Feature: Chekhov’s Sakhalin

Perhaps no one will ever really know why, in 1890, Russian literary giant Anton Chekhov left his fame in Moscow and crossed a pre-Trans-Siberian Siberia to come and document the hellish scene of prison life on Sakhalin, which had become a penal colony eight years earlier.

Though cryptic in explaining his move, Chekhov neatly summed up his experiences in the fascinating, if tedious at times, book Sakhalin Island, which dryly notes population counts and colourfully describes prisoners chained to wheelbarrows, prisons crawling with cockroaches, freely wandering mass murderers and an overbearing sense of nihilism for many who were banished to the island for life.

Possibly fearing censorship, Chekhov kept a distance from overarching criticism, but wrote to show how a penal system is no way to develop a new region. He summed up, ‘If I were a convict, I would try to escape from here, no matter what.’

Chekhov’s name now seems forever linked with the island, though many locals seem to shrug their shoulders over the connection. No matter, his legacy lives on and he's remembered today in a museum that honours him in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk as well as a pretty square downtown where a rather fetching sculpture of the seated playwright now stands.