When writing doesn't pay the bills: Russian authors as laborers, doctors and taxi drivers

Being a serious writer in Russia has never paid well. In Tsarist times a lack of widespread education confined the market for complex, challenging literature to a very small circle of readers. Then, in the USSR only authors loyal to the state ideology could live off their writing – others were forced to take on second jobs.

Anton Chekhov worked as a doctor for 15 years and never regretted his decision. Most of his patients were peasants, servants and the poor. Chekhov joked, “I practice in aristocratic houses. Right now, I’m heading to Countess Keller to treat her cook and then to the house of the noblemen Voeykovs to attend to their maid.” Many of his patients couldn’t afford a doctor, so Chekhov treated them for free. Chekhov wasn't drawn to medicine by the money. He said, “The wish to serve the common good must be a requisite of the soul, a necessity for personal happiness,” and he stuck to this belief. In 1890 he traveled to a penal colony on Sakhalin Island to conduct a census and investigate the sanitary conditions of the prisons, hospitals and barracks there. He published his findings in a non-fiction work “Sakhalin Island,” which led to an improvement in the convicts' appalling conditions. In 1892, when a cholera epidemic hit central Russia, Chekhov organized medical relief for victims at his own expense. Chekhov once said, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” But medicine also contributed a lot to his writing: his work contains detailed descriptions of his characters' health, illnesses and deaths. What's more, he heard a great deal of stories and learned a lot about human nature while practicing medicine – a valuable experience for any writer.

Mikhail Bulgakov, who came from a family of medics, worked as a doctor for several years in the 1910s and even took part in World War I as a field surgeon. After the war, Bulgakov took a post as a doctor in a remote part of the countryside. He was the only doctor on hand and had to see dozens patients a day. Recently, Bulgakov’s experiences in those years have become widely known due to the 2012 British TV series “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” – a loose adaptation of the collection of stories of the same name. Bulgakov’s other works often have doctors as characters too. For example, the brilliant protagonist of “Heart of a Dog,” Professor Preobrazhensky, is an accurate portrayal of an intellectual facing the absurdity and brutality of the early Soviet state.

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