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The Road in Between

A man accompanies me and Arkady Grigorievich on my last day in Tobolsk. He follows in a separate vehicle. We are not introduced. He does not speak. He bears himself with the coiled restraint of a lion, an elite athlete at rest, or a sniper.  He can leap and kill at a moment’s provocation, though he has no desire to do so; he is above all that. He is not concerned with people, places, and events around him.  He is an artist. He observes calmly and waits.  At one point Arkady Grigorievich asks the man a question, addressing him by name, and I learn he is Andrei.

Finally it is time to set off for Tiumen.  Arkady moves to the passenger seat, and Andrei settles in behind the wheel.

Fyodor Pavlovich unharnesses the side horses and entrusts them to me. I cling to the cold, filthy reins and try to hold the horses, but they’re spooked; they keep backing up, the wind is trying to tear my clothes off, rain beats painfully into my face. Maybe we should turn back?

We made it over one bridge, another, then a third. … At one place we got stuck in the mud and nearly capsized; at another the horses balked, and ducks and seagulls soared overhead and seemed to be laughing at us. From Fyodor Pavovich’s face and unhurried movements, from his silence, I can see that this is not his first time he’s had to struggle like this, that he’s seen worse, that long, long ago he got used to impassable mud, water, and freezing rain. Life does not come cheap to him!

–Chekhov, From Siberia, 12 May 1890

In the USA, where every bozo can drive a car, and where you can’t carry out the most basic functions without an automobile, driving is a mundane matter requiring a limited set of rudimentary skills. We take 15-year old hormone-addled children and hand them car keys.  Mostly our automobiles do the brain work, communicating with us through little screens, lights, and beeps. Your car beeps when you approach and unlocks your door. It might even turn on the engine for you. It tells you to fasten your seat belt, to buckle up your kids. It warms your seat, calibrates the air, listens to voice commands, dials your phone, plays music for you. To back up, you don’t look backwards, or into the rear mirror; you stare at a screen in FRONT of you. You push a button and your car maintains a consistent speed, allowing you to rest your gas-pedal foot. It warns you if the highway patrol is near, if someone is passing you, if a car gets too close, if there is a pedestrian nearby.  Shout an address to your dashboard, and a voice tells you how to get where you’re going, instructs you where to turn, calculates how long it will take to get there, and lets you know if there are any issues with traffic. You can carry on just about every imaginable human activity while behind the wheel. You can eat an entire meal, have your coffee, communicate with friends and family, preen, rehearse your speech.  Some cars operate with no driver at all.

Which provokes the question: why do we need human beings at all?

In Russia driving is a proud profession. Athlete, manager, mechanic, your driver is a master of his art.  Like his predecessors, the great Russian coachmen of previous centuries, he knows his vehicle inside and out, its precise limits and capabilities, what it takes to elicit its finest performance. He knows its growls and hums, and if it breaks down, he can make it purr into action using nothing more than a paper clip and  rubber band.

Feel free to skip this part, or flip to Chapter 3 of Dead Souls.

«Хитри, хитри! вот я тебя перехитрю! — говорил Селифан, приподнявшись и хлыснув кнутом ленивца. — Ты знай свое дело, панталонник ты немецкий! Гнедой — почтенный конь, он сполняет свой долг, я ему с охотою дам лишнюю меру, потому что он почтенный конь, и Заседатель тож хороший конь… Ну, ну! что потряхиваешь ушами? Ты, дурак, слушай, коли говорят! я тебя, невежа, не стану дурному учить. Ишь куда ползет!» Здесь он опять хлыснул его кнутом, примолвив: «У, варвар! Бонапарт ты проклятый!» Потом прикрикнул на всех: «Эй вы, любезные!» — и стегнул по всем по трем уже не в виде наказания, но чтобы показать, что был ими доволен…..»

Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, Vol. I, Chapter III

You must trust your driver. You must not talk to him; he is concentrating.  Do not look out the window. This particular highway has two lanes, the right one, where ordinary mortals creep along, and the left one, which belongs to Andrei. There may be a speed limit in Russia but this is a matter of no concern. For Andrei to practice his art to its fullest, his only need is the open road, clear pavement ahead. He finds this freedom in his lane. Occasionally he must drive on the right, with the ordinary mortals.  When Andrei encounters an obstacle here (another vehicle going at the speed limit, say) he will to move back into his rightful lane, the one on the left.  This is when you must close your eyes.

Close your eyes and remember your mantra; remember that life comes to an end for everyone, that we do not determine the time or place. You learned this mostly from Russian literature, so reenter that world in your memory.  Remember that you have had a good life, full of rich experiences and joys. What will happen will happen. Live in the moment.

For Andrei this is not a game, not a chance to play chicken, to show off, to display his art. It is simply his job. Do not whimper; Andrei is in the zone. He is calibrating the distance between the front of our vehicle and the rear bumper of the truck six inches ahead, the speed at which we are traveling

(90 miles per hour, say, though it’s not about the numbers, and how would I know? My eyes are closed)

the velocity and weight of the eighteen-wheeler careening toward us in the left lane, the air pressure, humidity level, and particulate content in the atmosphere, the wind speed and direction, our vehicle’s capacities, tire condition, oil pressure, and many other things a layperson cannot identify, much less understand.

All this data feeds Andrei’s complex computational matrix, mixing there with intuition and skill honed from years of experience. At the precise moment he flips the jib and we veer smoothly into the left lane. The truck that was our initial obstacle sweeps to the right. Its great cargo wall momentarily blocks the view out our right-side window as it rushes backwards.

What we now see ahead of us in the windshield is infinitely more terrifying.

With urgent intensity,  Andrei’s right foot hit hits the floor; the engine emits an ecstatic roar–this is what it, and he, were born for. We free-fall into that brief moment between life and death. Then Andrei gently leans himself and the universe rightwards. We reenter the right lane–the one for ordinary mortals–and the other eighteen-wheeler, the homicidal one, whooshes tamely past our left window.

There is a lunch break along the way. We do not speak.

We are grateful to be alive.

Irtysh Fish and the Island of Sakhalin. Tobolsk 3

Welcome to the Irtysh River, with its city Tobolsk on the cliff above.

On 7 May 1890, not even 1/3 of the way into his journey across Siberia, Chekhov sits in a hut on the banks (upriver, actually, not in Tobolsk, but close enough) and writes a letter to Maria Kiselyova.

My God, I have never experienced anything like this in my whole life! Cruel wind, cold, disgusting rain; you have to get out of the tarantas (which is not covered) and hold the horses: you can only lead the horses over every bridge one by one… Where have I ended up? Where am I? All around is desolation, misery (pustynia, toska); ahead is the bare, gloomy shore of the Irtysh…

Why did Chekhov travel to Sakhalin? The world was his cupcake–he was one of Russia’s most famous writers; he had reached a brilliant stage in his career; he had a productive life in Moscow, tons of friends, publishers eating out of his hands and begging for more, women falling for him right and left. On the debit side, he was in poor health, as pretty much through his adult life, and, as he must have known though he would not admit it, ill with the tuberculosis that would kill him within 14 years.

Why did Chekhov travel to Sakhalin? I am certainly not going to answer this question–no one can. But anyway here I am on this journey, and we have reached this point.

For my colleague and neighbor Radiskav Lapushin, the Irtysh-bank letter to Kiselyova serves as a kind of epicenter for an existential crisis. Chekhov finds himself at this moment alone, hearing the sound of knocking on coffins down deep in the river, and wondering what on earth he is doing here in the middle of nowhere, or in fact, we can add, what is he doing on earth. (Radik’s article can be found at the center of our book, Chekhov’s Letters, where it too serves as a kind of epicenter). Yes, the writer is not just having a bad day. He is writing about what it is like to be alive when everything that makes sense is peeled away. It is a human thing, not merely a writer thing, a Chekhov thing, or a Siberia thing.

During my journey I have had several sightings of the Irtysh, and each one brought me back to this letter, and to Radik’s thoughts about it, and Chekhov’s questions keep rising up.


You may remember this view (to your right, if you’re on an actual computer)  on the Irtysh river plain from our last post, the scene that served as the setting for Surikov’s Ermak painting. The small  river in the foreground is not the Irtysh, it is just a kind of side stream from it. The Irtysh is just barely visible in the background. Trust me, it is there. Look up from the river in each photo and take note of the story that the clouds are telling above it. The sky in Siberia is big. To put it another way, citing Siberian writer Valentin Rasputin, who himself spent time here: “there is a lot of sky”(здесь много неба).

Soon, in Omsk, we will visit the Irtysh again, where it will take us deep into the epilogue of Crime and Punishment, and Raskolnikov will join us and Chekhov on the shore, along with Dostoevsky himself.

But it is hard to tear ourselves from Tobolsk. Things keep happening here.

Sterliad and Vodka

Sterliad’ from the Irtysh is so pure that unlike all other kinds of fish from the river, which have retained pollutants, it can be eaten frozen and raw.  If you are incredibly lucky, Arkady Grigorievich will treat you to this sterliad’ sashimi in his restaurant at the Sibir hotel, where you will be so transfixed by the experience that it will not occur to you to take a photo. It is served with a pickly garnish, and with vodka, the best available (also frozen). Vodka is an excellent disinfectant, good for the immune system. And sterliad’, and Siberia, beg for it.

Oh my goodness.

Your companion eats the backbone, crunching the delicate bones, and so you do too.

Soon there will be Irtysh sudak, cooked in a creamy sauce. And ½ a napoleon.

Hydrate, Carol.

But Chekhov!! Pull yourself together.  Remember why you have come all this way.

The Island of Sakhalin

Arkady Grigorievich brings over something heavy in a big plastic bag and thumps it down on my table. He says, look at this overnight.  He says, there is only one of these; it has just come out of the press, it’s the first one. He says, see you tomorrow.

Then he leaves.


There are two volumes. One is a facsimile of the manuscript of Chekhov’s book, The Island of Sakhalin, with the author’s hand-written corrections and crossings-out. The other one contains an analysis of the text, along with the manuscript, photographed now using a special method that allows the wording under the deletions to be revealed. The nature and number of the author’s corrections are tabulated, and the restorations are shown in the printed text of the book, in parallel text format.


Yes, now I do remember why I came all this way. Yes, there is a tear in my eye. Astonishingly, I am not even a third of the way through my journey.

Now I must leave Tobolsk, and read every word of this book, and continue on my way to Sakhalin.


Dostoevsky and Chekhov. Tobolsk 2

Where, indeed, if the prison you see in Tobolsk is one built after Dostoevsky passed through, can you find his traces there? And what was that about Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island?  For this we need a guide. Our guide on this journey, proud city citizen Arkady Grigorievich Elfimov, will tie many of our story’s threads together. But first, we must take a detour.

Men of Action

Let us circle around to what is turning into a theme of our journey: the way human beings–especially mighty individuals–carve out a space for civilization, and make their mark on history, in the vast Siberian expanses. Arkady Grigorievich is one in a long line of such individuals. Another is the legendary Cossack ataman Ermak, who dominates the Tobolsk historyscape.  After some drama  with the resident Tatar population in the sixteenth century, Ermak conquered, let’s just say, Siberia, for Ivan the Terrible, and a city began to grow here.

Speaking of Ivan the Terrible, you may recall the story from Uglich about little prince Dmitry’s martyrdom. When the Uglich townspeople took revenge against Ivan the Terrible’s asassins (or innocent government employees, depending on who tells the tale), the tsar punished them by exiling their bell to Tobolsk. Here is its bell tower in the Tobolsk Kremlin:

Natalya, who escorted me around the Kremlin, adheres to the bizarre accident version– scornfully dismissed by my minder in Uglich–according to which little Dmitry was stricken by an epileptic fit and fell upon his dagger, slitting his own throat. In any case, the bell was arrested and, with some effort, for it was heavy, exiled here for a few centuries.

As for Ermak, here he stands in the botanical garden and park, Ermakovo Pole, that Arkady Grigorievich (this blog post’s hero, I remind you) founded.


Here he is too in Vasily Surikov’s magnificent 1895 painting, “The Conquest of Siberia by Ermak” (1895), which hangs–as I have recently confirmed in the flesh–in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.  Before setting paint to canvas, Surikov visited this high cliff (now in Ermakovo Pole) overlooking the Irtysh River plain to survey the landscape. Here is how the scene looks today, I mean last week, and how it might have looked when Surikov (himself standing just behind you, or, if you are stuck in a blog, and on a real computer, not your #$%& device, to your left) planned the details of his painting.  Many spirits fill the air here–not just those of Ermak and Surikov, but also those of the Tatars who roamed the land before them, and the spirits of us earthlings who have been lucky enough to visit, even though we have already left.

Some of these spirits live in a young grove of lipa (linden or lime) trees being planted in Ermakovo Pole. Each tree bears a little tag with the name of the person who planted it. Here, among many others, is a tree planted by the Siberian writer Valentin Rasputin. To my surprise and delight, I stray upon the tree planted by Vladimir Nikolaevich Zakharov, another of our blog’s main heroes and recent past president of the International Dostoevsky Society.


And lest there be any suspense, I am granted the honor of planting one myself.


By the way, speaking of Surikov, himself a very strong person and painter of monstrous great canvases, I was able to visit his home a couple of days ago (or a week into the future, if you are trapped in blog space) in Krasnoyarsk. The house still stands. Squint and you’ll see his statue here, center left.


Inside the home are some of Surikov’s studies for the great canvases, photos, and personal objects, including his traveling painter’s case. Just for your reference, on our journey Krasnoyarsk comes after Tobolsk, Tiumen, Omsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, and Novokuznetsk. Time and space are being crossed with great rapidity.

The Archpriest Avvkum

But back to Tobolsk, where other great men await their turn. Take the archpriest Avvakum, poster child for the great Russian schism and most famous of the Old Believers. Exiled to Siberia for dissenting with the Nikon reforms in the 17th century, Avvakum alit, among other places, in Tobolsk, along with his defiant flock, and held the old faith here with terrifying fervor. His church still stands (to your right, again, if you are using a normal grown-up device). My students grumble when I assign them Avvakum’s extraordinary autobiography, but I persevere. The mission of education sometimes entails plunging into very strange and distant territory (in time, space, and in the darkest depths of the human mind).  Civilization tames these forces.  Maintaining our feeble grasp on civilization, not to mention our personal convictions, is a continual struggle. In any case I have been excited to find, along my pathway through Siberia, reinforcement for my own passions in encounters with elite Siberian colleagues who have written articles and books on Avvakum. Of them later… meanwhile, and forever, the Old Believer Avvakum holds up his two fingers (foregrounded here) to this very day in permanent reproach to those who would turn Russia from the true path by insisting, among other things, that three fingers be used when crossing oneself. This astonishing little statue of Avvakum stands in Arkady Grigorievich’s study–which we will soon visit.

And while we’re on the subject of larger than life figures, let us not neglect the great Russian scientist Dmitry Mendeleev!! Pre-meds take note.  He was born here in Tobolsk 1834. Who among us has not based our knowledge of chemistry (admittedly weaker in some of us than in others) on his famous periodic table of the elements?  My visit to Ermakovo Pole fortuitously coincided with the dedication of a brand-new monument to Mendeleev, erected here to celebrate this year’s 150th  anniversary of the periodic table.  Present for the ceremony was a throng of Russian academicians. Here Arkady Grigorievich dedicates the monument. Be patient; by the end of this post you will know him well.

The Last Tsar

Not so long ago we were in Ekaterinburg, where we saw the Church on the Blood built in memory of the last Romanovs, who were murdered there. Tobolsk plays its part in that grim drama. Nicholas II, Alexandra, their children, and their faithful retainers, were brought here from St. Petersburg during the revolutionary disturbances there–for their protection? confinement? punishment? control? It is not clear.  They spent the last months of their life in a home here that has been quite recently renovated and, just last year, opened as a museum.

The Romanov Museum in Tobolsk is the last house where they lived that is still standing. The museum was planned, researched, organized, and opened with great care, and it needs to go on your list if you are coming to Tobolsk. It is located in the lower town (here seen from the Kremlin walls).

A diorama shows the configuration of the house and yard.

The museum staff and volunteers have assembled authentic items, photographs, and period furnishings to convey the feel of what it must have been life for the family to live here during this stormy period when (fortunately) they did not yet know their fate.


The muzeishchiki, including the director, a tall young priest, guard these facts, . The museum is tasteful, factual, respectful, devoid of hysterics, and devastating.

In the museum it would be easy to miss a small list, posted on a side wall, of the people who made the decision to assassinate the family. The top name on the list Lenin, then comes Sverdlov. I get a twitch, having just seen this corner in Tobolsk, where Sverdlov Street crosses Sverdlov Alley. Not to mention I have just spend 4 days in the city of Sverdlovsk, now (as before) Ekaterinburg, but still the oblast of Sverdlovsk. These names and places and people are mixing together in a disturbing way. And it is history, before your eyes, and muddled in your brain, as it can be when you visit a place and see a completely different landscape than what they saw during their time, but yet it is the same one, and you are a part of it.


Their domestic chapel was recreated, as were other rooms in the house, based on photographs taken during the Romanovs’ time here.


Above you see the last known photo of the Tsarevich Alexis, and, on the right, Nicholas II’s study.

I repeat, visit this museum.

But What about Chekhov, and What About Dostoevsky?

OK! Let us visit Arkady Grigorievich’s study. Former mayor of Tobolsk, current central force in the Tobolsk Revival Foundation,  metsenat (your new word for the day: philanthropist), collector, patron of the arts, and publisher, Arkady is a man of action and a man of taste. He commissioned the monuments you see in this post, for example, and conjured up the botanical garden. What brought me to Tobolsk, though, is his activity as a publisher and proud citizen of Siberia. Here in his study you will see the full set of his almanac, Tobolsk and All of Siberia:

In addition to the almanac, we will recall, Arkady publishes special editions of great works associated with Siberia, among them the boxed set of Dostoevsky’s Gospel, which I saw at Vladimir Nikolaevich’s home in Moscow a couple of weeks ago, and duly reported on. There are too many such editions for us to share now, for we are in a tearing hurry, but just one will give a taste of the riches stored here. Behold a large manuscript atlas, reproduced on specially produced paper with scientifically recreated ink, full size, just as it looked when it was fresh, over three hundred years ago, and just lying here for you to look at, and even touch.



Speaking of publishing, Arkady has taken me to a meeting with representatives of the Tobolsk literature-journalism-and culture world (the Pedagogical Institute, the Library Museum on Red (or Beautiful) Square, the Romanov Museum, and of course Arkady Grigorievich), where I witness (and even am invited to participate in) a roundtable about the history of journalism in Tobolsk, and about plans to celebrate a key anniversary of the city’s major newspaper. I am impressed with the intellectual level of this conversation, and with the respect that everyone bears for their city’s (and Siberia’s) history and culture, not to mention its long history as a center of periodical publiction in Siberia (a land which, we could remind ourselves, once extended as far east as the eastern border of Alaska).

After the meeting, and a brief interview with me tacked on, we take a commemorative photo, and I get to sit on the Hero’s Bench. It turns out, that the event (I guess unsurprisingly) was reported in the Tobolsk press:

Carol, you are driving us nuts! What about Chekhov and Dostoevsky?

OK, all right.

Back in Arkady’s study, I feel we are hot on the trail. Indeed, a collection of commemorative medals hanging on the wall catches my eye.  Among them leaps out one of the two great men whom I am pursuing.


Make a half turn, and there he is himself just below eye level.

Yes, Dostoevsky was, and is, in Tobolsk. He is here in Arkady’s office, at least two of him.

And what have we here? The Gospel box from Moscow! I mean, from Tobolsk, I mean IN Tobolsk. The Decembrist wives must be nearby….


We step out of the office.  Arkady seats me in his car and takes me on a short drive.

We leave small things behind.

On a square near the Kremlin we see him. He is the same, but much bigger, taller and solider than you, above eye level, solid, stern, made to endure, made to provoke thoughts, made to slow you down and so that you can ponder important matters. Dostoevsky took this spot in 2010, with Arkady’s help, and he will stay here for a long, long time to come.

But that is not all.  we splash through a couple of muddy alleyways, where you might hear a stray dog or two barking, and where an official-looking woman in uniform might run out at you, waving her arms and shouting something.  And here stands an active place of incarceration, one that is in a considerably less attractive state than the renovated and cleaned prison museum complex that we have just visited. It is unmarked, dark, concealed behind clean things. I do not think it is on any tourist map. But there it stands. This is the one. Your mind fills with images of what it might have looked and felt like on that cold January day when Dostoevsky was brought here in fetters, not knowing what was to be his future fate. And then, what it would have been like for him when the Decembrist wives (who, as you learn from some other source) voluntarily followed their condemned husbands into indefinite Siberian exile) bribed the guards to let the come visit Dostoevsky and his Petrashevsky group companions, and gave them their copies of the Gospel (let me remind you, this very one), with a secret stash of money sewn into the binding.

Pondering this, and overlaying the sight of this building onto what I know in my head about history and about Dostoevsky, and what has brewed inside for so many years from my reading of his works, reminds me that the words we read bear weight; they are not frivolous, or made up (and this applies to fiction as well as to history.

OK, but what about Chekhov?

What’s the matter with you–wasn’t this enough? And here I am almost ready to go home and think things over for a few years, before resuming my journey.

Time and patience, Tolstoy’s Kutuzov reminds us.

Stay tuned, and all your wishes will come true.

What Brings us to Tobolsk? Tobolsk 1

Chance? Coincidence? Angels fluttering about? Or maybe some larger plan? This journey is taking me from Moscow to, as we note with increasing confidence, Sakhalin.  At first I was timid about admitting this, suspecting I would chicken out en route and then have to deal with the shame of explaining to you why.  But gradually Chekhov’s Island of Sakhalin, and the island of Sakhalin itself, has become not only a real plan but also a very strong theme, and a vehicle for the workings of fate. Let us return temporarily to Moscow to pick up the threads.

In Moscow, in July, before setting out, I spent a pleasant evening with Vladimir and Olga Zakharov. As has tended to happen at important times, we began with with my little electronic valet, who had decided not to put through any calls between us, necessitating some unnecessary circling through mud puddles. Even the combined efforts of the immediate past and the present presidents of the International Dostoevsky Society proved futile to bring it to heel.

So we put the device in time out and turned our thoughts to profound matters.

I recommend this strategy in all troublesome situations.

With some effort, Vladimir lifted a weighty box from a bookshelf and lowered it, with a gentle thud, onto a chair. The box was designed to look like a prison cell, complete with barred windows and a metal lock.

It is dark in the photo. It should look dark.

The doors open out, revealing another box, labeled “Евангелие” (Gospel), which itself opens out (I am not going to use the matryoshka metaphor here).

Inside are nestled two large volumes, one a facsimile edition of the Gospel (1923 edition) that, famously, the Decembrist wives (Muravyova, Annenkova and Fonvizina) gave to Dostoevsky during his stopover at the transit prison in Tobolsk. The other book contains a set of commentaries and supporting materials by scholars, including from Vladimipr’s team in Kаrelia, and of course Vladimir himself.

In addition to tracking references to the Gospel texts in Dostoevsky’s works, scholars examined the text using infrared technology to reveal marks that the writer had made in the margins, which are invisible to the naked eye.

I have been around the course a few times, but have never seen anything like this, in the quality of the actual physical thing, as well as of the scholarship within, a brilliant example of what our Russian colleagues call “tekstologia.”

For awhile, we fell out of ordinary time.

There is a story here, of course. It is not only the story of how Sonya Marmeladova read the story of Lazarus to Raskolnikov under the light of single candle; it is not only the story of how the great novels Dostoevsky wrote after his experience of hard-labor prison and exile emerged from his reading of this book; it is also the story of how this actual edition came into being. Vladimir tells me that this is just one of many projects relating to Siberian history and culture, sponsored by the Tobolsk Revival Foundation (фонд “Возрождение Тобольска”). He mentions that a recent project relates to Chekhov’s The Island of Sakhalin. I’m not sure how to take this information (can it really be true, even? Maybe my still-foreign Russian language has deceived me), nor how to envision such a thing in material form, if it does exist. And so it is determined that I will go to Tobolsk.

Nothing took Chekhov here. And Dostoevsky was brought against his will. He arrived in the town, then the capital of Siberia and a major transit point, January of 1850.  Here convicts were sorted and distributed to their ultimate places of imprisonment and exile, and from here, Dostoevsky would be sent onward to Omsk–where we will take you in due time.


You may recall a story about what it was like to travel on the all-night train with the Vakhta to Tobolsk. About the stunning beauty of this town, and its rich history, I hope there will be time for me to emote later. But for now, after a quick couple of looks at the historic Tobolsk Kremlin (one out my window…)


we might stop in the prison museum opposite “Red [Beautiful] Square.” The prison was completed actually after Dostoevsky passed through Tobolsk, so these pictures probably belong in someone else’s blog. But in Siberia we must take note of the history of prison and exile, which rises before us at every stop.

I have to say, it’s an impressive complex that one could easily see as a public building of a completely different sort, a school for example. Among the rooms on display are a workshop, with an array of tools and tables, various rooms where prisoners of different faiths could worship, clean, well-maintained corridors, and what seemed to my unpracticed eye to be not completely unpleasant prison cells. There is a  large, colorful chapel with a choir loft accessible to the prison corridor. Everything the heart could desire.

I had a crazy thought that this was not all that different from various dormitories I’ve been in during my lifetime. I’d like to live here! Peace and quiet, no unwanted telemarketing calls, no bills to pay, hours and hours for reading….With some force, I managed to picture what it would have been like here with the full sensual spectrum–not just the visual images of a neatly painted and varnished museum complex, but the sounds, feel, and smells, of a functioning prison in Imperial Russia, and yet more, during the Great Terror of the 1930s.  Sounds: shouts and screams; feel: the lash, fetters, blows; and smells: recall that the cells were packed with unwashed and ill human bodies (or worse, harbored one isolated prisoner), and that the plumbing  in its entirety consisted in a bucket in the corner. Would it be possible to make a museum that conveyed this complete picture?

History, here, there is. In the hallways are posted photos and displays with information about these more unsavory aspects of prison life, and, importantly, the stories of individual prisoners. Here as everyplace else I’ve visited, are given the dates of people’s lifetimes, ending in the year 1937, endless rows of them. And each person has a story.

Outside, you see individual prison exercise yards installed during the Soviet period, which allowed prisoners to be kept isolated from their fellow sufferers even during their short hour outside.

And on the river-side brick wall is posted a plaque to the memory of countless victims of the repressions, who were shot dead right here in this yard.

By the way, you can stay in a hostel in the prison complex, which I would have done if I had known about it:

All these thoughts about prison have distracted me from my quest. Dostoevsky did not see these sights that I am seeing; he passed here before this prison was built.  What IS his place in the geography of Tobolsk? This I learn later, as will you.

Updates. The Vakhta and Оther Dribbles

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I. The Vakhta

Some mysteries are better unsolved. But when you get answers, it’s interesting and helps you get oriented, conquer your fears, and better understand the world around you.  My original assumption was that the farther East I went, the wilder everything would get. In other words, “civilization” was in the West.  I realize how wrong this is on so many levels, so please don’t haul me out to the provost’s office for reeducation. I will explain.

After my scary night on the Ekaterinburg-Tobolsk train, and a knuckle-gripping car ride from Tobolsk to Tiumen (details to come), there was a quiet interval at the kitchen table, and I was able to ask Galina and Alexander to help me puzzle things out.

The fact that my quiet little train space had been invaded at 4:00 a.m. by by loud, hammering ruffians didn’t really surprise me. I had crossed out of European Russia, after all, into a vast, wild territory of fierce explorers, conquerors, and prison guards. This felt like a background fact. So what scared me was the possibility that from here on east, things would just get rougher and rougher. It felt like a test of some kind. Could I handle it?

As I described my experiences, Galina suddenly asked what date I’d been traveling. Well, it was Monday, September 2. And there was a bright little flash of light over her head. She said, wait, it’s the VAKHTA! The wha?

Do keep studying. But know that you simply cannot learn every word.

I’m about to tell you everything I know, or at least think I know, about the Vakhta. The Vakhta (вахта) is a Russian system for hiring short-term laborers. People, ok, men, I guess, sign up on month-long contracts, and are shipped in a group to some remote work site. The work term begins at the beginning of the month, and, in at least one case, the workers are sent to a place in the north beyond, say, Tobolsk–which, I remind you again, is not on the main trans-Siberian railway line. During their work term the guys have to behave themselves, and are not allowed to drink, for example. So I’m told.

In short, if this very plausible theory is correct, I was not facing a journey eastward into ever-more terrifying territory. I just bought a train ticket for the wrong train at the wrong time, and it had filled up with the Vakhta in the middle of the night.  I’ve been on several trains (and other forms of transport) since that trip, going east, and nothing much terrifying has happened (yet), on trains at least.

And honestly, who has it worse, me on my little pointy-headed jaunt following Chekhov’s footprints, or these guys heading out to dig and pound and haul stuff in the far north?

II. Help from your Friends

Your assignment is to watch this extremely short video:

On this trip, I am the Blue Devil, and the Pep Band people are Anatoly, Sergei, Vladimir, Alexander, Alexander, Galina, Lia, Tanya, Tatyana, Tatyana, Oksana, Oksana, Michele, Katia, Katya, Evgenia, Sergei, Sergei, Arkady, Olga, Anna, Boris, Elena, Elena, Elena, Iulia, and many many more.

Огромное всем спасибо.

III. R and R

I would also like to say that it’s OK to spend one day in a hotel room in Novosibirsk watching YouTube videos.


Tiumen, my Uzbek Phone Double, and the Vakhta

Caution. Today there will be easy-to-confuse place names beginning with the letter T.

Though Tiumen comes before Tobolsk on the west-east route, on my trip I started with Tobolsk and worked back. Тime for a map оr two. My guess is that wordpress will delete this stolen item from the blog post, but the fanatics among you can easily find it on Wikipedia for “Siberia,” and steal it for yourselves (if you can sort of guess what it was I posted here).

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Anyway, if the map does show up on your screen, you can see my route except for Tobolsk, which is up (actually downriver, but northeast) from Tiumen, and Tomsk, which is a comfortable 4-hour bus ride northeast from Novosibirsk.

Siberian rivers flow north to the cold seas up off Russia’s northern coast. Tobolsk, the first capital of Siberia, and Tomsk, a stunning university town with extraordinary wooden architecture, are not on the main trans-Siberian railroad route but you must visit both of them.

The charm of these two towns may testify to the advantages of being off the map.

Where I am now is Tomsk, and I owe you several blog posts …I got here via Novosibirsk, formerly Novonikolaevsk, from Omsk. Are you dizzy yet? (Helpful tip: you can’t name a Soviet town after a Russian tsar). If you need something to hang on to, take a look at the (or a) map again.

About the places I’ve been there is much to report, in between epic struggles with iffy wi-fi, not to mention my cell phone, which is anal-retentive with photos and holding everything up. You may notice that this post doesn’t have a lot of images in it (yet).

Interval #1: about the cell phone:

I made my predictably regular trip to Beeline in Omsk…(btw Russian has a great word for “predictably regular”–ocherednoi)…

…where the predictably regular (ocherednaya) young lady glared at the phone, shook it a few times in the air, slapped it, and punched in a few numbers. It gave some little squeals, then fell into sullen silence. Then the Beeline girl asked for my passport and after some more jiggling around determined that my phone (and its sim card, I guess, or something)  is registered not to me but to a “foreign citizen.” Which, I remind one and all, I am, but somehow not the right one. (Please don’t confiscate the phone, it’s the only minion I have. It is my traveling companion, even though it sleeps on a three-legged cot in an antechamber, gives off a smell of sour cabbage, and doesn’t always come when I call) Gentle questioning elicits the “fact” that this phone (with, I assume, all its innards) belongs to a male from Uzbekistan. See “fuzzy numbers” bit one paragraph down.

Now I do distinctly remember watching the first Beeline girl, the one in St. Petersburg, peeling the cellophane off the sim card’s packaging, taking the card out, and installing it, before my eyes, in my brand-new phone. Just saying…

And now I have the queasy feeling that I may actually be a double of, or in fact be, an Uzbek citizen who’s been masquerading my whole life as a mousey Russian literature professor from North Carolina.

All this fuzziness and liminality reminds me of another fact I learned today (the “fuzzy numbers fact” I promised). As we all know, the country code for Russian phone numbers is +7.  My number, accordingly, begins with +7. But I am told that you can also dial 8 instead of +7, it’s kind of the same thing. Which plunges me into the deep black hole of Dostoevskian 2×2 = 5. If numbers are interchangeable with each other, then actually, who needs them at all?

On Thursday it will be back to Novosibirsk by bus, then overnight train to Novokuznetsk near the Kazakhstan border, and really off the map, except for what I hope proves to be an exciting Dostoevsky museum. Then back to Novosibirsk on the next overnight train, then eastward, I think next Monday or so, to Krasnoyarsk.

About my thrilling car ride to Tiumen from Tobolsk–a.k.a. short course in Russian driving habits–I will provide a complete report after I recover. But in the meantime let us appreciate Tiumen. I had five hours between my arrival here and my train’s scheduled departure for Omsk.

I sat quietly, in bliss, at a kitchen table with Alexander Medvedev and Galina, who fed me tea, caviar, and fruit and helped me mull things over. This helped me smooth my feathers, which were ruffled from the car ride. Those of us who’ve been around awhile know that it doesn’t get better than a Russian kitchen table. It’s kind of their equivalent of a trip to the spa. Alexander and Galina are specialists in Russian literature and philosophy, which adds to the excitement. Their apartment mate Sandy, who remained aloof throughout the proceedings, aroused long-dormant emotions in me, a rare combination of reverence, awe, and umilenie (the untranslatable Russian word for “tender emotion”).

It is likely he runs the place.

Once we have snacked and rested, Alexander walks me around town.  It is a lovely evening…We begin with the appetizers, a row of photos of old Tiumen, displayed at a park at the city center:

This is what the town would have looked like when Chekhov passed through in the spring of 1890, spending just one day (May 3/15). Chekhov and Dostoevsky both came through Tiumen on their way to someplace else (as I am doing). For Dostoevsky, Tiumen wins the competition between Omsk  and Semipalatinsk. (More on Omsk later).  One of the stands displays Dostoevsky’s famous commentary:

I walked the length and breadth of the city and arrived at the pleasant conclusion that Tiumen considerably surpasses both Omsk and Semipalatinsk. There’s a lot here that attests to Siberia’s identity as a great center of trade, and to the fact that, as Herzen wrote in The Bell, it is among the great world powers.

Though we should not forget what took Dostoevsky to Omsk and Semipalatinsk, which might well have skewed his impressions of those towns, Still, it is good to have the endorsement. And Tiumen does indeed have much to offer. Herewith, the main dish:

A freshly built promenade along the Tura River embankment, colorfully illuminated at night; a large church built more in the Kiev style than I’ve seen this time around, a monastery, beautiful old wooden houses, some flowers


(the best pictures here are the ones Alexander took)

….the Institute where Lenin’s body was kept during World War II, having been evacuated in strictest secret from his Mausoleum in Moscow

and many more interesting sights that invite one to spend more time. I also have a glimpse of the University, from outside and inside. And we pass the Post Office; here I realize what a theme post offices have become on this journey.

Without them, what would writers have done? And given the distances, the reliability and efficiency of the Imperial Russian postal service was remarkable. I have to keep reminding myself that this country’s territory takes up eleven time zones. Ours, by contrast, has very small hands, I mean time zones, only three (or maybe four or something, if you throw Hawaii in). Chekhov confidently sent and received money by post, not to mention other things, like, oh, masterpieces of world literature that existed in only one copy.

A vigilant reader of this blog sent me John Randolph’s wonderful article on the subject of the Russian imperial postal service:

Anyway, when I go to a city where Chekhov has been, I feel that whether or not there’s any evidence that he visited its post office, I like to think that he did, or walked by, or noticed it. In any case, the Tiumen Post Office deserves a shout out, this one.

It is known that Chekhov stayed one night at the Palais-Royale hotel. It stood on this spot.

The new building hosts an appealing-looking establishment, which, before I took the picture and smudged the sign, was called, uh, something like  “Soleil [or something] Coffee.”

One last Chekhov thing. Readers of his letters will recall what he had to say about the sausage.

В Тюмени я купил себе на дорогу колбасы, но что за колбаса! Когда берешь кусок в рот, то во рту такой запах, как будто вошел в конюшню в тот самый момент, когда кучера снимают портянки; когда же начинаешь жевать, то такое чувство, как будто вцепился зубами в собачий хвост, опачканный в деготь. Тьфу.

In Tiumen I bought some sausage for the road, but what a sausage! When you take a bite, your mouth tastes like what you’d smell if you’d walked into a stable at the precise moment when the coachmen were taking off their foot-cloths; and when you start chewing, you get the sense that you’ve bitten into a dog’s tail that is coated in tar. Bleah.

And then “dessert”: we eat dinner! It’s pretty astonishing what you can see and do in five hours in Tiumen.

And there is still time to go back to the apartment, admire Sandy and pick up my charged devices before we head off for the midnight train. Just have to say, it’s awfully nice to be fed, entertained, taken to the train station and seen off.  Makes you forget that some of this traveling can be a lonely thing.

Here are some great links Alexander sent me about Chekhov (and others) in Tiumen:

P.S. You’re wondering about the “Vakhta”? I’ll tell you later.

City of Iron

In Ekaterinberg my guide is the knowledgeable, kind, solicitous, proud city citizen, specialist in 19th-century Russian literature and an expert on Reshetnikov (and of course Chekhov),  Alexander  Kubasov.

Ekaterinberg, the fourth largest city in Russia, is made of rocks and iron, a tough, hard place with a short but riveting and gruesome history. Its youth (dating from 1723 or so) makes for quite a jolt from Kazan. The (original) point of the city was to dig into the hills, I mean the mountains, extract the riches within, and produce big, powerful things for European Russia. Always mighty and muscular, it came into its own during Stalin’s push for industrialization in the 1930s, and was a major production center of military equipment for the Soviet Union during World War II.

During the Soviet years the city was renamed Sverdlov to honor one of the masterminds of the Bolshevik revolution who died early, of illness, before he could suffer a worse fate, like what awaited many of the “Old Bolsheviks.” Тhis early death also prevented Sverdlov from being involved in later acts of murder and mass terror, and possibly has allowed his name to remain in many places where others’ names have been removed. And unlike Moscow and St. Petersburg, the city retains monuments and street names from the Soviet period, such as Lenin, Marx, Dzerzhinsky, 1905 Square. While I have you, let me sneak in a little street-corner photo from Tobolsk, a place that technically we have not visited yet, but hey…

Speaking of the NKVD, quite by surprise, on a solitary walk I ended up in the former compound where officials lived and played. My original purpose was to visit a branch of the regional history ethnography museum to see the Shagirsky idol (see below, under “The Problem With Numbers”), but learned from the ever-solicitous muzeishicki that their museum occupied the Cheka residential complex. The staircase is a feature of particular pride.

The house recalls the Moscow “House of Government,” featured in Yuri Slezkine’s monumental new history of the Bolsheviks, which I assigned to myself before coming on this trip. It tells the story of the grand House on the Embankment across from the Kremlin in Moscow, where all the big officials lived….This is kind of the same concept, but out here in Ekaterinburg.

There is a nagging thought here, of course, under all this beauty, one that recalls Dostoevsky. In Dostoevsky’s novels you should always be suspicious of well-dressed, fragrant people (Luzhin, for example). The external glamour usually marks a bottomless cesspit of evil within. We will return to this theme when we visit the Stalin terror memorial park.

In the meantime, though, Alexander takes me to the art museum. Rodina, Russia, will not attack, but she stands firm, ready to defend.







And seek in vain for any mold lines on these beautiful animals.


Behold the Kasli Pavilion, a UNESCO world treasure, where you will see what can result when man puts hand to iron. The pavillion was shipped off to the Paris World Exhibition in  where it slam-dunked the Grand Prix and sent everyone else slinking home with their tails between their legs.

The overriding impression here is beauty and craft. I am teleported into Nikolai Leskov’s 1881 masterpiece, “Lefty,” (Левша) about how the Tula masters shod the tiny steel flea…

The city’s metallic identity extends to the fine art of Mezzo Tinto printmaking, in which the artist scratches  designs onto metal plates. The process, unlike forms of etching, uses no chemicals, just meticulous hand craft. Ekaterinberg hosts an international festival at the museum, featuring masters like Art Werger.

Ekaterinberg cares about culture; there’s a museum on every corner…

Wait, but What About Chekhov?

Chekhov stopped for a few days in Ekaterinburg on his way to Sakhalin in the spring of 1890. The hotel where he stayed is conveniently called The American, and it still stands.

it’s the building on the left in the foreground.

        What Chekhov did in Ekaterinburg is clouded in mystery. But it is good to have a sighting.  Quick reminder here: I’m not traveling with a professional photographer or in fact, blog editor, translator, or trip planner.

There’s a literary district near the center of town; Chekhov might have visited the house of Ekaterinburg writer Dmitry Mamin-Siberiak in these parts. There’s a famous photo of them together with, on the right, Ignaty Potapenko (a prose writer famous and much read during his time, but now perhaps even more famous for the role he played in providing, through his scandalous behavior with Chekhov’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Lika Mizinova, the central episode and other key elements (character, quotes…) for his play The Seagull). Maybe Chekhov visited here! Of course he must have.


  Image result for чехов и мамин сибиряк


We are on Chekhov’s trail; he has brought us here. But inevitably we are getting distracted–and why not? Personally, I think that getting distracted is one of the main points of living, though there’s always the possibility that your boss may not agree.

The Border

So first, geography, and we could linger here for a long time. Ekaterinburg lies on the border between Europe and Asia. Where is that exactly? Someone–actually geographer Philip Johan Von Strahlenberg, drew a line down the Ural hills, I mean mountains, in the 18th century, and here’s your Europe and Asia.

The Problem With Numbers

Personally, I just love this. He just drew a line…It reminds me of the atlases in the Kazan University Library. Why do we really need something precise, to the thousanth-place longitude and latitude? And while I’m at it, let’s ask the same thing about seconds, minutes, years, and milleniuma.

Probably because it gives you something to hold onto when you see something like this, which was dug out of a peat bog in the late 19th century and turns out to be, oh, 10,000 years old–The Great Shigir Idol.

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Given how momentous this all is, the place is remarkably unfussy, though those of us who have spent time elsewhere in Asia will not be surprised to see the coin-bashing station and the wish ribbons.


The “two coffees for the price of two” sign has a Russian aura to it.

I do not judge. I am in, hook, line and sinker.


From Ekaterinburg Chekhov writes to his fiend the doctor Obolonsky: “I’m sitting now in Ekaterinburg; my right leg is in Europe, the left in Asia. The weather, to put it mildly, is disgusting…

I guess Chekhov was turned the other way.

The Terror

Travel down the road a bit, though, and the music is in a minor key.  The Great Terror did not pass Ekaterinburg, I mean Sverdlov, I mean Ekaterinburg, by. Here in a field by the highway is the Memorial to the Victims of Political Repressions, 1930s-1950s. Ernst Neizvestny made the memorial sculpture.

There are mounds of mass burials, and long walls listing the names, with the life span years noted, all of them that I saw, creepily, ending in 1937 or 1938. This is also the burial place of a host of the finest officers in the Red Army, shot here, and now memorialized in a white tree plaque.


The scope of the insanity and brutality is incomprehensible. It shadows over every detail of this city. Again I think, heaviness and fragility, stone and flesh.

Speaking of which…

Here looms the Church on the Blood. There are three Churches on the Blood in Russia: they commemorate the violent death of members of the Imperial family. I have now seen all of them this summer: Dmitry’s church in Uglich, Alexander II’s in St. Petersburg, and now this one, the most horrifying of them all. Tsar Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their five children were taken from their holding place in Tobolsk in the summer of 1918, brought to the Epatiev House here, and shot, all of them, in the basement. Boris Yeltsin, during his time here, had the house torn down. The Church on the Blood stands on the spot.

Yeltsin’s Town

A smart move, I say to combine what we would call the Presidential Museum (or Library?), with a high-end shopping mall with great food. it is truly one of the great museums, I’d say. A vivid short course in the whole sweep of Russian history, interactive exhibits–it’s excellent for those of us with a short attention span and a full agenda, and before you know it, you’ve spent the whole day.



I particularly enjoyed the bus. The front window shows a video about Yeltsin’s life, and the side windows show street scenes. Public transit was one of Yeltsin’s focuses as a city official.  You will sit in the second seat from the front on the right. A small boy enters the bus and does exactly what you would have done if you were a small boy, which kind of drowns out the audio–but by now you have an excellent sense of the Yeltsin years.

A Quick Note about Beer

OK, now I know that no one in their right mind comes to Russia for the beer. I also get that Sunday night is not when the varsity bartenders are on duty. And I know that Guiness (this is Guiness despite what it says on the class) is supposed to foam up. And maybe they think that females (or old people, or professors, or Americans, or whoever) shouldn’t be drinking beer. But honestly, is this the best they can do?


A New Friend

To recover from all the stimuli from my walks and drives around Ekaterinburg, I visited the Nature Museum, and found the love of my life:

Unfortunately, I was swooning and neglected to write down this charming fellow’s name.

The Journey Itself: Episode #1

Image result for russian train kupe

It was too good to be true: a whole “kupe” in the train to myself: three empty bunks and me: 11 hours–Ekaterinburg to Tobolsk. Open the nice fresh packet with crisp sheets and pillowcase, shake them out, make your bed, read a few pages of Daniel Beers’ The House of the Dead, and ahhhh, sink into blessed silence. It is 1:00 am after all. The rocking of the train, the clicking of the wheels, reverie, blissful sleep….

…. suddenly thuds, clanks, growls, and slams. It is 4:00 a.m. I keep my eyes closed–not hard to do, really, at that hour–and anyway, it’s better not to see. Gruff, booming male voices, something about the window, a crank  (the one directly over my head) is not working, and for some mysterious reason, it is an emergency and must be fixed now, at 4:00 a.m.  A tool has to be borrowed immediately from the provodnitsa. Tromping footsteps to her booth at the other end of the train car, and then back.  Clangs and hammering noises. Blurts of commentary, grunts.  This problematic window latch is the one right over my head, did I already say that?

Why do you need to fix your train-car window at 4:00 am?  It’s not your train, you are here for one day, and then you will be gone forever. The temperature in the train is nice, actually, quite tolerable. Soon the sun will rise and people will be awake and you will be able to see your surroundings, and to fix anything that you feel needs fixing. And just curious, do you notice that someone is “sleeping” in this bunk over here? Just curious. More bangs and grunts. Finally, one last click followed by contented murmurs.

Now begins an incessant and raucous shuffling of plastic grocery bags; things seem to be being taken out and put back in. The bags have to be rolled and crumpled up noisily by a minimum of three different people. I guess they have to get it just right. There is some discussion of jam (varenie), and some jar noises. Something is being drunk and slurped. Hello people, it’s a sleeping car on a train, and it’s 4:00, no wait, wait, 4:30 a.m. and there IS someone sleeping here. What card to play: feeble old lady? Mommy’s mad?  Oh wait, hey, how about the long-suffering model of Russian womanhood? She just takes it in with grace and forgiveness. That one is the least effort. Just lie there.  Grace and forgiveness.

I am beginning to understand Russia.

There’s some additional shuffling and tossing of things, and eventually, silence.

You wake up  nervously at 7 and consider your surroundings. The entire four-person kupe is the size of one queen-size bed; you are lying on one side of it, and on the other side, separated by a small table, lies an extremely large 40-something male in a blue-and-white wife-beater (yes, that is the correct term) that doesn’t completely cover his belly. When he sits up, grunting, I see, first and foremost, a very deep, fresh scar over his right eye. Disheveled hair, stubble. There’s a sort of low rumble of breathing, something like what you imagine a bear to sound like. This is the guy I can see–two others are large mounds in the upper bunks making sleep noises.

OK fine.  I’m not a morning person but what is to be done (chto delat’)?  Good morning (dobroe utro). Good morning back at me.  He gestures around the kupe, sort of fixing on my bunk. “Nichego!” he rasps.

Forty years I’ve studied this language. I think, uh, is he saying it’s a nice kupe or a bad one? I’ve been in worse ones, but I sure have seen better. The last one I was in had a plug where you could charge your device, and it was cleaner (kind of like this picture, which I stole off the internet). There was a nice, quiet girl in the bunk above, and she had an adorable fluffy cat in a cat case. And the other two bunks were empty. And the curtain rod stayed up in that kupe. And they provided a toothbrush! Anyway, I say, vaguely, “da, nichego” and give a brave, friendly grin.

And I will never know what we actually said to each other.

You are not in danger on a Russian sleeping train (I tell myself). They don’t even let people drink alcohol on them any more! But if you bring your American notions of personal space, you are doomed. Ponder the thought: what’s so great about privacy, anyway?  And when you think about it, big scary guys are nothing more than ordinary little boys who, with the flow of time, got big. It won’t last long; they will start shrinking soon, and sagging downwards. And in this moment you have a choice: you can kind of be like the mommy, or, as may be becoming the case in my case, the grandma. In any case, why not just let everything wash over you and see where you fit in?

When the train finally reaches Tobolsk, my sleeping companion lurches up off his bunk, grabs one of my suitcases, and rolls it to the exit for me.

I do not know his name. I am grateful for his help.  I will never see him again.

On the platform, a sea of eighty or so rough-looking guys who have stepped off the train stand around smoking. I see a total of three women: one young lady in a short dress and extremely high heels and another one with her, less put together, who gives the feel of a minion or loyal attendant or the orphan girl who was taken in by distant relatives. And there’s one middle-aged woman with a family.

I am the fourth female. Looking around, it occurs to me that what I am doing is actually pretty strange. Who gets on trains in Moscow with the goal of tracing the steps of Russian classical writers across Siberia? But then in life, if you think about it, some of what everyone does is strange. Some people spend their whole lives staring into a small, flat box. They even stare into it when walking down the street. They talk to it, waving their arms in the air and grimacing. They stand with their backs to a cliff and hold the little box out in front of them and grin into it, while backing up. They do not look up, or back. And their whole life runs through that little box.



Chekhov Slept Through it All


So I thought, I’ll just barrel through Kazan and be on my way; Chekhov actually didn’t visit the city, and rumor has it, when his boat passed by on the Volga, he was asleep. So like him, I figured, why stop?



The view of the Kazan Kremlin from the river is breathtaking.  It’s not the sort of scene Chekhov ever described, of course; his tastes for landscape shunned the spectacular and just distilled everything down to a single glinting detail. And of course my bratty phone (Huawei, I repeat, H-U-A-W-E-I) can’t handle this image (not to mention the other things it can’t handle. Is it too much to ask that it should actually ring when people call me, or not go randomly into “safe” mode to shield me from my own data?). I’m posting this photo just to prove that on occasion I can click on that little circle on the screen. Any flaws in the photo are the phone’s fault.

My digital assistant and involuntary travel companion is starting to remind me of Oblomov’s slatternly servant Zakhar. Let us review.

Oblomov lies prone, observes things and thinks, and Zakhar’s job is to take care of his master’s bodily needs (like put on his boots, feed him, wipe his nose, neaten up the bed linen–the hardest task, because Oblomov never gets up–shake the dust off things, remove, empty, and replace the little pot thing under the bed that Russian writers never mention ).

Image result for movie oblomov zakhar

As models of codependency go (thunder and lightning, Bert and Ernie, the Bunkers, “interdisciplinarity” and deans, T—p and P—n, ), no one comes close to Oblomov and Zakharov.

“Zakhar!” shouts Oblomov from the divan.

A loud grumbling, a thud.  “Zakhar reentered but Oblomov straightaway sank into a reverie.  Zakhar stood there a couple minutes, eying his master from one side with covert resentment, then made for the door.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ asked Oblomov suddenly.

‘You aren’t saying anything, so what is the point of standing here?’ rasped Zakhar, for lack of a different voice, which, he claimed, he had lost when the old master had taken him out hunting with the hounds in a strong headwind.

He stood in the middle of the room, half turned, looking sideways at Oblomov.

‘What, your legs have withered off, you can’t stand a few minutes? Can’t you see I’m busy here worrying–just wait a bit! Been lazing around in there, haven’t you? Find the letter I got yesterday from the elder. Where did you put it?’

‘What letter? I haven’t seen any letter,’ said Zakhar.

‘You’re the one who got it from the mailman: it was all dirty!’

‘How am I supposed to know where it is?’ said Zakhar, batting at the papers and sundry items lying on the table.

‘You never know anything. Look over there, in the basket! Or maybe it fell behind the divan? The back  is still not repaired; what would it take for you to call the carpenter and get it fixed? You’re the one who broke it after all; you can’t think of anything!’

‘I didn’t break it,’ answered Zakhar. ‘It broke on its own; it can’t last forever; it was bound to break sometime.’

Off he set for his room, but the moment he braced his hand on his pallet so as to hop up onto it, again there came an urgent shout, ‘Zakhar, Zakhar!'”

The best vocabulary here (“reentered, straightaway, reverie, covert resentment, pallet”...), I have taken from C.J. Hogarth’s translation.]; the rest is my fault.

Now it’s time for deep thoughts about how Oblomov is the mind, and Zakhar is the body, of a divided Russian people during the waning days of serfdom. We could move on from there to how I, too, am Oblomov needing someone like Zakharov to take care of basic things, my thoughts bouncing along like a helium balloon (Why do human beings hurt one another? Why was I even born? Is justice possible?), my body down here wishing that I could get the bathroom door in the hostel to lock and hoping not to accidentally toss my passport in the trash. Of course, no small function of your minion is to take the blame when things go wrong. This is why my photo of the Kazan Kremlin falls so far short of the original.

As all photos, btw, must.

Now you need to know that even if Chekhov had been awake he would not have seen those towers there, to the left of that tall brick spire. That is the mosque, built in 2005 to celebrate the city’s 1000th anniversary (a date, I understand, that is fuzzy–which actually is fine with me).

But still: if someone had thought to wake Chekhov up, he would have gone buggy eyed, and possibly would have renounced his restrained poetics for something exuberant and decided to stay here. I admit, during my manic four days here in Kazan, the thought occurred to me. But the catch is, they don’t need a Chekhov scholar in this town. They already have one, and one of the best, Professor Lia Bushkanets of Kazan Federal University.

Lia is a dynamo, a department chair, a prolific scholar and educator with publications and a teaching portfolio in a whole range of fields, including second- language acquisition, Russian literature, education, social media and communication. During her free time this August she dashed off four articles….Kazan already has a me squared, so I will have to settle for a short, but action-packed visit.

This visit includes (of the things I remember):

the Aksyonov museum, churches, mosques, belltowers, and monasteries, museums in the university itself, the art museum and the Tatarstan history museum in the Kremlin, the original gateway to Siberia, the place where prisoners were sent on their way into   Siberian exile, old wooden houses, the old Tatar settlement,


an Irish pub, the Temple of All Religions, a concert of gifted child musicians, a street concert of Tatar folk music, the “wedding chashka,” a dragon-fronted monstrosity on the other side of the Kazanka,


a drive (with the kind and patient Leonid, of Lia) to a luminous, quiet convent at dusk, bubble tea; Raifskii Monastery (where a man–a monk, I think–and a cat come out together to ring the bells…

You can see the string leading from his hand upward to the bell. The cat stayed with him until he finished, and then they walked quietly away.

…Speaking of animals, it’s been Animal Day in Kazan:



…an entire Island called Sviazhsk, with a restored 17-th century village and more churches and monasteries, and did I mention the Museum of Soviet Style? The closest I’ve ever seen to this extraordinary collection of items from the late Soviet period is the Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City, but there it was just banjos, and they were presented in neat, precise rows…

Why use an ordinary “WC” sign when these will do?


No, sorry, actually it’s not like the Banjo Museum at all. There’s nothing like this anywhere on earth. Ask Rustem Valiakhmetov, the mastermind, about it…And you will agree with everything he says.

Where was I?

Oh, the manuscript division of the Kazan library…wait, we have to take a break here, because my head is exploding.

If I look a little shell-shocked here between, on the left, the person in charge of the manuscripts in the library, and on the right, Lia,  it’s because I’ve just seen a 15-th  century Torah manuscript, written on parchment made from almost three dozen, was it, goatskins, thirty-three meters long and rolled up, next to its ark, one of only two of this vintage that are intact sets, just kind of casually lying in a glass-topped drawer, next to, one of the first printed Korans ever, bound proofs of books by suchlike as Radishchev, with the authors’ corrections, one of the world’s first atlases–a thrilling monster that opens out onto, page after page, a most whimsical vision of the entire planet. We take a minute to locate the place that would now be identified as North Carolina.  It features a cute deer illustration, though the geography will not look familiar.

But onward! Onward into the actual book part of the Kazan library, one of Russia’s biggest and most important libraries, and one with an extraordinary history. Many of its treasures were taken to off to St. Petersburg or Moscow, where you cannot see them as they are locked away. But in Kazan I saw, just casually sitting on a shelf, book number 1 in the library’s original catalogue. The 1 was written right there on the spine, and under this book lay number 2, and then number 3. All the other books in the library come after that. This number 1 book is a monstrous thing that could have been an encyclopedia.  I learned, with unseemly joy, that the first books were catalogued by their SIZE (biggest first) not such trivia as author name or title.

Kazan University is filled with the spirit of Nikolai Lobachevsky, YES, YES, THE Lobachevsky of non-Euclidian geometry, and I knew, just knew, Dostoevsky would get a shout-out here.  A great genius (both of them), but we cannot stop!

The university classrooms….

If you’re wishing you could catch a glimpse of these treasures, blame my little tormentor, who shut down completely at this moment.

Tolstoy and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin, on the left) were two of the most famous dropouts in world history. And it happened in Kazan.  Tolstoy “studied” Oriental languages here, then law, then off he went–but not after being incarcerated in the kartser for non-attendance of lectures. This grim place (though not as grim as where Dostoevsky would be heading in a few years) was on the second story of the hall where the university chapel was located. From outside it is down a ways, then up. Another key location in the university is what was formerly the clinic, where Tolstoy was treated for, uh…


Where were we?  Now Chekhov–still asleep on that passing boat–cherished a dream through much of his life of becoming a professor. If you’re one in the US, you will probably snicker–why the world’s greatest prose writer and playwright want that? Тhen Lia takes you into a small classroom that has been kept in its original configuration from the 19th century. Rows of benches and desks. A raised lectern in front, facing them. I learn that all the students must enter (in their student uniforms) from a door in the back and sit at the desks before the professor enters–from a different door so as not to be soiled.  When he enters, in his professor uniform, they leap to their feet in unison and stand in cowed respect. The professor then sits regally at the lectern and reads to them from his notes. If the students don’t attend class, they are basically imprisoned on bread and water (see Tolstoy above) for a period of time in the university’s main building. The students write down, word for word, what the professor says. We don’t have this stuff in US universities, but it might be worth trying.

As I was saying, word on the street is that Chekhov did hope to get a PhD and be an academic, which may have been one reason he went on this trip that I’m on. He doesn’t seem to be the type to want students to leap to their feet at the very sight of him, but a smidge of this has to be irresistible.

Another Chekhov glimpse came to me like a gift in the Kazar Khanate history exhibit in one of the Kremlin museums. I had so wanted to go to see Valentina and Sergei in Ufa, and maybe go for the Bashkir kumys cure (fermented mare’s milk), as Chekhov had on his “honeymoon,” but just couldn’t manage the logistics, an 11-hour bus trip off the tran-Siberian. So no kumys for me, and serves me right, I thought. But at the end of a excursion devoted to the lifestyle of the khans, they brought out a little tray for the guests, though, it felt, just for me. It tasted like sharp, thin yogurt. And I’m pretty sure it will have some good health effects in the arduous days to come. In short, one of my wishes for this trip came true.  Though I still want to go to Ufa.

In or near Kazan lived at various times, take a breath, I’m going to try to be alphabetical, Aksakov, Aksyonov, Baratynsky, Derzhavin, Gorky, Herzen,  Pasternak (what’s 100 kilometers when you’re in Siberia?), Pushkin, the singer Shalyapin, the painter Shishkin, Tolstoy of course, young Ulyanov, and many many many many many many more.

These Tolstoy statues are everywhere, they’re like flies. Over the past few days I’ve realized that if you see a bust or statue of a man with a big beard and a fierce look, chances are over 90% that this is Tolstoy. But never a young one! Hey, Kazan…?

Tolstoy came to Kazan at the age of nine with his brothers and sister after his father died, orphaning them. They moved in with an aunt, who also died.  On my first day in town, I sleuthed out the address of the house where they lived and went for a visit. If you look closely, you will see that both doors–the little one, for people, and the big one, for horse carts, are tightly shut,






despite a sign on the door saying the house was open on weekends (which, indeed, this was). Clearly, with Tolstoy, I needed help.

Now here’s where Lia comes in, big time. Off we went the next day on a Tolstoy walk. First, the house where he lived when a student (this being the third one he lived in in Kazan, with his brother). Not a museum, just a house that is still standing. A plaque:


My slave takes a couple of pictures with no sign of rebellion. And a man comes out, wondering what we’re doing, and Lia works her magic, and we’re in! The house now serves as an event space. But Tolstoy left some molecules here (invisible ones).


Then it’s off to that house that I had tried the day before.  More magic: all doors open to Lia:

It is sort of a museum, and sort of not, and belongs to the school next door. Anyway, basically,  and again, we have the place to ourselves. The house where the orphaned, traumatized five Tolstoy children were taken in by their aunt, Tolstoy’s first house in Kazan, where he grew and studied, and had experiences, and thought, and began brewing those amazing books to come.


First, though, he had to enroll in Kazan University, and learn that he was not a man to be taught, but one to learn himself, and eventually, to teach.

Oh, did I mention that when I asked about Tolstoy addresses, Lia just basically handed me a book her father (a Kazan University professor himself) wrote, and she edited, entitled: “Юность Льва Толстого. Казанские годы.” Lev Tolstoy’s Youth: The Kazan years.  It’s all in there, everything I want to know. Is this fairyland? Are ALL my wishes going to come true?

Read on…

We walk to another Tolstoy house, where he lived in between these two. And did I mention Aksyonov’s house? Meaning, Vasily Aksyonov’s aunt’s house, which is where the boy (later one of the most famous emigre writers) was raised after his parents were arrested (his father, and his mother, Eugenia Ginzburg,  who wrote the greatest Gulag memoir of all, Journey Into the Whirlwind (Крутой маршрют)–go read it NOW. Yes, we met the strong, kind, brilliant, selfless people who care for this museum.





There are other houses too, and there are places where spirits hover, where houses used to be. The physical spaces are lovingly cared for by human beings, our beloved muzeishchiki. These places, which seem on the outside to be just physical buildings, are vessels for the human spirit. Tolstoy needed a roof over his head, and walls. And we’re glad he did.

Oh, and I was on TV too.  Lia’s program, “Who’s Come to Visit?” on “Univer” TV (If you say it out loud, it’s a cool sort of pun).

Fortunately Lia took good care of me and prevented any meltdowns (at least any that I’d  be aware of).

What I have loved most of all in this, and in all my conversations with colleagues here, is the intensity of their respect for their literature, and their realization that what they do matters, their dedication to the mission of education, as the most important way culture and history are passed on.  They get craft, and tradition, and pedagogy, and culture, and they get that this is work.

Now is time for you to reread Chekhov’s story “In the Cart.”  Don’t worry, it’s short. I will wait.


As you can see, a lot can happen in four days, and more, too.

Who did we forget? Tons of people. Dostoevsky, for example, came through Kazan on his way back to European Russia after prison and exile. He spent ten days here reading books. And where is Chekhov in this one? Slept through it all.


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There was so much excitement in the Chekhov Post office that I didn’t feel I could go on. How seductive it would have been to sink down on that bench under the old post box inside and spend the afternoon there brewing thoughts. Mostly about how all writing is really just a subset of letters to friends.
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Not all writing, not the stuff you have to send to your lawyer or boss, or applications, reports, recommendations, tax returns,  appeals,  parking ticket appeals [ahem, Duke], and the like. The hell of it all is that now these kinds of things have to be done on some sadistic corporation’s “easy to use” online platform.  Some people around here (and by now, “here” is a dingy hostel in Kazan, Tatarstan) would prefer to write their blog in pen in one of those wonderful vinyl Russian notebooks with graph-paper grids, embellishing it with little drawings and smiley faces, with tickets, postcards, and other riffraff scotch-taped in.
Once we’ve taken care of all the unpleasant and practical writing that we have to do to ensure we stay employed, or don’t get thrown into jail or put out to debt collectors, that kind of stuff, then it’s time to do the good kind of writing, fiction, say, or letters to friends. And it turns out that there is some joy in embracing the fact that you are writing to friends–even if you don’t know them.
The Company We Keep by Wayne C. Booth
Now if I had followed my instincts to stay on that bench there in the Chekhov Letters Museum, I would maybe have had some deep thoughts, even sublime ones, but at the same time I would have been turning myself over to organic forces of inertia, gravity and decay. These forces are more than real; they are in fact Russian literature’s great master plot (and possibly the source of its inspiration).  Oblomov lies in the grass, doing what he does best, which is nothing, and watches ants rushing to and from the anthill. “What a lot of rushing around!” he thinks, “On the outside everything is so quiet and peaceful.” And the invisible microbes in his body bustle about their work, bloating him, digesting him, sending him downward, down, down into the earth.
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Gogol and Goncharov and Chekhov and the rest of them are fully aware of the appeal of letting yourself go to seed. It’s not all dark and depressing–something in that inertial state allows you to appreciate the fullness of life (though of course there’s always going to be an asterisk for Gogol). And  vodka fits in here somewhere.  But they are also aware that unless we get up off our butt and go out and build shelter, plow the fields and cook food, we’re not going to have anything to eat, and we will die.  So our activeness represents a struggle against the inertial forces of nature, or, dare I say,  Thanatos.
Chekhov was a contemplator (he spent a lot of time fishing, for example).
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And many of his stories depict people who can’t get anything done. But he was also a doer, and for now let us just mention that he was one of the great gardeners in world literature.
For reverberations, paste this link into your browser:

So when the van pulls up to the Letters Museum, I get up off the bench and we (a small delegation from Duke)

head to Chekhov’s house in Melikhovo.

Кonstantin Bobkov, the director of the museum, treats us and Zhenia Bovshik (of the letters museum) to tea, and then we stroll the grounds. “What a lot of rushing around!” we think. During his few years at Melikhovo (1892-98 basically), Chekhov expanded the estate’s pond and stocked it with fish, treated sick peasants, built schools, cultivated medicinal plants, volunteered for the census, wrote great works of literature…



Having asked about farm animals, with much excitement I learn that there is a stable on the grounds, where people can ride.

This beautiful horse is named Lolita. There are ponies too.

A high point is a visit to the tiny house where Chekhov wrote The Seagull.

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If you look up, you will see that an image of this very special place heads up our blog.   Let’s call it the Seagull Fleagull (fligel’ being the Russian word for this kind of building). The sign says “My house, where The Seagull was written.  Chekhov.” At this point my hand was shaking so much that the photo came out jiggly.

The Fleagull was closed to the public on the day of our visit, but Zhenia had worked her magic and we headed toward the door. On the way we threaded through a bustling family from an unnamed foreign country: mother, father, three small boys, and a grandmother-like person. The family had just learned the building was closed, and was expressing deep anguish, an emotion that spilled over into righteous indignation when they realized our little group was being admitted. Kindness prevailed and we all piled in, filling the little hallway between the house’s two rooms completely. At this point the youngest boy, an adorable (up to that moment) little blond, flopped to the floor and began flailing his arms and legs and shrieking. Recall Pussy Riot in the Christ the Savior Cathedral.  A struggle ensued (with the parents) and the sobbing child was escorted out in disgrace. The museum workers remained calm and even smiled indulgently.


And Chekhov’s room  filled with silence.


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