Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Anton Chekhov and the Sakhalin Penal Colony

Michael Bloor
United Kingdom

In the nineteenth century the Czarist Government wanted to create an Arctic Australia by establishing a penal colony on Sakhalin Island, off the eastern coast of Siberia some five thousand miles from European Russia. There convicts who had served out their sentences would be obliged to stay as settlers, albeit in a very different new home from that found in Australia’s Botany Bay. In 1890, to the amazement of his family and friends, Dr. Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) resolved to travel to the island to conduct what nowadays would be called a community medicine research project, for a MD thesis at the University of Moscow.

His motivation remains obscure. Middle-class Russians of Chekhov’s generation had an honourable tradition of civic responsibility, and the success of his plays and short stories had already earned him enough money to support his family and finance his journey. But Chekhov was already ill from tuberculosis and the ten-week journey to Sakhalin would be very arduous (there was as yet no Trans-Siberian Railway). The climate of the island was hardly salubrious; and it was said that Sakhalin had no climate, just bad weather. The survey work he undertook entailed travel to remote settlements and sometimes staying in very primitive accommodation. Sakhalin is an enigmatic episode in an enigmatic life.

The account he wrote of Sakhalin, published as a book because the censor banned its serialisation in a journal (Chekhov, 2013 [1895]), is quite unlike any of his other writings. In its barest outline, it is a community survey. Within three months he completed over ten thousand individual data cards (still extant in Moscow’s Lenin Library) on the convicts and exiled settlers whom he had interviewed, he transcribed and aggregated all the parish death records, visited all the island prisons, went underground into the coal-mine worked by four hundred prisoners, visited all the island medical facilities, worked briefly in the outpatient clinic, and gathered what anthropological information he could on the Gilyaks and the Aino—the remnant native populations of the island.

But his Sakhalin Island study is much more than a pioneer community medicine study. Chekhov’s masterly plays are performed more often than any other dramatist except Shakespeare; and his short stories—many of them on medical themes—have been translated and admired across the globe. The Sakhalin study is the work of a great writer who consciously chose to be a social scientist and investigative journalist—a writer whose gifts of description and empathetic understanding shine through the journalism and the science.

His descriptions of living conditions on the island have a stark elegance, as when he writes about the bugs and cockroaches in one house: “the walls and ceilings seemed to be covered in funeral crape, moving as if in a wind.” He had a dramatist’s ear for dialogue:

‘Why are your dog and your cockerel tied up?’ I would ask a householder. ‘Here on Sakhalin everything’s chained up,’ he’d reply, ‘It’s that sort of place.’ 

His sardonic observations convey the life of the penal colony more pointedly than his statistics: one of the new settlements was named after a prisoner governor who had been assassinated by a prisoner because of his cruelty—Chekhov merely observed that the prisoner’s fellow-convicts managed to collect sixty roubles in small change as a thank-you gift to his murderer.

He was coruscating in his description of the penal medical services—the prison dispensary with no medicines, wounds bound with dirty rags, mentally ill patients housed along with syphilitic patients, the outpatient clinic in which he practiced with “no washbasin, no balls of cotton wool, no decent scissors, […] not even water of sufficient quantity,” and scalpels too blunt to lance a patient’s boil. “The local hospital system has fallen behind civilization by at least two hundred years.” But he also writes with great sensitivity and understanding of human suffering, for example when mentioning a convict who was formerly a priest:

“I do not know why he had been sent to Sakhalin, and I did not ask him about it either; when a man who, not so very long ago, was called ‘Father’ and ‘the Reverend Gentleman,’ and whose hand was kissed by everyone, is standing to attention in front of you dressed in a pitiful threadbare coat, it’s not his offence you think about.”

As the critic and fellow short story writer V S Pritchett observed, such silences and reticences were characteristic of both Chekhov’s literary style and his personality: a gregarious man who was entirely self-sufficient.

These literary touches were evidently unappreciated by the examiners of his MD thesis; and he failed. But there was more than sufficient factual detail in Chekhov’s study to rouse the public conscience. He documented the overcrowding and the insanitary conditions of the various island prisons. Prisoner accommodation would comprise large common halls, with a long plank sleeping platform down the middle of the hall, where the prisoners slept cheek by jowl, the healthy beside the infected. No wonder that when Chekhov compiled mortality tables for the island he found that tuberculosis was “the most common and most dangerous element”—a finding that must have affected him deeply as a fellow-sufferer. The system of communal halls (with seventy to a hundred and seventy convicts per hall) meant that it was impossible to keep the cells clean and tidy, so they were covered in filth. Bugs and lice were everywhere. The latrines were poor, and in the Kosov prison there were no latrines at all, the prisoners being let out in batches to relieve themselves in the street.

He documented the abuses of the administration: the co-option of prisoners by officials to act as unpaid servants and of women prisoners as paramours. Chekhov, himself the grandson of a serf, described this as “serfdom.” The coal mine where many prisoners were set to work was owned by a private company contracted to pay the government for the convicts’ labour, but Chekhov discovered that no payments were ever made. Punishments were severe. In one prison, the most hardened criminals were kept chained to wheelbarrows. Chekhov, who never forgave or forgot the savage beatings of his own childhood, steeled himself to witness the punishment of a failed escapee, but could not stomach the sight of the full ninety lashes that were administered.

The administration of the settlements of the ex-convicts was also found wanting. Many of the chosen sites for settlement were unsuitable for cultivation because of poor soil or vulnerability to flooding. Too many settlers were sent to the settlements, resulting in demoralising overcrowding and epidemics. Basic sanitary precautions were not followed and settlers got their water from ditches. The children of both settlers and of convicts (families were allowed to accompany prisoners transported to the island) were a particular concern of Chekhov’s, as they were neglected by the administration. On his return to Europe, Chekhov organised the dispatch of thousands of books to the Sakhalin schools.

Chekhov’s book on Sakhalin was published in 1895 and immediately generated great public interest and newspaper comment. A government commission was dispatched to Sakhalin to investigate matters the following year. Any resulting ameliorations on the island would however have been short-lived. Chekhov died at the age of forty-four in 1904, a year before Japan seized the southern part of Sakhalin in the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese were soon importing tens of thousands of Koreans as forced labourers in Sakhalin’s coal mines, and somewhat later, across mainland Siberia and the northern wastes, Stalin created the gulags—a regime of penal colonies that made Chekhov’s Sakhalin look like a summer camp. Elsewhere, in 1895 (the same year as the publication of Chekhov’s book), Captain Dreyfus was convicted on a trumped-up charge of spying and sent to the Devil’s Island penal colony, which the French Government did not finally close this until 1953.

The Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote that “an evil once recognised is halfway to its solution,” but she lived in a more optimistic age. Nevertheless, Chekhov’s only work of non-fiction is much more than an interesting early community medicine survey: it is a quiet, determined, and skilfully reported testimony to the need of human decency. Chekhov tried to be objective, but he never claimed to be detached.


  1. Chekhov, Anton (2013 [1895]) Sakhalin Island, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

MICHAEL BLOOR is a retired sociologist who worked for more than twenty years as a research scientist for the UK’s Medical Research Council. Latterly, he was a professorial fellow at Cardiff University’s Seafarers International Research Centre, where his research field was seafarers’ health and safety.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2015 – Volume 7, Issue 4

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