At Chekhov's Estate, a Pastoral Literary Shrine Belies a Turbulent Century

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MELIKHOVO, Russia -- In a country as big and brash as modern Russia, it is always something of a surprise to discover a modest jewel of the culture that many Russians value so highly.

The museum here at the former country estate of Anton Chekhov is just such a place. It is not very well marked from the nearby town of Chekhov -- a typically ramshackle mix of Soviet apartments and post-Soviet garishness, founded only in 1954.

Yet once the visitor has crossed the railway tracks that once brought the Chekhovs here from Moscow, about 50 miles to the north, and onto the country road to Melikhovo, a pastoral scene unfolds.

The museum represents the toil of a few determined individuals who overcame the ravages, or simply the neglect, of Soviet power. Today it is not just a shrine to one of the world's great writers, but also a witness to more than a century of history.

Chekhov bought the estate in 1892, when he was 32 and already a successful writer, after seeing it advertised in a newspaper -- a distant echo of the dozens of billboards that now line any highway out of Moscow, offering plots of land and finished dachas, or "kottedzhi," in the 21st-century version of a Russian rural idyll.

The writer and his extensive family -- his parents, sister and three brothers -- took an immediate liking to the place, said Kseniya A. Tchaikovskaya, the chief curator of the collection of Chekhov artifacts here. (No item seemed too small to preserve: the writer's pince-nez on his desk, the shirt collars in his wardrobe, the objects stuffed into wooden cupboards and metal safes in Ms. Tchaikovskaya's crammed office, formerly the bedroom of Chekhov's mother.)

In the seven years that Chekhov spent in Melikhovo, before poor health forced him to move to the Crimean resort of Yalta (he died of tuberculosis in 1904 in Germany, just 44 years old), Chekhov wrote 42 works, including "Uncle Vanya," "The Seagull" and short stories like "Ward 6."

One small annex is named Chaika, or Seagull. It has a plaque quoting Chekhov himself to introduce the three-room wooden structure -- it was built originally for guests but over time became a retreat for the writer from the hubbub of his household -- as the "little house" where he wrote the play of the same name, perhaps his best-loved one.

Taking 90 minutes on a recent day when the museum was closed to show around two chance visitors, Ms. Tchaikovskaya related the history of the estate.

When the Chekhovs lived here, she said, they entertained, gardened, painted and made music -- the dacha pastimes of generations of Russians able to afford them. The playwright's brother Aleksandr was a keen photographer, and scene upon scene of guests and family line the walls of the main wooden house, alongside works by renowned Russian artists -- and visitors -- like the painters Isaak I. Levitan and Vassily D. Polenov.

Chekhov, besides writing and taking part in the estate's gostoprimstvo, or hospitality, also worked as a doctor, preparing his own medicines. He was always ready, Ms. Tchaikovskaya said, to treat even the poorest patient.

Chekhov's guiding principle in doing so, she added, was "hasten to do good," a maxim of Dr. Friedrich Haass, a revered chief doctor of Moscow prison hospitals in the 19th century.

Chekhov's altruism and the modest proportions of his estate are a far cry from the all-out materialism and bigger-is-best mantra of oil-rich Russia today, where millions are still poor but millions of others are consuming as never before.

Perhaps the writer felt bound to serve not just because of his medical training but also because his own father, Pavel, started life as a serf, winning his freedom only at age 16.

Ms. Tchaikovskaya, 66, has devoted 42 years of her working life to the Melikhovo estate. She noted how the estate arose anew after falling into ruin when it became part of a Soviet collective farm, or kolkhoz, in the 1920s. "After the kolkhoz, there was only dirt here," she lamented.

Maria P. Chekhova, the writer's sister, lived well into her 90s, and even in 1940, as war approached, she tried to get the little Chaika annex made into an official museum, Ms. Tchaikovskaya said.

The real effort to restore the estate had to wait until after World War II, when Yuri K. Avdeev, an artist who returned from the war nearly blind, moved here. With Ms. Chekhova and a Chekhov nephew, Mr. Avdeev worked throughout the 1950s to recreate the main house, which was derelict, Ms. Tchaikovskaya said.

Many artifacts came from the later Chekhov home in Yalta, enabling visitors today to get a full glimpse of a cramped family home in the late 19th century. The museum's staff of 130 even plant the same fruits and vegetables -- including eggplant, lettuce and watermelon -- in the garden as in Chekhov's time, and still refer to it as "the South of France," one of many family nicknames for different corners of the leafy estate.

Today, thanks in part to a theater school, an international theater festival, special festive events and performances of Chekhov works each Saturday in the summer, the estate counts about 100,000 visitors a year, Ms. Tchaikovskaya said. "We have to make money," she said, noting a change from Soviet times.

The curator herself embodied a certain type from the Soviet era: knowledgeable about her subject, dedicated and proud. Stories about the estate flowed as she walked. Here was the crate where workers collect "Chekhov apples" from the orchard -- given away now to visitors, but an important source of extra income in the days of the kolkhoz. Over there was the spot where a beloved tree was felled in 1982.

"We were all crying," she said wistfully, adding, "This is my second home."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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