Chekhov House: a story with a happy ending

The Chekhov house, garden and archive in Yalta is a site of unique international cultural importance. Short of funding, neglected and hit by a hurricane, it faced a gloomy future. A group of British actors, scholars and Chekhov enthusiasts set up the Anthon Chekhov Foundation, which both provided money for urgent repairs and helped to raise awareness of the situation in the international media. The Chekhov House has been saved, reports one of the campaign organizers Rosamund Bartlett.

Rosamund Bartlett
3 November 2010

On 19 February 2010, the day on which Remembering Chekhov in Yalta was published by openDemocracy, Alla Golovacheva, the Director of the Chekhov House-Museum in Yalta, sent out a desperate call for help. Writing to me and my two colleagues at the Anton Chekhov Foundation here in England, Elena Michajlowska and Alexander Walsh, she told us of a “new disaster” which had befallen the “White Dacha”. Three days earlier, on 16 February, a hurricane had hit Yalta and torn 40 square metres of tiles from the modern building which stands next to the Chekhov house. The roof had already been leaking badly, which was cause enough for concern, but now it featured a gaping hole. Dozens of precious artefacts from the museum’s extensive archive (which form part of a permanent exhibition about Chekhov’s life) were now open to the elements. Help was urgently required, but at this point, Alla Golovacheva had no one to turn to but us, her previous pleas to Ukrainian and Russian authorities having fallen on deaf ears. After our successful week of fundraising at London’s Hampstead Theatre the previous month, the Anton Chekhov Foundation was in a position to pay for the urgent repairs needed. We were delighted to be able to help by footing the £30 000 repair bill for the replacement of the entire roof and the much-needed restoration of the building.

Chekhov's house, scaffolding

A grant of two million Ukrainian hryvna (around £160,000) from the Cabinet of Ministers and the government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is being used to pay for major structural repairs and restoration of the house

In May 2010, we were able to see the results of the restoration work when we visited Chekhov’s house together with an enthusiastic group who were part of our special anniversary fund-raising tour. Work was still going on, but by that time nearing completion. A lot had happened in the meantime, and it was during our visit in May that we learned that we had achieved the primary goal of our campaign. This was to raise  awareness in the international media about the problems facing Chekhov’s house, in the hope that either the Ukrainian or Russian authorities would step in to help. The physical fabric of the house had steadily been deteriorating since the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an abrupt end to central government funding, to the point that the museum was forced into partial closure in 2007. We believed and continue to believe that the Chekhov house, garden and archive in Yalta is a unique site of international cultural importance, deserving of state support.

Exhibition bldg, Chekhov House

Exhibitiom building repaired. The unique tradition of Soviet literary museums acting also as centres of academic research continues.

After promising not to neglect the house of the “great Ukrainian poet” as he fondly named Chekhov back in January, the new Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has been true to his word. The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and the government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea have now come forward to provide financial support for the full renovation of the White Dacha. A grant of two million Ukrainian hryvna (around £160,000) from the Cabinet of Ministers and the government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is being used to pay for major structural repairs and restoration of the house, the garden and outlying buildings. The US Ambassadors' Fund, meanwhile, has donated $40,000 for the restoration of the Chekhov family’s original fabrics and furnishings. The restoration project is being supervised by a newly appointed “crisis director”, Alexander Titorenko, enabling Alla Golovacheva to return to her work as a leading Chekhov scholar (the unique tradition of Soviet literary museums acting also as centres of academic research continues).

Chekhov and Gorky
Gorky has informed me that you two are planning a trip to Yalta. When will you be coming? There’s never any telling what Gorky will do; he keeps constantly changing his mind. Could you please write and tell me if you’re actually coming and when, etc., etc. I won’t  set foot out of Yalta until Easter. At Eastertime I may take a short trip to Kharkov, but then I’ll hole up in Yalta.

Anton Chekhov to Vladimir Posse, Yalta, February 29, 1900

Directors of the Anton Chekhov Foundation has been active in discussing the current restoration programme with the Ukrainian government and the US Embassy, and visited Yalta in October 2010 to monitor progress. The fact that the Ukrainian government has given the museum an improbably brief time-frame in which to process the funds and complete all the work provides the only sad (and rather Chekhovian) footnote to what is otherwise a story with a happy ending. For years Chekhov’s house languished in a state of neglect, and now suddenly major restoration work, requiring expertise and application, has to be carried out in a matter of months.

The weather In Yalta is marvelous, but for no reason at all it’s been raining these last two days; everything is muddy, and I have to put on my galoshes. There are centipedes creeping all over the walls as a result of dampness, and in my garden toads and young crocodiles are leaping about. Your gift, the green reptile in the flower pot, is now sitting in the garden soaking up the sun.

Letter to Olga Knipper, September 3, 1989

We have been touched by the generosity of all the Chekhov enthusiasts around the world who responded to our fundraising appeal, which we launched in November 2008 with the help of Pushkin House in London and support from the American businessman and patron of the arts Maurice Pinto. People contributed in appropriately Chekhovian ways to our campaign. A group in Australia donated the entire box-office takings of two stagings of Chekhov’s hilarious one-act play The Proposal, while one supporter in Sussex had the inspired idea of sending us the proceeds from selling jars of gooseberry jam at a local production of Ivanov (in which it features prominently). Our Trustee Prunella Scales kindly agreed to read some Chekhov stories at a fund-raising event held in a beautiful garden in Blackheath on a summer evening, and we also received support from Caroline Blakiston, the first actress to play Chekhov in Russia - in Russian.  Help has come from Harvey Pitcher and Patrick Miles, doyens of Chekhov scholarship in Great Britain, from pupils at Eltham College, who donated the proceeds of a school disco, and also from children at the Chekhov Russian School in Croydon. Ala Osmond at Exeter International Travel put together a superb programme for our tour to the Crimea in May (which was so successful it will be repeated in 2011), and we are particularly grateful to Michael Pennington.

Dining room, Chekhov House

Dining room,  Chekhov House: Anton Chekhov Foundation will continue to support the museum and stay in close contact with staff in the future.

An untiring supporter of the campaign since its launch, he was instrumental in producing and hosting our week of sell-out shows at the Hampstead Theatre. And it is thanks to the wonderful performances of our cast for the week (which included Richard Eyre, David Hare, Michael Frayn, William Boyd, Lynne Truss, Eileen Atkins, Miriam Margolyes, Harriet Walter, Rosamund Pike and Simon Russell Beale), all of whom generously gave up their time to take part, not to mention the infectious enthusiasm of our audiences (some of whom showed their love of Chekhov by coming every night), that Evgeny Lebedev felt moved to match the box-office takings and give us real cause to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth.

The Anton Chekhov Foundation has enjoyed working with museum staff at the White Dacha towards achieving the campaign goal. We will continue to support the museum and stay in close contact with staff in the future, but will now concentrate on finding new ways of honouring the artistic, ecological and humanitarian legacy of Anton Chekhov. 

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