CHEKHOV GOES TO GREEK SCHOOL
Diasporan educators need to be careful for they never know how their charges’ Greek school experiences will morph their characters or indeed, how such experiences will manifest themselves in public. The most important person ever to have attended a diasporic Greek school was the Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov. Chekhov was born in Taganrog, a city that was once the ancient Greek colony of Taiganion on the sea of Azov and was re-colonised by Greek refugees fleeing the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century. They treated it as a land of opportunity, investing in farming and trading and transforming the city into a cultural entrepot, through investment in generous civic arts, founding orchestras, clubs, schools and churches, bringing in French chefs and importing Italian sculptors. At the time of Chekhov’s birth, Taganrog was the most important commercial port in Russia, the fortunes of its traders in thrall to the Greek magnates who controlled the export of wheat into the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
It was this city that served as a repository for Chekhov’s father, a former serf and small-time businessman, Pavel’s dreams of prosperity. Having a passion of chanting, he had previously served as the director the city’s cathedral choir. Being of a fastidious nature, and refusing to omit a single note from his interminably long liturgies, he was dismissed and sought employment at the Greek monastery of St Constantine and Helen in the city, where he was appointed, along with his sons Alexander and Anton. The torture of being hauled out of bed in the freezing cold in order to chant matins remained with the two brothers all their lives, Alexander commenting: “the doctor who treated my family protested at this premature violence to my chest and vocal cords,” while for Anton, it was enough to turn him off religion altogether: “In my childhood, I had a religious education and a religious upbringing…I now have no religion.”
Attached to the Greek monastery was the Greek school. Pavel Chekhov’s Greek customers convinced him that Anton’s future prosperity lay with him becoming a broker in one of the local Greek trading firms, where he could earn 1500 roubles a year. A pre-requisite of attaining such an exalted position was a knowledge of demotic Greek and it was for this reason that in 1867 ‘Antonios Tsekhoph’ was enrolled in the local Greek school. In a manner prescient of the conditions of the early Greek schools in Australia, the teacher, Nikolaos Voutzinas (he of the famous catchphrase: “The parents will pay for everything,”) taught five classes simultaneously, starting with the alphabet and finishing with syntax and history. Periodically, he would disappear to his private quarters, there to have several other of his needs serviced by his Ukrainian housekeeper. In order to enforce discipline, he would employ such enlightened methods as palm-thrashing, crucifixion and strapping a pupil to a step-ladder, there to be spat upon by his fellow-classmates.
Notwithstanding such stellar teaching arrangements, when at the end of the school year, proud Pavel attempted to show off his son’s prowess in Greek to his customers, he was mortified to discover that Anton possessed no more Greek than a knowledge of the alphabet. And this despite the fact that his teacher had given him awards for “diligence” and “exquisite work.” As a result, Anton was enrolled in the local ‘gymnasion,’ where the only mandated punishment was detention in a white-washed cell. Despite this being a paradise compared to the Voutsinas’ regime, Anton retained a distaste for Greek studies, especially the uncritical manner in which everything Greek was lionised and struggled to pass the subject. One of his teachers, Zikos, recruited from Athens, appeared to be more interested in self-enrichment, more than anything else, constantly harassing students teetering on the brink of failure for «χρήματα.» Surprisingly, it was found in the 1880s that he had compromised the school and was repatriated.
Chekhov later sent-up his teachers’ naïve idealization of all that Greece stood for in his one-act farce: “The Wedding”, in which the father of the bride, a retired college registrar, asks increasingly ridiculous questions of his guest, Kharalamby Dymba, a Greek confectioner possessed of poor Russian:
Zhigalov: Have you got tigers in Greece?
Dymba: We have.
Zhigalov: And lions?
Dymba: Lions too. It’s Russia which has nothing, but Greece has everything. I have there
father, uncle, brothers, but here I don’t have nothing.
Dymba’s uniform reply to questions as to whether Greece has whales, lobsters and particular kinds of mushrooms, led the phrase “Greece has everything” permanently entering the Russian language, especially after a Soviet film was made of the play in the 1940s. The phrase was used with increasing cynicism by Soviet citizens as shops became emptier and queues outside them became longer in a parody of Communist propaganda.
Another of Chekhov’s Greek teachers, Diakonov, an extremely dry and pedantic individual also makes an appearance in Chekhov’s writings, for he is widely held to be the inspiration for the creation of the tyrannical Greek teacher Belikov, in his story: “The Man in a Case,” for whom the Greek language is “just like his galoshes and umbrella really, hiding him from real life.” “How resonant and beautiful the Greek language is!” he would say with a sweet expression; and as if to prove the truth of his words, his eyes would narrow and he would raise his finger and say “Anthropos!”
So scarred was he by his Greek education, that Chekhov, at the end of his life, claimed to have no memory of the modern Greek he once learned. Had Chekhov’s father been able to listen to the famous 3XY Greek school advertisement: “I hate Greek school!” “Α, εσένα έψαχνα....τώρα που πηγαίνω στο Ελληνικό [σχολείο] μου αρέσουν τα ελληνικά,” perhaps he would have had the foresight to send his progeny to a Greek school where learning Greek was fun and easy. Sadly he did not and Chekhov is but the most famous of many examples of students who developed a lasting aversion to the Greek language and Greeks as result of an education where the desire for profit and the teachers’ ego took priority over inculcating in students, a love of the subject taught.
Greek-school teachers of Australia, Chekhov’s is a cautionary tale you would do well to heed. If you bore your students, annoy them or drive them away in desperation by your demeanour, lack of enthusiasm, passion, or preparation, you run the risk, not now maybe, but in decades to come, to be immortalized in print, when one of these aggrieved students becomes a gifted writer and resolves to exorcise the ghosts of Greek school teachers past, by a particularly scathing depiction of your own insufficiency. Be insightful, be inspiring, be willing to pour our generously from the cornucopia of our linguistic heritage all that is fascinating and seductive about it and above all, be brilliant. For the anecdote that attributes the inspiration of Chekhov’s famous line: “What a fine weather today! Can’t choose whether to drink tea or to hang myself,” to one of his teachers of Greek, may not be as apocryphal as once was thought. Καλό μάθημα.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 March 2016