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Anton Chekhov (29.01.1860 - 15.07.1904) - Russian writer.

 / Chekhov photoAnton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in the small seaport of Taganrog, southern Russia, as the son of a grocer and grandson of a serf, who had bought his own freedom and that of his three sons in 1841. He also taught himself to read and write. Chekhov's mother was Yevgenia Morozov, the daughter of a cloth merchant. Chekhov's childhood was shadowed by his father's tyranny, religious fanaticism, and long nights in the store, which was open from five in the morning till midnight. "When I think back on my childhood," he later said, "it all seems quite gloomy to me."

He attended a school for Greek boys in Taganrog (1867-68) and Taganrog grammar school (1868-79). The family was forced to move to Moskow following his father's bankruptcy. At the age of 16, Chekhov became independent and remained for some time alone in his native town, supporting himself through private tutoring.

In 1879 Chekhov entered the Moskow University Medical School. While in the school, he started to publish hundreds of comic short stories to support himself and his mother, sisters and brothers. His publisher at this period was Nicholas Leikin, owner of the St. Petersburg journal Oskolki (splinters). His subjects were silly social situations, marital problems, farcical encounters between husbands, wives, mistresses, and lovers, whims of young women, of whom Chekhov had not much knowledge - the author was was shy with women even after his marriage. His works appeared in St. Petersburg daily papers, Peterburskaia gazeta from 1885, and Novoe vremia from 1886.

Chekhov's first novel, Nenunzhaya pobeda (1882), set in Hungary, parodied the novels of the popular Hungarian writer Mor Jokai. As a politician Jokai was also mocked for his ideological optimism. By 1886 Chekhov had gained a wide fame as a writer. His second full-length novel, The Shooting Party, was translated into English in 1926. Agatha Christie used its characters and atmosphere in her mystery novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

Chekhov graduated in 1884, and practiced medicine until 1892. In 1886 Chekhov met H.S. Suvorin, who invited him to become a regular contributor for the St. Petersburg daily Novoe vremya. His friendship with Suvorin ended in 1898 because of his objections to the anti-Dreyfus campaingn conducted by paper. But during these years Chechov developed his concept of the dispassionate, non-judgemental author. He outlined his program in a letter to his brother Aleksandr: "1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality; flee the stereotype; 6. compassion."

Chekhov's fist book of stories (1886) was a success, and gradually he became a full-time writer. The author's refusal to join the ranks of social critics arose the wrath of liberal and radical intellitentsia and he was criticized for dealing with serious social and moral questions, but avoiding giving answers. However, he was defended by such leading writers as Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Leskov. "I'm not a liberal, or a conservative, or a gradualist, or a monk, or an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and that's all..." Chekhov said in 1888.

The failure of his play The Wood Demon (1889) and problems with his novel made Chekhov to withdraw from literature for a period. In 1890 he travelled across Siberia to remote prison island, Sakhalin. There he conducted a detailed census of some 10,000 convicts and settlers condemned to live their lives on that harsh island. Chekhov hoped to use the results of his research for his doctoral dissertation. It is probable that hard conditions on the island also worsened his own physical condition. From this journey was born his famous travel book The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin (1893-94). Chekhov returned to Russia via Singapore, India, Ceylon, and the Suez Canal. From 1892 to 1899 Chekhov worked in Melikhovo, and in Yalta from 1899.

Chekhov was awarded the Pushkin Prize in 1888. Next year he was elected a member of the Society of Lovers of Russian Literature. In 1900 he became a member of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, but resigned his post two years later as a protest against the cancellation by the authorities of Gorky's election to the Academy. Later, in 1900, Gorky wrote to him: "After any of your stories, however insignificant, everything appears crude, as if written not by a pen, but by a cudgel."

As a short story writer Chekhov was phenomenally fast - he could compose a little sketch or a joke while just visiting at a newspaper office. During his career he produced several hundred tales. 'Palata No. 6' (1892, Ward Number Six) is Chekhov's classical story of the abuse of psychiatry. Gromov is convinced that anyone can be imprisoned. He develops a persecution mania and is incarcerated in a horrific asylum, where he meets Doctor Ragin. Their relationship attracts attention and the doctor is tricked into becoming a patient in his own ward. He dies after being beaten by a charge hand. - The symmetrical story has much similarities with such works as Samuel Fuller's film The Shock Corridor (1963), and Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over Cockoo's Nest (1975).

Today Chekhov's fame today rests primarily on his plays. He used ordinary conversations, pauses, noncommunication, nonhappening, incomplete thoughts, to reveal the truth behind trivial words and daily life. His characters belong often to the provincial middle class, petty aristocracy, or landowners of prerevolutionary Russia. They contemplate their unsatisfactory lives unable to make decisions and help themselves when a crisis breaks out.

Chekhov's first full-length plays were failures. When The Seagull was revised in 1898 by Stanislavsky at the Moskow Art Theatre, he gained also fame as a playwright. Among his masterpieces from this period is Uncle Vanya (1900), a melancholic story of Sonia and his brother-in-law Ivan (Uncle Vanya), who see their dreams and hopes passing in drudgery for others. The Three Sisters (1901) was set in a provincial garrison town. The talented Prozorov sisters, whose hopes have much in common with the Bronte sisters, recognize the uselessness of their lives and cling to one another for consolation. "If only we knew! If only we knew!" cries Olga at the end of the play.

The Cherry Orchaid (1904) reflected the larger developments in the Russian society. Mme Ranevskaias returns to her estate and finds out that the family house, together with the adjoining orchard, is to be auctioned. Her brother Gaev is too impractical to help in the crisis. The businessman Lopakhin purchases the estate and the orchard is demolished. "Everything on earth must come to an end..."

In these three famous plays Chekhov blended humor and tragedy. He left much room for imagination - his plays as well as his stories are in opposition to the concept of an artist as a mouthpiece of political change or social message. However, in his late years Chekhov supported morally the young experimental director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, who hoped to establish a revolutionary theater. Usually in Chekhov's dramas surprise and tension are not key elements, the dramatic movement is subdued, his characters do not fight, they endure their fate with patience. But in the process they perhaps discover something about themselves and their monotonous life.

Chekhov bought in 1892 a country estate in the village of Melikhove, where his best stories were written, including 'Neighbours' (1892), 'Ward Number Six', 'The Black Monk' (1894), 'The Murder' (1895), and 'Ariadne' (1895). He also served as a volunteer census taker, participated in famine relief, and worked as a medical inspector during cholore epidemics. In 1897 he fell ill with tuberculosis and lived since either abroad or in the Crimea.

Chekhov married in 1901 the Moscow Art Theater actress Olga Knipper (1870-1959), who had several years central roles in his plays on stage. In Yalta Chekhov wrote his famous stories 'The Man in a Shell,' 'Gooseberries,' 'About Love,' 'Lady with the Dog,' and 'In the Ravine.' His last great story, 'The Betrothed,' was an optimistic tale of a young woman who escapes from provincial dullness into personal freedom. Tolstoy, who admired Chekhov's fiction, did not think much of his dramatic skills. When he met Chekhov in Yalta, he said: "Don't write any more plays, old thing." Chekhov himself thought that Tolstoy was already a very sick man at that time, but he lived longer than Chekhov.

Chekhov died on July 15, 1904, in Badenweiler, Germany. He was buried in the cemetery of the Novodeviche Monastery in Moscow. Though a celebrated figure by the Russian literary public at the time of his death, Chekhov remained rather unknown internationally until the years after World War I, when his works were translated into English.

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