This book contains the complete text of "Sakhalin Island" [300 pages], Chekhov's treatise describing his visit in 1890 to the Russian penal colonies on Sakhalin Island, and "Across Siberia" [30 pages], a description of his journey across Siberia to Sakhalin. The book also includes a collection of letters that Chekhov wrote during the seven-month trip. A series of appendices provide information on the Tsarist penal system, books consulted by Chekhov in preparation for his journey, and related matters.

Chekhov begins by describing his trip across the Tatar Strait on the steamer Baikal and his arrival at Alexandrovsk, the largest settlement and administrative center of Sakhalin Island. In the first two-thirds of the book, the author describes his systematic survey of almost every Russian community on the island. The text combines a travel narrative, which includes bits of conversations and fine descriptive writing, with demographic data.

At the time of Chekhov's visit, there were approximately 10,000 convicts and exiles living on the island, along smaller numbers of indigenous Gilyak and Ainu. Chekhov indicates the number of households and population of each settlement, and its breakdown by penal status of residents.

There were three categories of residents: (1) prisoners (some, but not all of whom were confined to the prisons that existed in the larger settlements); (2) settled-exiles, who had completed their prison terms but had to remain for life on Sakhalin; and (3) peasants-in-exile, who were permitted to leave Sakhalin, but had to remain in Siberia. Army folk and the families who accompanied some convicts to Sakhalin constituted a fourth class--they were free to return to European Russia.

Chekhov eloquently describes the poverty and terrible living conditions in this inhospitable land, as well as providing snippets of local geography and history. The final one third of the book consists of chapters on social and economic conditions, daily life, morality, and the health status of the population.


Chekhov labored for three years on this book, which was more difficult for him to write than were any of his other works. He evidently surveyed many thousands of persons on Sakhalin, using a 12-item data collection card. (He claims to have surveyed them all, but in several places the text contradicts this statement.) Much of the demographic and social data does, in fact, appear in the text, but Chekhov simply could not bring himself to write a scientific treatise.

Thus, the book is a peculiar mixture of personal observation, anecdote, quantitative data, and social analysis. Interestingly, while Chekhov describes the horrendous prison conditions in lurid detail (e. g. the smell of the latrines), his prose remains cool and "Chekhovian" throughout. Chapter 23, which is based on medical records from the three hospitals on Sakhalin, presents a picture of morbidity and mortality among the convicts.

An excellent review of this book, written by Iain Bamforth, appeared in Poetry Nation Review, Manchester (1994). Bamforth is a Scottish physician-writer who practices in France. Open Workings, a collection of poems by Bamforth, is annotated in this database.


Translated from the Russian by Brian Reeve. "Sakhalin Island" was serialized by the periodical Russian Thought in 1893-1894 and first published in book form in 1895.


Ian Faulkner

Place Published

Cambridge, England



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