Skip to main content

New Letters of Dostoevsky

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

Translated from the Russian and Edited by S.S. Koteliansky

The whole year of 1878 Dostoevsky spent in writing “The Brothers Karamasov.” The serial publication of the novel and continuous work on it took him another two years, 1879 and 1880.

“The Brothers Karamasov” was published in the Russky Vestnik (NN. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11 of 1879; NN. 1, 4, 7, 9,10 and 11 of 1880). These hitherto unpublished letters were written during the years 1879-1881 to N. A. Lin-bimov, the associate editor of the Russky Vestnik.

Staraia Roussa, May 10, 1879.

 . . . This book, “Pro and Contra,” is in my view the culminating point of the novel, and it must be finished with particular care. Its idea, as you will see from the text I have sent you, is the presentation of extreme blasphemy and of the seeds of the idea of destruction at present in Russia among the young generation that has torn itself away from reality. Along with blasphemy and anarchism there is the refutation of them, which is now being prepared by me and will be expressed in the last words of the dying Zosima, one of the characters of the novel. Since the difficulty of the task undertaken by me is obvious, you will certainly understand, much-respected Nicolay Alexeyevich, and excuse me for preferring to extend this part to two numbers, rather than to spoil the culminating chapter by hurry. On the whole the chapter will be full of movement. In the copy I have just sent you, I present only the character of one of the leading figures of the novel, that character expressing his basic convictions. These convictions form what I consider the Synthesis of contemporary Russian anarchism. The denial not of God, but of the meaning of his creation. The whole of socialism sprang up and started with the denial of the meaning of historical actuality, and arrived at the program of destruction and anarchism. The principal anarchists were, in many cases, sincerely convinced men. My hero takes a theme, in my view, an unassailable one: the senselessness of suffering of children, and from it deduces the absurdity of the whole of historical actuality. I do not know if I have accomplished this well, but I know that the figure of my hero is real in the highest degree. (In “The Devils” there were a number of characters, for which I was reproached, on the ground that they were fantastic; then afterwards, would you believe it, they all proved to be real; therefore they must have been truthfully divined. K. P. Pobedonoszev, for instance, told me of two or three cases of arrested anarchists who were astonishingly like those presented by me in “The Devils.”) All that is being said by my hero, in the copy I sent you, is based on actuality. All the incidents about the children actually happened, and were published in the newspapers, and I can show where they happened,—I did not invent them. The General, who set his dogs on a child, and the whole circumstance, is an actual fact which was made public last winter, I believe, in The Archiv, and was reproduced in many papers. And my hero’s blasphemy will be triumphantly refuted in the next (June) number, on which I am working now with fear, trembling and awe, as I consider my task (the refutation of anarchism) a civic exploit. Do wish me success, much-respected Nicolay Alexeyevich.

In the copy I sent you I believe there is not a single indecent word. There is only one thing. A child of five, for not having asked for the chamber-pot at night is smeared all over with her own excrement by the tormentors who have brought her up. But I beg you, I implore you not to strike it out. It is taken from a criminal case, recently tried. In all the newspapers (only two months ago, see Golos, the article “The Mecklenburgh Mother”) the word excrement was used. It can’t be softened, it would be a great pity to do so. Surely we are not writing for children of ten. Still, I am convinced that even without my request you will preserve my whole text intact.

One more trifle. The lackey Smerdiakov sings a lackey’s song, and in it is the couplet—

A glorious crown,
So long as my dearie’s well.

I have not invented the song, but heard and recorded it in Moscow. I heard it forty years ago. It was originally composed by shop assistants, and then it was taken up by lackeys; it was never recorded by collectors of folk songs and I record it for the first time.

The actual text of the couplet is:

A Tsar’s crown
So long as my dearie is well.

And, therefore, if you find it convenient, keep, for goodness’ sake, the word “Tsar’s” instead of “glorious,” as I altered the words in case of necessity.

Staraia Roussa, June 11, 1879.

The day before yesterday I sent to the Editorial office of the Russky Vestnik the continuation of “The Karama-sovs” for the June number (the end of Chapter “Pro and Contra”). In it is finished what “the lips speak proudly and blasphemously” The modern denier, the most vehement one, straightway supports the advice of the devil, and asserts that that is a surer way of bringing happiness to mankind than Christ is. For our Russian socialism, stupid, but terrible (for the young are with it)—there is here a warning, and I think a forcible one. Bread, the tower of Babel (i. e. the future kingdom of socialism) and the completest overthrow of freedom of conscience—that is what the desperate denier and atheist arrives at. The difference only being that our socialists (and they are not only the underground nihilists,—you are aware of that) are conscious Jesuits and liars, who will not confess that their ideal is the ideal of the violation of man’s conscience and of the reduction of mankind to the level of a herd of cattle. But my socialist (Ivan Karamasov) is a sincere man who frankly confesses that he agrees with the “Grand Inquisitor’s” view of mankind, and that Christ’s religion (as it were) has raised man much higher than man actually stands. The question is forced home: “Do you despise or respect mankind, you, its coming saviours?”

And they do all this in the name of the love of mankind, as if to say: “Christ’s law is difficult and abstract, and for weak people intolerable;” and instead of the law of Liberty and Enlightenment they bring to mankind the law of chains and of subjection by means of bread.

In the next book will take place the death of Zosima and his conversations with his friends before his death. It is not a sermon, but a story, an account of his own life. If I succeed, I shall achieve a good work: I will compel people to admit that a pure, ideal Christian is not an abstraction, but a vivid reality, possible, clearly near at hand, and that Christianity is the sole refuge of the Russian land from all its evils. I pray God that I may succeed, for the part will be a pathetic one. If only I can get sufficient inspiration! And the main theme is such, that it does not even occur to the mini of anyone of contemporary writers and poets, therefore it is quite original. For its sake the whole novel is being written. If only I can succeed: that is what troubles me now. I shall send it on for the July number, and not later than the 10th. I shall try my best to do so. . . .


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading