Sue Young Histories

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 1860 – 1904

January 27, 2009

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 1860 – 1904 was a Russian physician, dramatist and author who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short stories in history.

Chekhov was fascinated by homeopathy and wrote about homeopathy, created characters who were homeopathic doctors, and he discusses homeopathy in much of his writing.

‘… Although the real atitude of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), a physician himself, toward homeopathy is not known, some details omitted in the final version of the story [Simulianty (Malingerers)] testify that he was familiar both with the leading domestic homeopathic manuals of that period and with the practice of homeopathic pharmacies of distributing medicines by mail…’ (Martin Dinges (Ed.), Patients in the History of Homeopathy, (European Association for the History of Medicine and Health Publications, 2002). Page 165.)

Three of Chekhov’s stories make reference to homeopathy. In Ariadne (1895), he spoke of a neighbor, a former landowner who was a homeopathic doctor and interested in spiritualism. Chekhov describes him as ’… a man of great delicacy and mildness, and by no means a fool.…’ (Dana Ullman, The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy. (North Atlantic Books, 2007). Page 76).

In The Betrothed (1903), he wrote of a woman betrothed to the son of a priest. Chekhov described the mother of the woman: ‘… She went in for homeopathy and spiritualism, read a great deal, and was fond of talking about her religious doubts…’ ((Dana Ullman, The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy. (North Atlantic Books, 2007). Page 76).

Chekhov’s short story The Malingerers (1885) has as its lead character a homeopathic doctor - the widow of a Russian general who has practiced as a homeopathic physician for ten years. She has an extremely busy practice and is especially popular among the poor peasants.

The story focuses on one landowner who has sunk into poverty. He expresses extreme gratitude for her prescribing three doses of a homeopathic medicine to him. He falls to his knees to thank her, telling her that his eight years of suffering from rheumatism are over thanks to her medicines (Anton Pavlovi? ?echov, John L. Coulehan, M.D., Chekhov’s Doctors: A Collection of Chekhov’s Medical Tales, (Kent State University Press, 1 Sep 2003). Pages 3, 5 and 184).

He tells her that he was initially skeptical of these tiny doses, but his skepticism is over. He also tells her how greedy the regular doctors are and how they never really cure people. He asserts: “The doctors did me nothing but harm. They drove the disease inwards. Drive in, that they did, but to drive out was beyond their science.”

He refers to doctors as “assassins.” He cries because he cannot even provide wood to keep his family warm. The doctor shows sympathy for him and gives him wood. The patient then tells her he needs a cow, and the doctor provides that too. As the patient leaves the doctor, three pieces of paper fall out of his pockets, and she discovers that these are the homeopathic medicines she had previously given him, left untouched.

Chekhov closes the story with the homeopathic doctor experiencing doubt for the first time in ten years of practice. The story ends with the words “The deceitfulness of man!“…

It is interesting and significant that Chekhov chose a woman to be the homeopathic doctor in this story. In the 1880s women represented a very small minority of physicians, though the few that existed tended to be homeopathic doctors…

The fact that Chekhov chose this woman to be a widow of a general makes sense because homeopathy was especially popular among the Russian elite, including the royalty, clergy, and the military.

Chekhov also mentions homeopathy in his Selected Letters, in The Schoolmaster and Other Stories, and in his Plays, as Chekhov said, people in general like to talk about their illnesses, patients who receive much more attention from the famous Kiev homeopath DV Popov.

Chekhov took note of the homeopaths he met and wrote them into his literature.

‘… When I returned to Yalta, he had already moved out of my apartment - back to the summer house of General Ilovaisky’s Widow Where he stayed till he moved to his own house in Autka. But often, fleeing visitors who distracted him from Work, he would come to my apartment early in the morning and stay till dinner. General Ilovaisky’s Widow, in Whose summer house he lived at the time, liked him a lot although she lamented his refusal to acknowledge homeopathy. She felt that his rejection of her pills was destructive to his health…’ (Isaak Naumovich Altshuller in The Doctors, by Anton Chekhov).

From Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, The Plays of Tchekhov, The Three Sisters, (Chatto and Windus, 1923). Page 150. ‘… ladies with delicate chests are benefited by frequent visits of a young doctor? It’s a great discovery, great! To which is it to be ascribed: to the allopaths or the homeopaths?…’

See Ivanoff by Anton Chekhov ’… SHABELSKI[To LVOFF] Tell me, most honoured disciple of science, what scholar discovered that the frequent visits of a young doctor were beneficial to ladies suffering from affections of the chest? It is a remarkable discovery, remarkable! Would you call such treatment Allopathic or Homeopathic? LVOFF tries to answer, but makes an impatient gesture instead, and walks out of the room…’

See The Betrothed by Anton Chekhov ’… And here came Nina Ivanovna, tearful, a glass of mineral water in her hand. She went in for spiritualism and homeopathy, read a great deal, and was fond of talking about her religious doubts, and Nadya supposed there must be some profound, mysterious significance in all this. She kissed her mother, and walked on at her side…’

See Ariadne by Anton Chekhov{::}*** *’… The first three years after finishing at the university I spent in the country, looking after the estate and constantly expecting to be elected on some local assembly; but what was most important, I was violently in love with an extraordinarily beautiful and fascinating girl. She was the sister of our neighbour, Kotlovitch, a ruined landowner who had on his estate pine-apples, marvellous peaches, lightning conductors, a fountain in the courtyard, and at the same time not a farthing in his pocket. He did nothing and knew how to do nothing. He was as flabby as though he had been made of boiled turnip; he used to doctor the peasants by homeopathy and was interested in spiritualism. He was, however, a man of great delicacy and mildness, and by no means a fool, but I have no fondness for these gentlemen who converse with spirits and cure peasant women by magnetism. In the first place, the ideas of people who are not intellectually free are always in a muddle, and it’s extremely difficult to talk to them; and, secondly, they usually love no one, and have nothing to do with women, and their mysticism has an unpleasant effect on sensitive people. I did not care for his appearance either. He was tall, stout, white-skinned, with a little head, little shining eyes, and chubby white fingers. He did not shake hands, but kneaded one’s hands in his. And he was always apologising. If he asked for anything it was “Excuse me”; if he gave you anything it was “Excuse me” too…’

From Anton Chekhov was born on 29 January 1860, the third of six surviving children, in Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov in southern Russia where his father, Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov, the son of a former serf, ran a grocery store.

A director of the parish choir, devout Orthodox Christian, and physically abusive father, Pavel Chekhov has been seen by some historians as the model for his son’s many portraits of hypocrisy.

Chekhov’s mother, Yevgeniya, was an excellent storyteller who entertained the children with tales of her travels with her cloth merchant father all over Russia.”Our talents we got from our father,” Chekhov remembered, “but our soul from our mother.”

In adulthood, Chekhov was to criticise his brother Alexander’s treatment of his wife and children by reminding him of Pavel’s tyranny: “Let me ask you to recall that it was despotism and lying that ruined your mother’s youth. Despotism and lying so mutilated our childhood that it’s sickening and frightening to think about it. Remember the horror and disgust we felt in those times when Father threw a tantrum at dinner over too much salt in the soup and called Mother a fool”.

Chekhov attended a school for Greek boys, followed by the Taganrog gymnasium, now renamed the Chekhov Gymnasium, where he was kept down for a year at fifteen for failing a Greek exam. He sang at the Greek Orthodox monastery in Taganrog and in his father’s choirs.

In a letter of 1892, he used the word “suffering” to describe his childhood and recalled: “When my brothers and I used to stand in the middle of the church and sing the trio “May my prayer be exalted,” or “The Archangel’s Voice,” everyone looked at us with emotion and envied our parents, but we at that moment felt like little convicts.”

In 1876, Chekhov’s father was declared bankrupt after over extending his finances building a new house,and to avoid the debtor’s prison fled to Moscow, where his two eldest sons, Alexander and Nikolai, were attending the university.

The family lived in poverty in Moscow, Chekhov’s mother physically and emotionally broken.Chekhov was left behind to sell the family possessions and finish his education.

Chekhov remained in Taganrog for three more years, boarding with a man called Selivanov who, like Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, had bailed out the family for the price of their house. Chekhov had to pay for his own education, which he managed by - among other jobs - private tutoring, catching and selling goldfinches, and selling short sketches to the newspapers.

He sent every ruble he could spare to Moscow, along with humorous letters to cheer up the family. During this time he read widely and analytically, including Cervantes, Ivan Turgenev, Goncharov, and Schopenhauer; and he wrote a full length comedy drama, Fatherless, which his brother Alexander dismissed as “an inexcusable though innocent fabrication.”

Chekhov also enjoyed a series of love affairs, one with the wife of a teacher.

In 1879, Chekhov completed his schooling and joined his family in Moscow, having gained admission to the medical school at Moscow University. Chekhov now assumed responsibility for the whole family. To support them and to pay his tuition fees, he daily wrote short, humorous sketches and vignettes of contemporary Russian life, many under pseudonyms such as “Antosha Chekhonte” (?????? ???????) and “Man without a Spleen” (??????? ??? ?????????).

His prodigious output gradually earned him a reputation as a satirical chronicler of Russian street life, and by 1882 he was writing for Oskolki (Fragments), owned by Nikolai Leikin, one of the leading publishers of the time. Chekhov’s tone at this stage was harsher than that familiar from his mature fiction.

In 1884, Chekhov qualified as a physician, which he considered his principal profession though he made little money from it and treated the poor for free.In 1884 and 1885, Chekhov found himself coughing blood, and in 1886 the attacks worsened; but he would not admit tuberculosis to his family and friends,confessing to Leikin, “I am afraid to submit myself to be sounded by my colleagues.”

He continued writing for weekly periodicals, earning enough money to move the family into progressively better accommodation. Early in 1886 he was invited to write for one of the most popular papers in St. Petersburg, Novoye Vremya (New Times), owned and edited by the millionaire magnate Alexey Suvorin, who paid per line a rate double Leikin’s and allowed him three times the space. Alexey Suvorin was to become a lifelong friend, perhaps Chekhov’s closest.

Before long, Chekhov was attracting literary as well as popular attention. The sixty four year old Dmitry Grigorovich, a celebrated Russian writer of the day, wrote to Chekhov after reading his short story The Huntsman, “You have real talent - a talent which places you in the front rank among writers in the new generation.” He went on to advise Chekhov to slow down, write less, and concentrate on literary quality.

Chekhov replied that the letter had struck him “like a thunderbolt” and confessed, “I have written my stories the way reporters write up their notes about fires - mechanically, half consciously, caring nothing about either the reader or myself.”

The admission may have done Chekhov a disservice, since early manuscripts reveal that he often wrote with extreme care, continually revising.Grigorovich’s advice nevertheless inspired a more serious, artistic ambition in the twenty six year old.

In 1887, with a little string pulling by Grigorovich, the short story collection At Dusk (V Sumerkakh) won Chekhov the coveted Pushkin Prize “for the best literary production distinguished by high artistic worth.”

That year, exhausted from overwork and ill health, Chekhov took a trip to Ukraine which reawakened him to the beauty of the steppe.On his return, he began the novella length short story The Steppe, “something rather odd and much too original,” eventually published in Severny Vestnik (The Northern Herald).

In a narrative which drifts with the thought processes of the characters, Chekhov evokes a chaise journey across the steppe through the eyes of a young boy sent to live away from home, his companions a priest and a merchant. The Steppe, which has been called a “dictionary of Chekhov’s poetics”, represented a significant advance for Chekhov, exhibiting much of the quality of his mature fiction and winning him publication in a literary journal rather than a newspaper.

In autumn 1887, a theater manager named Korsh commissioned Chekhov to write a play, the result being Ivanov, written in a fortnight and produced that November. Though Chekhov found the experience “sickening,” and painted a comic portrait of the chaotic production in a letter to his brother Alexander, the play was a hit and was praised, to Chekhov’s bemusement, as a work of originality. Mikhail Chekhov considered Ivanov a key moment in his brother’s intellectual development and literary career.

From this period comes an observation of Chekhov’s which has become known as “Chekhov’s Gun,” noted by Ilia Gurliand from a conversation: “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.”

The death of Chekhov’s brother Nikolai from tuberculosis in 1889 influenced A Dreary Story, finished that September, about a man who confronts the end of a life which he realizes has been without purpose.

Mihail Chekhov, who recorded his brother’s depression and restlessness after Nikolai’s death, was researching prisons at the time as part of his law studies, and Anton Chekhov, in a search for purpose in his own life, himself soon became obsessed with the issue of prison reform.

In 1890, Chekhov undertook an arduous journey by train, horse-drawn carriage, and river steamer to the far east of Russia and the katorga, or penal colony, on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan, where he spent three months interviewing thousands of convicts and settlers for a census.

The letters Chekhov wrote during the two and a half month journey to Sakhalin are considered among his best. His remarks to his sister about Tomsk were to become notorious. “Tomsk is a very dull town. To judge from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull too”.

The inhabitants of Tomsk later retaliated by erecting a mocking statue of Chekhov.

What Chekhov witnessed on Sakhalin shocked and angered him, including floggings, embezzlement of supplies, and forced prostitution of women: “There were times,” he wrote, when “I felt that I saw before me the extreme limits of man’s degradation.”

He was particularly moved by the plight of the children living in the penal colony with their parents. For example: “On the Amur steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict with fetters on his legs who had murdered his wife. His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.”

Chekhov later concluded that charity and subscription were not the answer, but that the government had a duty to finance humane treatment of the convicts. His findings were published in 1893 and 1894 as Ostrov Sakhalin (The Island of Sakhalin), a work of social science, not literature, and worthy and informative rather than brilliant.

Chekhov found literary expression for the hell of Sakhalin in his long short story The Murder, the last section of which is set on Sakhalin, where the murderer Yakov loads coal in the night, longing for home.

In 1892, Chekhov bought the small country estate of Melikhovo, about forty miles south of Moscow, where he lived until 1899 with his family. “It’s nice to be a lord,” he joked to Shcheglov; but he took his responsibilities as a landlord seriously and soon made himself useful to the local peasants.

As well as organising relief for victims of the famine and cholera outbreaks of 1892, he went on to build three schools, a fire station, and a clinic, and to donate his medical services to peasants for miles around, despite frequent recurrences of his tuberculosis…

Chekhov’s expenditure on drugs was considerable; but the greatest cost was making journeys of several hours to visit the sick, which reduced his time for writing.

Chekhov’s work as a doctor, however, enriched his writing by bringing him into intimate contact with all sections of Russian society: for example, he witnessed at first hand the peasants’ unhealthy and cramped living conditions, which he recalled in his short story Peasants.

Chekhov visited the upper classes as well, recording in his notebook: “Aristocrats? The same ugly bodies and physical uncleanliness, the same toothless old age and disgusting death, as with market women.”

Chekhov began writing his play The Seagull in 1894, in a lodge he had built in the orchard at Melikhovo. In the two years since moving to the estate, he had refurbished the house, taken up agriculture and horticulture, tended orchard and pond, and planted many trees, which, according to Mikhail, he “looked after… as though they were his children. Like Colonel Vershinin in his Three Sisters, as he looked at them he dreamed of what they would be like in three or four hundred years.”

The first night of The Seagull on 17 October 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petersburg was a fiasco, booed by the audience, and the play’s reception stung Chekhov into renouncing the theatre. But the play so impressed the theatre director Vladimir Nemirovich Danchenko that he convinced his colleague Constantin Stanislavski to direct it for the innovative Moscow Art Theatre in 1898.

Constantin Stanislavski’s attention to psychological realism and ensemble playing coaxed the buried subtleties from the text and restored Chekhov’s interest in playwriting. The Art Theatre commissioned more plays from Chekhov and the following year staged Uncle Vanya, which Chekhov had completed in 1896.

In March 1897 Chekhov suffered a major hemorrhage of the lungs while on a visit to Moscow and, with great difficulty, was persuaded to enter a clinic, where the doctors diagnosed tuberculosis on the upper part of his lungs and ordered a change in his manner of life.

After his father’s death in 1898, Chekhov bought a plot of land on the outskirts of Yalta and built a villa there, into which he moved with his mother and sister the following year. Though he planted trees and flowers in Yalta, kept dogs and tame cranes, and received guests such as Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky, Chekhov was always relieved to leave his “hot Siberia” for Moscow or travels abroad. He vowed to move to Taganrog as soon as a water supply was installed there.

In Yalta he completed two more plays for the Art Theatre, composing with greater difficulty than in the days when he “wrote serenely, the way I eat pancakes now”; he took a year each over Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.

On 25 May 1901 Chekhov married Olga Knipper - quietly, owing to his horror of weddings - a former protegée and sometime lover of Vladimir Nemirovich Danchenko whom he had first met at rehearsals for The Seagull.

Up to that point, Chekhov, called “Russia’s most elusive literary bachelor”, had preferred passing liaisons and visits to brothels over commitment:…

Chekhov lived largely at Yalta, Olga in Moscow, pursuing her acting career. In 1902, Olga suffered a miscarriage; and Donald Rayfield has offered evidence, based on the couple’s letters, that conception may have occurred when Chekhov and Olga were apart, although Russian scholars have conclusively refuted that claim.

The literary legacy of this long distance marriage is a correspondence which preserves gems of theatre history, including shared complaints about Stanislavski’s directing methods and Chekhov’s advice to Olga about performing in his plays.

In Yalta, Chekhov wrote one of his most famous stories, The Lady with the Dog (also called Lady with Lapdog), which depicts what at first seems a casual liaison between a married man and a married woman in Yalta. Neither expects anything lasting from the encounter, but they find themselves drawn back to each other, risking the security of their family lives.

By May 1904, Chekhov was terminally ill. “Everyone who saw him secretly thought the end was not far off,” Mikhail Chekhov recalled, “but the nearer Chekhov was to the end, the less he seemed to realize it.”

On 3 June he set off with Olga for the German spa town of Badenweiler in the Black Forest, from where he wrote outwardly jovial letters to his sister Masha describing the food and surroundings and assuring her and his mother that he was getting better. In his last letter, he complained about the way the German women dressed.

Chekhov’s death has become one of “the great set pieces of literary history”,retold, embroidered, and fictionalised many times since, notably in the short story Errand by Raymond Carver.

In 1908, Olga wrote this account of her husband’s last moments: “Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe. The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.”

He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child…”

Chekhov’s body was transported to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car for fresh oysters, a detail which offended Gorky.Some of the thousands of mourners followed the funeral procession of a General Keller by mistake, to the accompaniment of a military band. Chekhov was buried next to his father at the Novodevichy Cemetery.