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‘The land of intolerable suffering’ Chekhov’s ‘Sakhalin Island’ 120 years later. A photoseries by Oleg Klimov

Source: Meduza
Photo: Oleg Klimov

Back in 1890, Anton Chekhov set out on a journey to the “prison island” of Sakhalin, to investigate the penal conditions in the Russian Far East and raise awareness about the inhumane treatment of inmates there. In 1895, he published the book Sakhalin Island, which The New Yorker recently named the best work of journalism written in the nineteenth century. When it was published, the book’s ability to show the striking contrast between the authorities’ official statements about the prisons and the grim reality of life in “the land of intolerable suffering” led to a public outcry, forcing the Tsarist government to initiate much-needed reforms.

120 years after the publication of Sakhalin Island, photographer Oleg Klimov retraced Chekhov’s steps, traveling to Sakhalin to assess its modern-day state.

“Penal servitude was abolished a hundred years ago, but I tried to find its remnants in each of us, including in myself, in order to try to answer that age-old Russian question: how, with such a divine natural landscape, does life end up so miserable?” says Klimov.

Excerpt from Anton Chekhov, The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin, translated by Luba and Michael Terpak, New York: Washington Square Press, 1967.

“Asia comes to an end. One could say the Amur flows into the Pacific Ocean here, if Sakhalin Island did not bar its passage.” Page 5

“For weeks at a time the sky is covered with leaden clouds and the desolate weather, which drags on from day to day, seems endless to the inhabitants. Such weather causes oppressive thoughts and drunkenness due to despondency.” Page 82.

“‘When, roughly, was the last snowfall?’ I asked. ‘In May,’ the shopkeeper replied. ‘That’s a lie, it was in June,’ said the doctor [...].’” Page 21.

“[...] about Sakhalin, they like to say there is no climate; they say there is ‘bad weather,’ or the island has the worst weather in all Russia.” Page 80.

“[...] coal is mined one verst from the post [in Aleksandrovsk]. I was in the mine. They led me through dark, damp corridors and courteously informed me about methods of production [...].” Page 104.

“When the convict’s term is completed he is free from work and is transferred to settler status. There are no delays connected with this. If the new settler has money and administrative patronage, he remains in Alexandrovsk or settles in the settlement that is most desirable to him, and he either buys or builds a house unless he acquired one while in penal servitude.” Page 214.

“Moreover, no matter how depraved and contemptible the convict is, he loves fairness above all, and if it does not exist among his superiors, then he becomes more and more malevolent and vicious with every passing year.” Page 108

“At night the husband returns home from work. He wants to eat and sleep, but the wife begins crying and nagging: ‘You have destroyed us, curse you!’” Page 100.

“There were illuminations during the evening. Until late at night soldiers, settlers, and prisoners milled around in throngs along the streets lit with lamps and Bengal lights. The prison was open.” Page 27.

“It is always quiet in Due. The ear soon becomes accustomed to the measured clang of chains, the roar of the surf, and the hum of the telegraph wires, and because of these sounds the impression of dead silence becomes even stronger.” Page 103.

“In one hut, consisting usually of a single room, you will find a convict family, and with it a soldier’s family, two or three convict boarders or guests. You will find some teenagers, two or three cradles in the corners, chickens, and a dog. On the street near the hut there are piles of garbage and puddles from slops. There is nothing to do, they have nothing, they are tired of talking and arguing; it is boring to go out on the street because everything is equally cheerless and dirty.” Page 100.

“When women in these families engage in prostitution, their cohabitants usually encourage them. A cohabitant regards a prostitute who earns a piece of bread as a beneficial domestic animal and respects her; that is, he himself prepares the samovar and is silent when she argues with him. She changes cohabitants frequently, selecting the one who is richer, or has vodka, or she changes them out of sheer boredom, for the sake of variety.” Page 240.

“If a child cries or is naughty, they scream at him maliciously, ‘Shut up, why don’t you croak!’ But no matter how they speak and how they complain, the most useful, the most necessary, and the most pleasant people on Sakhalin are the children, and the convicts themselves understand this well and regard them highly. They bring an element of tenderness, cleanliness, gentleness, and joy into the most calloused, morally depraved Sakhalin family.” Page 257.

“[...] but when politics are discussed he comes out of his shell and begins a serious exposition of Russian military power and speaks scornfully of the Germans and the English, whom he has never seen in his life. The story is told that when he was in Singapore en route to Sakhalin he wanted to buy his wife a silk shawl. He was told to exchange his Russian money for dollars, and became grossly insulted. ‘How do you like that!’ he said. ‘Do I have to exchange my Orthodox money for some kind of Ethiopian money?’ And the shawl was not purchased.” Page 21.

“Sakhalin’s chief wealth and its hope for the future, which may perhaps become auspicious and enviable, lies with the migratory fish, not the game animals, nor the coal, as some think. Some or perhaps all of the fry carried by the rivers into the ocean return annually to the mainland as migratory fish.” Page 272.

“[...] Baron Korf made a short speech, the words of which I still recall. ‘I am convinced that the “unfortunates” live better on Sakhalin than in any other place in Russia or even in Europe. In conjunction with this, much still remains to be done, and we are confronted with an endless road leading to their welfare.’ [...] His words of praise omitted any reference to hunger, habitual prostitution by women exiles, and terrible corporal punishments, but the audience was forced to believe him. In comparison with what had transpired five years ago, the present situation was almost the beginning of a golden age.” Page 27.

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