable is that? But still, the mention of it was enough to send me off to Tobolsk, where I arrived the very week this astonishing new book, Chekhov’s The Island of Sakhalin–a new one, not some musty 126 year-old tome, came out of the press and was whumped down on my table.

I thought, what else could happen??  So I calmed down and went to Omsk for some Dostoevsky time.

But then I met Sergei.

Sergei Anatolyevich Vorobchukov is on the one hand, a busy man; on the other, a man in possession of infinite time, space, and freedom. A skilled engineer and manager who runs his own business and served in the Russian State Duma in the early 2000s, he also reads a lot. At some point he got bitten by the Chekhov bug, got in his car, and just plain drove from Omsk to the island of Sakhalin, stopping in places that Chekhov mentioned in his travel notes “From Sakhalin.”

Let me just emphasize that “drove” here entails overland, on Russian roads.

And all of this is true.

Maybe, like me, you buy into the “romance of the road,” the open highway, freedom, blah, blah, blah, blah.  Maybe you’re used to taking long road trips in the USA, and you may have an image of something like Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, with its neat cloverleaf on- and off-ramps, its brightly-lit gas stations, rest stops, and travel plazas, its smorgasbord of hotels, roadside attractions, stuff for sale, its Triple A and “911”.  Or maybe, like me you like to “get off the road” and tool around through small towns, perhaps lucking into a cool coffee shop or quaint village inn with rocking chairs out front, or some cool maple syrup that someone has tapped out of a nearby local tree. Time for a reality check: subtract all that, along with your image of a road as something smooth and paved, multiply every distance you’ve ever traveled by at least five, crack open a copy of Dead Souls, and you might have a tiny glimpse of what a “road trip to Sakhalin” might mean. Oh, and how are you going to get your car from the Far East coast of Russia actually onto the island once (if) you’ve gotten that far?

The only thing comparable in my experience might be a hole in time I spent with my Yaris at bone-dry “Lake” Sevier in northern Utah by the side of rte. 50, the “loneliest road,” listening to the silence hovering over the arid, salty lake bed.

Image may contain: sky, cloud, mountain, outdoor and nature      Image may contain: table

Weirdly, south-eastern California by the Arizona border might help with this, but no. Forget it. Multiply this petty stuff by five and then toss in something fancy using calculus, then throw the whole thing out the window, and just acknowledge that you can’t understand what it’s like to drive across Russia to Sakhalin.

The punch line is that Sergei takes this drive almost EVERY YEAR.

OK, I’m in.

I’m not a car person, but in its bigness and blackness, Sergei’s car resembled Arkady Grigorievich’s, which instilled a very high level of hope and confidence in this journey.

Add to this their combined experience of cross-Siberia drives, and Sergei’s encyclopedic and visceral acquaintance of every inch of space that Chekhov crossed on his trip to Sakhalin, not to mention every single word he wrote along the way and afterwards about it, and you will realize that your task is to simply empty out your brain of its entire contents, and sit quietly for the next eight hours.

Sergei proposes to drive with me to Tiukalinsk, a town that Chekhov passed through about the time he wrote that letter to Maria Kiselyova about the sound of coffins in the Irtysh River. This little stretch of time between May 6 and May 9 features a dangerous road accident, unwilling ferrymen, and rainstorms that combine with the springtime thaw to turn the fields into swamp. Chekhov’s felt boots get soaked. After passing through the towns of Kamyshkenskoe, Krutinskoe, and Kolmakovo, he ends up in Tiukalinsk.

Sergei carries with him in the car a well-worn road atlas with all of Chekhov’s stops circled:

Take a quick look; Tiukalinsk is there in bold on the upper squiggle of the yellow line, and Chekhov’s trip follows a path to the right, taking little hops from circle to circle.

It’s maybe three hours from Omsk to Tiukalinsk. A driver like Andrei from Tobolsk would consider it his duty to make it in one, but Sergei mostly yields the left to oncoming traffic, with only a few scattered episodes of Lingering Left Lane. I realize by now that this is a Russian thing, and that they sort of know what they’re doing. I calm my nerves and give over completely to listening.

On a solo car trip to Sakhalin and back you learn how to fix your car. You carry a couple of spare tires, and a kit for repairing them when they blow out. Before your trip you take your car to the garage for a complete workover. You know and trust your mechanic. On the drive, you are open to meeting people, and flexible about your plans. Though it’s springtime, you might find yourself trapped in a fierce, sudden blizzard in which you can see nothing before or behind you. Some slow-moving shadows barely visible through the snow ahead of you might turn out to be a herd of deer who appear, and then when you turn to look again, are gone forever. In Siberia you might meet hardy people who were sent there against their will, but settled there and lived their lives. They all turn out to have stories. Sergei tells some of these stories.

One of Chekhov’s friends reports a conversation with him about where stories come from. Chekhov said that a curious person could find a story idea anywhere,

[…] in lemon slices that smell like onions; in greasy spots on a wall where cabbies have rested their heads: “how can it be that there are no ideas for stories?” Anton Pavlovich insisted. “Everything is a story idea, they are everywhere. […] You can even write well about the moon, even though it’s been done over and over. And it will be interesting. You just have to see something in the moon that is your own, not something that others have worked into the ground. “And how is that not a story idea?” he pointed out onto the street, where dawn was already starting to break. “Look over there: there’s a monk out walking with a cup, collecting donations for a bell…Don’t you feel a good theme just springing up all by itself? …There’s something tragic here—a black-robed monk in the pale dawn…

I wish Sergei would write down his stories. Maybe he will. They are his, not mine, to tell.

Eventually we turn off the main road into Tiukalinsk.

 

                                

Lenin presides here at the center of town. And through the center of town runs the Siberian post road, along which Chekhov rode the second week of May, 1890. A blue-striped pole marks the “Tiukala” postal station stop from 1759. Travelers stand beside it to be photographed. I wish Chekhov had done this.

       

Where can Chekhov be found in Tiukalinsk? Well, it is rumored that the street originally named “Prison” Street (“Tiuremnaya”), now bears the name Chekhov. The town celebrates the writer periodically with a theatrical festival http://eventsinrussia.com/event/17939. There is a museum, but it turns out to have moved out of its original building, and it is not open today anyway.

But in the former museum building–small, whitewashed brick–there’s a sign of life. Two women step out and are accosted for information.  Come on in! They are in the process of opening up a theater space here. The theater is called “TKhAT Imeni Chekhova” (the Chekhov Tiukalinsk Art Theater), echoing Chekhov’s famous “MKhAT” (Moscow Art Theater). It is a community effort, with many contributors, and the fall season will open soon. Everything feels fresh–there’s the smell of fresh paint and varnish, newly sewn costumes, and a bare stage that inspires visitors to leap up and try out dramatic poses.

       

          

We do not see here what we thought we might see–maybe something Chekhovian in the Tiukalinsk Museum. And I’m sure there’s something in there! But that is OK. What would life be like if all of your expecations came true? What we have seen is enough. And we can go back to Omsk.

There are traces of Chekhov in Tiukalinsk, and on the rivers and roads of Omsk oblast, and all over Siberia, and not just on street names or theaters.  Everywhere he went, he saw stories. These stories linger in the air.

Some of these he wrote down. Others he left for us.

Omsk

It is not Omsk’s fault that many of us know it only because Dostoevsky spent the darkest four years of his life here. And we discover, on our visit here, that there is a lot more to Omsk than the prison fortress (which in fact no longer even exists). We’ll get to that.

But first, let us track Dostoevsky’s steps. Sorry–it’s really clear in the photo I took. The regular line is to prison (heading right) and the dotted line is from. Omsk is kind of 1/4 of the way from the right. Tobolsk is up from there and left, where the angle is. Tobolsk would be on the hypotenuse, if oblique triangles had them.

Having passed through the transit prison at Tobolsk in early January 1859, where, you will recall, he received his Bible from the Decembrist wives Alexandra Muravyova, Natalya Fonvizina (left), and Polina Annenkova (right),

    

he arrived in Omsk on January 23.  You should visit the Omsk Dostoevsky Literary Museum to get a sense of what life was like for him there. Along the way, you can learn about new generations of Siberian writers who, we’d like to think, studied him. This bible on display is a copy of the 1823 edition that Dostoevsky kept with him through his years in prison and for the rest of his life, and that Arkady Grigorievich published over 150 years later in Tobolsk.

Check out this extraordinary website on the subject: F. M. Dostoevsky: Anthology of Life and Works: https://www.fedordostoevsky.ru/biography/evangelie.

While you’re in there, please browse around.  We are not in a hurry.

The Museum occupies the former headquarters of the Omsk Fortress commandants–poetic justice, I’d say.

   

Dostoevsky himself, of course, occupied grimmer quarters.

Upon his arrival in Omsk they did some paperwork, and then he had half his his head shaved and was issued his prison uniform. None of the photos of Dostoevsky date from this period, of course, so it’s worthwhile trying to picture what he looked like with his head shaven and wearing this coat and shackles.

     

Museum Director Victor Vaynerman kindly offers to shackle me using fetters matching those that Dostoevsky wore during his years in the Omsk Fortress. My smirk is not meant to be disrespectful; it expresses a nervous reaction to the prospect of being shackled here for the next four years. Prisoners wore cuffs under their shackles to protect their ankles from injury.

At the museum, you get a chance to compare your height to Dostoevsky’s; he is a couple of inches taller than me.

The museum displays first editions of Dostoevsky’s writing related to his time in Omsk, first and foremost, of course, his Notes from the House of the Dead, which if you haven’t read it, you must turn off your computer and go read it now.  Spend a couple of weeks with the book, then come back and rejoin me here in Omsk.

One of the museum’s walls features a clever display juxtaposing two quotes. In the first, a letter Dostoevsky wrote to his brother Mikhail upon his release from the fortress in  1854. He pans Omsk:

“Omsk is a disgusting excuse for a town. It is practically devoid of trees. In the summer––heat and dusty wind; in the winter, blizzards. I did not see nature. The town is filthy, military, and depraved to the highest degree.”

Омск гадкий городишка. Деревьев почти нет. Летом зной и ветер с песком, зимой буран. Природы я не видел. Городишка грязный, военный и развратный в высшей степени.

The other quote comes from the ecstatic ode to Siberia that opens Notes from the House of the Dead:

The climate is superb, wealthy and hospitable merchants abound, and there are many exceedingly well-off outsiders. The young ladies blossom like roses and are virtuous to the utmost degree. Wild game flies along the streets and heads straight for the hunter.  An unnatural amount of champagne is drunk. The caviar is astonishing.  In some locations the harvest is beyond belief.

Климат превосходный; есть много замечательно богатых и хлебосольных купцов; много чрезвычайно достаточных иногородцев. Барышни цветут розами и нравственны до последней крайности. Дичь летает по улицам и сама натыкается на охотника. Шампанского выпивается неестественно много. Икра удивительная. Урожай бывает в иных местах сам-пятнадцать…

It jumps out at me every time I read House of the Dead. Come on, now, isn’t there anything to say in the middle?  Oh wait, this is Dostoevsky.  And of course the book, and all his writing, seeks ways to find this abundance in the dark prison of our earthly existence.

These illustrations to House of the Dead  by Leonid Lamm should look familiar to those of us who spend time in Duke’s Nasher Art Museum, where we have a remarkable collection of this very series. Come on, Nasher, time to bring them up out of the basement!

During my visit the museum offered a special exhibit of miniatures (including “micro-miniatures”) relating to Dostoevsky’s work by a artist named A.I. Konenko. Miniature fanatics like me could spend a lot of time here, scrutinizing the icon in its case (1/4 inch high), portraits in shells, the print in the books and letters, and the bug with its fetters.

 

OK, enough playing around. Let’s go to prison.

The Omsk Prison Fortress

I am in fun company on this walk. Sergei teaches Russian literature, and, ahem, has written an entire book about the archpriest Avvakum. Students take note. Cool people like Avvakum.  Nastya, Sergei’s former student, now works at this charming cultural center in Omsk, and she knows (and loves) everything there is to know (and love) about the town. Spend a couple of hours with her, and you will want to move here and stay in Omsk for the rest of your life.

  

The prison building itself and its walls fell into ruin (perhaps here, too, poetic justice), but the location is marked.

The site itself tells a story. You enter a parklike square, where a vertical row of logs (hinting at the prison wall) channels your attention toward a remarkable monument. Here along with you is Dostoevsky entering the prison, bearing his burden (crowned by a tiny 21-st-century flock of pigeons, or let’s call them doves, bearing some enigmatic message of hope).  Note that Dostoevsky here stands at ground level. You do have to look up, but you can look him in the eye, though it feels intrusive.

                   

You plunge into silence, pondering the nature of the man’s burden and its relationship to yours.

Then you proceed thoughtfully to the excavation site. Long ago, a big apartment building was constructed here, demolishing the prison’s brick and wood. Beyond a doubt, some grains of dust that Dostoevsky touched remain here, and maybe you even breathed them in, but for us, they are inscrutable.

And I allow myself, briefly, to wonder why I am here.

 

There’s an ad hoc feel to the House of the Dead illustrations posted at the excavation site, which only adds to their power.

As Dostoevsky’s narrator writes in House of the Dead, periodicallyprisoners were taken out of the prison stockade to the nearby church for services:

Walk a bit down the street from past the church, and you find yourself on a completely different kind of square, with a triumphal monument to the writer towering over it. Indeed,

Freedom, a new life, resurrection from the dead….what a glorious moment! Свобода, новая жизнь, воскресенье из мертвых… Экая славная минута!

exclaims the newly freed Dostoevsky’s narrator Goryanchikov at the end of the book. Did I already tell you to go read it?

Having taken a few moments to experience the moment to its fullest, you proceed on to the main part of the compound, which was separate from the prison area. Here the officers and administrators carried out those ostensibly banal functions that we don’t stop to ponder often enough, since they so closely resemble those that we carry out in our own lives, upon which our careers depend.  Though of course some of the officials, say, the notoriously brutal Major Krivtsov, showed their sadistic side once they stepped out of their offices, that does not necessarily let the rest of us off the hook. Kenan Institute, do with this little outburst what you will.

   

I am told that this grating is original to Dostoevsky’s time. The door itself certainly gives off that feel too.  He would have passed by many of these buildings when he was taken out to work. And the hospital that he describes so vividly is still standing, as well as the fortress headquarters.

What we really need to see, though, is the bank of the Irtysh River, for it has become a kind of focal point for our (and our writers’) meditations upon human existence. Most recently we spent time on its banks with Chekhov. And very shortly we will rejoin him there.

For now, in Omsk, Dostoevsky takes Raskolnikov to the riverbank in the epilogue of Crime and Punishment and directs his attention to the opposite shore, with its timeless Old Testament landscape of sheep and Kirgiz yurts. The scene in your mind will look quite different from what you see here in Omsk in the summer of 2019.

Everything here in the real world (whatever that is) feels up close. The buildings of the fortress square are right behind you, and beyond them the roar of traffic, dogs barking, the chatter of people strolling on the square.

Raskolnikov, who is on an alabaster kiln work detail, goes out to the shore by the work shed, sits on some logs piled there, and stares out onto the broad, desolate river.

He heard a song from the distant opposite shore. In the endless steppe, bathed in sunlight, could be seen the black spots of nomads’ yurts. Over there was freedom, and different people lived, completely different from those here, there it seemed that time itself had come to a halt, as though the age of Abraham and his flock had never passed. Raskolnikov sat there, looked out without moving, not shifting his gaze; his thoughts passed into dreams, into contemplation; he though of nothing, but a kind of longing disturbed and tormented him.

.С высокого берега открывалась широкая окрестность. С дальнего другого берега чуть слышно доносилась песня. Там, в облитой солнцем необозримой степи, чуть приметными точками чернелись кочевые юрты. Там была свобода и жили другие люди, совсем не похожие на здешних, там как бы самое время остановилось, точно не прошли еще века Авраама и стад его. Раскольников сидел, смотрел неподвижно, не отрываясь; мысль его переходила в грезы, в созерцание; он ни о чем не думал, но какая-то тоска волновала его и мучила.

Sonya appears suddenly beside him and stretches out her hand…and you can remember the rest.

Как это случилось, он и сам не знал, но вдруг что-то как бы подхватило его и как бы бросило к ее ногам. Он плакал и обнимал ее колени. В первое мгновение она ужасно испугалась, и всё лицо ее помертвело. Она вскочила с места и, задрожав, смотрела на него. Но тотчас же, в тот же миг она всё поняла. В глазах ее засветилось бесконечное счастье; она поняла, и для нее уже не было сомнения, что он любит, бесконечно любит ее и что настала же наконец эта минута…

Feel free to take a little break here.

All the information that helps situate us on the Irtysh river bank in Omsk does not come by chance. It is carefully preserved, researched, published, and taught by generations of muzeishchiki, scholars, citizens, and teachers. Among them are Sergei Demchenkov and Professor Oksana Issers, Dean of the Department of Philology and Media Communications at, ahem, **F.M. DOSTOEVSKY** Omsk State University, who invite me to an informal meeting with students.

What I was picturing as a nice little chat with a dozen or so Dostoevsky enthusiasts turned out to be a sort of big Q&A in a lecture room with upwards of seventy students. When I walked in the room, accompanied by dean and faculty, all of them leapt to their feet. Which teleported me instantly back to Kazan, where I had learned about this custom in Russian classrooms and dreamed of experiencing it at Duke. No one in the room was crinkling fast-food wrappers or sipping at anything, either….What an alert group! We mostly talked about what attracts western readers to Dostoevsky (and Russian literature), about issues of language and translation, and about what (and whether) people read anything anymore. One student noted that it is common to see Omsk as the formative experience underlying all of his masterpieces. I am on board with that. Another handed me their required reading list for the English literature program, which requires them to read ever as much as our Duke students do–and remember, they are reading a lot of it in English…

After our conversation, they stood up and clapped! The dean told me that they are not forced to do so.  And I had the unprecedented and exciting experience of being asked to be photographed  with several clusters of students.

Then there were a couple of TV interviews (one for Omsk city, I think, and another for the student TV program).

Here are some of the news reports:

https://www.omskinform.ru/news/133712

https://www.omsk.kp.ru/online/news/3600105/

http://kvnews.ru/news-feed/v-omske-pobyvala-prezident-mezhdunarodnogo-obshchestva-dostoevskogo

http://philfak.ru/7467

https://omsk.sm-news.ru/omsk-posetila-amerikanskij-professor-izuchayushhij-dostoevskogo-4224/

https://russkiymir.ru/news/262052/

http://www.pulslive.com/news/puls-goroda/luchshe-chekhova-tolko-dostoevskiy.html

It all went to my head and I attempted to snap a selfie in front of the Omsk Department, call it, snapping board mirror.

The sad results of this attempt brought me down to earth.

 

Now Go Freshen Up

Omsk itself, as we started to say before we took our walk around Dostoevsky’s prison places, is well worth a visit. Its downtown, which has undergone active renovations,  features quirky art, attractive little courtyards, and a goodly share of shout-outs to notable people. One such Omsk artist is the artist Mikhail Vrubel, who stands with back turned, mysteriously, to the viewer. Nearby we can visit a newly opened museum (seen here in pink) dedicated to white Russian civil war general Admiral Kolchak, who fought the Bolsheviks. Kolchak has enthusiastic fans here in the city, and we will soon visit Krasnoyars, the location of his ultimate defeat and execution. Also, looking like little cameos up on the drama theater facade, we have a welcome sighting of our old friends Chekhov and Tolstoy.

  

An early governor’s beloved, and mourned young wife  Marinka, invites you to sit next to her on a bench and appreciate her short time on earth. We cannot be sad for her; we are happy to be alive.

At some point, you must go home, I mean to your hotel, which, though called the “Railroad Hotel,” took a 1/2 hour to reach by a predatory taxi driver, who approached you at the front side of the Omsk railway station and neglected to tell you that you could have exited the station at the back and just gone down a set of stairs to the entrance. 500 rubles. On the one hand, down the tubes, on the other, a valuable lesson. And really, who is to blame? You also learn, with a jab of regret, that your hotel is right next door to the DOSTOEVSKY HOSTEL,

Your regret is somewhat tempered by the presence of a cluster of thuggish-looking young men idling at the Dostoevsky Hostel’s entrance. Dusk (and, as it turns out, a raging thunderstorm, with rivers of mud, not to mention overindulgence in reading Dostoevsky) brings out fears that you normally keep securely repressed. Improbably, an angel in half-boots and an umbrella appears out of nowhere and gently leads you down the street in the dark. And you slink home to your safe little railroad hotel next door, where at least they know your name, and have taken your money.

Put transient things out of your mind. Dean Issers has arranged for me to meet a former Duma deputy from Omsk, who has made a practice of taking yearly CAR trips in Chekhov’s footsteps to the Island of Sakhalin. Tomorrow I will meet this man, Sergei Vorobchukov, and he will take me for a wild Chekhov drive.

Homework: sleep well.

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