“Why are you keeping a dog and a rooster tethered?” Anton Chekhov asked one of his interlocutors during a three-month stay on the Russian island that was then unknown to the public. “Here, in Sakhalin, everything is on a chain,” the host replied.
Lower down there stands a crumbling building, and not much further you can see the remains of another. In the background, there is a hill and the sea hitting it. Everything is covered with snow. The colour white dominates in these photos: in one of them the photographer managed to capture the snowstorm in the city, while in another you can see a woman struggling through snowdrifts reaching up to her knees. Here someone is fishing in a blowhole, over there a man is pushing wheelbarrows with coal. There is also an elderly man, in a rural setting, walking across a road that resembles a gutter surrounded by several-dozen-centimetres-high snowdrifts on both sides. This is what Sakhalin looks like today. With the size of an area similar to the Czech Republic, the island is situated on the eastern borders of Russia. Further, there is only Kamchatka. Even further, beyond the Pacific Ocean, the US begins (from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, it is closer to Honolulu than to Moscow).
Photographer Oleg Klimov prepared this photo report on the 120th anniversary of the publication of the book Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov. In 1890, the then 30-year-old writer went to the island and described the inhumane conditions in which the convicts were kept there. A few years ago, the editors of The New Yorker called this book “the best work of journalism written in the nineteenth century”, while complaining that it was unknown. After all, Chekhov is primarily the author of Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and outstanding – not only in terms of conciseness – short stories. Meanwhile, his little-known reportage could be considered The Gulag Archipelago of its time.
“We have tortured millions of people…”
“As a result of the experience of recent years, consisting in the Poles exiled to Siberia for the uprising of 1863 exerting a very detrimental influence, for the government in both political and moral terms, on the population there, the government issued a recent decree, allocating the island of Sakhalin, lying opposite the mouth of the Amur River, as a place of exile for political criminals. As a result of this decree, those convicted of participating in the conspiracy of nihilists will start to be transported to this island,” wrote the editors of the Kraj daily published in Kraków on 22nd February 1870.
This was the very beginning of the penal colony on the island of Sakhalin. Over the next 35 years, more than 30,000 male and female prisoners were brought here, not only those convicted of murder, but also ‘political’ prisoners deported by the tsar. The place seemed perfect in this respect. Both its location, which was supposed to reduce the possibility of escaping to zero (a miscalculation, because overcoming the ice-locked Strait of Tartary, for example, with a dog sled, was not a great challenge), as well as the harsh climate (even seven-month-long winters, with temperatures exceeding -30 degrees Celsius), and peripherality (eight time zones from Moscow) made up the image of hell at the end of the world. Whoever was sent to Sakhalin was afraid of everything – and most of all, of the unknown. “This is where Asia ends, and one could say that this is where the Amur River flows into the Great Ocean, if Sakhalin did not lie across it,” Chekhov wrote.
We will not resolve why the writer voluntarily set off on a long, three-month journey where no-one wanted to go (“You don’t come here voluntarily,” he heard from the sailor when he reached his destination). Biographers do not agree and the interested party himself gave various reasons. Sometimes he explained that it was about “the stagnation of the spirit felt especially in private life”, while other times he claimed that he wanted to “live for half a year completely differently than before”. In March 1890, a few weeks before the start of the journey, Chekhov said to the publisher, who complained that a talented writer was wasting his time because nobody cared about Sakhalin: “We tortured millions of people in prisons, they were tortured for nothing, thoughtlessly, in a barbaric way. We chased people in chains in the cold tens of thousands of versts, we infected them with syphilis, we corrupted them and multiplied criminals, and all of this was attributed to the drunken prison guards. Now the whole of cultural Europe knows that it is not the guards who are to blame, but all of us, but we do not care about it, it is uninteresting.”
Already then, he was a self-taught expert on the prison system in Tsarist Russia and, above all, a walking encyclopaedia containing information about the empire’s largest island. Perhaps he did not achieve his goal of reading everything that had been written about Sakhalin, but he still possessed impressive knowledge. To get the job done, he surrounded himself with what we would today call a team of researchers. He engaged friends and family: his sister leafed through newspapers and books in a library in Moscow, and his brother did the same in St. Petersburg. The writer moved around his apartment between piles of maps and books to help get to know Sakhalin.
The history of the island consists of both the history of the Ainu, Oroks and Nivkh people (formerly called Gilyak), who have always inhabited this piece of land, as well as the discoveries of Dutch, French and English sailors, alongside the remains of longer and shorter stays of Mongols, Chinese and Japanese. The latter, neighbours from the south, long considered Karafuto (as they called Sakhalin) part of their territory; they gave it up, although only for a moment, only in the mid-19th century, in return receiving the Kuril Islands from Russia.
It is impossible to say, therefore, that we are talking about a place that the world was not interested in, and yet for a very long time it had not been known what Sakhalin actually was. Chekhov describes other European researchers who, just a few decades earlier, proved that this was another peninsula, next to Kamchatka. The mistake came from the fact that although the Strait of Tartary (which is over 600-kilometres long) in the south is separated from the mainland by well over 200 kilometres, the further north you go the tighter it is – and in the narrowest place, the distance is just over seven kilometres. This is so little that half a century after Chekhov’s stay, Joseph Stalin began to build a tunnel connecting the island with the mainland (after the dictator’s death, construction was interrupted; today, Vladimir Putin wants to build a bridge in this place).
The Japanese learned the truth about Sakhalin the fastest. Already at the beginning of the 19th century, Mamiya Rinzō had sketched a map that showed an island. At that time, however, Japan was pursuing a policy of sakoku, or isolationism, so in Europe the achievements of the Japanese explorer remained unknown (although Chekhov mentions Rinzō).
The Russian writer came to the island with a plan to carry out what we would now call a census. Residents were asked, among others, about their age, religion, date of arrival and marital status, and whether they received any benefits. From the letters sent before the trip, it appears that the knowledge gained in this way was to be used to work on a history of medicine. This is another reason why the already-recognized author of short stories could decide to travel so far. As a practising physician, he resented himself for devoting too much time to literature and “behaving like a pig towards medicine”. The work created on the island was to finally change this.
As is known, nothing came out of the scientific ambitions, but it is difficult to consider Chekhov’s idea as a failure. The idea that the skeleton of the story about the penal colony would be made up of hard data obtained from the inhabitants gave the author a great excuse to move around the island, and forced him to talk to all the locals, resulting in invaluable knowledge about the community at that time. Chekhov looked into almost every hut and talked to almost all the inmates. Since in performing the duties of an enumerator, he simultaneously preserved the gaze of a reporter and the curiosity of an investigative journalist, he created a shocking work.
“Lower than the animal”
“Finally ninety. Prokhorov’s hands and legs are quickly untied and he is allowed to get up. The place where the beating took place is grey and purple from bloody haemorrhages and stained with blood. Prokhorov’s teeth are chattering, his face is yellow and sweaty, his eyes are rolling confusedly… When they give him drops, he bites the glass tightly. They poured water over his head and led him to the police station.” This is how the author of the reportage described the punishment by flogging, to which the vagabond Prokhorov vel Mylinkov was sentenced. The 90 lashes mentioned in the text were given to him for murder and he was to get additional ones for trying to escape. Flogging, sticks, tying to wheelbarrows for years (to prevent escapes), drunkenness, gambling, prostitution – Chekhov drew a picture of a brutal and deeply pathological system. Nobody knows why it worked the way it did.
It was the Far Eastern ‘heart of darkness’. Just as Joseph Conrad sailed, at about the same time, into the jungle across the Congo River, so Chekhov travelled across Sakhalin. The difference was that Conrad’s story was fuelled by the desire of the creators of the Congo Free State to get rich. What was the purpose of the torture on Sakhalin? Yes, already at the end of the 19th century, it was known that this piece of land could be of paramount geostrategic importance and that it was rich in natural resources (which is already certain today). Officials, looking at Australia’s example, planned to colonize the island and transform the prisoners into residents. Chekhov’s account, however, shows that all plans were drowning in a sea of bestiality. The climate meant that hardly anyone wanted to stay on Sakhalin after serving their sentence. There was no ‘tomorrow’ here. Just like in the legend that the writer heard shortly after his arrival. “When the Russians occupied the island and began to exploit the Gilyak, it was the shaman who cursed Sakhalin, predicting that it would be of no use for anyone. And so it happened.” Sakhalin was primarily a place of execution. It destroyed everyone.
This is perfectly illustrated by the situation of women. At that time, women prisoners were sent there; so were the partners of convicts who could not imagine a dozen or so years of separation. All of them, due to unemployment and poverty, ended up as prostitutes. “The local practice developed a certain way of treating the women convicts, probably existing in all the exiled colonies: seemingly a human being, a housekeeper, but at the same time a being standing lower even than a domestic animal,” Chekhov wrote.
The British writer and historian Robert Payne, referring to the guards and the prisoners, noted that the Russian writer describes “madmen taking advantage of madmen.” Of course, Chekhov did not equate the two, nor did he express indulgence for prisoners, often convicted of abominable crimes. But in him there was a longing for the principles that could turn the colony into a more civilized place.
The texts written in Sakhalin were first published in the monthly magazine Russian Thought, and only in 1895 were they published as a book. Shortly after this publication, Tsar Nicholas II convened a secret council to deal with the pathologies on the island. The penal colony started to be visited by inspections of state institutions; more writers also arrived there. The result was a verification and then better control of the guards, as well as the introduction of a ban on corporal punishment.
The penal colony was closed down after Chekhov’s death in 1905. Then the Russo-Japanese War broke out, after which the southern part of the island came under Japanese rule. Today, the writer is the most important figure in the history of Sakhalin. There are two museums dedicated to him there; his name was given to a hill located at an altitude of 1045m above sea level, as well as to a village in the south of the island.
Translated from the Polish by Agata Masłowska