Anton Chekhov was born on 29 January 1860, the third of six surviving children, in Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov in southern Russia. His father, Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov, the son of a former serf, ran a grocery store. A director of the parish choir, devout Orthodox Christian, and physically abusive father, Pavel Chekhov has been seen by some historians as the model for his son’s many portraits of hypocrisy.12 Chekhov’s mother, Yevgeniya, was an excellent storyteller who entertained the children with tales of her travels with her cloth-merchant father all over Russia.1314 “Our talents we got from our father,” Chekhov remembered, “but our soul from our mother.”15 In adulthood, Chekhov criticised his brother Alexander’s treatment of his wife and children by reminding him of Pavel’s tyranny:
Let me ask you to recall that it was despotism and lying that ruined your mother’s youth. Despotism and lying so mutilated our childhood that it’s sickening and frightening to think about it. Remember the horror and disgust we felt in those times when Father threw a tantrum at dinner over too much salt in the soup and called Mother a fool.1617
Chekhov attended a school for Greek boys, followed by the Taganrog gymnasium, now renamed the Chekhov Gymnasium, where he was kept down for a year at fifteen for failing a Greek exam.18 He sang at the Greek Orthodox monastery in Taganrog and in his father’s choirs. In a letter of 1892, he used the word “suffering” to describe his childhood and recalled:
When my brothers and I used to stand in the middle of the church and sing the trio “May my prayer be exalted”, or “The Archangel’s Voice”, everyone looked at us with emotion and envied our parents, but we at that moment felt like little convicts.19
In 1876, Chekhov’s father was declared bankrupt after over-extending his finances building a new house,20 and to avoid the debtor’s prison fled to Moscow, where his two eldest sons, Alexander and Nikolay, were attending university. The family lived in poverty in Moscow, Chekhov’s mother physically and emotionally broken.21 Chekhov was left behind to sell the family possessions and finish his education.
Chekhov remained in Taganrog for three more years, boarding with a man called Selivanov who, like Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, had bailed out the family for the price of their house.22 Chekhov had to pay for his own education, which he managed by—among other jobs—private tutoring, catching and selling goldfinches, and selling short sketches to the newspapers.23 He sent every ruble he could spare to Moscow, along with humorous letters to cheer up the family.23 During this time, he read widely and analytically, including Cervantes, Turgenev, Goncharov, and Schopenhauer;2425 and he wrote a full-length comedy drama, Fatherless, which his brother Alexander dismissed as “an inexcusable though innocent fabrication.”26 Chekhov also enjoyed a series of love affairs, one with the wife of a teacher.23
In 1879, Chekhov completed his schooling and joined his family in Moscow, having gained admission to the medical school at Moscow University
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