Why a Post Office is Important

Here in Moscow I find myself in what we can only call a blog jam.  Lots of exciting experiences have been piling up, and just when you think it’s time to clean house and shlep everything over here into “Chekhov’s Footprints,” something else exciting happens and what, you’re going to ignore it? And so things just get even more clogged up.

I guess this is kind of what real writers grapple with, I mean actual writers like Chekhov and Dostoevsky, not feeble, blocked imitators with a P card. On 18 (30) September 1863, Dostoevsky writes from Italy to  his colleague back in Russia, Nikolai Strakhov.  As usual he’s asking for money and sort of promising a novel (which, at this point, exists only in his mind):

“I even was about to start writing, but it’s impossible here. It’s hot, and 2nd-ly, I have come to a place like Rome for one week; how can one write during this week, in Rome? Plus I get really tired from all the walking.”

Truly, are you going to crawl into a basement in ROME and write that novel during your one week there? Or are you going to give up and look around some more? Anyway: when in Moscow…

Speaking of blocks, I read a great Vanity Fair article a couple of years ago about an American writer (you know his name but I’m a bit fuzzy on it at the moment) who had a terrible block, couldn’t get down to writing up a huge, months-long journalism project whose deadline was careening his way.  The magazine had given him an advance, and was paying for all his travel and hotels. The night before the deadline, nothing. So the writer makes a contrite call to his editor, thinking it’s over–the article, the career, and plus, how’s he going to pay back all those hotel and bar bills? The editor tells him just to write it all down in a personal letter to him, and to forget it’s an article on deadline. And the writer sits down and writes the whole huge thing overnight like a letter, and meets his deadline, and becomes super famous.

Sidebar: editors deserve way more credit than they ever get.

But of course the point here is letters. Maybe we should look at everything we write basically as letters. If you’re not trying to communicate with someone, after all, why are you writing? Think of who your reader might be, and ideally it’s more than just that one scary and distant person who might decide whether to publish it. And yes of course, this applies to tweets too, and all that other stuff people are doing out there, that you have to be cool to know about.

Now as for Chekhov, his letters are masterpieces like his fiction and drama. And though we usually don’t give this fact much thought, much of what he wrote went through the postal service–not just letters. When Chekhov was looking for a place to live outside Moscow in 1891, one of his criteria was that there be a post office.  He bought Melikhovo (bear with me a couple of minutes here) near the town of Lopasnya, and though it did have rudimentary mail delivery, there wasn’t really an actual post office.  So one of Chekhov’s countless “service” activities–cholera and famine relief, providing free medical care to peasants, volunteering in the 1897 census, donating to libraries, giving scholarships and schoolbooks to students, mentoring beginning writers, and many many more–as I was saying, one of his service activities was to establish a post office in Lopasnya. And this came to pass.

The post office–the actual building–has become a charming museum in the town of,

wait for it, ….

…the town of Chekhov, Russia.

If you’re a sports fan, you should know that the town of Chekhov (formerly Lopasnya) breeds fearsome, Olympic-caliber handball players. In fact, many know Chekhov

(the town, that is, not the metro station, the street, the theater, the statue, the mini-hotel, the bar, the cafe, or the writer)

better as the Handball Capital of Russia, and the home of the fighting “Chekhov Bears.” Take one short minute to watch this informative little masterpiece:

https://ch-medvedi.ru/
OK, the team has had its moment; but we have more exciting things to think about here in Chekhov, where the writer lived between 1892 and 1898, and where he wrote some of his most famous works, from “Ward No. 6,” “The Black Monk,” and “My Life” to The Seagull, “In the Ravine, and “The Man in the Shell.”

А.П. Чехов, г. Чехов (Московская область)       Памятник Чехову Мелихово      Памятник А.П.Чехову в "Мелихово". Фото 04.06.2002. Фотографии памятника

Тhe  A.P. Chekhov Letters Museum is in the energetic and capable hands of Evgenia Evgenievna Bovshik,  who can tell you all kinds of fascinating things about the history of the Russian postal service (from pre-literate town criers to peasant yamshchiki carrying birchbark documents, to the relay service resembling our US Pony Express, to the system of post offices that extended all across Russia. The postal service gets many shout-outs in Chekhov’s letters; clearly it was efficient and reliable, and he often received money through the post.

Now by the time the Lopasnya post office opened, Chekhov had had to leave Melikhovo for climates more hospitable to his health. But his efforts were instrumental in bringing it into being. There’s the postman’s desk and supplies, the counter where he would serve customers, and a multitude of intriguing objects, documents, and photos from Chekhov’s time.

Not only does the museum give a tangible feeling of what the post office was like at the end of the 19th century, when it came into being; it is actually a functioning post office.  One member of the two-person editorial team that produced the book Chekhov’s Letters was able, during this visit, to write a postcard, stamp it, actually cancel the stamp with an official Russian stamp, and deposit it in a real, official Russian blue post box outside.

The Post Office is just a short walk from the town’s train station. After visiting it, you can hop in a van and make your way along smooth paved streets to Chekhov’s estate of Melikhovo, 12 kilometers away. During the ride you recall that during Chekhov’s time there, the street you’re on now was a crude tract; it snowed over in the winter, and was a muddy mess for much of the spring and fall; getting from the station to Melikhovo was an arduous and unpleasant ordeal. But, as visitors inevitably reported, and as I will report at some time, it was worth it.

 

 

 

 

How your cell phone can find you a Chekhov in Uglich

You think you’ve come to Uglich on the Volga to see the site where the poor little Prince Dmitry was savagely murdered on May 15, 1591, provoking Pushkin to write a tragedy about it (Boris Godunov), eventually.

And indeed you see the site, the porch of the building where he lived his short life:

Image may contain: sky, tree, grass and outdoor

That’s him there. The fatal steps are on the right. Dmitry is a saint now, and after a few years here, his body was taken to Moscow, where it is buried in the, uh, Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin. Go see it.

Right here on these steps stood the doomed little 8-year-old prince with his nanny and mom, when….(…but no, I can’t, it’s too horrible….google it)…but you can see the whole story on the frescoes in the 17-th-century church dedicated to his memory, the Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood here in Uglich. Naturally the locals’ version differs considerably from that of the murderers, who, according to our guide Galina, claimed that he accidentally stabbed himself to death during an epileptic fit. Um…

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

But no, you are actually here in Uglich to figure out what’s going on with your brand-new Russian mobile phone. You put it on your windowsill on the ship and suddenly a church tower rises up out of the Volga:

That kind of weird Russian stuff. Plus it won’t text or access the internet, or send photos or anything. I’d like the miraculous church-tower pictures PLUS the usual phone services, please.

Across from the extremely tempting watch and linen stores (the Chaika factory is in Uglich!!) and a bit up the street is the Beeline cell-phone store. Inside, Olga and Venera (yes, that’s on her name tag) helpfully show you how to turn on the network button (ahem), and the phone makes delightful little dings. And they show me how to check how much data I have used. Despite the threatening messages I’ve been receiving about how I’m out of my original zone and there might be extra charges, I have used absolutely none of my allotted data. Life is good. Oh…

Ah…

It is so pleasant in here. But something is twitching quietly in my memory, a Chekhov thing. Do my newest friends know whether Anton Pavlovich Chekhov might have visited this little town? Well yes, now that you ask, his brother Mikhail lived right here in Uglich. Holy @#$%&*. There is a nice old full-on babushka in the store, complete with the scarf and cloth bag. Is the house standing? Why yes it is! 7 minute-walk from …. (I’m thinking, why did I spend all that time fingering Chaika watches and linen tablecloths? The boat leaves in 40 minutes)…

Image may contain: cloud, sky, ocean, outdoor and water

But Mikhail Chekhov’s house!?!?!?!  Just down Spasskaya Street?!?!?  A mad dash for the shop door.

But what is this story without Olga and Venera and the babushka?  I turn back, rush in the store…..The babushka is gone.

Off in a Beeline (“билайн”, хи, хи, хи, xи, хи)…

oh…

…down Spasskaya Street! The boat is at the pier BEHIND ME.  In my brain: how much would it cost for me to pay an Uglichian to drive me to Moscow later?

30 minutes to departure.

But what is all this when you’re hot on a Chekhov’s trail? Run, run, run. There’s a monastery at the end of Spasskaya Street:

Image may contain: sky, tree, cloud, outdoor and nature
People taking a walk:
Image may contain: sky, tree, plant and outdoor
A stately-looking though slightly disheveled old house on the left:
Image may contain: sky, cloud, tree and outdoor

Oh, and oh, and oh! and OH!

Image may contain: sky, tree, plant and outdoor

Bingo. Here at, uh, 15, actually, I think sort of,….17, Spasskaya St., lived Mikhail Pavlovich Chekhov, the youngest brother of Anton, when he worked in Uglich as a, um, tax (податный) inspector between 1894 and 1898. And married Olga Vladykina, and worked to establish a free public library. He lived over the arch, says the plaque.

Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling

Well, Anton must have visited here. I’ll check later. For now I’ll just breathe some of this air.

Image may contain: outdoor

This is what Mikhail’s courtyard sort of looked like (though 130 years have passed, it feels like the real thing).

Image may contain: plant, tree, sky, outdoor and nature
Image may contain: house, tree, plant, sky and outdoor
Oh, how I wish I’d asked someone this question in Yaroslavl. Another brother lived there I think…

Inevitably, Dostoevsky

OK: this inevitably is turning into a Dostoevsky thing. How could it not? St. Petersburg is Dostoevsky’s city. Here he lived in a series rented apartments, including, once in the 1840s and again at the end of his life, between 1878 and 1881 here at Kuznetsky Pereulok 5, 2. You enter by going down a few stairs, then up. This is a paradigm you can apply for reading all of his works, by the way.

 

Here, after decades of studying Dostoevsky, and if you are lucky, you will spend some time with Boris Tikhomirov, Deputy Director of the Museum.  Listen and learn. Boris knows more about Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg than any other human being. He knows the city’s 19th-century residence records, weather reports, public and private places, utilities, colors, sounds….He walks me through the apartment.  His knowledge pours out in an exhilarating torrent of facts, dates, names, and addresses, delivered in the fastest Russian I have ever heard.  I wish I had bigger ears. We thread through clumps of museum visitors, who drop their earphones in wonder. Your brain explodes. Dostoevsky’s hat!  The doorbell! Anna Grigorevna’s stenography!

Let us stop here. A single page under glass, filled with a mystifying cluster of letters and symbols. Turns out, there were stenography systems, but within them stenographers developed their own idiosyncratic methods. This takes me back to my own stenography days. When I was beginning my work as a contract interpreter for the State Department in the early 1990s, Joe Mozur, friend, colleague, mentor, and fellow interpreter, gave me a quaint stenography manual for secreteries, probably from the 1950s or 60s. For the work we did, which was mostly consecutive, we needed to listen, take notes, and then produce the interpretation from the notes. From the manual Joe gave me I learned tricks for abbreviating letters into squiggles. Skip the vowels! A wavy line will do for “tion”! Mix in Minyar-Beloruchev’s manual for Russian consecutive interpreters, add in some smiley faces, arrows and exclamation points, convenient Japanese hiragana and kanji, and presto–your own system. MInyar-Beloruchev is insistent about spacing your notes across the page to reflect not only the words, but also the logic of the text, its syntax. So my notes looked kind of like an outline for something, lots of white space with wavy lines connecting clusters of symbols. Anna Grigorevna’s page is neat and square: the symbols flow linearly, left to right, then left to right again. Nice straight margins. Stenography in your own language aims to capture and retain every word so that you can transcribe it later to obtain a precise record of what was said.  Before “dictophones” this was the only way to do it. For taking dictation in one language, stenography was based in phonetics. From the abbreviation of the sound, the word emerges naturally. But for interpreters between languages, the  more you move away from phonetics into symbols, the more effectively and quickly you will be able to move into the target language.

I’m down memory lane. But really, I could spend hours just gazing at one page of Anna Grigorevna’s notes.  Think what emerged from them: the world’s greatest novels… Boris explains how, after careful work comparing documents, a scholar was able to decipher her system. Think Rosetta Stone (the real one).  Panning back into the apartment, and into Dostoevsky’s whole life, we take a moment, yet again, to ask–what would have become of Dostoevsky if he had not met Anna?

Here Anna Grigorevna created a nest for their family and brought their affairs into order. Here the children, Liuba and Fedya, played. Fedya liked horses and when he grew up had his own horse farm…

Liuba grew up and wrote a fanciful memoir of her father in bad French, which was translated into German, and from there in to many languages, seeding the world with sloppy information about Dostoevsky. Among Boris’s extraordinary body of books and articles is a set of commentaries for a new edition of Liuba’s memoir: https://www.labirint.ru/now/dostoevskiy/.

Hello and listen, publishing world! When are you going to translate into English and publish the amazing work that our Russian colleagues are doing?!  Boris’s detailed commentaries on Crime and Punishment will blow your mind: https://www.fedordostoevsky.ru/research/creation/052/

And this book is just out in a new edition.

Really now….

Stay tuned. In a separate post I will provide a list of links to Dostoevsky-related scholarship.

Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov during these years. Here, on January 28 (old style) or February 9 (new style), he died. What time exactly? Boris will list the various versions: was it 8:36? 8:40? 8:38? The clock in the room was set to 8:38, where it stood so for years. Then research zeroes in on 8:36. When they try to move the clock to reflect this reality, it springs back to 8:38.  And that is what you will see when you visit the museum.

 

Аnd visit the museum you must:

https://www.md.spb.ru/;

and, in English:

http://eng.md.spb.ru/

After our strenuous walk through Dostoevsky’s apartment, under the watchful (and probably disapproving) gaze of The Man himself, Boris and I will, after some effort, figure out how to work the photo feature on my confusing new cell phone.

 

 

 

The thoughtful among you will ask how these pictures got taken; after all we are holding the phone.

In all the excitement, I have forgotten Chekhov. But, unsurprisingly, Boris gives me some valuable information for further explorations. It happens that Alexei Suvorin, Chekhov’s friend and publisher, knew and visited Dostoevsky. Indeed, Suvorin’s photo hangs on the museum wall.

Here is a, if not the, photo. This one is from the mid-1860s….

Image result for фото суворина в музее достоевского

 

And since it is time to towel off, we will postpone my stroll to the Suvorin addresses that Boris provided me, and my miraculous new phone helped guide me to.

 

in quest of New Time

Quests begin with people (Chekhov for example, and Chekhov people). Fortunately some of the best people are Chekhov people; take, for example, Anatoly Sobennikov, scholar, author, traveler, Siberian, and now St. Petersburg resident. Anatoly will give many valuable tips about tracking Chekhov’s footsteps to the most distant places. I learn from him that one can simply buy a plane ticket from Moscow to Sakhalin Island, and skip all the land in between (7 time zones worth). But what would be the fun in that?  So Anatoly also gives me extremely valuable advice about stops to make on an overland Chekhov trip across Russia. Journeys start somewhere, and we are in St. Petersburg–the Westernmost of Chekhov’s Russian stopping places.  So let us begin here. Anatoly leads me to Italyanskaya Street, whose cobblestones are among many Chekhov must have trod on his visits to St. Petersburg beginning in the late 1880s.

Chekhov did not live in St. Petersburg; he was a Moscovite and a Melikhovian, but  the major players in the Imperial Russian publishing world were based here. Of these the most important was Alexei Suvorin, influential publisher of New Time newspaper and owner of a network of bookstands at railway stations all across Russia.  Suvorin knew everyone (including Dostoevsky, btw), and was detested by the liberal establishment for his conservative politics and the increasingly anti-Semitic slant of his newspaper. But he was Chekhov’s publisher and friend, and it was to him that Chekhov wrote some of his most fascinating and thoughtful letters.

 My attempts to plunge into deep literary thoughts at this important starting point in my journey are thwarted by a light, chilly drizzle. My brand-new umbrella, carefully purchased and packed for just this eventuality, flails impotently, broken on its first unfurling. Blog readers will not get their dose of profundity, at least here. Just a bit of damp whining.

Speaking of whining (the Russian word, a thing of beauty, is “nytyo” [нытьё: ныть, ною, ноешь, ныл, ныла, будем ныть…]): we are reminded of Chekhov’s elder brother Alexander, who, to judge from the epistolary evidence, spent as much time whining and complaining as he did  at his job at New Time, where (if I may be catty), probably by sinecure, he “worked.”  Alexander, too, trod these stones on his way to and from Suvorin’s editorial offices, which were located at

42 Nevsky Prospect, just around the corner.

He wrote his share of stories and other pieces, but his greatest service to humanity was to live far away from his younger brother, the genius Anton. The distance between sparked a lively correspondence that went on for years, importantly, generating some of Chekhov’s most expressive and colorful letters.

A quick stroll down Italyanskaya Street leads past the famous Stray Dog cafe:

It’s literary (google it), but not OUR literary, so let us move on. Down the street we encounter, deliciously for the Chekhov afficianado, something called the “Museum of Emotions” (????), or an ad for it, or something:

Would stop in, but I doubt anything could live up to that name, especially for those of us who’ve traveled into “Ward No. 6” and back. Plus,  Anatoly has told me about a cool exhibit at the Manezh, “Predictions and Revelations” (Предсказания и откровения). Has a Dostoevskian ring to it….must go for a chaser.

Along the way, forgive me:

There must be a story here, something Chekhovian.

Anatoly is one of the very best Chekhov scholars. Stay tuned for his book on gender and sexuality in Chekhov’s writing. I for one can’t wait.

First Step: Leaving Home

Where to start. One must get a visa.