Chekhov at Moscow University
A Life by David Magarshack.
Moscow with its cobbled, humpbacked streets, its rich mansions and wooden hovels, its drab churches which filled the air with the sound of bells, its fire-stations with their tall towers on which two look-out men were constantly watching for the first signs of smoke, its theatres and amusement places, its markets and shops, its horse-trams and cabs, its cheap pubs and magnificent restaurants, its hotels and lodging houses, its daily and periodical press, its civil servants, students, writers, actors, artists, wealthy businessmen, shopkeepers, shop assistants, errand boys, factory workers, water carriers. house-porters, beggars and prostitutes — that was the human scene, rich in character and incident, which provided Chekhov with his material for the hundreds of stories and articles he was to begin writing even before he had time to familiarize himself with it. Moscow had fascinated him during his first visit in 1877, and it fascinated him even more two years later when he plunged into its life with the zest and enthusiasm of a nineteen-year-old student who believed in seeing and experiencing everything for himself. But Moscow also gave him his first shock that removed the romantic spell the city had cast upon him and made him see it in its true light. It was his visit to the university to fill up the necessary forms for his admission to the medical faculty that brought him down to earth. 'Anton . Michael records, 'did not know Moscow very well and it was I who took him to the university. We entered a small dirty room with a low ceiling, full of tobacco smoke and crowded with young people. Anton apparently expected something grand from a university, and the place in which he found himself produced a far from pleasant impression on him.' Recalling his first impression of Moscow university ten years later, Chekhov wrote in A Boring Story: 'And there are the gloomy, battered gates of the university; the bored caretaker in his sheepskin coat, a broom, heaps of snow...
On an inexperienced boy who has just arrived from the provinces and who imagines that a temple of learning is a real temple such gates cannot produce a healthy impression. Indeed, the dilapidated condition of the university buildings, the gloomy corridors, grimy walls, bad light, and the depressing stairs, coat-stands and benches have undoubtedly played an important role in the history of Russian pessimism.'