Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To E. P. Yegorov.

MOSCOW, December 11, 1891.


I write to explain why my journey to you did not come off. I was intending to come to you not as a special correspondent, but on a commission from, or more correctly by agreement with, a small circle of people who want to do something for the famine-stricken peasants. The point is that the public does not trust the administration and so is deterred from subscribing. There are a thousand legends and fables about the waste, the shameless theft, and so on. People hold aloof from the Episcopal department and are indignant with the Red Cross. The owner of our beloved Babkino, the Zemsky Natchalnik, rapped out to me, bluntly and definitely: “The Red Cross in Moscow are thieves.” Such being the state of feeling, the government can scarcely expect serious help from the public. And yet the public wants to help and its conscience is uneasy. In September the educated and wealthy classes of Moscow formed themselves into circles, thought, talked, and applied for advice to leading persons; everyone was talking of how to get round the government and organize independently. They decided to send to the famine-stricken provinces their own agents, who should make acquaintance with the position on the spot, open feeding centres, and so on. Some of the leaders of these circles, persons of weight, went to Durnovo to ask permission, and Durnovo refused it, declaring that the organization of relief must be left to the Episcopal department and the Red Cross. In short, private initiative was suppressed at its first efforts. Everyone was cast down and dispirited; some were furious, some simply washed their hands of the whole business. One must have the courage and authority of Tolstoy to act in opposition to all prohibitions and prevailing sentiments, and to follow the dictates of duty.

Well, now about myself. I am in complete sympathy with individual initiative, for every man has the right to do good in the way he thinks best; but all the discussion concerning the government, the Red Cross, and so on, seemed to me inopportune and impractical. I imagined that with coolness and good humour, one might get round all the terrors and delicacy of the position, and that there was no need to go to the Minister about it. I went to Sahalin without a single letter of recommendation, and yet I did everything I wanted to. Why cannot I go to the famine-stricken provinces? I remembered, too, such representatives of the government as you, Kiselyov, and all the Zemsky Natchalniks and tax inspectors of my acquaintance — all extremely decent people, worthy of complete confidence. And I resolved — if only for a small region — to combine the two elements of officialdom and private initiative. I want to come and consult you as soon as I can. The public trusts me; it would trust you, too, and I might reckon on succeeding. Do you remember I wrote to you? Suvorin came to Moscow at the time; I complained to him that I did not know your address. He telegraphed to Baranov, and Baranov was so kind as to send it to me. Suvorin was ill with influenza; as a rule when he comes to Moscow we spend whole days together discussing literature, of which he has a wide knowledge; we did the same on this occasion, and in consequence I caught his influenza, was laid up, and had a raging cough. Korolenko was in Moscow, and he found me ill. Lung complications kept me ill for a whole month, confined to the house and unable to do anything. Now I am on the way to recovery, though I still cough and am thin. There is the whole story for you. If it had not been for the influenza we might together perhaps have succeeded in extracting two or three thousand or more from the public.

Your exasperation with the press I can quite understand. The lucubrations of the journalists annoy you who know the true position of affairs, in the same way as the lucubrations of the profane about diphtheria annoy me as a doctor. But what would you have? Russia is not England and is not France. Our newspapers are not rich and they have very few men at their disposal. To send to the Volga a professor of the Petrovsky Academy or an Engelhardt is expensive: to send a talented and business-like member of the staff is impossible too — he is wanted at home. The Times could organize a census in the famine-stricken provinces at its own expense, could settle a Kennan in every district, paying him forty roubles a day, and then something sensible could be done; but what can the Russkiya Vyedomosti or the Novoye Vremya do, who consider an income of a hundred thousand as the wealth of Croesus? As for the correspondents themselves, they are townsmen who know the country only from Glyeb Uspensky. Their position is an utterly false one, they must fly into a district, sniff about, write, and dash on further. The Russian correspondent has neither material resources, nor freedom, nor authority. For two hundred roubles a month he gallops on and on, and only prays they may not be angry with him for his involuntary and inevitable misrepresentations. He feels guilty — though it is not he that is to blame but Russian darkness. The newspaper correspondents of the west have excellent maps, encyclopaedias, and statistics; in the west they could write their reports, sitting at home, but among us a correspondent can extract information only from talk and rumour. Among us in Russia only three districts have been investigated: the Tcherepov district, the Tambov district, and one other. That is all in the whole of Russia. The newspapers tell lies, the correspondents are duffers, but what’s to be done? If our press said nothing the position would be still more awful, you’ll admit that.

Your letter and your scheme for buying the cattle from the peasants has stirred me up. I am ready with all my heart and all my strength to follow your lead and do whatever you think best. I have thought it over for a long time, and this is my opinion: it is no use to reckon upon the rich. It is too late. Every wealthy man has by now forked out as many thousands as he is destined to. Our one resource now is the middle-class man who subscribes by the rouble and the half-rouble. Those who in September were talking about private initiative will by now have found themselves a niche in various boards and committees and are already at work. So only the middle-class man is left. Let us open a subscription list. You shall write a letter to the editors, and I will get it printed in Russkiya Vyedomosti and Novoye Vremya. To combine the two elements above mentioned, we might both sign the letter. If that is inconvenient to you from an official point of view, one might write in the third person as a communication that in the fifth section of the Nizhni Novgorod district this and that had been organized, that things were, thank God! going successfully and that subscriptions could be sent to the Zemsky Natchalnik, E. P. Yegorov, or to A. P. Chekhov, or to the editor of such and such papers. We need only to write at some length. Write in full detail, I will add something, and the thing will be done. We must ask for subscriptions and not for loans. No one will come forward with a loan; it is uncomfortable. It is hard to give, but it is harder still to take back.

I have only one rich acquaintance in Moscow, V. A. Morozov, a lady well-known for her philanthropy. I went to see her yesterday with your letter. I talked with her and dined with her. She is absorbed now in the committee of education, which is organizing relief centres for the school-children, and is giving everything to that. As education and horses are incommensurables, V. A. promised me the co-operation of the committee if we would start centres for feeding the school-children and send detailed information about it. I felt it awkward to ask her for money on the spot, for people beg and beg of her and fleece her like a fox. I only asked her when she had any committees and board meetings not to forget us, and she promised she would not. . . .

If any roubles or half-roubles come in I will send them on to you without delay. Dispose of me and believe me that it would be a real happiness to me to do at least something, for so far I have done absolutely nothing for the famine-stricken peasants and for those who are helping them.


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