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A Brother's Memoir
By Mikhail Chekhov, Eugene Alper
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Palgrave Macmillan
All rights reserved.
Many people considered our uncle Mitrofan Egorovich to be peculiar, eccentric—God's fool even. But there were others, like my brother, the writer Anton Chekhov, who treated him with affection and respect. Uncle Mitrofan dedicated his life to charity. He served as a council member and churchwarden, and helped found the Taganrog Charitable Society, created for the relief of the poor. His house was always open to those less fortunate, and on his birthday he would set up tables full of food in the courtyard and open his gates for everyone to come eat.
Mitrofan was a religious man who hosted collective prayers at his house. But he also loved to attend the theater and heartily enjoyed comedies and vaudevilles like Mama's Boy or Misfortunes of a Gentle Heart. He dressed elegantly in a top hat, and his house appeared to be full of prosperity. His days began at dawn and ended late at night. He only rested on Sundays, when he would spend the entire day reading and talking with his children. He adored his children and would address them respectfully, as if they were adults, and treat them with such affection that we his nephews were often jealous. When we staged plays at home with Anton, Uncle Mitrofan would be our guest of honor and our main critic. He certainly had a literary gift; his letters were impeccable in their style and poetic quality. He was deeply romantic in his youth, and it showed in his writing. Our family kept a carefully bound book of the letters he wrote to my parents during his travels around Russia before his marriage in 1859. I am convinced that Uncle Mitrofan's literary gift rubbed off on us, especially to my brothers Anton and Alexander, who both became professional writers.
Mitrofan Egorovich's love and marriage is an interesting story. There was a man who worked in the office of Taganrog's governor. His name was Evtushevsky, and he had a daughter named Lyudmila, who went by the diminutive Milechka. She bore a striking resemblance to Maximiliana, the daughter of the Duke of Gessen Darmstadt, who had married crown heir Alexander Nikolaevich and taken the name of Maria Alexanderovna. Mitrofan Egorovich, having seen a portrait of Maximiliana in some publication, fell in love with the princess at first sight and transferred this affection to Milechka. He proposed to her but she refused, and our hopelessly romantic Uncle disappeared from the city without a word to any of us. Eventually however, letters from his travels began to arrive.
At the time, traveling was very difficult; in fact, the 290 miles between Taganrog and Kharkov boasted not a single town. You rarely met anyone on the road, save perhaps peasants on carts, and one had to sleep in the open in the middle of a vast steppe. These were the "new places" described so well in Grigory Danilevsky's novel of the same title. They were characterized by uninhabited expanses and highway robbers, and conjured up folktales about mysterious adventures with demons and mean spirits. When our Father, Pavel Egorovich, had to travel to Kharkov to pick up goods our family would pray for his safe return. Nikolaevsky, the only existing railroad line, was still under construction, and the hundred-mile journey from Moscow to Tver took one and a half days, but it was nevertheless the best travel option in terms of speed and convenience.
Uncle Mitrofan wrote deeply engaging letters about his journey. He described his visits to Moscow and Saint Petersburg and his impressions of the first railroad in a romantic style. But it was his letter about visiting Tsarskoe Selo that was read over and over, and that revealed the secret purpose of his trip.
Uncle had gone to the garden at the Royal Palace hoping to steal a glance at the woman who so closely resembled his beloved. To his surprise, he did indeed spot Tsar Alexander II himself and his wife, the former Princess Maximiliana, walking toward him! Uncle Mitrofan kneeled as they approached, so Alexander II, thinking he was a supplicant, stopped and asked him, "What is it that you want?" Mitrofan replied, "I don't want anything, sire. I am only happy that I have seen the woman that my beloved resembles so much." Maria Alexanderovna probably did not even understand his words, but Alexander bade my Uncle to stand, patted him on the back, and walked away.
The story is, of course, very simple. But at that time, especially to those of us living in a remote region deep in Russia's south, it sounded impressive. It was also thanks to this story that Milechka agreed to marry Uncle Mitrofan Egorovich when he returned. He probably embellished the anecdote of the royal encounter, but that was just how our romantic Uncle wrote.
And so Mitrofan and Milechka lived together into old age, and always made us feel welcome in their cozy little house. Later, when we lived in the north and only occasionally visited Taganrog, we always liked staying at Uncle Mitrofan's house. It was there that Anton picked up certain details that later appeared in "The Marshal's Widow" and other stories.
I always suspected that Uncle Mitrofan wrote more than just letters. When I was twenty-five, I began receiving letters from him, enclosing pages of excerpts from some creative descriptions of nature all about "wildflowers behind the monastery walls on monks' graves," "little creeks" playfully running among "a dewy meadow," and so on. It was easy to guess from their manner and style that he was the author of these excerpts.
As I mentioned, Uncle Mitrofan was the churchwarden and, both because of this post and his personality, he enjoyed entertaining members of the clergy at home. One of his favorite guests was archpriest F. P. Pokrovsky. Very handsome and worldly, he liked brandishing his erudition as well as sporting his smart cassock. He possessed a deep and powerful baritone, and in his youth had dreamed of becoming an opera singer. Unable to develop his gift as a professional, he had had to settle for being archpriest of the Taganrog Cathedral. However, even there he conducted himself like a true artist, theatrically officiating the mass and singing so forcefully that his booming voice would overpower the choir and resonate in all corners of the vast cathedral. Listening to him was indeed like being at the opera.
Pokrovsky also taught theology at the local school that all my brothers and I attended. But in class Pokrovsky strangely lost all of his stage presence, to the point that he didn't ask any questions. He would read a newspaper during class, then call a pupil to the front of the room, and automatically give him a C without even listening to him.
Pokrovsky transferred his disapproval of our Father's religious formalism onto us. When he was older, Anton more than once related a remark that Pokrovsky had made to our Mother in his presence: "Nothing good will come of your children, Evgenia Yakovlevna, nothing good. Except maybe your eldest, Alexander." He liked giving his students mocking nicknames, too; in fact, he was the first to call Anton Antosha Chekhonte, which later became my brother's pen name.
Anton Chekhov exhibited a peculiar attachment to Pokrovsky, as evidenced by the following anecdote. By 1887 relations between Russia and Bulgaria had entered a surreal stage. After independence, the Bulgarians unexpectedly elected Ferdinand Coburg as their royal prince. The Russian autocracy, which still felt proprietary toward Bulgaria, felt insulted by the bold and insolent actions of this "rescued Slavic people." Ferdinand attained normalcy with Russia only after much effort. In celebration, and hoping to improve public opinion, Bulgaria decided to issue a "Bulgarian medal" to honor the press corps and other important people.
Anton happened to be visiting Saint Petersburg at the time. A Russian diplomat who was monitoring Russian public opinion for Ferdinand asked Anton to recommend people who might be worthy of a medal. Anton and his friend Kolomnin, who was an attorney in Saint Petersburg, were just about to send a silver tea glass–holder to Pokrovsky as a gift, so when Anton heard about the medal, he thought of Pokrovsky right away and gave the diplomat his name.
The elderly archpriest, finding himself overcome with emotion from the receipt of both the glass-holder and the medal, wrote to thank Anton. In the letter, he asked Anton to send him his books to read, writing "Kindly brownsequard the old man!" (He was referring to Brown-Séquard, the popular inventor of a supposedly rejuvenating medicine.
So Anton sent him Motley Stories, whose title page had the author's name as A. Chekhonte. The nickname that Pokrovsky had bestowed on him had become part of Russian literature! But his prophecy did not come true—a lot of good came out of Anton.
Our Father was also fond of praying, but the more I think about it now, the more I realize that he enjoyed the ritual of religion more than its substance. He liked church services and listened to them standing reverently throughout. He even organized prayers at home, my siblings and I acting as the choir while he played the role of the priest. But the church served more as his club, a place where he could meet his friends, or look at the depiction of a particular saint.
But in everyday life, our Father had as little faith as all the rest of us sinners. He sang, played violin, wore a top hat, and visited friends and family on Easter and Christmas. He loved newspapers, having subscribed for many years, beginning with The Northern Bee and The Son of Motherland. He collected every issue with care, tying up the entire set at the end of the year and stacking it under the counter of his shop. He always read newspapers out loud from cover to cover. He liked talking about politics and discussing the doings of the town's governor. I never saw him without a starched shirt on. Even when we weren't as well off, he always dressed impeccably. He was intolerant of even a single spot on his clothes and it fell to my sister to ensure he had a pristine shirt each day.
Music was our Father's calling. He would sing or play his violin, meticulously following the adagios and moderatos. To satisfy this passion, he put together choirs with our family and others and we would perform at home and in public. He would often forget about the business that earned him a living—perhaps that explains why he went broke later. He was also a gifted artist: one of his paintings, "John the Evangelist," made it into the Chekhov Museum in Yalta. For many years, Father served in municipal elections, and he never missed a single ceremony or charity dinner with the local elite. He liked philosophizing, but while Uncle Mitrofan read only books of a lofty content, our Father read and re-read (always out loud) cheap French novels. Sometimes, preoccupied with his own thoughts, he would stop in the middle of a sentence and ask our Mother, "So, Evochka, what was it that I just read?"
I do not know much about Mikhail Emelianovich, our Great-grandfather on my Father's side. According to what Father told us, our Great-grandfather had a brother, Piotr Emelianovich, who raised money to build a church. He traveled on foot through Russia and ended up building a church in Kiev. Our family's recordkeeping starts with our Grandfather Egor Mikhailovich, who lived with his wife, three sons, and daughter, in the village of Olkhovatka, in the Ostrogozh region of the Voronezh province. All of them were serfs of the landowner Chertkov, whose grandson was to become Leo Tolstoy's closest follower.
Our Grandfather had an unquenchable thirst for freedom. He bought himself out of serfdom long before its abolition, but did not have the means to also free his daughter Alexandra. He requested the landowner not to sell her until he could save up the money to buy her freedom too. Chertkov thought a bit, and then said, "Ah, so be it, take her now." And this is how my dear Aunt Alexandra Egorovna became free. In Olkhovatka my ancestors bore the nickname Chekh, not Chekhov, and their love of freedom allowed my romantic Uncle to believe in the following fable, which he often retold.
Uncle would say, "Our ancestor was likely a Czech born in Bohemia who fled to Russia because of religious persecution. He would have had to seek the protection of someone in power, and was probably forced to become a serf. Or maybe he married a serf and due to the law at the time—or of his own volition—he made his children serfs too." Then my romantic Uncle would add: "I think so, my dear, because if he were a simple peasant, how would he have managed to run away from his native land? No, no, he must have been an important and noble man."
Uncle Mitrofan believed this fanciful idea about our ancestor until the day he died. We would just grin when we heard it because we knew another version of the story of where we came from and this one was documented. The famous Tsar-Cannon, now in the Moscow Kremlin, was cast in 1586 by a master-smelter named Andrey Chekhov. But did it mean that we were descended from him?
OUR Grandfather sent his eldest son Mikhail to apprentice to a book-binder in Kaluga, while he moved with his other two sons, our Father, Pavel, and our Uncle Mitrofan, to Count Platov's immense estates near Taganrog and Rostov-on-Don, where he had become manager. His daughter Alexandra was married by now and remained in Olkhovatka. This is how my Father and Uncle wound up in the far south, on the shores of the Sea of Azov. My Father became a shop assistant to Kobylin, a merchant and the mayor of Taganrog, while my Uncle went to work for a merchant named Baidalakov in Rostov before eventually returning to Taganrog. Having spent the required years with Kobylin, my Father, Pavel Egorovich, then opened his own shop of colonial goods and married our Mother, Evgenia Yakovlevna Morozova.
We didn't know who our maternal great-grandfather was. Our Mother's father, Yakov Gerasimovich Morozov, lived in Morshansk in the Tambov province, where he married Alexandra Ivanovna. They had two daughters, Fenichka and our Mother, Evochka, and one son Ivan, our Uncle Vanya. Yakov Gerasimovich had a well-developed textile trade with the French and often took long business trips, which sometimes brought him to Taganrog, a capital of the south at that time. He would stay in General Papkov's house, adjacent to the Alexander I Palace garden.
Once while her husband was away traveling, our maternal Grandmother, Alexandra Ivanovna, decided to take her two daughters and son to Shuya to visit her sister Maria Ivanovna, who had married a man from an Old Believers family in Shuya in the Vladimir province. While they were away, our Grandfather Yakov Gerasimovich died in a cholera outbreak in Novocherkassk, far from his home and family. It was presumed that he must have had some textile goods and some money with him when he died, so our Grandmother took the children, rented a horse-drawn carriage, and ventured all the way from Shuya to Novocherkassk, some 800 miles south, to look for her husband's grave.
The trip left an indelible impression on my Mother and Aunt. They would have traveled through dense primeval forests and encountered inns fortified with prison-style gates, heard of or witnessed robberies and murders of traveling merchants and endured countless other trials. Only once they made it to the expanse and freedom of the steppes near the Azov would they have been able to sleep under the open sky, close to nature, and no longer have had to live in fear of evil men or assaults. This trip provided our Mother and Fenichka with an inexhaustible source of family stories to tell us when we were little, stories to which we listened wide-eyed, holding our breath. Both Auntie and Mother were perceptive women and excellent storytellers. I am sure that their stories played an important role in the development of my brothers' imaginations and literary sensibilities.
Alexandra Ivanovna never found her husband's grave in Novocherkassk nor any material possessions to remind her of him. She never returned to Morshansk, moving her children to Taganrog instead and settling down at General Papkov's, where her husband used to stay. Stopping at Rostov-on-Don on her way, she arranged for her son Ivan to work for Baidalakov's business, which is how our Uncle Ivan met Mitrofan who, as I have mentioned, also worked for Baidalakov. Both were big dreamers and they soon became good friends, remaining close until Uncle Vanya's death from consumption.
Once Mitrofan had grown into a young man, he moved to Taganrog and opened his own business and Uncle Vanya soon followed. It was through him and Mitrofan that our Father met the Morozovs and married the younger daughter Evgenia. Uncle Vanya, the artistic soul, the musician who could play all kinds of instruments, the painter and polyglot, then married Marfa Ivanovna Loboda, our favorite aunt.
My Father married my Mother on October 26, 1854, when the Sebastopol War was just beginning. During their first year of marriage, they lived at my maternal grandparents' house. I assume that the Chekhovs and the Morozovs were living together at the time, because of the family lore of the British bombardment of Taganrog in the summer of 1855 and the effect it had on our extended family. That summer, on the eve of Kazanskaya, our Grandmother Alexandra Ivanovna was attending vespers, conducted by Father Aleksey Sharkov, when all of a sudden a bomb blew in the wall, shaking the entire church and scattering plaster. The scared parishioners crowded together while Father Aleksey, his hands trembling, continued to read. By the time the service ended and the terrified parishioners had filed out of the church, the departing British ships' pale silhouettes were barely visible on the horizon.
Excerpted from Anton Chekhov by Mikhail Chekhov, Eugene Alper. Copyright © 2010 Palgrave Macmillan. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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