How Chekhov Remembered the Forgotten: Sakhalin Island

Anton Chekhov

“Gazing at the opposite shore, I feel that if I were a convict, I would escape immediately, whatever the consequences.”
-Anton Chekhov, The Island of Sakhalin, 1895

In 1890 it was not a geographical location Chekhov was trying to flee, so much as a social and literary ennui that had overtaken him. Despite success in his medical training and his writing career (he had been unanimously voted the Pushkin Prize winner two years prior), Chekhov felt the sort of listlessness that only travel or all-consuming work can cure. Chekhov chose both, undertaking a formidable journey from his comfortable home and highly active social sphere in Moscow across the Siberian wilderness to the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin Island. Intending to write a book that would make up for his partial abandonment of his medical practice (he always made himself available to treat peasants’ ailments, accepting little or no compensation), Chekhov aimed to survey every settlement and prison on Sakhalin Island. In crafting his own escape, he chose to pursue the stories of those for whom there was no escape. Chekhov was 30 years old.

The voyage would not be without difficulties. Chekhov was of delicate health since his youth; Payne reports that Chekhov spit blood both just prior to and during the three-month journey to Sakhalin (xxi).  Family and friends urged Chekhov to delay or cancel his journey altogether, but the writer would not be deterred. While Chekhov was steadfast in what he felt was an obligation to uncover the truth about the convicts on Sakhalin Island, he recognized the dangers that lay ahead. Writing to his friend and publisher A. S. Suvorin, Chekhov advised him that “‘in case I’m drowned or anything of that sort, you might keep in mind that all I have or may have in the future belongs to my sister; she will pay my debts'” (Simmons, 216). Chekhov undertook his travel not only at bodily expense but at his own financial expense. During the months leading up to his departure Chekhov hurriedly wrote new short stories and reworked collections of stories for publication to finance his travel and ensure that his family remaining in Moscow would be cared for. In addition to this work Chekhov set before himself the task learning as much as possible about every aspect of Sakhalin Island, even employing his sister and her friends to take notes from the myriad books that littered his home. Promising that his tome on the penal colony would prove him to be “‘a scholarly son of a bitch'” (Simmons, 213), Chekhov hid from friends in St. Petersburg while he scoured the libraries for every book he could find on the history, agriculture, economics, politics, environment, law, and society of Sakhalin Island. Chekhov jokingly referred to his enthusiastic preparation as “Mania sachalinosa“.

Sakhalin Island

Sakhalin Island is surrounded by three major national powers, China, Japan, and Russia, which have all laid claim to the island at one time or another. The 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg granted Russia rights to the Island, although the Sakhalin penal colony was established years before this proclamation (Gentes 321). Political dissidents and convicts trudged across Siberia to spend years, more often than not their entire lives, in harsh climates completing miserable tasks. The 1905 Japanese attack of Sakhalin Island during the Russo-Japanese War resulted in the Treaty of Portsmouth, which granted the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan (Stephan 1092). While Sakhalin Island was generally a cold and brutal environment, it was rich in natural resources, such as forests, fisheries, coal, and oil. There are still resources aplenty to be had on the island, which the Russian government’s partnership with Shell Oil demonstrates.

 Chekhov prepared to travel despite having no assurances that the Sakhalin prison officials would even allow him to carry out his investigations. Quite the contrary, after a meeting where Chekhov failed to procure letters of recommendation, the head of the national prison administration sent a memorandum instructing Sakhalin prison officials to intervene if Chekhov attempted to interview exiled political prisoners (Simmons 213). Officially, Chekhov wanted to conduct an island-wide census, but he was just as interested in collecting anecdotal information about life on Sakhalin Island as he was in collecting statistics. This being said, Chekhov designed and reportedly filled out by hand 10,000 census cards, which are now archived in the Russian State Library. In a last-ditch effort to persuade his friend not to travel to the penal colony, Suvorin wrote to Chekhov that his work would be in vain, that Chekhov’s readership did not care for information on a bunch of murderers running about their island prison. Chekhov response was as follows:

The Chekhov family gathered for this photograph just before Anton Chekhov left for Sakhalin Island. Chekhov sits in front in a light-coloured jacket.

“‘Though the trip may be nonsense – stubbornness, a whim – consider the matter and tell me what I have to lose by going? […] For example, you write that Sakhalin is of no use or interest to anybody. Is that really so? Sakhalin is useless and uninteresting only to a society that does not exile thousands of people to it and spend millions to maintain it […] From the books I’ve read and am reading, it is clear that we have sent millions of people to rot in prison, we have let them rot casually, barbarously, without giving it a thought; we have driven people in chains, through the cold thousands of miles, have infected them with syphilis, made them depraved, multiplied criminals, and we have thrust the blame on red-nosed prison officials. Now, all educated Europe knows that the officials are not to blame, but rather all of us; yet this has nothing to do with us, it is not interesting? […] No, I assure you, Sakhalin is of use, and it is interesting; and I regret only that it is I who am going there and not someone else who knows more about the business and would be more capable of arousing public interest'” (Simmons 212).

This response may not have surprised Suvorin. Throughout his literary career Chekhov was criticized by friends and critics alike for being too objective. In writing The Island Chekhov would use this same matter-of-fact approach to document the abuses and realities of life on Sakhalin, inside as well as outside the prisons. Armed with the excitement of the tasks ahead and a knife “for cutting sausage and hunting tigers” (Simmons 216) Chekhov departed by train from Yarosavl Station on the 21st of April, 1890.

The categories on Chekhov’s census cards. Whenever possible Chekhov circled or underlined relevant classifications to save time. The writer also took meticulous anecdotal notes.

After an exhausting journey Chekhov arrived to Sakhalin Island on July 5th. While he visited many small, desolate towns during his journey across Siberia, none of them prepared the learned visitor for the total reversal of social mores observed on Sakhalin Island. In addition to the prisons proper, the island bore settlements, which were made up of free settlers as well as convicts that had either served or were still serving their time. Describing his first impressions of the bleak town of Nikolayevsk, Chekhov noted how un-Russian the place was, with a value system totally unto itself. These un-Russian acts ranged from minor offenses, such as priests eating meat during Lent, to major ones, such as the regular and casual prostitution of settlers’ wives. Many women and girls voluntarily followed their husbands or fathers into exile. During the information collection process Chekhov found one free man who had followed his mother into exile (Chekhov 43). Rampant unemployment and a complete lack of proper schools and libraries contributed to the eventual underage marriage or prostitution of the girls of Sakhalin. Observing the crude sense of morals on Sakhalin Island, Chekhov stated that “there are no class prejudices, for exiles here are considered equals, but at the same time it is not regarded as a sin to shoot some Chinese beggar met in the forest, killing him like a dog, or to engage in secret hunting parties against escaping convicts” (3).

Considering the lawlessness of the place, one might think that there were no authority figures, but this was not so. Throughout his life Chekhov abhorred the widespread malfeasance amongst minor Russian bureaucrats, and this is a central theme in many of his short stories prior to and after his journey to Sakhalin Island. Prison guards and administrators made up a significant portion of the Sakhalin Island population, but most were either corrupt, disorganized, dimwitted, or all of the above. Chekhov noted widespread abuses of authority, including slave labour. One prison warden had eight servants, all unpaid. Despite the illegality of the use of convicts as servants in Siberia, this restriction was ignored “in the most flagrant manner” (Chekhov 63). On an even larger scale of servitude, convicts in the Dué prison were put to work for a St. Petersburg-owned company. Prisoners choked in poorly ventilated coal mines while the private Russian company made absolutely no attempt to recompense the penal colony for their efforts. Many free settlers were hired with pay to work in the coal mines, but even they had to work in worse conditions than the prisoners (Chekhov 104-107). On a daily basis prisoners bribed guards to get out of their work, and when they could not or would not pay their keepers they were beaten instead.

Sakhalin Island convicts. Note the chains shackling one prisoner to his wheelbarrow. In The Island Chekhov describes a five year-old girl helping her father carry his manacles.

Throughout his life Chekhov had enjoyed close relationships with his female family members, particularly sister Masha, and his many female friends. In The Island Chekhov is concerned with the status and treatment of women, in the prisons as well as the settlements. “Happy is the settlement,” says Chekhov, “that has more women than men” (96). During his conversations with the women of Sakhalin Island Chekhov noted that many women – ill, bitter, and purposeless – had forgotten their own age or where they had been born. Chekhov compares the treatment of and conversations about Sakhalin women to the treatment and talk of horses (237): to be traded, worked, ignored as need be. Condemning the aggressive illiteracy amongst the female population, Chekhov concluded that the Sakhalin woman, unfortunately, “embarrasses you with her crude illiteracy, and it seems to me that nowhere else have I seen such stupid and dull women as I found among the criminal and oppressed population of Sakhalin” (296).

While much of 19th-century Russia would be glad to forget such ignorant and abused women, Chekhov made an effort to preserve their memory via the census and the book itself. Throughout The Island a lapse in memory and being forgotten are common themes. Many vagrants on the island took to crafting their own surnames, with Nepomnyashchy (“Unremembered”) being the most common surname. Chekhov also noted the following names: “Countryless,” “Nameless,” and “Man with Unknown Name” (Chekhov 32). One ferry captain, a beaten but good-natured elderly vagabond, was named Krasivy Family-forgotten (45). As mentioned, although the census would be a source of vital information, for Chekhov the census was also a convenient excuse to visit every person in every home and prison on the island. Recognizing that he could not tell the individual stories of every inhabitant, Chekhov simply related one. The brief sixth chapter chronicles the conversation between Chekhov and Yegor, a convict who regularly brought wood for one of the few respectable prison officials on the island. Very much reminiscent of one of Chekhov’s short stories, the chapter “Yegor’s Story” reflects the pathetic and disconsolate position of peasants in Russian society. Wrongfully accused of a murder he did not commit, Yegor and his brother were sent into exile to spend their lives in penal servitude. Later in The Island, perhaps hoping to explain why such a narrative is included in what was meant to be a scientific tome, Chekhov stated that he included Yegor’s story “so that the reader may judge how colorless and barren were those hundreds of similar stories, autobiographies and anecdotes which I heard from prisoners and from other people who are intimate with the penal colony” (102).

Anton Chekhov’s manuscript of The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin. The manuscript is now preserved in the Chekhov House Museum in Moscow.

There has been much debate on the significance of The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin. Too literary to be a scientific work, yet without the narrative quality Russian society had come to expect from a Chekhov work, The Island mystified its audience upon publication. Considering his status in Russian society, Chekhov brought much needed attention to the penal colony and the lack of rehabilitation taking place in the prisons and settlements (Timmis 511); despite this, by and large the appalling conditions persisted.  When the head prison official retired in 1901, he bemoaned the monetary waste of the Sakhalin penal colony: “‘I am unable to overlook that since 1880 more than 23 000 000 rub. have been spent on Sakhalin, of which 5 300 000 rub. alone have gone for the conveyance of criminals but [only] 1 146 000 rub. have been assigned to aid the colony, not counting the maintenance of exile-settlers, who nowhere else except Sakhalin receive provisions and clothing from the government'” (Gentes 321). Cathy Popkin is highly critical of The Island, stating that from an ethnographer’s point of view, the statistics compiled by Chekhov are suspect and utterly useless, only serving “to raise Sakhalin not from obscurity, as he had intended, but to an obscurity of even greater proportion” (49). While it is not a document that can be held to today’s rigorous quantitative standards, The Island does stand as a hallmark of compassionate contemplation, which even now is desperately needed. The recent severe sentencing of Russian musicians and political dissidents Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova to correctional colonies constitutes an obligation to discuss Chekhov’s The Island, and the notion of the penal colony, in the 21st century.

Anton Chekhov, 1860-1904

The difficulty of classifying or using the information in The Island has not deterred some from considering it a great work of the most sympathetic kind (Tumim 1214); one that is only mitigated by a penchant for generalization (Futrell 146). Nobel Prize-winner Heinrich Böll remarked that The Island should be “compulsory reading for all those who are anywhere and in any way involved with the so-called penal system”. New York Times contributor Francis X. Clines claims that Chekhov’s work is “ennobled by empathy, a study of human punishment as the measure of humanity”. Finke suggests that Chekhov’s difficult months spent on the island mirror the descent into hell of Dante in The Divine Comedy; the “hellish descent” is a theme that Finke explores throughout Chekhov’s works in his fine article “The Hero’s Descent to the Underworld in Chekhov”. From a literary standpoint, it is widely acknowledged that Chekhov wrote some of his most brilliant and sensitive stories after his return from Sakhalin Island, including his 1895 short story The Murder, which ends in loneliness on Sakhalin Island.


Chekhov, Anton. The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin. Trans. Luba Terpak and Michael Terpak. New York: Washington Square Press, 1967. Print.

Finke, Michael. “The Hero’s Descent to the Underworld in Chekhov.” Russian Review 53.1 (1994): 67-80. JSTOR. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.

Futrell, Michael. “The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin by Anton Chekhov: Luba Terpak: Micahel Terpak.” Pacific Affairs 41.1. (1968): 146-147. JSTOR. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.

Gentes, Andrew A. “No Kind of Liberal: Alexander II and the Sakhalin Penal Colony.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 54.3 (2006): 321-344. JSTOR. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.

Payne, Robert. “Introduction.” The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin. New York: Washington Square Press, 1967. Print.

Popkin, Cathy. “Chekhov as Ethnographer: Epistemological Crisis on Sakhalin Island.” Slavic Review 51.1 (1992): 36-49. JSTOR. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.

Simmons, Ernest J. Chekhov: A Biography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962. Print.

Stephan, John J. “Sakhalin Island: Soviet Outpost in Northeast Asia.” Asian Survey 10.12 (1970): 1090-1100. JSTOR. Web. 24. Oct. 2012.

Timmis, Christopher. “Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov.” British Medical Journal 336.7642 (2008): 511. JSTOR. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.

Tumim, Stephen. “A Journey to Sakhalin by A. Chekhov: B. Reeve.” British Medical Journal 306.6886 (1993): 1213-1214. JSTOR. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.


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