Translated from the Russian and Edited by S.S. Koteliansky
One of Dostoevsky’s early letters has recently been published in Russia. It gives quite a clear picture of his state of mind during the first years of his literary activity.
With his “Poor Folk,” completed by him in the spring of 1845 (when he was 24), and published in January, 1846, in Nekrasov’s Peterburgsky Sbornik, Dostoevsky all at once became a literary celebrity. The manuscript of “Poor Folk” was taken by a friend of his to Belinsky, the leading critic, who was so enthusiastic over it that he declared that a new genius had arisen in Russian literature, and prophesied a brilliant future for Dostoevsky. Belinsky also published an article in the Otechestvennya Zapiski in 1845 praising Dostoevsky to the skies.
Intoxicated with his first success, and as ever disposed to extremes, Dostoevsky seems to have conceived a very high opinion of himself and to have begun manifesting it in a way that irritated and repelled his recent admirers. His “Double” (1845), “A Novel in Nine Letters” (1846), “The Landlady” (1847), and a series of short stories pubr lished in the reviews of 1848 no longer aroused anything like the enthusiasm which “Poor Folk” had provoked. On the contrary the critics turned hostile to Dostoevsky, declaring that their prognostications were ill founded. Dostoevsky felt hurt, irritated; he argued, discussed, quarrelled. His recent panegyrist Belinsky turned against him, and all at once Dostoevsky found himself lonely and deserted by the literary circles of Petersburg.
How painful a time he must have been enduring then can be seen from his letter addressed to Mme. E. P. Maikov, the mother of Apollon Maikov, the poet and Dostoevsky’s life-long friend. It was at the house of Mme. Maikov, who was herself a writer, that the literary society of Petersburg, including Goncharov and Drouzhinin, used to gather every Sunday. Dostoevsky was also one of the constant visitors on these occasions.
From the letter, here published, we gather that at one of these at homes a heated argument took place, the exact nature of which, however, remains obscure.
St. Petersburg, May 14, 1847.
Dear Eugenia Petrovna,
I hasten to apologize to you; I am sensible of the fact that I left your house yesterday in a rage, which was indecent, without bidding you good-bye, and remembering it only after you called out to me. I am afraid you must have thought me brusque and (I agree) rude, with some strange intention. I ran away instinctively, anticipating the weakness of my nature which in extreme cases cannot help exploding or being exploded, to a hyperbolical degree. Pray understand me: owing to the weak state of my nerves it is difficult for me to endure and to reply to ambiguous questions, and not to get into a frenzy just because the questions are ambiguous—a frenzy directed mainly against myself for not being able to manage it so that the questions should be straight and less intolerant. And finally, it is difficult for me (I confess) to keep cool when I see before me a crowd who, as was the case yesterday, behave towards me just with the same intolerance, as I behave towards them.
True enough, a commotion arose. From both sides there began flying hyperboles, deliberate and naive; and instinctively I betook myself to flight, fearing lest those hyperboles might assume still greater dimensions.
Take now the full measure of my weakness! I take up my pen to apologise simply and in all humility, and instead I begin to write a formal self-justification! But I indeed realise that my behaviour to you was brusque, offensive, and provocative. I beseech all your tolerance and pray to be forgiven. I know you must be aware of the importunity of my apologies: I value your opinion too much, and that is why I so much fear to lose it. Maybe this letter is superfluous, maybe I am as usual exaggerating, perhaps you forgave me from the first minute and did not blame me. But my excessive fear, my timidity before you will show you, if I may be permitted to say so, the whole extent of the filial respect which I have always felt for you.
With complete devotion to you,
On April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for his association with the Petrashevsky revolutionary group, and was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress. On Dec. 19, 1849, his death sentence was commuted to hard labour for four years in Siberia, after which time, and after having been deprived of all his rights of status, he was to be enrolled as a private in military service. Dostoevsky did his term in a convict prison (which he described in “The House of the Dead”) till Feb. 15, 1854, after which he was enrolled as private in the 7th Siberian Line Battalion, stationed in Semipalatinsk. During those years he wrote his “House of the Dead,” “The Little Hero,” “Grandfather’s Dream,” and “Stepanchikovo Village.” In 1859, thanks to the assistance of Baron Wrangel and other influential friends, Dostoevsky was first permitted to return to central Russia, and he settled in Tver. At the end of that year he was allowed to reside in either of the capitals and accordingly moved to Petersburg.
Very soon Dostoevsky occupied a prominent position in the literary world. He published “The House of the Dead,” “Humiliated and Insulted,” and in 1861 he began, together with his brother Michael, the publication of their review Vremva.
About that time Dostoevsky began thinking of going to see the “holy places” of Western Europe, to satisfy his long cherished dream of becoming more intimately acquainted with the “springs” of European culture.
Of this desire the letter that follows gives a very fair indication.
St. Petersburg, July 31, 1861.
To Y. P. Polonsky.
Well, how are you getting on, and above all how is your health? Are you writing? I have read all your letters, but you write so very little of yourself. By the way, when are you coming back, and are you going to spend all your time in Austria? Italy is just at your elbow, aren’t you tempted to have a look at her ? You lucky fellow! How many times have I dreamed since my childhood of having a look at Italy. From the age of eight, when I read Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels, all the Alphonses, Catarinas and Luccias got imprinted in my mind. And of the Don Pedras and Donna Claras I keep on dreaming even to this day. Then came Shakespeare, with his Verona, Romeo and Juliet—heavens how fascinating! To Italy! To Italy! But instead of Italy [several words are missing]. . . I managed to get to Semipalatinsk [to Siberia], and previous to that to the House of the Dead. Shall I indeed fail to see Europe? Now when I have still power and passion and poesy left in me? Shall I have to go there ten years hence to keep my old bones warm against rheumatism and to scorch my bald pate in the heat of the noonday sun? Shall I die without having seen anything?
In 1862 Dostoevsky went abroad. He visited Paris, London, and Geneva. In 1863 he went to Rome, and then to Germany and Denmark. The years 1867–1871 he spent abroad—in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. When he wrote the letter that follows he was travelling with Mile. Pauline Souslov. The Vremva referred to was the review which the Dostoevsky brothers had edited and published until its suppression by the censor. Marie Dmitrievevna, Dostoevsky’s first wife, was ill at this time in Russia. Var-vara was her sister.
Turin (Italy) Septr. 8–20, 1863.
To his Brother Michael.
You say, my dear and good Misha, that you found it very painful to read my letter, and especially painful to satisfy my request for money. But if you knew my friend, how pained I was by the idea that my letter was bound to place you in a difficult position, you yourself would say that I was sufficiently punished for my losses [at roulette]. The whole time I was waiting for your letter in this most tedious Turin was sheer agony to me, and chiefly because of my anxiety for you and all yours. The fact is that since my departure from Petersburg I have had no news from any one of you. God knows what I have been imagining, for instance, about you, picturing such calamities that I was simply perishing from anguish. There is no need to speak of our physical suffering. We had none; but we trembled every minute at the idea of being presented with the hotel bill, and we had not a sou. The scandal, the police (it is the way here if you have not got someone who will vouch for you, and if you have no personal belongings), the beastliness of the situation! My watch was pawned in Geneva with a really decent fellow. He even refused interest, he did it only to oblige a foreigner, but he gave me a mere trifle. I shall not redeem it at present, we need money, she has pawned her ring. But the pawn ticket stipulates for the redemption of it by the end of November. But all this is of no consequence. The chief point is: how are you getting on? This is the most important to me. I repeat it, I have been imagining all sorts of calamities. I thought you would have told me something about the review. But you wrote so briefly, not a word about it. Is that right? For the love of Christ do let me know. Above all, we must work, we must do our very best. If we have not the Vremva, we must have some other review. Otherwise we shall go under. As to me, I realise that to render my position secure for three months so as to make it possible for me to write the novel, I shall need a good deal of money. Otherwise there will be no novel. And where is the money to come from? But I’ll wiggle out somehow. But you with your family? In a word, I long to be back as soon as possible.
You ask me why I left Paris so soon. Firstly, I have become sick of it; and secondly, I had to take into consideration the position of the person I am travelling with. . .
Of the details of my travels generally I will tell you when we meet. There have been all sorts of adventures, but it is awfully boring, in spite of A. P. [Apollinaria Pankratievna Souslov], Now even happiness I take with pain, because I have separated myself from all those I have hitherto loved and suffered for many a time. Throwing up everything in search of happiness, even matters in which I could be of use, is egotism, and the thought of this is now poisoning my happiness (if it indeed exists).
You say: how could you gamble away your very last money when you are travelling with someone you love. Misha my friend! At Wiesbaden I invented a system of playing, I put it into practice and won at once 10,000 francs. Next morning, in excitement, I was unfaithful to my system, and lost at once. In the evening I returned to my system again, in full rigour, and immediately and without any effort I won 3,000 francs. Tell me, after that, how could I help being carried away, how could I help believing that if I followed that system, luck was in my hands? And I need money, for myself, for you, for my wife, for the writing of my novel. Here scores of thousands are won as though it were a mere joke. Yes, I came here with the idea of saving you all and of getting myself out of trouble. And then there was that belief in the system. And then there was the fact that on my arrival at Baden, I went up to the tables and in a quarter of an hour won 6,000 francs. This started me. Then I suddenly began losing, could no longer restrain myself, and lost everything to the very last. After I had posted my letter to you from Baden, I took all the money I had left and went to the tables: with four napoleons I won 35 in half an hour. The extraordinary luck bewitched me; I risked the thirty-five and lost them all. After paying the landlady we were left with six napoleons for our journey. At Geneva I pawned my watch.
In Baden I met Turgenev. I called twice on him, and he called on me once. Turgenev did not see A.P. [Mile. Souslov]. I kept her out of the way. He is sulking although he has recovered his health in Baden. He is here with his daughter. He told me of all his moral sufferings and doubts, philosophic doubts converted into stark reality. He is a bit of a coxcomb. I did not hide from him the fact that I was gambling. He gave me his “Ghosts” to read, and owing to my playing I could not manage to read it, so I returned it to him without reading it. He says he wrote it for our review, and that, if I write him from Rome, he will send it to me there. But what do I know about the review?
I must write the article. I know it. For on the 1,450 francs you have sent me I can’t do much; I mean, I can do a good deal, but it is not enough to take me home. But I find it very difficult to write. What I wrote in Turin I tore up. i am sick of writing to order. Yet I do not despair of sending something from Rome. For it must be done.
Do not say anything about my position to any one. It is a secret, I mean, my losses.
I am in a great hurry to get out of beastly Turin. And I have still a good many letters to write; to Marie Dmi-trievna and to Varvara Dmitrievna.
Give my thanks to Varvara Dmitrievna. What a glorious soul! This is what I am afraid of. I am afraid that Marie Dmitrievna may write you something unpleasant. Yet I do not suppose she will. She may, of course, need no money till the middle of October. But how can I tell? Perhaps I have placed her in a false position. She needed a hundred roubles for something, but had not decided to make that expense. But after getting my letter, in which I said that I was sending her money, she may have incurred that expense. And now she is perhaps without money. I tremble at the thought of it. If only someone had sent me an account of her health!
The two letters, written by Dostoevsky to the Heir Apparent, subsequently Emperor Alexander III, are of great interest as revealing the ideology and innermost convictions of the writer, and also as presenting the best commentary on “The Devils,” in which novel Dostoevsky had intended “to express himself completely.” Indeed, in the first letter, he formulates the idea of “The Devils” more clearly than he has done anywhere else, either in his works, or in his published letters to his friends. “The Devils” is better known to American readers as “The Possessed.”
Mme. Dostoevsky gives the following explanation of the letter: “This letter was addressed to His Imperial Highness, the Heir Apparent, Alexander Alexandrovich, on the following occasion. His Imperial Highness who was always interested in Dostoevsky’s works, had once in a conversation with K. P. Pobedonoszev, expressed his desire to know how the author of ‘The Devils’ looked upon that work. In the beginning of 1873 the novel appeared in book form and then Dostoevsky, through Pobedonoszev, presented the novel to His Highness, accompanying it with the letter.”
[St. Petersburg], 1873.
Your Imperial Highness, Most Gracious Sire,
Allow me the honour and happiness of bringing to your notice my work. It is almost a historical study, whereby I wished to explain how it is that such monstrous phenomena, as the Nechayev movement, are possible in our strange society. My view is that the phenomenon is not accidental, not singular. It is a direct consequence of the great divorcement of the whole Russian education from the native and peculiar mainsprings of Russian life. Even the most talented representatives of our pseudo-European progress had long ago become convinced that it was perfectly criminal for us, Russians, to dream of our distinctiveness. The most terrible thing about it is this, that they are quite right; for, once having proudly called ourselves Europeans, we have thereby denied our being Russians. Confused and frightened by the idea that we lag so far behind Europe in our intellectual and scientific progress, we have forgotten that we, in the inmost problems of the Russian spirit, contain in ourselves, as Russians, the capacity perhaps of bringing a new light to the world, on condition of our development being distinctive. In the ecstasy of our humiliation, we have forgotten the most immutable historical law, namely, that without the presumption of our own world importance as a nation, we can never be a great nation and leave after us anything distinctive for the good of mankind.
We have forgotten that all great nations have manifested themselves and their great powers just because they were so “presumptuous” in their conceit. Just because of that they have benefited the world, and have, each nation, brought into it something if only a single ray of light, just because they have remained themselves, proudly and undauntedly, always and presumptuously independent.
To think like this at the present time in Russia and to express such ideas means to doom oneself to the role of a pariah. And yet the principal preachers of our national undistinctiveness would be the first to turn away with horror from the Nechayev creed. Our Belinskies and Granov-skies would not believe, if they were told, that they are the direct fathers of the Nechayevists. This kinship and continuity of idea, descending from the fathers to the sons, is what I wished to express in my work. I am far from having succeeded but I have worked conscientiously.
I am flattered and elated by the hope that you, Sire, the heir of one of the greatest thrones in the world, the future leader and ruler of the Russian land, have perhaps paid even the least attention to my weak but conscientious attempt to expose in an imaginative work one of the most dangerous sores of our present day civilization, a civilization strangely unnatural and undistinctive, and yet dominating Russian life.
Permit me, Most Gracious Sire, to remain with feeling of boundless respect and gratitude your most true and most devoted servant,
Mme. Dostoevsky writes of the next letter: “In view of the Heir Apparent’s favourable opinion of some of Dostoevsky’s articles in ‘The Journal of an Author,’ an opinion conveyed to the author by Pobedonoszev, Dostoevsky decided, out of gratitude for this exalted sympathy, to ask His Highness’ permission to send on to him the issues of ‘The Journal’ during 1876.”
[St. Petersburg], 1876.
Your Imperial Highness, Most Gracious Sire,
Beginning this year my monthly publication “The Journal of an Author,” I dared not, despite all my desire, present it to Your Imperial Highness, though on a previous occasion I have been granted the honour of sending you one of my works. But when I began my new labour, I myself was not sure that I should not interrupt it at the very start through lack of strength and health needed for a work that had to be done at fixed dates. And therefore I dared not present to your Imperial Highness a work so uncertain.
The present great years in the history of Russia have, with an incomprehensible force, raised the spirit and heart of Russians to the height of understanding a great deal of what had not been previously understood, and have made us realize the sanctities of the Russian ideal more clearly than ever before. Nor could I help responding with all my heart to everything that has begun and has manifested itself in our land, in our just and glorious people. In my “Journal” there are a few words which, I remember, came ardently and sincerely right from the depths of my soul; and although I have not yet completed the publication for the year, I have long been thinking and dreaming of the happiness of presenting my modest labour to Your Imperial Highness.
Forgive me, Most Gracious Sire, the boldness, do not disown one who loves you without bounds, and permit me to send you henceforth each new number of the “Journal of an Author.”
With the feeling of reverential respect I dare to call myself Your Imperial Highness’ grateful and most devoted servant,