A letter from Fyodor Mikhailovich, of Great Russia, to Július Voitekhovich, of Great Slovakia, in which the Great Russian poses some fundamental questions
Dear Július Voitekhovich,
If you’re thinking about heading to the Other World, I must warn you about the grave injustice being perpetrated here. There is NO gambling! Not even in our mansion, in which so many of the seasoned and daring players of interstellar space “live,” ready to gamble day and night. You can’t play any roulette or Baccarat here in the Other World, and, believe it or not, those rattling boxes – slot machines – are nowhere to be found either! You know just what a notorious gambler I was during my life on Earth; how publishers only got a book out of me because I needed money to go to the casino in Baden Baden. But if you’re not a natural born gambler – damn you – you’ve got a lot to look forward to. Elite “players” from around the world carry on endless discussions about art, literature, human nature, politics, and history. Last Saturday, that old ribald MAUPASSANT showed me your letter about how clever young ladies are back in Slovakia. I was quite entertained. I do hope you’ll stand by what you wrote to TURGENEV, and allow your letters to be published here in the Other World. After all, you’re publishing our letters in your daily paper, the Národná obroda. Come to think of it, you’re making money on our ideas! Then again – to hell with our ideas, since they’re from the Other World. You wouldn‘t be able to prove they’re ours anyway. More ideas float around interstellar space than stars or meteors. When you see a shooting star in the clear summer sky, could it actually be a bright idea falling? We should really ask ourselves whether this rainfall of ideas can save mankind. Wouldn’t it be healthier to spend our earthly existence in careless reverie, folly, or in working for the Lord? It’s not important which Lord: the Lord God, the lord of the manor, or Lord only knows.
Anyway, you wrote Maupassant about what happened to you with an eighteen year old Slovak co-ed. I heard you offered to lend her that ever-popular book Modern Times by Johnson, saying:
“Read this and then pass it on to your classmates!”
The young lady asked with a smile: “Isn’t all that literature a bit depressing?”
“Sure,” you answered her, “quite depressing…”
Laughing, the co-ed responded: “In that case, I’ll read it when I’m older!”
Ah, your co-eds, they’re so clever! Just think how much depression, hopelessness, anxiety, even gloom I have caused young readers from St. Petersburg to New York City with my Brothers Karamazov, The Possessed, or Crime and Punishment! Many have asked themselves whether it was worth it to “chew” their way through my pages, to suffer in the “hell” of my heroes’ minds. But I’m not about to apologize. I’m convinced that even a thousand years from now readers will benefit from visiting my literary limbo, that panopticon which God instilled in my Great Russian brain – as much as gallery visitors benefit from looking at Hieronymus Bosch’s grotesque scenes or Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Forgive my pride, but I truly value certain chapters of my books, even if they were born of the need for gambling money. Sometimes the best in art doesn’t come from an all-consuming urge to say something, but from the passion of a gambler, or from the unbridled excitement of encountering absolute beauty, even if that beauty is “possessed.”
Here in the Other World we frequently discuss questions I posed back in the eighteen seventies. Some of them haven’t been answered clearly to this day. In my Diary of a Writer, published in 1877, I asked whether we Russians were anything more than intruders in Europe. I wrote: “Our landowners are selling their serfs and using the proceeds to travel to Paris, where they publish social tracts. We have become so alienated from our Russian land that we cannot differentiate between the soul of a Russian peasant and that of a European. After all, Russian landowners have never given any thought to the nature of the Russian peasant. They did not acknowledge he had a nature to begin with. We have forgotten that he could have any such thing, and we have certainly not bothered asking about it. We believed that our people would unquestioningly accept all things European we exposed them to, that is to say, we imposed upon them. Meanwhile, our so-called humanitarians still act like they own Russian serfs, even though serfdom has been abolished.”
Even now, at the end of the twentieth century, it looks like we Russians are really just intruders in Europe. Though I must say, America and Europe should be grateful to us for the last two centuries of literature and music. I feel I can be frank with you, my dear Július Voitekhovich, because I know you’re a Rusophile.
So, what is to be done with our “expansive Russian soul” these days? Should it be exiled from Europe for good? You’ve clipped our wings, to be sure, but our young people in Petersburg still speak English to each other… It may take us a while to pluck up our courage again, but you should be on the lookout for it. Those of us who have experienced the dazzle and comfort of European spas, who have set foot in the casinos of Monte Carlo, Baden Baden, or Ostend, will never reconcile ourselves to the mud of central Asia.
I look at that world of yours with my friends from the Other World, Russian writers of noble and common birth, and I can’t help shaking my head. Nothing has changed. The Don Cossacks are back to carrying their whips; the Ukrainians are making off with Crimea again. What will come of all this without God and without a Tsar? Then again, the Russian peasant may be returning to both. After all, the peasant (who survived the Communists) never gave up his God or his Tsar, just like Muslims don’t give up their faith. I expect you’ll be hearing a lot more about them all.
Well, that’s how things are with me, old Dostoevsky, infamous roulette player and gambler with the human soul. You know, my story “White Nights” has always been my favorite piece. I wrote it in 1848. I was 27, and I had no idea what was going on with your nations in Austria-Hungary. At the time, the Russian nobility was too busy strolling down the promenades of European health-resorts, and someone (it might even have been Pushkin) came up with the term lishnie liudi (superfluous men).
Now there’s a big topic for your reply, my dear Július Voitekhovich… Lishnie liudi. Doesn’t that smack of racism? Whom can you call superfluous? Is anyone ever superfluous?
Send your reply to:
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
The Other World
By Július Satinský
translated, from the Slovak, by Magdalena Mullek
Magdalena Mullek is a Ph.D student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Indiana University. Július Satinský (1941-2002) was a famous Slovak actor, comedian, singer, musician, and author, whose works continue to enjoy great popularity even after his death. “Dostoevsky’s Letter” is an excerpt from Satinsky’s 2007 Lissty z Onoho Sveta.