After Chekhov died in 1904, his sister Maria set about methodically to retrieve his voluminous correspondence. The 1974-83 Soviet Academy of Sciences Complete Collected Works and Letters of Chekhov contain 4,468 letters, although some were cut by the prudish Maria and the Soviet censors, and a few were considered obscene and left out entirely. Still, Chekhov’s 12 volumes of letters represent one of the richest treasures of 19th century Russian literature.
Levitan’s correspondence had an entirely different fate. The only collection of Levitan’s correspondence, published in 1956, contains 151 letters, 55 of which were written to Chekhov. I’ve been able to find about 26 more letters published online and not included in the 1956 collection. But all letters written to Levitan, including those from Chekhov, no longer exist. Upon his death in 1900 Levitan instructed his brother Adolf to burn his correspondence, and he dutifully carried out Isaac’s request. Presumably Levitan had no desire for a record of a lifetime of romantic entanglements to live on after him.
When Anna Turchaninova, Levitan’s mistress during the last six years of his life, moved to Paris in the 1920’s, she brought with her 200 letters to her from Levitan. A visiting artist by the name of Smelov managed to talk her out of burning the letters, and she gave them to him. But at some point on the eve of World War II, Smelov handed the letters to someone to type out and they were lost. We have only one letter that Levitan wrote to Turchaninova.
Much of my research in Moscow this summer will be devoted to confirming whether there are any Levitan letters in the archives that have not been published or only published in censored form, and to see whether unpublished correspondence among Chekhov’s and Levitan’s friends and family contain any new information about the relationship between the writer and the artist.