The Ultimate Freedom

As a child, Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)—the future celebrated writer —faced each morning with a feeling of dread: would he be beaten that day by his father or somehow spared? Without warning, and sometimes without any apparent cause, his father, Pavel Yegorovich, would strike him hard several times with a cane or a whip or the back of his hand. What made it doubly confusing was that his father did not beat him out of any apparent malice or anger. He told Anton he was doing it out of love. It was God’s will that children be beaten, to instill humility. That was how he had been raised, and look at what a fine man he had turned into. At the end of the beating, young Anton had to kiss his father’s hand and ask to be forgiven. At least he was not alone in this ordeal—his four brothers and one sister all received the same treatment.

The beating was not the only thing he came to dread. In the afternoon he would hear his father’s approaching footsteps outside their ramshackle wooden house, and he would tremble with fear. More often than not he was coming to the house at that hour to ask the child Anton to replace him in the grocery shop that he owned, in the backwater town of Taganrog, Russia, where the family lived. For most of the year, the shop was unbearably cold. While minding the counter, Anton would try to do his homework, but his fingers would quickly become numb and the ink in the pot for his pen would freeze up. In that mess of a store, which smelled of rancid meat, he would have to listen to the dirty jokes of the Ukrainian peasants who worked there, and witness the lewd behavior of the assortment of town drunks who wandered in for their shots of vodka. In the midst of all this, he had to make sure that every kopeck was accounted for, or he would get an added thrashing from his father. He would often be left there for hours while his father was getting drunk somewhere else.

His mother would try to intervene. She was a gentle soul who was no match for her husband. The boy was too young to work, she would say. He needed time for his studies. Sitting in the freezing shop was ruining his health. The father would thunder back that Anton was lazy by nature, and only through hard work could he become a respectable citizen.

There was no respite from the father’s presence. On Sunday, the one day the shop was closed, he would wake the children up at four or five in the morning to rehearse their singing for the church choir, of which he was the director. Once home from the service, they would have to repeat it, ritual by ritual, on their own, then return for the noon mass. By the time it was over, they were all too exhausted to play.

In the moments he had to himself, Anton would wander around town. Taganrog was a grim place to grow up. The fronts of almost all of the houses were decaying and crumbling, as if they were already ancient ruins. The roads were not paved, and when the snow melted there was mud everywhere, with giant potholes that could swallow a child up to the neck. There were no streetlights. Prisoners would be tasked with finding the stray dogs on the streets and beating them to death. The only quiet and safe place was the surrounding graveyards, and Anton would visit them often.

On these walks, he would wonder about himself and the world. Was he really so worthless that he deserved the almost daily beatings from his father? Perhaps. And yet his father was a walking contradiction—he was lazy, a drunk, and quite dishonest with customers, despite his religious zeal. And the citizens of Taganrog were equally ridiculous and hypocritical. He would observe them at the cemetery, trying to act pious during the funeral service but then excitedly whispering to one another about the delicious cakes they would eat later at the home of the widow, as if that was why they had shown up.

His only recourse in the face of the pain and boredom he constantly felt was to laugh at it all. He became the family clown, imitating the characters of Taganrog and inventing stories about their private lives. Sometimes his humor turned aggressive. He played cruel practical jokes on other children in the neighborhood. Sent to the market by his mother, he often tormented the live duck or chicken that he carried home in a sack. He was becoming impish and quite lazy.

Then in 1875, everything changed for the Chekhov family. Anton’s two older brothers, Alexander and Nikolai, had had enough of their father. They decided to move together to Moscow, Alexander to pursue a university degree and Nikolai to become an artist. This snubbing of his authority infuriated the father, but he could not stop them. At around the same time, Pavel Yegorovich had to finally confront his complete mismanagement of the grocery store—he had piled up debts over the years and now the bills came due. Facing bankruptcy and almost certainly time in the debtor’s prison, he quietly slipped out of town one night, without telling his wife, and escaped to Moscow, intending to live with his sons.

The mother was forced to sell the family possessions to pay the debts. A boarder who lived with them offered to help the mother with their case against the creditors, but much to her surprise, he used his court connections to swindle the Chekhovs out of their house. Without a penny to her name, the mother was forced to leave for Moscow with the other children. Only Anton would stay to finish his studies and get his diploma. He was charged with selling all of the remaining family belongings and sending the money to Moscow as soon as possible. The former boarder, now owner of the house, gave Anton a corner of one room to live in, and so at the age of sixteen, with no money of his own and no family to look after him, Anton was suddenly left to fend for himself in Taganrog.

 Anton had never really been alone before. His family had been his whole life, for better or worse. Now it was as if the bottom had dropped out. He had no one to turn to for help in any way. He blamed his father for this miserable fate, for being trapped in Taganrog. One day he felt angry and bitter, the next day depressed. But soon it became clear that he had no time for such sentiments. He had no money or resources, and yet somehow he had to survive. So he hired himself out as a tutor to as many families as possible. When they went on vacation he would often go hungry for days. His one jacket was threadbare; he had no galoshes for the heavy rains. He felt ashamed when he entered people’s houses, shivering and his feet all wet. But at least he was now able to support himself.

He had decided to become a doctor. He had a scientific frame of mind, and doctors made a good living. To get into medical school he would have to study much harder. Frequenting the town library, the only place he could work in peace and quiet, he began to also browse the literature and philosophy sections, and soon he felt his mind soaring far beyond Taganrog. With books, he no longer felt so trapped. At night, he returned to his corner of a room to write stories and sleep. He had no privacy, but he could keep his corner neat and tidy, free of the usual disorder of the Chekhov household.

He had finally begun to settle down, and new thoughts and emotions came to him. Work was no longer something he dreaded; he loved absorbing his mind in his studies, and tutoring had made him feel proud and dignified—he could take care of himself. Letters came from his family—Alexander ranting and complaining about their father making everyone miserable again; Mikhail, the youngest son, feeling worthless and depressed. Anton wrote back to Alexander: stop obsessing over our father and start taking care of yourself. He wrote to Mikhail: “Why do you refer to yourself as my ‘worthless, insignificant little brother’? Do you know where you should be aware of your worthlessness? Before God, perhaps . . . but not before people. Among people you should be aware of your worth.” Even Anton was surprised by the new tone he was taking in these letters.

Then one day, several months after being abandoned, he wandered through the streets of Taganrog and suddenly felt welling up from within a tremendous and overwhelming sense of empathy and love for his parents. Where did this come from? He had never felt this before. In the days leading up to this moment he had been thinking long and hard about his father. Was he really to blame for all their problems? Pavel’s father, Yegor Mikhailovich, had been born a serf, serfdom being a form of indentured slavery. The Chekhovs had been serfs for several generations. Yegor had finally been able to buy the family’s freedom, and he set his three sons up in different fields, Pavel designated as the family merchant. But Pavel could not cope. He had an artistic temperament, could have been a talented painter or musician. He felt bitter at his fate—a grocery store and six children. His father had beaten him, and so he beat his children. Although no longer a serf, Pavel still bowed and kissed the hand of every local official and landowner. He remained a serf at heart.

Anton could see that he and his siblings were falling into the same pattern—bitter, secretly feeling worthless, and wanting to take their anger out on others. Now that he was alone and taking care of himself, Anton yearned to be free in the truest sense of the word. He wanted to be free of the past, free of his father. And here, as he walked the streets of Taganrog, the answer came to him from these new and sudden emotions. Understanding his father, he could accept and even love him. He was not some imposing tyrant but a rather helpless old man. With a bit of distance, he could feel compassion and forgive the beatings. He would not become enmeshed in all of the negative feelings his father inspired. And he could finally value as well his kind mother, and not blame her for being so weak. With his mind emptied of rancor and obsessive thoughts of his lost childhood, it was as if a great weight had been suddenly lifted off him.

He made a vow to himself: no more bowing and apologizing to people; no more complaining and blaming; no more disorderly living and wasting time. The answer to everything was work and love, work and love. He had to spread this message to his family and save them. He had to share it with mankind through his stories and plays.

Finally in 1879 Anton moved to Moscow to be with his family and to attend medical school, and what he saw there made him despondent. The Chekhovs and a few boarders were all crammed in a single room in the basement of a tenement, in the middle of the red-light district. The room had little ventilation and almost no light. Worst of all was the morale of the group. His mother was beaten down by the constant anxieties about money and the subterranean existence. His father drank even more and held some odd jobs that were quite a step down from owning a business. He continued to beat his children

Anton’s younger siblings were no longer in school (the family could not afford it) and felt completely useless. Mikhail in particular was even more depressed than ever. Alexander had gotten work as a writer for magazines, but he felt he deserved much better and started to drink heavily. He blamed his problems on his father for following him to Moscow and haunting his every move. Nikolai, the artist, slept till late, worked sporadically, and spent most of his time at the local tavern. The entire family was spiraling downward at an alarming rate, and the neighborhood they lived in only made it worse.

The father and Alexander had recently moved out. Anton decided he needed to do the opposite—move into the cramped room and become the catalyst for change. He would not preach or criticize but rather set the proper example. What mattered was keeping the family together and elevating their spirits. To his overwhelmed mother and sister he announced that he would take charge of the housework. Seeing Anton cleaning and ironing, his brothers now agreed to share in these duties. He scrimped and saved from his own medical school scholarship and got more money from his father and Alexander. With this money he put Mikhail, Ivan, and Maria back into school. He managed to find his father a better job. Using his father’s money and his own savings, he was able to move the entire family to a much larger apartment with a view.

He worked to improve all aspects of their lives. He got his brothers and sister to read books he had chosen, and well into the night they would discuss and argue the latest findings in science and philosophical questions. Slowly they all bonded on a much deeper level, and they began to refer to him as Papa Antosha, the leader of the family. The complaining and self-pitying attitude he had first encountered had mostly disappeared. His two younger brothers now talked excitedly about their future careers.

Anton’s greatest project was to reform Alexander, whom he considered the most gifted yet troubled member of the family. Once Alexander came home completely drunk, began to insult the mother and sister, and threatened to smash Anton’s face in. The family had become resigned to these tirades, but Anton would not tolerate this. He told Alexander the next day that if he ever yelled at another family member, he would lock him out and disavow him as a brother. He was to treat his mother and sister with respect and not blame the father for his turning to drink and womanizing. He must have some dignity— dress well and take care of himself. That was the new family code.

Alexander apologized and his behavior improved, but it was a continual battle that demanded all of Anton’s patience and love, for the self-destructive streak in the Chekhovs was deeply ingrained. It had led Nikolai to an early death from alcoholism, and without constant attention Alexander could easily follow the same path. Slowly Anton weaned him from drinking and helped him with his journalistic career, and eventually Alexander settled into a quiet and satisfying life.

Sometime in 1884, Anton had begun to spit blood, and it was apparent to him that he had the preliminary signs of tuberculosis. He refused to submit to the examination of a fellow doctor. He preferred not to know and to go on writing and practicing medicine without worrying about the future. But as he became increasingly famous for his plays and short stories, he began to experience a new kind of discomfort—the envy and petty criticisms of his fellow writers. They formed various political cliques and endlessly attacked one another, including Anton himself, who had refused to ally himself with any revolutionary cause. All of this made Anton feel increasingly disenchanted with the literary world. The elevated mood he had so carefully crafted in Taganrog was dissipating. He became depressed and considered giving up writing entirely

Then, toward the end of 1889, he thought of a way to free himself from his growing depression. Since his days in Taganrog, the poorest and most abject members of society had fascinated him. He liked to write about thieves and con artists, and get inside their minds. The lowliest members of Russian society were its prisoners, who lived in ghastly conditions. And the most notorious prison in Russia was on Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan. It housed five penal colonies with hundreds of thousands of prisoners and their families. It was like a shadow state—nobody in Russia had any idea what really went on on the island. This could be the answer to his present misery. He would make the arduous trek across Siberia to the island. He would interview the most hardened criminals. He would write a detailed book on the conditions there. Far from the pretentious literary world, he would connect to something very real and reignite the generous mood he had crafted in Taganrog.

His friends and family tried to dissuade him. His health had gotten worse; the travel could kill him. But the more they tried to dissuade him, the more he felt certain it was the only way to save himself.

After a three-month journey he finally arrived at the island in July of 1890, and he immediately immersed himself in this new world. His task was to interview every possible prisoner, including the most vicious murderers. He investigated every aspect of their lives. He witnessed the most gruesome torture sessions of prisoners and followed convicts as they worked in the local mines, chained to wheelbarrows. Prisoners who completed their sentences would often have to stay on the island in labor camps, and so Sakhalin was full of wives waiting to join them in these camps. These women and their daughters would resort to prostitution to stay alive. Everything was designed to degrade people’s spirits and drain them of every ounce of dignity. It reminded him of his family dynamic, on a much larger scale

This was certainly the lowest rung of hell he could have visited, and it affected him deeply. He now longed to return to Moscow and write about what he had seen. His sense of proportion had been restored. He had finally freed himself of the petty thoughts and concerns that had weighed him down. Now he could get outside of himself and feel generous again. The book he wrote, Sakhalin Island, caught the attention of the public and led to substantial reforms of conditions on the island.

By 1897 his health had deteriorated, and he began to cough blood rather regularly. He could no longer disguise his tuberculosis from the world at large. The doctor who treated him advised that he retire from all work and leave Moscow for good. He needed rest. Perhaps by living in a sanatorium he could extend his life a few years. Anton would have none of this. He would live as if nothing had changed.

A cult had begun to form around Chekhov, comprising younger artists and adoring fans of his plays, all of which had made him one of Russia’s most famous writers. They came to visit him in large numbers, and although he was clearly ailing, he radiated a calmness that astonished almost everyone. Where did it come from? Was he born this way? He seemed to absorb himself completely in their stories and problems. No one ever heard him talk about his illness.

In the winter of 1904, as his condition worsened, he suddenly had the desire to take an open-sleigh ride into the country. Hearing the bells of the sleigh and breathing the cold air had always been one of his greatest pleasures, and he needed to feel this one more time. It put him in such high spirits that he did not care anymore about the consequences, which were dire. He died a few months later.

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