It was early Saturday morning when we struck out for Chekhov’s estate, Melikhovo, 75km south of Moscow. We hit a great deal of dacha traffic on the way which delayed us considerably. Just as people from Maine head out to camp and Canadians visit their cottages, Muscovites head to their dachas (pronounced dat-cha). But let’s just say there’s a tad more traffic on a Russian highway than on Mt. Ephraim Road. In Russia, you cannot move a vehicle from the scene of an accident until authorities arrive so you can imagine the back up (hours…days?).
A country home typically situated on a generous plot of land, a dacha provides a refuge from city life. As the Russian pension is quite slim, retirees often turn their dachas into farmland, supplementing their pensions by growing vegetables and raising livestock to either sell or sustain themselves. The dacha traffic gave me time to do some research on Chekhov – the man, myth, and revered legend.
Born in 1860, Anton Chekhov had a difficult childhood plagued by an abusive father and financial instability. As a young man, while studying medicine at university, Chekhov took over financial responsibility for his entire family. To make ends meet, he wrote satirical short stories. After earning his degree as a physician, Chekhov contracted tuberculosis, which plagued him the rest of his life. He continued writing as it was more fruitful than practicing medicine (my how the times have changed…). His story, The Huntsman, was one of the first to gain him literary cred.
In 1892, Chekhov acquired Melikhovo with monetary help from his publisher. He soon became a staple of the countryside – helping to build roads, schools, and acting as the local physician. His services were so popular, in fact, that he would raise a flag to denote his availability as local peasants were known to show up on his doorstep as early at 5 o’clock in the morning. A skilled herbalist, Chekhov managed to keep the region rid of cholera as the epidemic swept through Russia in the late 1800s. He composed a number of works while at Melikhovo, including The Seagull. He retained the estate until 1897.
Finally out in the countryside, I was first struck by the birch trees. There are so many, stacking side by side, their white bark etched like chalk upon the dense forest. The green reads like the fields of Vermont and I felt instantly transported back there.
We spent a few hours raking leaves on the grounds, giving us time to enjoy the crisp autumn weather. The fresh air felt great and the gardens were simply beautiful. We were next treated to tea and hard sushki, which you might remember from the celebration upon our first arrival at school.
After watching a Chekhov play performed, we toured the grounds under the incredible translating efforts by one of my Russian colleagues, Lena. It was then I learned of Chekhov’s great efforts towards the area locals and his role as doctor-in-residence. By the end of the day, we were all tired and ready to pack it in for home. But I couldn’t help taking a minute on the porch to appreciate those blue-grey skies against the lush green grass. Fall in Russia is a gorgeous thing to behold.