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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Melikhovo: Chekhovian Oasis




"Here I am in exile. I'm sitting in my office, with its three large windows, and feeling blissful. About five times a day I go out into the garden and throw snow at the pond. Ice is melting from the roof, it smells of spring, and at night the temperature drops down to minus 12 or 13 degrees."


Anton Chekhov was writing to his publisher and friend Alexander Suvorin in early March 1892 from Melikhovo, an estate he had purchased for 13,000 rubles. More than 100 years later, Melikhovo -- with its restored buildings and rambling gardens -- still hints at the combination of rural quiet and bucolic chaos that Chekhov sought for creative inspiration.


"Even now, the estate continues to live in the spirit of Chekhov," said Marina Chaikovskaya, the spokeswoman for the museum complex located in the village of Melikhovo, 70 kilometers south of Moscow.


The sprawling complex, visited by 48,000 people in 1997, includes gardens full of flowers, pumpkins and artichokes, a concert hall, a separate kitchen and the main house where Chekhov wrote and lived with his parents and siblings from 1892 until 1899, when his worsening health necessitated a move to Yalta.


Each building contains Chekhov memorabilia, gathered from far-flung sources and exhibited since January 1960, in time for the 100th anniversary of the author's birth. The exhibits include the 1857 Bechstein piano that stands in the drawing room; photos of the family and friends on the walls; paintings by Isaak Levitan; Chekhov's medical instruments; a voluminous library of classics including Cervantes, Shakespeare and Pushkin -- all items that evoke the private life of the man who created "Lady with a Lap Dog," "The Black Monk," "Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard."


For Chekhov, the move to Melikhovo, which was in a state of general dilapidation when he purchased it, was a mixed blessing. A native of Taganrog, in southern Russia, Chekhov had moved to Moscow in 1879 to attend medical school. Until the move to Melikhovo, he lived with members of his large family -- father, Pavel; mother, Yevgeniya; sister, Masha; and a shifting configuration of brothers Sasha, Kolya, Vanya and Misha -- in 15 different apartments over 13 years, Chaikovskaya said.


But by 1891, Chekhov was eager to get out of the city. He revered nature and itched to be outdoors; as he wrote to Suvorin in December, in a theme that would be absorbed into his fiction, "God's world is good. One thing is not good: us."


As the publication of his writings provided a growing income, Chekhov decided in 1892 that he could afford to buy a piece of "God's world" in the form of a country estate. He deputized his life-long helper, his sister, Masha, to purchase Melikhovo, 240 hectares of birch woods and pasture, even though the main house, teeming with cockroaches, was more a shack than a manor.


Chekhov had sought respite from the cramped conditions of apartment life and the hectic pace of Moscow, but he brought many of his problems with him. He wrote of his family, "For convenience I always take it with me like luggage and am as used to it as a growth on my forehead." Parents and siblings followed Chekhov to Melikhovo, and the household continued to expand, eventually welcoming an assortment of quadrupeds -- the dachshunds Brom and Quinine, the farm dog Catarrh -- that added to the general mayhem.


Melikhovo was to Chekhov what Yasnaya Polyana was to Tolstoy: a rural oasis where the famous writer could clear his head, write and hold court. The estate quickly became a magnet for Russian intellectuals, artists, actors and thinkers: Suvorin and Levitan; Nikolai Leikin, editor of the St. Petersburg weekly, "Fragments"; Vladimir Gilyarovsky, the famous Moscow correspondent; and the actor Pavel Svobodin. All made the trek to Melikhovo to see Chekhov.


Leikin was impressed: "Chekhov's house is fine, bright rooms, all repainted and repapered, spacious, with a nook for every member of the family and comfort you won't find even in some Moscow apartments."


Others were less sanguine about the writer's new home. "I don't like Chekhov's estate," wrote journalist Nikolai Ezhov. "First of all it's in the middle of the peasant village; if there's a fire there the manor won't escape. Secondly, there's no water." The pond that Anton had described lovingly as being "the size of an aquarium" was, Ezhov thought, "fit only for piglets to bathe in."


A procession of young women who pursued Chekhov over the years with varying degrees of ardor also made the pilgrimage to Melikhovo: Lika Mizinova, Olga Kundasova, Yelena Shavrova, Alexandra Pokhlebina.


Chekhov quickly became indispensable in Melikhovo and surrounding villages as a district doctor and philanthropist. He treated a number of diseases, including cholera and alcoholism, and helped raise money to build schools for the village children -- all while fighting the "white plague" that haunted him, tuberculosis.


In between entertaining guests, fending off the subtle advances of sirens, treating patients and raising money for public works, Chekhov crafted the stories and plays that would win him world-wide acclaim. He culled material both from the private dramas of his friends' lives and the squalor and misery he saw in peasant villages. A hunting trip with Levitan provided ample fodder for "The Seagull," which he wrote holed up in a small, separate building on the estate's grounds.


For seven years, Chekhov lived largely at Melikhovo, leaving to attend openings of his plays in Moscow or St. Petersburg, to escape the pressing demands of his family and friends and to nurse his failing health in warmer climes. Then, in 1898, Chekhov lost his father who, though often tyrannical, had acted as the glue that held the family together.


"The main cog has jumped out of the Melikhovo machine," he wrote to a friend, "and I think that Melikhovo for my mother and sister has now lost all its charm and that I shall now have to make a new nest for them."


He tried to write, but the process felt like "eating cabbage soup from which a cockroach has just been removed."


His health failing, Chekhov decided in 1899 to establish the "new nest" in Yalta. He abandoned Melikhovo, once again deputizing his sister to supervise the sale. The move to Crimea, five years before his death, would be his last.


To reach Melikhovo, take an electric train from Kursky Station to Chekhov, then take bus 25 to Melikhovo. Museum hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for the last Friday of each month. General admission to the museum is 6 rubles for adults, 3 rubles for children; foreigners pay $3. For information on tours to Melikhovo, call the museum at 272-236-10, or contact the museum's branch, Tsentry-Musei-Tur, at 365-2253.