Longing for Absence: Anton Chekhovs Garden in Yalta

Der folgende Artikel ist als Beitrag im Jahresheft  des Schwedischen Forums für gartengeschichtliche Forschung Heft 28 (2015), S. 15-18 in englischer Sprache erschienen. Er behandelt die Frage des Umgangs mit einer unzureichenden Quellenlage bei der Sanierung historischer Gärten anhand des Privatgartens von Anton Tschechow in Jalta:


Being the son of a luckless salesman Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) did not have the chance or the desire to do gardening when he was young and living in Moscow. But the importance of the garden topos both in his literary work and in his private life increased, reaching its climax with the writing of “The Cherry Orchard” and with his own garden that he laid out and maintained in his last years in Yalta. In the following I try to interpret this garden and to conclude guidelines for its conservation.

Origination: From farming to gardening

Since 1879 Chekhov lived together with his parents and siblings in a small apartment in Moscow. His father was not able to support the family so Anton – still in his twenties but earning some money with selling short stories – became the head of the family. His first noteworthy garden experiences he probably made at the summer-residences he rented in the mid 1880ies, but while he enjoyed fishing and relaxing the garden remained merely a background.

In 1892 Chekhov purchased the country estate of Melikhovo forty miles south of Moscow. He bought it for financial reasons and in order to gain new experiences that could be used in his writings, and maybe also for health-reasons as the first indications of tuberculosis had shown six years before. This became the start of his interest in gardening.

Chekhov moved with his parents and his sister Masha to Melikhovo to earn their living with farming, but they were also gardening: His father laid out new garden paths, his sister Masha cared for the kitchen garden and the orchard and he himself took over the planting of new trees. After the morning-coffee at 4 am Chekhov used to go into the garden, looking for the fruit trees or cowering at a trunk, watching it carefully. He spent whole days caring for the trees and the roses. He also built a new pond and planted trees around it.[1] His sister Masha remembered: “To plant, to build, to layout and to nurse – this was Anton’s element.” [2]

After a severe bleeding of his lungs in 1897 his doctors advised him to move to the subtropical climate of the Crimea. When he moved to Yalta in 1898 he seemed to be aware that he did not have many years left. To secure his mother and sister financially he sold his entire work to a publisher for 75.000 rubles. As part of the deal he had to assort and to rework all his older novels. Rather well-off but ill and with a lot of work to be done it you would have thought him to buy an estate with all comfort, but instead Chekhov bought an unimproved ground in the Tartar village Autka near Yalta and started from zero.

Although the place showed “no single tree, no single bush, but an old, forgotten, knobby grape-vine that loomed out of the dry, adamant soil” [3] Chekhov and Masha were both inspired by it:

“At night we sat in Anton’s apartment and worked on a map for the property: where the future house should be built, how the garden should be differentiated, we marked the paths in the garden […]. We were so engrossed in our plans and were so lost in our reveries that we even imagined grottoes and fountains […].[4]

While the house was under construction, Chekhov was busy laying outthe garden. He ordered trees and bushes from all over Russia, among them peach-, apricot- and cherry-trees. He planted espaliers of apple and pear.[5] He was supported by his employee Arseniy, who had worked in Nikitsky Botanical Garden nearby Yalta before. [6] However, Chekov considered himself to be more competent than Arseniy, and did not allow him to do any tree cutting while the landlord was away.

In November 1899 Chekhov proudly wrote:

“The garden becomes extraordinary. I am planting all by myself, with my own hands. I have planted one hundred roses, the most precious and cultivated breeds. […]many camellias, lilies, tuberoses et cetera.”[7]

During spring of year 1900 he planted Palm trees and “put little benches all over in the garden, no luxury benches with iron stands but wooden ones”.[8]

Interpretation: “A Carrot is a Carrot”

Chekhov’s letters tell of many different trees and flowers which point at a colorful and manifold garden. Chekhov considered it “beautiful, but […] untidy, dirty, the garden of a dilettante”. [9] In contrast Mikhail Chekhov remembered that his brother planted the trees “precisely as a surgeon”.[10]  In fact, the garden seems to have resembled the typical gardens of Crimea as can be seen in a painting by Chekhov’s friend Isaak Levitan (1860-1900) from 1886. [11] There was neither a strong zonal structure nor a symmetrical axis in the garden. The garden-pathways bordered a multitude of subspaces that seem to have been without any hierarchy. Nevertheless, the laying out was far from being arbitrary. But what was the underlying idea of this design?

Cultural development and optimism of improvement

His friend Alexander Kuprin resumed that Chekhov had seen his garden as a symbol of progress and general cultivation. He quoted Chekhov:

“Before I came here all this was waste land and ravines, all covered with stones and thistles. Then I came and turned this wilderness into a cultivated, beautiful place. Do you know […] that in three or four hundred years all the earth will become a flourishing garden.”[12]

Although this points at the typical 19th century dream of progress and of entire cultivation Chekhov’s letters also indicated deep pessimism. His friend Ivan Bunin reported Chekhov meant to have proofs for a life after death one day and the other day was strongly convinced of the opposite. [13] We have to be aware of one-dimensional explanations.

Keeping a controllable distance

Derived from Chekhov’s tale “Man in A Case” spatial organization and a convenient distance to people  seem to have been of vital importance to the writer. In Moscow he had suffered from the overcrowded apartment of his family. In Melikhovo he built an annex he could escape to when his admirers beleaguered the dwelling-house. In Autka he often complained about a too small number of guests but also about too many of them: these two opposites both kept him from working. His garden, with its many subspaces, was composed to enable him to find the perfect distance at any time.

The house was designed as if it had been supplemented several times, and it had many doors, which made it easy to switch between in- and outside. Through the half-open spaces of the veranda, the balcony and the souterrain, the borderline between inner and outer space got permeable. Vertical green at the southern façade intensified this merger between dwelling-house and garden.

Chekhov also bought the little estates of Gurzuv and Kutchuk-Koj nearby, although this was not easy for him to afford. Forced to sell Kutchuk-Koj after a short time Gurzuv remained his hideaway when he was tired of his guests in Autka.

In 1901 Chekhov got married to the actress Olga Knipper. She worked in Moscow and stayed in Gurzuv when visiting her husband. His sister Masha remained the majordomo of Autka. This arrangement was not only due to the fact that Olga was indispensable at the theatre in Moscow, but also because Chekhov did not wish to see his wife every day. Already in 1895 he wrote in a letter to a friend:

“By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: everything must be as it has been hitherto—that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her … give me a wife who, like the moon, won’t appear in my sky every day.”[14]

The question of distance something he reflected a lot upon. In 1889 he wrote that one has to be “absolutely indifferent”,[15] for only the indifferent is able to see things clearly, to be fair and to work. This conviction is based on the philosophy of Marc Aurel which was a major guideline in Chekhov’s life.[16] In this regard Autka was part of a Chekhovian characteristic: the keeping of a controllable distance.

A symbol of paradise?

Soon Chekhov got sick of Yalta and felt uprooted from Moscow and its cultural life. Working in his garden was a kind of distraction from loneliness and the boredom of the province.

His beloved Melikhovo by this time was ruined: His sister Masha described the new owner of Melikhovo as an unscrupulous merchant forwood who would not shrink back from cutting down the linden-alley.[17] So by laying out the garden Chekhov also prepared his home to become a new Melikhovo for his family.

From December 1902 Chekhov worked on his last play, “the Cherry Orchard”, feeling depressed by loneliness and by a marriage crisis, while Olga felt guilty of a miscarriage and unaccepted by Masha. In the play “The Cherry Orchard” some of these facts reappear: A family of landholders must sell their property, containing a precious cherry orchard. The ruthless buyer wants to subdivide the estate and to uproot the trees. The family is reluctant to sell the estate because the garden symbolizes a happy past that they do not want to lose. For the mother of the family the garden also holds the memory of her deceased child. As she blames herself for his death she feels bound to keep the garden alive and with it the memory of her son.

Apparently the story was influenced by Chekhov’s own experiences. Surely, the destruction of the alley at Melikhovo played a role, as well as his desire for the past and maybe even the loss of the child he and Olga had strongly desired.

The Russian philologist Olga Spachil has explained the origins of Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” from the southern Russian and Ukraine folklore:  A cherry orchard – planted with cherry and other fruit-trees – symbolized the chasteness of a young woman and her security in her parent’s home. It also symbolized the desire for, and the meeting with, her bridegroom. For married women the cherry orchard symbolized the past. A belief originating from pre-Christian times is that the birds sitting in the fruit-trees hold the souls of the dead or bring news from home. In the 19th century, according to Spachil, it was quite widespread in southern Russia to bury unchristened children in the cherry orchard.

This complex mythologem passes on the paradise-motive as a place of desire and of the afterworld in significant aspects, that can be found in the garden of Autka:

  • a high number of fruit trees that according to historic pictures seem to have formed a little cherry orchard in the southern part of his garden.
  • a small stream flowed through Chekhov’s garden as in the traditionally imagined paradise garden
  • the funeral motive can be found in reality in the tartar graveyard close to Chekhov’s ground and imaginary in the memory of the unborn child
  • In the Ukrainian folklore an old man tries to lure a young woman with his wonderful cherry orchard. Several of Chekhov’s letters to Olga seem to refer to this traditional motive.

Chekhov’s garden in Autka has clearly been a reference for his considerations on the play “The Cherry Orchard”. Vice versa his fictional cherry orchard, its roots in the folklore and in the religious tradition can help us understand what Chekhov saw in his real garden.

Varied meanings or no meaning?

Why did Chekhov put so much of his energy into creating this paradise although he was aware that he would not live to see its zenith? Referring to Chekhov’s philanthropy alone occurs too simple, even more so as Chekhov’s literary gardens and garden-utopias as in “The Black Monk”, “My life”, “The New Villa”, ”Cherry Orchard”, “Gooseberries” and “Uncle Vanja” all collapse.

Autka rather seems to result out of a stoic view onto the world, the dualism of responsibility and callousness. In the paradise motive of Autka showed an existentialist “however”: Facing his near disappearance he was sure his work would not endure – he not even thought his literary opus would be read longer than seven years after his death. So in his last years Chekhov did not work primary to influence the society or the environment; he tried to form his character according to Marc Aurel’s “Meditations” because for Chekhov thus constituted a good life. His friend Ivan Bunin resumed: “Chekhov’s true, only hero – is the hopeless human being” [19]

Concerning his literary work, researchers speak of Chekhov’s “perspectivism”, [20] of the Reality that lies in the individual perspective. Likewise, no interpretation should be claimed exclusively right but rather as aspects of his garden idea. If we would get the chance to ask Chekhov about the “meaning” of his garden we might get the same kind of answer as his wife got when asking about the meaning of life:

You ask “What is life?” That is the same as asking “What is a carrot?” A carrot is a carrot and we know nothing more. [21]

Perspektivism in Preservation

Even if Chekhov himself in his desire for indifference would not care about the cultural worth of his garden today, it occurs important to me to keep the garden as authentic as possible. Not only because it is the living legacy of a great artist or because it manifests a background of his play “The Cherry Orchard” but even more because it makes central parts of Chekhov’s stoic approach towards life visible.

Directly after Chekhov’s death in 1904 his sister Masha made his house a private Museum. In 1921it was declared an official Chekhov-Museum and Masha became the first director. As she dedicated her life to the memory of her brother she changed as little as possible, but unlike the house the garden could not fall asleep. One of the most drastic interventions was the transforming of the stream into a concrete canal in order to avoid water erosion. The path system remained original. But of cause the vegetation has developed: Today you find hardly an original fruit tree in the garden. Some original conifers nearby the houses partly have reached enormous volumes and there are groups of original bamboo and cypress at the southern border. Most cherries and palms do not seem to be original. At the southern façade of the dwelling house there is an original Rosa banksiae with an impressive bloomage every year. The flowerbeds contain different roses, red tulips, stephanandra, arum, ivy, lesser periwinkle and much more. Still there is no planting-system in evidence.

Despite a number of photographs that show the garden in Anton’s and Masha’s time we have but little information about the original vegetation as a historic planting plan is missing. The most important step towards a garden-historic maintenance concept therefore is to let a field surveyor make a detailed as-completed drawing of the present. The second step should be to reconstruct at least three layers of time whose importance for preserving guidelines have to be traded against each other :

  1. the year 1904, which most clearly represents the garden designed by Chekhov. However, it does not represent the zenith of the vegetation.
  2. a second layer is to be suggested shortly before the conversion of the stream into a canal, presumably within the first decades of the 20th century, which would represent the artist’s – Anton’s- intentions probably most accurate.
  3. Moreover Masha’s work, done in 5 decades throughout two world wars and the Stalin-Era, must be valued as a cultural worth of its own. In the garden it represented the continuity of care by the Chekhov family with a third zenith around the 1950ies.

As these kinds of basic considerations have not been done yet I have discussed the importance of preserving guidelines with director Alexander Titorenko of the Chekhov House-Museum in 2012 and 2013 in Yalta. After the political overthrows of Crimea in 2014 it was technically not possible – whether by e-Mail, mail nor telephone – to get in touch again. As soon as possible I will try to renew the contact, to support the execution of the above mentioned first step financially and to discuss the next steps. But even before this it may be useful to think about certain aspects of preservation and reconstruction:

Although it may be possible to identify many of the original trees from the pictures it would be useless to plant f. e. fruit trees beneath the crowns of the original conifers. Valuing the original vegetable substance of utmost significance for the authenticity in general, in this special case its preservation is of even higher importance since the artist planted it all by himself and was extremely proud of that. But as most of the big original trees are located nearby the house it may be possible to replant the southern part of the garden according to the historic pictures with fruit trees again to make the Cherry Orchard /paradise Motive visible again.The situation is even more problematic when it comes to perennial herbs: Although we know a lot about what different roses and perennial herbs Chekhov planted, no historic planting plan exists.

As it is questionable if we will ever know exactly what the garden looked like I suggest using the garden around the new Museum buildings nearby as proving grounds: Here could be the place to plant our imaginations of Chekhov’s use of these plants to show possible past conditions without influencing the authentic historical ground. On the historical ground of the garden I plead for a very simple plantation with just one or two kinds of herbs that keep the ground covered without attracting attention. Instead of an arbitrary planting that could be found anywhere we should show our lack of knowledge.

Showing the absence, the bad spots in the garden would make the discontinuity of the place visible. It would not only be an honest handling with a garden-historic problem,  even more it could symbolize Chekhov’s desire for complete indifference, for callousness and absence.

[1] Chekhov 2010 : 179

[2] Tschechowa 2004 : 120. My translation

[3] Tschechowa 2004 : 202-203. My translation

[4] Tschechowa 2004 : 202-203. My translation

[5] Knipper 1998 : 67-68. My translation

[6] Čechov 1979b : 196. My translation

[7] Čechov 1979c : 200. My translation

[8] Čechov 1979c : 238. My translation

[9] Čechov 1979c : 249. My translation

[10]Chekhov 2010 : 213

[11] Levitan 1886

[12] Kuprin 2015

[13] Bunin 2004 : 59

[14] Čechov 1979b : 183. My translation.

[15] Čechov 1979a, p. 21. My translation.

[16] Urban 1997 : 12

[17] Tschechowa 2004 : 213

[18] Spachil 2004 : 139-147

[19] Bunin 2004, S. 77

[20] Leitner, 1997 : 58-64

[21] Knipper 1998 : 400. My translation