Turning to leave one of our manuscript storage areas I saw a box labelled Small Russian Manuscripts. Curious – I hadn’t realised we had any Russian manuscript material – I took a look inside.

The box was a third full and contained two paper bound printed books and three brown envelopes.

Sitting at my desk the following morning I examined the contents: An autographed printed copy of Vsevold Garshin’s short stories (1882); an anonymous printed volume on state sovereignty which has a handwritten dedication to Ivan Turgenev (1876); the visiting card of Russian Chemist Dmitri Mendeleev; a covering letter from the donor of the items and – most surprisingly – a letter written by Fyodor Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg in December 1863.

One sheet of paper

Opening the envelope (marked in biro: F.M.DOSTOEVSKY) I found a single sheet of paper divided by a fold into four handwritten pages.

dostoevsky page 1
Dostoevsky Letter – 5 December 1863 – page 1

A quick Google indicated that the handwriting and signature were consistent with it being written by Dostoevsky – what was particularly exciting was that it appeared to be uncatalogued. Could this be an undiscovered addition to the Dostoevsky canon? Whilst the greeting on the letter was in GCSE level French (“Mon tres cher Monsieur”) the rest was in Russian. Kindly – and extremely promptly – three undergraduates in the Languages school (thanks to Sam Linley, Maria Kulik and Ana Marinina) provided a translation which allowed me to check against published letters.

Three disappointments

  • It’s been written about (‘discovered’) before by J.S.G. Simmons who thought it worthy of an article in Oxford Slavonic Papers in 1960;
  • Despite its absence from Wikipedia’s list of Dostoevsky letters (I know…) the letter was published in the Complete Letters (Complete letters, Dostoevsky F. M. ; Lowe, David A; Ardis; 1989; Vol 2. the library copy is here );
  • The letter itself is of “less than epoch making literary interest” (Simmons) and “of no literary or historical value” (from the donor’s covering letter).

 Still – what do they know? What does Dostoevsky actually have to say in the letter?

Six excuses

Dostoevsky was a reckless gambler and in catastrophic financial difficulties for much of his life. This letter (to an unknown correspondent) is an almost comically long-winded and convoluted attempt to explain why he has been out of contact with two people he has borrowed money from in Dresden in autumn 1863. The sequential reasons for this are:

  • I was in St. Petersburg “taking care of things”;
  • My wife was taken ill and I had to travel to Vladimir;
  • On the road I lost my bag which had the addresses of all my acquaintances both here and abroad;
  • I forgot your street and house number in Dresden (due to my “extraordinarily weak memory”);
  • I decided to write when I returned to St Petersburg but “day after day went by and brought only new worries”;
  • I had to visit Moscow.

The style is highly strung, neurotic and identifiably Dostoevsky and it was a personal thrill for me to find it in our collections.

dostoevsky page 4
Dostoevsky’s signature and postscript

The full digitised letter is available here. If you would like to see the original you can do so here at the John Rylands Library – please read the access guide here

If you’re interested in the rest of the box and how the material came to the John Rylands I’ll be writing about that very soon on here.

Dominic Marsh, Reader Services Coordinator, John Rylands Library