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A talent for humanity

LIKE the student in one of his short stories, Chekhov had a ``talent for humanity.'' This talent extended beyond his literary endeavors into his daily life. Prison reform was one of his deep interests. To his youngest brother who was studying for a civil-service examination on criminal law and prison management, he said: ``All our attention is centered on the criminal up to the moment when sentence is pronounced, but as soon as he is sent to prison, we forget about him entirely. But what happens in prison? I can imagine!''

In the spring of 1890, at the age of 30, he set forth on a 6,500-mile journey from Moscow eastward across Russia, beyond Siberia, to the prison colony on Sakhalin Island in the Pacific Ocean. Over a three-month period he conducted interviews with several thousand convicts in connection with a census he undertook of the island population. His census included the 2,122 children on the island. They had either accompanied their parents to the penal colony or had been born there.

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The publication of his notes under the title, ``The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin,'' created a considerable stir. Government officials were sent there to investigate the terrible conditions. Donations, mainly for the welfare of the children, came in. Chekhov led a campaign to collect several thousand volumes for use in the schools on the island. He began a correspondence with convicts that continued over the years.

The following winter, crop failures threatened the lives of millions of peasants in central and southeastern Russia. Chekhov supported a literary symposium, ``Aid to the Starving,'' to which he contributed a chapter from his future book on Sakhalin Island. He raised funds among his Moscow acquaintances to establish a fund for the famine sufferers. He asked that free dinners for schoolchildren be organized and promised to provide the necessary funds. He expressed his high regard for Tolstoy's extraordinary efforts to organize several hundred food kitchens: ``Tolstoy -- ah, that Tolstoy! In these days he is not a man but a superman, a Jupiter.'' He visited villages in the provinces of Nizhny Novgorod and Voronezh to encourage the hungry peasants not to destroy their horses, so that the animals would be available for the next year's plowing. On one such visit, Chekhov lost his way in a blizzard and nearly froze to death.

Education was a life-long concern of his. Living at Melikhovo in the province of Moscow from 1892 to 1898, he provided funds for the building of new schools in the villages of Talezh and Novosyolky as well as in Melikhovo. For the latter effort, he assigned most of the income from his plays. In his book ``A New Life of Anton Chekhov,'' Ronald Hingley writes that, as ``architect, financer, and works supervisor, he visited the sites almost daily; ordered materials, hired carpenters, roofers, caulkers, glaziers, and the like.'' At the opening ceremony of the Talezh school, the grateful villagers presented him with the traditional bread and salt. Chekhov offered the hospitality of his home to the impoverished teachers of the district and gave them books and magazines.

How appropriate that among the provisions in his handwritten will he wrote this simple instruction: ``Help the poor.'' And that in his short story ``Gooseber-ries,'' the storyteller implores his host: ``Don't quiet down, don't let yourself be lulled to sleep! As long as you are young, strong, alert, do not cease to do good!''

Advising a young author, Chekhov told him that a writer ``must be humane to the tips of his fingers.'' In his daily life and in his art he was faithful to this precept.

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