Chekhov Uncensored

Chekhov with admirers Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik and Lidia Yavorskaya. He called the photo "The Temptations of St. Anthony."

Chekhov with admirers Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik and Lidia Yavorskaya. He called the photo “The Temptations of St. Anthony.”

Most of Levitan’s and Chekhov’s letters were published in scholarly editions during the Soviet era–Levitan’s in a volume that came out in 1956, Chekhov’s in 13 volumes published between 1973 and 1983. However, in both cases the Soviet censors, acting as strict parents covering their children’s ears, excised the naughty bits, leaving their tracks in the form of brackets: <….>. When Donald Rayfield’s Anton Chekhov: A Life came out, it caused a sensation, especially when it was published in Russia in 2005. With access to the Chekhov archives, Rayfield restored what the censors had cut out. This was not your mother’s Chekhov! It struck some Russians as unseemly that Rayfield’s biography was more about Chekhov’s women than his works. But in the West we are skeptical of biographies that read like hagiographies. It is, in fact, refreshing to have our ears uncovered and be able to hear Chekhov’s real voice. Here below is an excerpt from a letter that Chekhov wrote to his publisher Aleksei Suvorin on 12 June 1894. It was excluded from his collected letters and first made public in 1991 (and, as far as I know, has not been published in English). Certainly, we enjoy its bawdiness. But it also lets us see Chekhov more clearly–his character flaws, his humor, his ability to write an entire short story in ten sentences. It’s the voice of a modern man:

Women who have sex, or as they say in Moscow “do the cockroach,” on every sofa are not just crazy, they’re sick kittens suffering from nymphomania. The sofa is a very uncomfortable piece of furniture. It is blamed for causing fornication a lot more often than it is actually used. I used a sofa only once in my life and swore it off. I have been with loose women and have myself sinned many times, but I don’t believe in Zola and that woman who said, “Bang! Let’s go!” Loose people and writers consider themselves to be gourmets and connoisseurs of fornication. They are bold, decisive and resourceful. They know 33 ways, even doing it on a knife’s edge, but all this is just words, when in fact they are having sex with cooks or going to one-ruble whore houses. All writers lie. Having sex with a lady in a city isn’t as easy as in books. I have never seen a single apartment (of course, of the decent kind) where it would be possible to toss a woman wearing a corset and a skirt in a bustle onto a trunk, a sofa, or onto the floor and have sex with her without having the whole house know about it. All these terms like “doing it standing up” or “sitting down,” etc. are nonsense. The simplest way is in bed, and the 33 other difficult and easy ways are only for a hotel room or a barn. Romancing a lady from proper circles is a long procedure. First, it has to be night. Second, you go to “The Hermitage” hotel. Third, at “The Hermitage” they tell you there are no rooms available, and you go searching for another refuge. Fourth, in the hotel room your lady loses courage, starts shaking and exclaims, “Oh, my God, what am I doing?! No! No!” The right time for undressing and words passes. Fifth, on the way back your lady has an expression on her face as if you had raped her and is constantly mumbling, “No, I will never forgive myself for this!” None of this is at all like “Bang! Let’s go!” Of course, there are times when a person sins and it’s like a shot–Piff! Paff! Let’s go!–but this doesn’t happen so frequently that it’s worth talking about.

Source: Igor’ Sukhikh, Chekhov v zhizni, Moscow, 2010, pp. 245-246

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