In 1890, Anton Chekhov made a journey across the entire Russian Empire, from Moscow to a hard-labour island. The trip resulted in the book called Island Sakhalin.
The causes of the author’s act so self-sacrificing for that time are yet unknown. Some researchers call it ‘civic duty’, while others see the reasons in his ‘private life’. Only one thing is beyond any doubt – each and every one in the Anton Chekhov’s inner circle considered it their duty to talk him out of the risky trip. “Nobody needs and is interested in Sakhalin,” his friend and publisher Alexei Suvorin wrote, the reply to which was: “… we have destroyed millions of people in prisons, destroyed them for no purpose, without giving it a thought, in a barbaric manner; we would drive people for tens of thousands versts in cold weather in chains, infect them with syphilis, deprave them, multiply criminals, shifting the blame for all of it on the red-nosed prison wardens. Now, the whole of educated Europe knows it was not the fault of the wardens but of all us, whereas we do not care, it is not interesting…”.
The Island Sakhalin’s first edition was planned to be illustrated. Before his trip, Chekhov contemplated drawings. Artists, however, requested a fee too large, whilst the cost of a joint travel would be enormous. Checkhov was in distress for money and could not pay even a minute part.
In Sakhalin, the author got acquainted with a local telegraph clerk Innokenty Pavlovsky, who turned out to be a photography enthusiast. It was then that the idea to illustrate the future book with photographs came up. Chekhov compiled a list of the photo stories he planned to make.
Most of the Innokenty Pavlovsky’s photographs were made at the writer’s request, which becomes clear from personal correspondence, in which the photographer asks for assistance by granting official permission to shoot in prisons and places of hard labourers’ residence.
A drawing (by Lilia Fedotova, 2012) at a bus stop in Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky, where Anton Chekhov first arrived from the continent.
Photo by Oleg Klimov, 2015
“Here is where Asia ends, and one could say the Amur falls into the Great Ocean at this place were it not for the Sakhalin Island sitting across”.
Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island
I tried to not only find the originals of photos by Pavlovsky in Kamchatka, Moscow and America but to compile a photographer’s biography, though tentative, and his acquaintance with Anton Chekhov greatly facilitated my task.
Another amateur photographer was Alexander Scherbak, a doctor on the Petersburg ship. The fifty days spent onboard the ship with Chekhov, apparently, laid a foundation for a friendship. The same follows from Chekhov’s letters. The photos taken onboard the Petersburg transporting hard labourers from Russia to Sakhalin are by Alexander Scherbak and were as well intended as illustrations to the first edition of the Chekhov’s book.
One of the photos depicts a sailor being laid to rest in the sea. Anton Chekhov was supposed to be present. In one of his short stories, Gusev, there is a conversation, in which one sailor says to another that should he die at sea his relatives will never find out about it. The other sailor replies that if he actually dies, the deceased’s surname will be written in the logbook. It became the reason to examine the logbook of the Petersburg ship, where the photo was taken in 1890. The deceased’s name was Ivan Chublinsky, a private of the Alexander marine team from the Sakhalin island. He was on his way home to Russia but fell ill and died. While it may seem inconsequential to some, I am particularly proud of it, because 125 years later we can learn more through examining photos.
One hundred and twenty years on, with the book Sakhalin Island and a photo camera I, for one year, travelled across Sakhalin from south to north, from west to east, and I lived on the Kuril Islands, the modern-day Russia’s only island area. Surprisingly, as I decided to make a book on Sakhalin, my peers tried to convince me, too, that “nobody needs Sakhalin”, it is “a shift-team island” and there is nothing there except oil, gas and fish. “It is dull and boring”.
I talked a lot to native islanders and I asked questions to people who came from the continent. “I am here because…” was the answer I wanted the most. Why do Russians still live in the islands and from generation to generation entertain the hope of returning back to the continent, to Russia? What is left of the hard-labour colonies and what have the people gained by gaining freedom? Was there and is there freedom? I was interested in the irrational and subconscious motives, as the other ones I knew quite well from books and mass media. I thought by so doing I would be able to get the answer to why Chekhov had decided to visit the prison of Sakhalin.
Eventually, based not on opinion polls or Chekhov’s 1890 census, though I used those as well, I concluded that the answer to the question “why am I here?” rather lied in the realm of my own judgement made after talking to locals, and in my photographs – a visual contemporary anthropology project I tried to implement on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.
To find the answer in the field of the irrational, not only did I have to travel in space and study the islands’ history. I decided that a “journey to the country’s subconscious”, situated topographically in its outskirts, post-Soviet-empire islands, while all that is rational and conscious is found in its capital, Moscow, was much more important.
In a sense, it is a visual follow-up on Anton Chekhov’s social research project that did not happen 120 years ago – therefore, as a grateful reader, I used quotes from Sakhalin Island for each photo story, to both confirm the continuity of the local history and its content determined by human presence.
Oleg Klimov, documentary photographer