Exploring Chekhov's Moscow

Chekhov's House-Museum in Moscow

Anton Chekhov, who was born 150 years ago this Friday, declared himself "a Muscovite forever" after moving to the city from his native Taganrog on the Azov Sea.

This walk explores his life and legacy in Moscow, passing theatres, museums and houses where he and his colleagues lived and worked. Like many new arrivals, he took time to get used to the cold winter but once settled he concluded: "You'll never leave!"

Chekhovskaya metro station, completed in 1986, takes the writer as its inspiration. Scenes from his short stories are illustrated in impressionistic inlaid marble. If you want to shorten this route, simply turn right and right again out of the metro to pick up the route at.

Otherwise, cross the Boulevard ring and head north along Ulitsa Malaya Dmitrovka. Chekhov was associated with so many different buildings along this road that the Soviet authorities briefly renamed it Ulitsa Chekhova in 1944, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Chekhov's death. His first published works, while he was still a medical student at Moscow University, appeared in the Zritel ("Spectator") magazine, whose offices were in the yellow building on the corner. The art deco Lenkom Theatre across the road is one of many participants in a Chekhov Festival this weekend.

In 1899, Chekhov lived in a flat at number 11, now a bar and hotel. At this stage of his life, he was already ill with tuberculosis and was building a villa in the warmth of Yalta. Turn right opposite the hotel into Uspenskaya Ulitsa. Chekhov also stayed for a short time in the house on the corner, at number 12.

Beyond the turquoise Benin Embassy, turn left through the side entrance into the Hermitage Gardens. Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky, whose family mansion was across the road, founded the first Art Theatre here in 1898.

The triumphant Moscow premiere of The Seagull in the same year, using Stanislavsky's "method", eclipsed the poor reception of the earlier St Petersburg version. The current Hermitage Theatre is contributing a play based on Chekhov's stories, "Secret Notes of a Privy Councillor" to this weekend's festival. Turn right out of the main gate and cross over the boulevard into Ulitsa Petrovka.

The colourful brick building just beyond the monastery houses the State Literary Museum, which holds the archives of many Russian writers. It is open Weds-Sat, mainly in the afternoons, and costs 50 roubles. There are six glorious cases in the third hall relating to Chekhov. Rarely seen photographs, letters, cuff links, albums and a cap that the playwright used to wear for fishing, combine to present an intimate sketch.

Turn right into Petrovsky Pereulok to visit the red brick Theatre of Nations (3), embellished in the ‘neo-Russian' style. Chekhov's early plays, "Ivanov" and "The Bear", were staged here in the 1880s, when it was the Korsh Theatre. The Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre at the end of the road advertises a ballet based on "The Seagull". Nemirovich-Danchenko's flat, round the corner on Glinishevsky Pereulok, is now a museum. Chekhov's future wife, Olga Knipper, also lived in this building. Carry on along Petrovka and turn right into Kamergersky Pereulok to reach the Moscow Art Theatre (5), which relocated here in 1902.

The architect, Fyodor Shekhtel, designed the building and the seagull logo that became the company's trademark. There is a marvellous museum, through the door with the ‘wave' decoration, displaying original set designs, costumes and playbills. It costs 60/120 roubles for Russians/foreigners.

The house at number 24 Leontievsky Pereulok was Chekhov's last address in Moscow. Stanislavsky later lived in a mansion at the far end of the lane, open mostly in the afternoons and costing 100 roubles for Moscow residents. An exhibition, which charts Stanislavsky's years with the Art Theatre, including sections on all Chekhov's major plays, costs 30 roubles. Round the corner on Nikitsky Bulvar the theatre "U Nikitskikh Vorot" stages a definitive Uncle Vanya. Their simple, but moving rendition ends with Vanya, Sonya and most of the audience in tears.

Cross the boulevard ring again and continue along Malaya Nikitskaya on the far side, passing between the domed yellow church where Alexander Pushkin got married and the fabulous Art Nouveau house that once belonged to the writer, Maxim Gorky. At the far end of this road, turn right to find the second pink town house. There is still a brass nameplate on the door, marking the medical practice of Dr AP Chekhov. It was here in the last years of the nineteenth century that the doctor's writing career began to flourish as more short stories were published and his first plays premiered. The museum is currently closed for restoration, but is hosting a celebratory evening this Friday.

Go under the underpass and along Barrikadnaya Ulitsa to the metro. One of Chekhov's pets ended up in the Zoo whose entrance you pass. He had acquired two "mongooses" on the way back from his legendary trip to Sakhalin Island. He described them affectionately in a letter as "the size of half-grown kittens, very cheerful, lively beasts". The mongooses, whose lively qualities included running up beards, digging up potted plants and biting guests, were understandably less popular with family and friends. Chekhov eventually donated the surviving female to the Zoo where experts in fact identified her as a wild and untameable palm civet.

The Moscow News
1 February, 2010