The Ridiculous Jew

The main house on the Babkino estate

The main house on the Babkino estate

When Levitan arrived at Babkino at the end of May 1886, the Chekhov clan (Anton, sister Maria, brothers Nikolai and Mikhail, and their mother) was already comfortably settled into their summer routines at the estate. For a month Chekhov had been urging his friend (and Levitan’s classmate) the architect Franz Shekhtel to spend the summer there as well: “It’s wonderful here: the birds are singing, Levitan is dressed up as a Chechen, the grass smells, Nikolai is drinking…There is so much air and expression in nature that it’s impossible to describe it…Every twig shouts out and begs to be drawn by the yid Levitan who’s running a loan office at Babkino.” Chekhov had tacked up a sign on the door of the painter’s chicken coop studio: “Merchant Levitan’s Loan Office.”

Evenings at Babkino were given to playing out silly vaudevilles and pantomimes that created an atmosphere familiar to anyone who has seen Chekhov’s plays. In one such entertainment, Chekhov decided to “put the merchant Levitan on trial with all the legalities of jurisprudence including prosecutors and defense attorneys. He is charged with a) refusing compulsory military service, b) secretly distilling alcohol (Nikolai is apparently drinking at his place, since he’s not allowed to drink anywhere else), c) running a secret loan office, d) immorality and so forth.” Levitan willingly played along with this crude anti-Semitic charade.

Not everyone was oblivious to the fact that there was something callow, if not intentionally cruel, in Chekhov’s casting of Levitan as a ridiculous Jew. Nadezhda Golubova, the sister of the estate’s owner, admitted that she found Chekhov’s jokes at the expense of Levitan “a bit grating” even though the painter ignored them “as if they weren’t talking about him.” Sergei Goloushev, an art critic who was part of Levitan’s circle and became his first biographer, accepted that the painter seemed to take things in stride at Babkino, but he found himself wondering how Levitan’s soul reacted to “the constant ridicule directed at him.” Being forced to inhabit the role of outsider, an alien Jew dependent on patronage by the gentry, an interloper among the Russian intelligentsia no matter how assimilationist his inclinations were—this surely contributed to his periodic bouts of depression.

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