Osip Braz, Portrait of Writer Anton Chekhov, 1898

Isaak Levitan, Portrait of Writer Anton Chekhov, 1885-86

Intermezzo 9: Zina

Zina’s in love with Chekhov. We met at the museum where she works: Anton Pavlovich’s house. The White Dacha has been going to the dogs ever since the Soviet collapse found it caught in the cultural crossfire between Russia and Ukraine. Three stories high, with its seven entrances and mix of round and rectangular windows, it’s a charming whimsy of a building. Zina was an excellent guide, situating Anton’s domesticity in the context of a life governed by kindness.

The elusiveness of happiness, the nostalgia for what cannot be: Over a supper of varenyky in a cosy restaurant, we spoke of ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, the only story Chekhov set in this town. Zina kept coming back to Anna on the pier, lingering after all the passengers have left, sniffing her flowers of welcome for no-one. What was she hoping to find, who was she hoping to see? All Chekhov’s genius, we agreed, lay in that lightness of touch.




̶ Do you have any idea, Sprague, how far you still are from the end?
̶ I do, Zina. And it’s only a girl like you, on a night like this, that allows me to go on.

The silence of her tongue gave way to the eloquence of her lips; in the light of present grace her doubt faded away: I’d whispered the words ‘complicated’ and ‘difficult’ in her ear, letting her know I’d caught her allusion to ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’.

Pyotr Nilus, Portrait of Writer Anton Chekhov, 1902