The very first morning at Babkino, the country estate where he spent the summer of 1885, Chekhov set out to place one of the fish traps he brought from Moscow carefully tied to the back of a cart. As he was lowering the trap into the Istra River, he heard a voice shout out: “Crocodile!” He looked up and saw Levitan calling out from the other side of the river.
For a moment Chekhov couldn’t be sure whether “Crocodile!” was directed at him or the fish in the river. And I find myself unable to fully explicate the nuances of “Crocodile!” and why Chekhov and Levitan so loved to repeat the word. It must have a peculiar ring to a Russian ear, sounding both silly and ominous. Chekhov and Levitan used the word in various ways, sometimes as an endearment, sometimes as a rebuke. The word had long ago infected the speech of their common Moscow circle, and both men played with it in their correspondence for the rest of their lives. Chekhov wrote his publisher from Babkino that Levitan “exaggerates that all fish are crocodiles and has become friends with Begichev [father of the estate owner] who calls him ‘Leviathan.’ ‘I’m bored when Leviathan’s not around,’ Begichev sighs whenever the crocodile is absent.” Levitan, in turn, once told Chekhov with gentle mockery: “You are such a talented crocodile, but you write such trivial stuff!” Another time Levitan pleaded in vain for Chekhov to come visit him: “It would be an extreme joy to see your crocodile physiognomy here.”
Of course, Crocodile was the name of a Soviet era satirical magazine, which came from the title of a Dostoevsky story (1865) about a civil servant who was swallowed by a crocodile and continued to work quite comfortably inside the belly of the beast. Perhaps the word leaped from Dostoevsky’s comic story into common parlance?