Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To A. F. Koni.

PETERSBURG, January 16, 1891.

DEAR SIR, ANATOLY FYODOROVITCH,

I did not hasten to answer your letter because I am not leaving Petersburg before next Saturday. I am sorry I have not been to see Madame Naryshkin, but I think I had better defer my visit till my book has come out, when I shall be able to turn more freely to the material I have. My brief Sahalin past looms so immense in my imagination that when I want to speak about it I don’t know where to begin, and it always seems to me that I have not said what was wanted.

I will try and describe minutely the position of the children and young people in Sahalin. It is exceptional. I saw starving children, I saw girls of thirteen prostitutes, girls of fifteen with child. Girls begin to live by prostitution from twelve years old, sometimes before menstruation has begun. Church and school exist only on paper, the children are educated by their environment and the convict surroundings. Among other things I have noted down a conversation with a boy of ten years old. I was making the census of the settlement of Upper Armudano; all the inhabitants are poverty-stricken, every one of them, and have the reputation of being desperate gamblers at the game of shtoss. I go into a hut; the people are not at home; on a bench sits a white-haired, round-shouldered, bare-footed boy; he seems lost in thought. We begin to talk.

I. “What is your father’s second name?”

He. “I don’t know.”

I. “How is that? You live with your father and don’t know what his name is? Shame!”

He. “He is not my real father.”

I. “How is that?”

He. “He is living with mother.”

I. “Is your mother married or a widow?”

He. “A widow. She followed her husband here.”

I. “What has become of her husband, then?”

He. “She killed him.”

I. “Do you remember your father?”

He. “No, I don’t, I am illegitimate. I was born when mother was at Kara.”

On the Amur steamer going to Sahalin, there was a convict with fetters on his legs who had murdered his wife. His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together. I remember I was at a funeral in Sahalin. Beside the newly dug grave stood four convict bearers ex officio; the treasury clerk and I, in the capacity of Hamlet and Horatio, wandering about the cemetery; the dead woman’s lodger, a Circassian, who had come because he had nothing better to do; and a convict woman who had come out of pity and had brought the dead woman’s two children, one a baby, and the other, Alyoshka, a boy of four, wearing a woman’s jacket and blue breeches with bright-coloured patches on the knees. It was cold and damp, there was water in the grave, the convicts were laughing. The sea was in sight. Alyoshka looked into the grave with curiosity; he tried to wipe his chilly nose, but the long sleeve of his jacket got into his way. When they began to fill in the grave I asked him: “Alyoshka, where is your mother?” He waved his hand with the air of a gentleman who has lost at cards, laughed, and said: “They have buried her!”

The convicts laughed, the Circassian turned and asked what he was to do with the children, saying it was not his duty to feed them.

Infectious diseases I did not meet with in Sahalin. There is very little congenital syphilis, but I saw blind children, filthy, covered with eruptions — all diseases that are evidence of neglect. Of course I am not going to settle the problem of the children. I don’t know what ought to be done. But it seems to me that one will do nothing by means of philanthropy and what little is left of prison and other funds. To my thinking, to make something of great importance dependent upon charity, which in Russia always has a casual character, and on funds which do not exist, is pernicious. I should prefer it to be financed out of the government treasury.

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