Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov, Alma Classics: 2013.
Review by Tim Arace.
Anton Chekhov is considered one of Russia’s greatest writers of fiction, but perhaps his most poignant and important work is non-fiction. Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island is a seminal work of investigative journalism and travel logging that documents the prisons and prisoners of Sakhalin Island in Russia’s far east. What prompted one of Russia’s most celebrated writers of short stories and plays to undertake such a journey outside of his field of expertise? One must look to Chekhov’s life outside literature. Born in the sleepy peasant town of Taganrog in Tsarist European Russia in 1860, Chekhov, originally educated as a doctor, began to write shortly after he graduated from medical school in 1879. Almost immediately he rose to prominence in Russia’s literary circles and became one of the major writers of the 1880s. Chekhov’s personal artistic philosophy is categorized by his staunch belief that the writer’s job is propose problems and issues but offer no solutions or express their beliefs and desires through their writing. This philosophy also influences Chekhov’s non-fiction in Sakhalin Island and his personal life. In 1890, Chekhov’s brother Nikolai, with whom he’d kept in close contact with from various letters published after his death, died of Tuberculosis, a disease he himself had contracted in secret 4 years earlier. Distraught over life, Chekhov found some meaning in examining Russia’s penal codes and endeavored to learn as much as he could about prisons and their populations. To this end, he set off across Siberia to Sakhalin the same year of his brother’s death and his notes and finding’s, both from his journey titled From Siberia and on the island, were published 3 years later in 1893.
Sakhalin Island begins not on the Island but on the mainland where Chekhov boards a freighter at Nikolaeyevsky-on-Amur in far eastern Siberia. On the ship, Chekhov notes the unfamiliarity this place bring him, writing “When I was sailing on the Amur, I had the feeling that I was not in Russia, but somewhere in Patagonia, or Texas; without even mentioning the distinctive, un-Russian scenery and natural conditions, … and that we who arrive from European Russia seem like foreigners,” (Chekhov 5). Chekhov attempts to establish, or find, something familiar in Siberia immediately, noting the geography and climate and meeting with local military officials. After this Chekhov begins his task in earnest with his journey south through the Alexandrovsk valley to the Alexandrovsk prison. In this prison he conducts an interview with an inmate by the name of Yegor, who was in jail for murder. The interview is set up in typical Chekhovian fashion where he does not pass judgement or intent, and simply lets Yegor speak his mind. Beyond Alexandrovsk, Chekhov visits Voyevodsk, continuing his journey southwards. After collecting data and observations from Voyevodsk, he traverses the Tym river and the river valley. During the natural excursion, Chekhov remarks on Sakhalin’s natural beauty and harshness of nature, writing “And so it might have been, but the cold currents of the Sea of Okhotsk and the ice-floes which drift by the east coast of the island even in June testify with merciless clarity that when Nature created Sakhalin the last thing she had in mind was mankind and his benefit,” (Chekhov 76). Beyond Tym, Chekhov moves off to the Korsakovsk prison and continues his observations of the prisons, inmates, and guards. In the final few chapters of the book, Chekhov zooms out in an attempt to make sense of what he’d seen and paper over some of the cracks in his observations. He remarks on the nature of prison colonies, the role of sex, age, occupation, and demographic in prisons, and the morality of exile. Chekhov also remarks on the nature of Sakhalin, Siberia, and the exiled soldier, writing “The island was a wilderness; there were no dwellings here, no roads, no cattle, and the soldiers had to construct barracks and homes, open cuttings through the forest and carry all the goods on their backs,” (Chekhov 119).
If there was one microcosm of the truths Chekhov set out to uncover about Siberia, the prison system, the nature of exile and the hidden humanity stripped away in incarceration, “Yegor’s Story” serves as the most poignant example. Chekhov meets Yegor, an inmate at the Alexandrovsk prison. What separates this interaction from some of Chekhov’s other interactions with prisoners is the personal nature of their conversation and its status as a dedicated chapter rather than a passing anecdote. Chekhov asks Yegor to recount his incarceration and his subsequent exile to Sakhalin. Yegor recounts his life as a logger in European Russia in which he was allegedly framed for the murder of one of his friends, a man by the name of Nikolai, by another of his colleagues, Sergey. Throughout the encounter, Yegor seems to be as normal as they come, a man who still has his humanity in tact in spite of his incarceration and continues to lead a life he considers worth living. He works as a servant for an elderly Ukrainian woman, in which Chekhov writes “this Yegor, a wood-gatherer, did not consider himself the official’s servant but “out of respect” brought firewood, cleared away the slops in the kitchen and generally carried out the duties which were beyond the strength of the old lady,” (Chekhov 54). Yegor’s demeanor is also somewhat upbeat and cheerful, making snide comments about the intelligence of his children, and takes his incarceration quite well given the circumstances. In showing this man, a common laborer who allegedly committed no crime, live as best he can despite his horrific treatment, Chekhov poses questions about the nature of prisons. Why do we condemn men to such fates? How can such a reasonable man be stripped of his humanity in such a brutal system? How can he survive despite it? Chekhov also maintains his patented artistic distance and indifference, simply interviewing this man and not insinuating anything other, but he gives us a window into the prison system and its depravity through this simple logger who wishes his kids would “get some brains.”
What makes Sakhalin Island such a classic of investigative journalism is its writing. Chekhov is an excellent writer and tows the line of narrative beauty and objective fact brilliantly, describing the prisoners, guards, and prisons with both objectivity and grace without treading too far over either line. This is what enables Sakhalin Island to be read and reread, as its not a simple exposé of prison colonies on one island in Tsarist Russia, it serves as a guide to prisons everywhere while staying true to Chekhov’s initial ambitions. Beyond this, Chekhov’s work with the native populations provides some ethnographic elements and illustrates Russia’s status as a colonizer and its oppression of the native population. Furthermore, Chekhov also tackles the role of the colonizer and sheds some sympathy to what he calls the “pioneers of Siberia.” The book can be a bit dull at times and slightly anecdotal, but Chekhov’s blending of fiction and non-fiction and data and analysis helps create one of the most read works of investigative journalism of the 20th century and one of Chekhov’s most celebrated works.
Sakhalin Island is an ambitious, wide reaching work that encompasses ethnography, criminology, literature, geography, and sociology, its payoff is well worth the effort. Perhaps his most unique work, Anton Chekhov takes the reader on a journey across Siberia to a wild and untamed island where humanity, nature, and society is examined a reexamined all the time and gives us a window into a prison system previously undiscovered an unexamined, all while maintaining an artistic distance that makes it a timeless classic.
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, and Brian Reeve. Sakhalin Island. Alma Classics, 2019.
Sharma, Akhil. “Chekhov’s Beautiful Nonfiction.” The New Yorker, www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/chekhovs-beautiful-nonfiction?irclickid=1E61c3w2sxyLWUJwUx0Mo3b1UkBxR30PQ3F4Vc0&irgwc=1&source=affiliate_impactpmx_12f6tote_desktop_adgoal+GmbH&utm_source=impact-affiliate&utm_medium=123201&utm_campaign=impact&utm_content=Online+Tracking+Link&utm_brand=tny.