Over the weekend I read a short compilation of some of Chekhov’s letters home during his overland journey to Sakahalin in 1890 – before the Trans Siberian railway was built.
Chekhov is an amusing and candid letter writer. As well as being incredibly rude about the inhabitants of Tomsk he describes the society he finds there and the growing presence of Chinese and Japanese in eastern Siberia as well as articulating the very Russian fear that they will lose the territories to the Chinese, or perhaps the Japanese as a result of being double crossed by one of the great powers of the time.
I read the compilation purely for interest and as background for our planned trip to the hopefully not too wild east. But the thing I found really interest was Chekhov’s description of life in the prison settlements on Sakhalin -and their undoubted resonance with descriptions of life in early colonial Hobart and Sydney with prisoners and trusties everywhere doing ordinary jobs, despite their possibly brutal pasts.
I’ve heard it claimed that Russians tend to think of Australia as a sort of British Siberia – far away, and settled in the main by convicts and exiles. No matter the truth of this, there are clearly parallels, perhaps uncomfortable ones.