Chekhov’s single largest work is not a play or a collection of short stories, but an account of the most notorious penal colony in Tsarist Russia. In 1890, aged 30, coughing the tubercular blood he knew would kill him; he travelled for 3 months, across Russia and beyond Siberia to the penal island of Sakhalin. Once there, he collected data from 10,000 prisoners, exiles, prison officers and governors. Sakhalin was used for long term, hard labour convicts who, once their sentence was served, were never allowed back into Russia. Often wives and children would follow. Chekhov’s account is poetic in its description of the island, frequently humorous and biting, but as one would expect, forensic and dispassionate in describing conditions on the colony and the dehumanizing effects of its brutality, cruelty and depravation.
The book is a documentary, travel book, census, sociological and medical study, polemic, and a work of literary genius, full of human detail, appalling vignettes and scientific analysis.. He describes the incidence of diseases; TB, syphilis, diphtheria, scurvy, progressive paralysis and marasmus, domestic violence and suicide. A son of a convict, Dmitry Gerof, later joined Scott’s Antarctic expedition and was one of the men that found the frozen bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. The aim of this project is to take us back to Sakhalin, to gain new insights into one of the greatest writers in literature. Sakhalin consumed years of his short career and probably reduced his lifespan. As he explores how depravity corrupts all exposed to it, we begin to understand his motivation and how Sakhalin informed his other, more famous, work.
Chasm of Sorrow is supported by The Wellcome Trust and is a collaboration between Artist Andrew Dawson, neuroscientist Jonathan Cole, Marius Turda, a medical historian and Chekhov’s biographer, Donald Rayfield with the support of the Bristol Old Vic theatre.
The project will culminate in a theatrical workshop looking at a dramatic adaptation of the book. This, and an accompanying exhibition, will explore Chekhov’s relevance today as pioneering epidemiologist and biomedical historian, and how his experience in this penal colony influenced his subsequent, more famous, literary output.