Chekhov's Dacha in Yalta
Fights for Survival

Chekhov's Dacha in Yalta

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IT IS one of the most famous buildings in the history of Russian literature. Yet all but forgotten by two states, its coffers are empty and it faces a battle to survive.

It was in this modest house overlooking the Crimean coastline in the Ukrainian city of Yalta that Anton Chekhov lived between 1899-1904 and where he wrote a series of late masterpieces.

Then, the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea was part of the Tsarist Russian Empire. The house later survived through the turbulence of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet collapse in the 1990s.

The ownership of Crimea also changed hands, with Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev making it part of Soviet Ukraine in 1954 and the country then winning independence in 1991.

But the white one-storey house - now a museum - appears forgotten by both Ukraine and Russia and looks into an uncertain future amid the celebrations this week for the 150th anniversary of Chekhov's birth on January 29, 1860.

'We are receiving money only to pay the salaries, electricity bills and security,' said the museum's director Alla Golovachyova.

The museum is threatened by subsidence, she added, saying that funding of several hundred thousand euros (dollars) was needed to save the building.

'We are in danger of sliding onto our neighbours' heads or ending up being trapped in the ruins of the museum,' she said. 'His house is in a deplorable state,' said local MP Oleg Zubkov, lambasting Ukraine for neglecting its heritage. 'In Ukraine, culture just receives small change from the budget.'

Aside from the frequent changes in the political climate, the museum has had to endure an earthquake and Nazi occupation in World War II.

The villa's heating did not work for several years and the leaking roof risked damaging historic exhibits including period chairs, documents and even clothes worn by the Chekhov family.

One of Russia's richest men and the owner of Britain's Evening Standard, Alexander Lebedev, in 2008 came to the rescue by financing urgent restoration work including the installation of a heating system.

Other contributions trickle in from private donors in Ukraine, Russia and also Britain. But the financing is not sufficient with the Ukrainian state offering a bare minimum while Russia gives nothing.

Then presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine visited the dacha in 2003 and left notes of thanks in the visitors' book but no additional government aid followed.

After building the house to his specifications, Chekhov settled here with his family and wrote his late masterpieces including the plays 'Three Sisters' and 'The Cherry Orchard' and the story 'Lady with Lapdog'.

He hoped the region's balmy climate would ease the respiratory problems that afflicted him. But he would leave in 1904 to Germany, where he died the same year of tuberculosis.

The museum was opened in 1921 by his sister Maria in the hope of creating a place that would preserve the ambience which had inspired his work.

Even the trees in the garden were planted by the writer and here he would walk with other cultural luminaries of the day such as the composer Sergei Rachmaninov and the writer Maxim Gorky

The Straits Times
1 February, 2010