While Chekhov and Levitan were renewing their friendship in January 1895, Lika Mizinova sat alone and despondent in Paris caring for her two-month-old infant. Frustrated by Chekhov’s rejection of her love, she had started an affair with the writer Potapenko and followed him to Paris, ostensibly to take voice lessons. After the birth of their child, the married Potapenko abandoned Lika, never to see her again.
In January Lika wrote Maria Chekhova telling her that she was her only friend. Regardless, Lika found herself unable to confide in Maria about the birth of her child. Instead, she talked about her homesickness and the latest gossip from Moscow, including the news of Levitan’s reunion with Chekhov (“How surprising!”) and rumors of Levitan and Kuvshinnikova trying to make up (“If this reconciliation takes place, you can only throw your hands up and no longer be surprised by anything in the world!”).
But sometime in late January in Moscow, Maria saw Potapenko, who told her about the child. Now Lika bared her soul to Maria: “It’s been almost a year that I’ve forgotten what it means to have peace, happiness and other such pleasant things. From almost my first day in Paris there began torment, lies, concealing, etc.” (Potapenko’s wife also lived in Paris.) Maria told Chekhov about the “distressing” letter she had received from Lika.
That spring Chekhov began working on a play that would evolve into The Seagull. Percolating in his imagination was Lika’s hapless affair with Potapenko. But it was not until after he was summoned to an estate on the shore of Ostrovno Lake to care for Levitan after another tragicomic suicide attempt (Anna Turchaninova and her eldest daughter had both fallen in love with him) that the theme, structure and setting for the play solidified. There, Chekhov witnessed Levitan melodramatically throwing a seagull that he had just shot at Anna Turchaninova’s feet. In The Seagull Potapenko is transformed into the writer Trigorin, who jots down an idea for a story that comes to pass in the course of the play: A young girl “lives on the shore of a lake since childhood; she loves the lake like a seagull, and she is happy and free like the seagull. But by chance a man appears, sees her and having nothing better to do, destroys her, just like this seagull.” Lika recognized herself as that “young girl.” After the play’s premiere in October 1896, she wrote to Chekhov: “… everyone here is saying that The Seagull is taken from my life and also that you did a good job on a certain someone,” implying that Trigorin was an unflattering portrait of Potapenko.