Chekhov House-Museum in Yalta – “White Dacha”
History of the House-Museum
The following account is taken from the epilogue to Rosamund Bartlett, Chekhov: Scenes from a Life (London: Free Press, 2004), which describes the fate of Chekhov’s house in Yalta in the 20th century, how it was eventually turned into a museum, and its post-Soviet predicament, which has only been exacerbated since the time of writing. (Chapters 9 and 11 of the same biography discuss Chekhov’s move to Yalta, his acquisition of the house, and his day-to-day life while living in it.)
…The preservation of the White Dacha in the twentieth century was due to the tireless dedication of Chekhov’s sister Maria. She had been used to showing the house to curious admirers even before Chekhov was dead, and it became such a famous landmark that it was featured on Yalta postcards. Chekhov had bequeathed the White Dacha to his sister in his will, and it was Maria who ensured the interior of the house was left precisely as it was when her brother left it in May 1904, hoping to return. She could not bear to change anything, and moved permanently with her elderly mother to Yalta after the Revolution. Evgeniya Yakovlevna died in 1919, and was buried in Yalta.
Maria Pavlovna became the first director of the memorial museum established in the White Dacha in 1921, and undertook a hazardous trip to Moscow that year in order to ensure the safety of the Chekhov archive, which she had left in a safe. The train journey took her three weeks. Only by noticing a little boy reading “Vanka” in the cramped compartment she was travelling in, and by explaining who she was did she save herself from being thrown off the train as a bourgeois. But these were difficult times. The house was searched many times during the Civil War, and at one point an order was even put out for Maria Pavlovna’s arrest. Her younger brother Misha later moved down to Yalta in order to help in preparing a catalogue for the museum, and when he died in 1936 he was buried next to their mother, as Maria herself would be in 1957, having lived to the age of 94. By the time of her death, the White Dacha had survived an earthquake, two and a half years of Nazi occupation, and damage caused by the final bomb raid which was the Luftwaffe’s parting gift in 1944. Faithful to the cause, Maria Pavlovna had refused to be evacuated during the War; she put up pictures of the German dramatist Hauptmann on the wall but refused point blank to let a German officer take up residence in her brother’s rooms. As a result, nothing went missing.
Before the beginning of the Second World War, the museum had received some forty thousand visitors, and was one of the first cultural institutions in the Crimea to start functioning again when the Nazi occupation ended. The Museum was attracting up to two thousand visitors a day up until the early 1990s, but by the beginning of the 21st century, attendance was down to twenty five thousand a year. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Crimea became part of an independent Ukraine, the fate of museums in the region which celebrated Russian cultural achievements was suddenly put into doubt. They had previously been the recipients of generous funding by the Soviet government, but who would be responsible now for their upkeep, and where would the money come from? The Chekhov Museum in Yalta now falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture of the CrimeanAutonomousRepublic, whose budget is extremely limited. The seriousness of the problem may be gauged from the fact that in 1999 there simply were no longer any funds to pay for professional security services. The director of the museum, Gennady Shalyugin, was forced at one point to invite the television cameras to film him patrolling the museum himself with his dog (a dachsund of course). This prompted the Moscow News reporter wittily to suggest a title for a new story: “The Gentleman with the Little Dog”. These were indeed black days for the White Dacha, as another journalist remarked.
When President Putin visited the White Dacha with Leonid Kuchma, the Ukrainian President, and their respective wives during his state visit on 4 May 2003, it seemed that perhaps help was nigh: no Russian head of state had ever visited the museum before. Gorbachev, it is true, had thought about it once when he was holidaying down the road on the Crimean coast (which is where he was when power was wrested from him in August 1991). The museum’s staff were instructed to make preparations and awaited his arrival all day, but in the end Mikhail Sergeyevich decided to take Raisa to Alupka instead. Preparations for the presidential visit in 2003 involved the inevitable heightening of security measures in the area – a costly exercise – but the irony of this was clearly lost on Putin and Kuchma, who were presented with a personally addressed letter of appeal:
Tolstoy called Chekhov, in whose veins flowed Ukrainian blood (his grandmother Efrosinia Shimko was Ukrainian), “the most Russian writer”. Chekhov’s work is the national property of both the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. Concern for the preservation of in Yalta is the cultural duty of both governments, but it is a duty that is not being fully carried out. Chekhov’s “White Dacha” is subject to various damaging processes. This is leading to the of the deterioration of the building, which is a hundred years old, to constant hydrological problems, and damage caused by leaks when it rains. During the winter period, the temperature in Chekhov’s house does not rise above 10°, which in view of the high humidity is detrimental to the preservation of the exhibits. The building which houses the literary exhibition is in a state of collapse. For five months there has been no money to payfor security and the burglar alarm has had to be switched off because of debts. The museum’s collection, which includes valuable canvases by Levitan worth tens of thousands of dollars, is being abandoned to the whim of fate… Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich and Leonid Danilovich! 2004 will mark the centenary of the death of Russia and Ukraine’s great son Chekhov. Resolving the urgent problems of the ChekhovMuseum, albeit a hundred years after writer’s death, would be the best proof that your meetings in Yalta were truly of major significance.
The Presidents left fulsome thanks in the Visitors Book – Putin even thoughtfully presented the museum with a book about national handicrafts and left his visiting card – but no money.