Rosamund Bartlett: Remembering Anton Chekhov in Russia

Roundup: Talking About History

[Rosamund Bartlett is the author of Chekhov: Scenes from a Life, editor of Chekhov: A Life in Letters, and translator of two anthologies of Chekhov’s stories. She is Director of the Anton Chekhov Foundation, set up to preserve Chekhov’s house in Yalta.]

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev chose to celebrate Chekhov’s 150th birthday on 29 January in Taganrog. This was entirely fitting, for it was in this southern Russian city that the writer was born. Medvedev turns out to know and appreciate Chekhov’s work. As a child, he distinguished him from Tolstoy by the length of his beard, it appears, while perceiving him to be just as old (Tolstoy was in fact Chekhov’s senior by thirty two years, and outlived him).

Medvedev now knows that Chekhov never got to be old. He admitted that this year’s anniversary made him realize just how much Chekhov achieved in his short life: at forty four, he is the same age Anton Pavlovich was when he died.

President Medvedev’s visit to Taganrog sends encouraging signals about the high regard the Russian state has for its great writers and the supreme contribution they have made to Russian and world civilization. That regard has not always been so obvious: in 2003 President Putin visited Chekhov’s house-museum in Yalta, but chose to ignore the plea for help addressed to him by its staff, who had been forced to witness its steady degradation since the collapse of the Soviet Union brought to an end its central funding....

Chekhov was always very clear about the cultural values he thought worth standing up for. For me they are encapsulated in the house that he pointedly built for himself in a Tatar village, away from Yalta’s bright lights. That is why, along with its many other merits, Chekhov’s house in Yalta deserves to be properly restored and maintained. Until Ukraine has the equivalent of the National Trust, or a mechanism for legally protecting buildings of historical value, we all have a duty to support the museum’s beleagured staff in their quest to safeguard its future. Meanwhile, we can also continue to hope that the governments of Russia and Ukraine will transcend whatever political differences have so far stopped them from embarking on a joint cultural project which would arouse the world’s admiration, and prove that their high regard for their shared cultural legacy is not circumscribed by narrow nationalist concerns....

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