I long to hide away somewhere for five years, wrote Anton Chekhov in 1888…
By February, he said in a letter, "I am living through a crisis. If I don't find the take-off point, it will go downward with me.…"
In May he wrote, "Suddenly, it does not interest me any more to see my stories in print. Criticism, literary conversations, talk, successes, failures, fees, all are no longer of any concern to me. In one sentence, they have become meaningless. I now feel like a downright fool. Somehow, things have come to a standstill for me… to an impasse in my personal life. I am not disappointed, I am not tired, not melancholic….it is just that everything suddenly has become less interesting. I must try to find some incentive, to get off the ground." (Thank you, Anton. This seems to be where I am, minus your literary fame and medical training.)
In December, in another letter, Chekhov admitted to… "a lot of forced work, but not a moment of serious effort. I long to hide away somewhere for five years, and to occupy myself with hard and serious work."
Yet by the end of 1889, Chekhov had found an answer! He would travel thousands of miles to Sakhalin, an island of imprisoned and damned human beings. In March 1890, he wrote candidly that his journey would not be a valuable contribution either to literature or to science…."Even if the journey has nothing to offer, should there not be two or three days that I shall remember all my life? Sakhalin is a place of unbearable suffering. I regret that I'm not sentimental; otherwise, I would say that we should pilgrimage to places like Sakhalin, as the Turks go to Mecca. From the books I have read and am still reading, I take it that we let millions of people rot in jails, rot for nothing, without thought or reflection, barbarically. I assure you that Sakhalin is necessary." In another letter, Chekhov clarified his intent. "I am not traveling to collect observations and impressions for literary use, but only in order to live differently for half a year than I have lived until now."
As soon as Chekhov made his decision to make the arduous journey, his personal crisis was over, and he began his plans and preparations. He did not receive official support from the imperial prison administration to examine the hygienic and sanitary conditions of prisoners. Although he was promised that he would be free to proceed, he did not know that a secret official telegram was sent to the governor, and Chekhov was not to be allowed to see political prisoners.
What about the journey itself? Steamboat up the Volga, travel by railroad, then 4000 kilometers in an open coach, unless he could hire a private one, and through the Taiga, then on to Lake Baikal. Yet another boat, then another coach, freezing "like a goldfinch in a cage." Siberia! A nightmare in May, still winter there, and Chekhov coughing up blood (his TB identified at age 23). For a week he stayed in Irkutsk, and apparently felt well and happy. He had his first bath, threw away his filthy clothes, bought new ones. And after traveling two and half months, he reached the sea and Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, on July 5, 1890. On July 11, Dr. Anton Chekhov arrived in Sakhalin.
Next time: What did it all mean, Anton?