This collection arranges Chekhov's letters into three periods, each introduced by a short biographical essay: 1885-1890, the years during which Chekhov established himself as a writer; 1890-1897, which begins with his trip to Sakhalin Island and includes the years he spent living at Melikhovo; and 1897-1904, the final years during which his health declined, he rose to prominence as a playwright, and he married Olga Knipper.

In her general introduction, Lillian Hellman writes, "Chekhov was a pleasant man, witty and wise and tolerant and kind, with nothing wishywashy in his kindness, nor self-righteous in his tolerance, and his wit was not ill-humored. He would have seen right through you, of course, as he did through everybody, but being seen through doesn't hurt too much if it's done with affection." This image of Chekhov radiates from the letters collected in this volume.

Most of the letters are written to family members and a few close friends and associates, especially Alexei Suvorin, the editor of "New Times," a leading St. Petersburg newspaper; Maxim Gorki, the famous writer; and, later, the actress, Olga Knipper. The topics include family matters and business affairs; comments on his own writing and that of others; and his travels, especially the adventurous trip across Siberia to the penal colonies on Sakhalin Island in 1890.


This is a fine sourcebook for Chekhov's views regarding writing and the role of the artist in society. In a famous letter to Alexei Pleshcheyev, Chekhov writes that he does not belong to any movement or see himself as a social activist: "I would like to be a free artist--and that is all . . . . "

On the other hand, Chekhov was clear in these letters about maintaining his identity as a physician. While he never practiced medicine regularly, he seems to have treated patients intermittently throughout much of his life (e.g. peasants at Melikhovo; acquaintances). More importantly, however, he viewed his medical background as indispensable to his writing.

These letters also indicate Chekhov's pattern of denial with regard to his tuberculosis. In 1897 he writes to his brother Alexander, "Since 1884 I have been spitting blood every spring . . . . " Yet he never consulted a physician, nor attempted the then current forms of treatment (i.e. staying put in a warm climate), until his collapse in 1897. He also appears to have been a smoker.


Drawn fron Chekhov's complete letters published in Russia from 1944 to 1951. Translated by Sidonie Lederer.



Place Published

New York




Lillian Hellman