Levitan’s Women

Elena Karzinkina

Elena Karzinkina

With my departure for Moscow less than two weeks away, I’m finishing up translating all of Levitan’s published letters to ensure that I don’t overlook anything that should be followed up from sources in the Russian State Library or archives. The only surprise has been the letters Levitan wrote to Elena Karzinkina from 1896 to 1899. Nine years younger than Levitan, Karzinkina was a painter who enrolled in the Moscow School of Art after Levitan had graduated. From Levitan’s letters, it is clear that he was in love with her, although in 1898 she married Nikolai Teleshov, a writer who was the host of a very influential Moscow literary circle.

Many memoirists, when they wrote about Levitan, invariably mentioned that he was a notorious womanizer. In reality, we know the names of only a few women he pursued or was involved with: Chekhov’s sister Maria; Sophia Kuvshinnikova, the married painter and saloniste with whom Levitan openly had an affair from 1890 until 1894; Lika Mizinova, who may have flirted with Levitan primarily to annoy the man she was really in love with: Chekhov; Anna Turchaninova, the wife of a Petersburg official for whom Levitan left Kuvshinnikova; and Elena Karzinkina. It’s likely that we would have learned many other names had not all of Levitan’s letters been burned upon his death.

Levitan’s letters to Karzinkina are the only sustained monologue we have directed at one of the objects of his affections. The letters were polite and respectful of her intelligence, asking her opinions about books they had both read and inviting her to give her impressions of art exhibits she had seen in Russia and Paris. He wrote to her about his bouts of depression and his sense of the futility of life. He called her a heartless creature for failing to write back. He was open about his feelings for her: “Have I really in my old age fallen in love, again, and so hopelessly, since you are such a horrible person!” He confided in her that Chekhov had told him about his worsening tuberculosis: “How distressing it was for me to learn this. I love him.”

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