Recently, someone asked me to review Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but so far nothing has come of it. The book, published by Rutgers University Press, is the fruit of many years’ work under the direction of Joseph Frank, author of the voluminous Dostoyevsky biography. It contains a selection of 152 letters, culled from the four-volume Soviet edition of 935.

I have now read the selection, together with all the letters in the original Russian, and I am starting on the Diary. So far, however, I have been unable to form any original impression of the writer, save one: in his youth, Dostoyevsky was a pathological liar. But more of this later, perhaps.

For the time being, I invite the reader to join me and the 23-year-old Fyodor in St. Petersburg. It is September 1844. For the past six years, since he became a student at the Academy of Military Engineering, almost every letter Dostoyevsky has written has to do with money, an interest that would remain with him for the rest of his life. July 3, 1837: 30 rubles, 12 rubles. September 6: 14 rubles. October 8: 950. December 3: 70, 300. February 4, 1838: 50, 300. June 5: 25. August 9: 40. March 23, 1839: 60, 100. Well, perhaps it is reasonable for a student, far from his parents’ house, to write home asking for money, even despite the fact that the old man, recently widowed, was barely able to make the ends meet. But what for? June 5, 1838: “Absolutely all my new friends have bought themselves their own shakos, and my general-issue might have offended the Tsar” during a parade (he forgets mentioning earlier that the parade in question had involved a total of 140,000 troops).

Writing to his son from the family estate on May 27, 1839, Mikhail Dostoyevsky pleaded: “From the beginning of spring until now, not a single raindrop, not even dew. The heat, the horrible winds have ruined everything. . . . What threatens us is not just bankruptcy, but real starvation! After this, will you reproach your father for sending you so little? . . . I enclose thirty-five paper rubles, or 43 rubles 75 kopeks by the present exchange rate. Please use it sparingly, since, I repeat, I will not be able to send you anything again soon.” According to Joseph Frank, “so far as one can judge, Dostoyevsky never wrote home for funds without eventually receiving the sum requested.” Mikhail Dostoyevsky’s plea was written in response to his son’s demand for money he “absolutely needed” to buy, in particular, a trunk in which he wanted to keep his possessions, along with other sundries (e.g., a subscription to the French “book club” of the time). Mikhail Dostoyevsky died on June 8, 1839, under mysterious circumstances (possibly murdered by his serfs). Thus, according to Professor Frank, “his despairing communication to his son was, literally, his last testament, and Dostoyevsky must have received it almost simultaneously with the news of his father’s death.”

Now, five years after his father’s death, young Dostoyevsky directs his energies to the person of Peter Karepin, a wealthy, middle-aged gentleman who, upon marrying Fyodor’s sister, became the trustee of the Dostoyevsky estate and the family’s legal guardian. Fyodor receives an officer’s salary, along with regular payments from the estate, but he is far from pleased. He writes to his brother on September 30, 1844, that he is “in a hellish predicament.” He has decided to quit military service (“I resigned because I just had to resign”): “Life is bleak if one’s best time is wasted.”

No one knows that I am leaving the service. If I leave right now, what shall I do? I haven’t got a kopek to buy clothes. My resignation becomes effective October 14. If those Moscow pigs [i.e., the trustees] don’t come through with the money in time, I’m done for. I shall be dragged off to jail for sure (no doubt about it). It’s really comic.

Dostoyevsky’s answer to the “hellish predicament” is to attempt extorting 1,000 silver rubles from the prudent Mr. Karepin in exchange for a promise to renounce all future claims on the estate. Naturally, Mr. Karepin (perhaps on the basis of the young man’s “track record” to date) does not want to believe him, doubting both the genuineness of the need and the legality of the promise. I have dug up one of Karepin’s letters to Dostoyevsky, and, since it is unavailable in English, I translate it here nearly in full, retaining the syntactic oddities of the original.

“Dear brother,” Karepin writes to his brother-in-law, “I send you 50 silver rubles; in return for the arrogance, and the rudeness, with which your letters are filled, I enclose two accounts—one for last year’s silver, and the other for this year’s assignations; finally, my conclusion as to which of you has received the most money. As you will see, you have been sent the most, Andrei received little, and Nicholas nothing at all. There was perhaps good reason for this, as you had to be set up during your first year out of the Academy; after that, clearly, one brother has no right to draw more than another, not to mention your sisters. Your father’s estate yields, as we have seen from the experience of the past three years, approximately 4,000 paper rubles, depending on the harvest or the market price of the produce. From this we must subtract the trustees’ fee, payment of private debt to Mr. Marcus, to whom 1,000 rubles is owed, so each brother receives 700-800 paper rubles, up to 1,000 in a good year. That is your basic capital.

“Apart from the sorrow induced by the realization that a son does not value the labors and cares of his late parents, wishing to squander everything they have suffered for one year after leaving school and God only knows in the name of what—it has not been possible to sell a share of the estate in your behalf legally since you were still a minor. It remains impossible, because the estate is held in trust, the debt has not been repaid, and there are other minor siblings. Even if after a long process of legal petitioning of the relevant authorities one were to obtain their leave to redistribute the estate, one would still be in a similar difficulty, since there would not be enough to pay you off all at once, while even now you regularly receive more than your share against future proceeds, to be accounted for in the final reckoning. This difficulty will remain not only as a moral but also as an official obstacle to any redistribution.

“I hesitate to tell you this truth because you understand it yourself, but also because it is easier to imagine the carelessness of youth rather than cold egoism and utter indifference to one’s family.

“No sooner did you put on your uniform than you began mentioning two things: your inheritance and your debts. I kept silent, thinking it all a youthful fantasy, believing that experience, years, and private or public social exposure would interpret these things in due course. But now I must say that the former is altogether too minute: one mustn’t be angered by that, since such things are not our own doing, and besides, there are plenty of people in the world who have even less. Given your expenditures, it’ll be gone in a year; and then what? As for the latter, besides being limited legally, they ought to be limited morally—although I have no doubt that you have chosen to disregard this and would not agree with me that spending beyond your ability to pay is tantamount to taking another’s property. It is not your fault that not all are born millionaires; but it will indeed be your fault if you fail to make use of whatever resources have been given to you by God and your betters. Many, many people—you are not the first—are out there, making their way in life, guided by pure, clear, and ever-just principles of work, duty, and patience, with all the intelligence the good Lord has granted, with a good education. . . . Are you destined to cling to your splendid sophistry, to abide in the abstract sloth and languor of your Shakespearean dreams? What’s in them, besides some enfevered, inflated, inchoate—exaggerated, and soap-bubble-like—image? Whereas, in reality, before you lies a road of honor, of serious endeavor, of social good—not in some slavish imitations of another’s vision, but in the achievements of your own, hard-earned intelligence and knowledge.

“If you have ears still for the advice and friendship and kin, then may you hear this, dear brother!” I have run out of space. Karepin’s letter continues for another paragraph.

“Those Muscovites are unspeakably vain, stupid, and quarrelsome,” young Fyodor commented on Karepin’s advice writing to his brother on September 30, 1844. “In his last letter, Karepin for some unearthly reason advised me not to get too enthusiastic about Shakespeare! He says Shakespeare is just like a soap bubble. I wanted you to know about this idiotic resentment of Shakespeare. How in the world does Shakespeare come into the picture? You should have seen the letter I wrote him! In one word, it was a model piece of polemics. 1 really gave it to him.” A paragraph later: “In the name of God, ask them to send me that money! What worries me most is that I shan’t have anything to put on.”


The letter ends: “Karepin drinks vodka, has a rank, and believes in God.”