April 23, 2020

Dr. Anton Chekhov and the Typhus Epidemic

Dr. Anton Chekhov and the Typhus Epidemic
Anton Chekhov Osip Braz (1898)

In 1887, stories no sooner rose into Chekhov’s consciousness than it seemed he wrote them down and sent them off to newspapers and popular journals. He would publish fifty-three short stories this year. He was young (twenty-seven), he was popular, he was great. He was still practicing medicine.

“Doctors risked cholera and diphtheria from those they tried to save,” writes Donald Rayfield, one of Chekhov’s biographers. “Patients would drag Anton to the outskirts of Moscow on any pretext. Even those who knew him did not think twice about calling him out.” On March 8, he took the train to St. Petersburg to see his friend and publisher Aleksey Suvorin and his older brother Alexander. The latter had beckoned him there to treat his wife for typhus.

On March 17, home in Moscow, Chekhov wrote to a friend, the writer Maria Kiseleva, about his trip, which had been miserable, but he realized, as the proverb had it, there’s “no bad without good” (но и на ней оправдалась поговорка, что нет худа без добра). He had talked to a textbook publisher in Petersburg about Kiseleva’s book, which he now encouraged her to publish as soon as possible. As for himself, not only had he received “a big advance” from Suvorin, but Suvorin was publishing a new book of his tales. Chekhov, not one to crow, actually crowed: “Petersburg recognizes only one writer right now: me!”

The letter’s cheeriness, as in some of Chekhov’s stories, suddenly drops off: “Petersburg impressed me as a city of death.” He continued: “I went there with a frightened imagination; on the way, I encountered two coffins, and at my brother’s there was typhus.” Death was everywhere he went. He saw children dying in agony from croup; he went to tend an older friend, the writer Dmitry Grigorovich, sat by his bedside for two and a half hours and found himself “cursing the whole time my worthless medicine.”

Dispirited, he remarked to Kiseleva, “True, one could start drinking. However, they say everything is usable in belle lettres.” Indeed. By March 21, Chekhov had finished the 1,850-word “Тиф” and sent it to St. Petersburg, where it was published in the Petersburg Gazette on March 23.

—Bob Blaisdell


Young Lieutenant Klimov was riding in the smoking car on the post train from Petersburg to Moscow. Opposite him sat an older man with a clean-shaven skipper’s face, by all appearances a rich Finn or Swede, who the whole way was sucking on a pipe and going on about one and the same topic:

“Gah, you are an officer! I have a brother who is an officer too, only he is a sailor… He is a sailor and is stationed at Kronstadt. Why are you going to Moscow?”

“I’m stationed there.”

“Gah! You are a family-man?”

“No, I live with my aunt and sister.”

“My brother, too, is an officer, a sailor, but he is a family man. He has a wife and three kids. Gah!”

In surprise at something, the Finn smiled widely and idiotically when he exclaimed, “Gah!” and every now and again puffed his stinky pipe. Klimov, to whom it was sickening and wearying to answer questions, hated him with all his soul. He daydreamed about how good it would be to rip the raspy pipe from his hand, toss it under the stuffed seat, and drive the Finn away into another car. “Disgusting people these Finns… and Greeks!” he thought. “Absolutely worthless, good for nothing, rotten people, they’re only taking up space on the planet. What use are they?”

And the thought of Finns and Greeks produced something like nausea throughout his entire body. For comparison, he wanted to think about the French and Italians, but the memory of those peoples somehow only evoked images of organ-grinders, naked women, and the foreign oleographs that hung over the dresser at his aunt’s house.

The officer didn’t feel right at all. His arms and legs somehow didn’t fit on the seat, despite the whole seat being available; his mouth was dry and sticky, and his head was filled with a heavy fog. His thoughts, it seemed, roamed not only through his mind but out beyond his skull, among the seats and the people shrouded in the nighttime haze. Through his head-sludge, as if it were in a dream, he heard a murmur of voices, the knocking of wheels, the clomping of doors. Bells, the conductor’s whistling, passengers rushing along the platform, resounded more often than usual. Time passed swiftly, unnoticeably, and so it seemed as if the train was stopping at a new station every minute, and metallic voices floated into the carriage:

“Mail ready?”


It seemed that the stoker came in and looked at the thermometer too often, and that the noise of the trains passing and the thundering of wheels over the bridges was never-ending. The noise, the whistles, the Finn, the tobacco smoke, all of which meddled with the threatening and foggy blinking images – the shape and character of which a healthy person would not remember – were such that Klimov was crushed by an unbearable nightmare.

In terrible misery, he raised his heavy head, glanced at the lamp, in the rays of which circled shadows and foggy splotches and wanted to ask for water, but his dehydrated tongue could barely move, and he scarcely had the strength to answer the Finn’s questions. He tried as much as possible to lie down and sleep, but he had no luck; the Finn several times fell asleep, woke up and smoked his pipe, turned to him with his “Gah!,” and again fell asleep, but the lieutenant’s legs would not completely fit on the seat, and before his eyes arose threatening forms.

At Spirov he went into the station to get a drink of water. He saw people seated at a table and hurriedly eating.

“But how can they eat!” he thought, trying not to inhale the air that smelled of fried meat, and trying not to looking at the chewing mouths – both seemed disgusting to him, to the point of nausea.

Some sort of beautiful lady loudly chatted with a soldier in a red cap and, smiling, exhibited her extraordinary teeth. And the smile, the teeth, and the lady herself produced in Klimov an effect equally as disgusting as the ham and fried cutlets. He could not understand how it could be that this soldier in the red cap was not terrified to sit across from her and look into her healthy, smiling face.

When he, having drunk some water, returned to the train car, the Finn was seated and smoking. His pipe wheezed and sputtered like a galosh full of holes in soggy weather.

“Gah!” he said, surprised. “Which station is this?”

“I don’t know,” answered Klimov, lying down and shutting his mouth so as not to breathe in the disgusting tobacco smoke.

“And when do we get to Tver?”

“I don’t know. Excuse me, I… I can’t answer. I’m sick, I caught a cold today.”

The Finn knocked the pipe on the window frame and began talking about his brother the sailor. Klimov was so sick he didn’t hear him, and thought longingly of his soft, comfortable bed, of the carafe with cold water, of his sister Katya, who was so good at lying him down, calming him and giving him water. He even smiled when his servant Pavel flashed before his eyes, removing the baron’s heavy, smelly boots, and placing water on the table. It seemed that if he could only lie down in his bed and drink water that the nightmare would surrender to a healthy, deep sleep.

“Mail ready?” came an indistinct voice from far away.

“Ready!” a bass answered just outside Klimov’s window.

It was already the second or third station from Spirov.

Time flew quickly by, in leaps, and it seemed as if the bells, whistles and stops would never end. In despair, Klimov buried his face in the corner of the bench-seat, enfolded his head in his arms, and again began thinking about his sister Katya and his servant Pavel, but his sister and servant became confused with the foggy shapes, began spinning, then disappeared. His heated breath, rebounding off the back of the seat, enflamed his face. His legs lay uncomfortably. A draft from the window blew on his back, but despite how it tortured him, he did not want to change his position… Little by little, a heavy, nightmarish lassitude overpowered him, fettering his limbs.

When he decided to lift his head, it was already light in the car. The passengers had put on their coats and were moving about. The train stopped. The porters in their white aprons and badges were bustling about among the passengers and grabbing up their suitcases. Klimov put on his overcoat, left the wagon mechanically after the others, and it felt as if it was not himself but some other person leaving the car, it was the fever, the thirst, and those threatening shapes that had kept him from sleeping all night. Mechanically, he received his baggage and hired a driver. The driver asked him for a ruble twenty-five to get to Povarsky Street, but Klimov didn’t haggle; he unquestioningly and obediently sat down in the sled. He still well understood the difference in the cost, but money no longer had any value for him.

At home, Klimov was met by his aunt and eighteen-year-old sister, Katya. When Katya greeted him, she had in her hands a notebook and a pencil, and he recalled that she was preparing for her teacher’s exam. Not answering their questions or greetings, only gasping from the heat, he aimlessly passed through all the rooms and, reaching his bed, fell onto his pillow. The Finn, the red coat, the woman with the white teeth, the stink of the frying meat, and the blinking spots occupied his consciousness, and he didn’t know where he was, and he didn’t hear the excited voices.

Awakening, he saw he was in his bed, undressed; he saw the carafe with the water and Pavel, but none of this made him either cooler, more relaxed, or more comfortable. As before, his legs and arms would not settle down. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, and he heard the sobbing of the Finn’s pipe. Near the bed, a black-bearded doctor was fussing about and bumping Pavel with his broad back.

“It’s nothing, nothing, young man,” he muttered. “It’s excellent, excellent… Su, su…” The doctor called Klimov “young man,” said “su” instead of “so,” and instead of “yes,” “yis.”

“Yis, yis, yis,” he spouted. “Su, su … excellent, young man… No need to despair!” The doctor’s quick, casual speech, his well-fed face, and condescending “young man” irritated Klimov.

“Why do you call me ‘young man’?” he rasped. “What’s with the familiarity? To Hell with you!”

But he was frightened by his own voice. It was so dry, weak, and whiny that he did not recognize it. “Excellent, excellent,” the doctor muttered, not in the least offended. “No need to get mad… Yis, yis, yis…”

As in the train, at home time flew by astoundingly fast… In the bedroom, daylight every now and then turned into dusk. It seemed the doctor never left his bedside and every minute Klimov heard, “Yis, yis, yis.” An uninterrupted parade of faces passed through the bedroom. There were: Pavel, the Finn, Staff-captain Yaroshevich, Sergeant-major Maksimenko, the red cap, the lady with the white teeth, the doctor. They all talked, waved their hands, smoked, ate. Once, even before it was daylight, Klimov saw his regimental priest, Father Alexander, who, with a stole around his neck and a prayerbook in his hand, stood in front of the bed and muttered something with a face that Klimov had never seen so serious before. The lieutenant remembered that Father Alexander called all the Catholic officers “Poles.” And wanting to make him laugh, he shouted, “Father, Yaroshevich the Pole ran off to the pole.”

However, Father Alexander, generally a humorous and merry person, did not laugh but became even more serious and crossed and blessed Klimov. At night, time and again, two shadows soundlessly came in and went out. It was his aunt and sister. His sister’s shadow knelt and prayed. She bowed to the icon, and on the wall so did her gray shadow, so that two shadows prayed to God. The whole time he could smell the fried meat and the Finn’s pipe, but one time Klimov sensed the sharp smell of incense. He was revolted, nauseated, and cried out: “Incense, take away the incense!”

There was no answer. The only thing he heard was the soft singing of priests somewhere and someone running up the staircase.

When Klimov awoke from oblivion, there was not a soul in his bedroom. The morning sun slid through the window beneath the lowered curtain, and a trembling ray of light, thin and airy like a blade, played on the carafe. There was the clatter of wheels – this meant there was no longer snow outside. The lieutenant looked at the light, the familiar furniture, at the door, and the first thing he did was laugh. His chest and belly shook with tickling laughter from the sweetness, the happiness. His whole being, from his head to his toes, was overpowered by unlimited happiness and joy of life, which probably the first human felt when he became conscious and saw the world.

Klimov terribly wanted movement, people, talk. His body lay still, he could move only his arms, but he barely noticed this and his entire attention fixed on little things. He was overjoyed by his breathing, his laughter, he was overjoyed that the carafe existed, the floor, the light, the braiding on the curtain. God’s world, even in such a dark corner as his bedroom, seemed beautiful, variously formed, grand. When the doctor appeared, the lieutenant thought about how glorious a thing medicine was, how kind and pleasant the doctor was, how people were generally good and interesting.

“Yis, yis, yis,” spouted the doctor. “Excellent, excellent… Now we’re all well… Su, su.”

The lieutenant heard and joyfully laughed. He remembered the Finn, the lady with the white teeth, the ham, and found himself wanting to smoke, to eat.

“Doctor,” he said, “order them to give me a crust of rye bread with salt and… sardines.”

The doctor refused, and Pavel didn’t hear the request and didn’t go get the bread.

The lieutenant could not bear this and began crying like a spoiled child.

“Poor little boy,” laughed the doctor. “Mama, rock-a-bye, aah!”

Klimov also laughed, but at the doctor’s departure fell deeply asleep. He awoke with such joy and sensory happiness. His aunt was sitting by the bed.

“Ah, auntie!” he joyfully greeted her. “What did I have?”


“Oh, that. But now I’m well, very well! Where’s Katya?”

“She’s not home. She probably went somewhere after the exam.”

The old woman said this and bent over her stocking. Her lips trembled. She turned away and suddenly began sobbing. In despair, forgetting the doctor’s prohibition, she spoke out, “Oh, Katya, Katya! Our angel’s no more! No more!”

She dropped the stocking, and as she bent over for it her cap fell off. Seeing her gray head and not at all understanding, Klimov became frightened for Katya and asked, “Where is she? Auntie!”

The old woman, forgetting Klimov already and remembering only her own misery, said, “She caught the typhus from you… and died. She was buried two days ago.”

This terrible unexpected news fully entered Klimov’s consciousness, yet as terrible and powerful as it was, it could not overwhelm the life-joy that filled the recovering lieutenant. He wept, laughed, and soon began cursing the fact that they wouldn’t give him anything to eat.

Only a week later, when he was in his robe and supported by Pavel, and when he went to the window and looked out at the cloudy spring sky and was hearing the unpleasant banging of the old railway that ran past, did his heart seize up from pain; he began to cry and he leaned his forehead on the window-frame.

“How unhappy I am!” he moaned. “God, how unhappy!”

And joy gave way to mundane tedium and the feeling of irreversible loss.


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