Tuesday, July 08, 2014
Dostoevsky and His New Testament
Dostoevsky is known to have received this book as a gift from the Decembrists' wives in Tobol'sk in the middle of January 1850, when he was on his way to Siberia to serve his sentence for crimes against the state (XXI: 12). As "spiritual works" were the only books allowed in the ostrog (IV: 303), and as the writer had his own copy of the Bible stolen on the very first day, this gift came to have particularly great importance. "During the entire four years of his imprisonment Fedor Michajlovich never allowed himself to be parted from this holy book," says Anna Grigor'evna in her memoirs. "Twenty years later when he recalled his sorrow and mental anguish," she told one of her husband's biographers, "he used to say that the Gospel was the only thing that kept hope alive in his heart. Only in that book did he find support; whenever he resorted to it, he was filled with new energy and strength." "For four years it lay under my pillow in the gaol," the writer himself confirms. "From time to time I read from it and read aloud to others" (XXI: 12).Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ostrog: "In Russia (esp. in Siberia): a fortified house or village surrounded by a palisade or wall; a fort; a prison."
It is also indeed with strange feelings that one sits today in the Manuscripts Collection of the Lenin Library leafing through Dostoevsky's dirty copy of the New Testament. Countless fleas and lice have crawled over the dark covers of the book. From the writer's bunk it witnessed din and uproar, the rattling and jangling of shackles, cursing and coarse laughter, shaven heads and branded faces, degradation and misery. But it was precisely in this earthly inferno that the book was to have such importance for the writer's spiritual rebirth.
This was the first time the New Testament had been available in Russian translation. Earlier there had only been the Old Church Slavonic text, which was still to be the only version used in church. The translation had been carried out by the most distinguished theologians in Russia; the master for the Gospel according to St. John was no less a person than the metropolitan Filaret. The price was 2 roubles and 25 copecks, so it is not exactly a cheap paperback we can hold in our hands. This solid book (620 pp., 18.7 x 11.4 cm) is bound in pure leather and obviously intended for daily use over many decades. Typically, this is the copy of the New Testament with which the author provides Sonja in Crime and Punishment: "It was the New Testament in Russian translation," states Raskol'nikov. "The book was old, well used, bound in leather" (VI: 242).
Well used, not to say badly worn, can also be said of Dostoevsky's copy. For example, the leather binding is damaged. Here the Decembrists' wives are known to have poked in a ten-rouble note, another gift that was good to have in the ostrog. Anna Grigor'evna says that the book was later always to be found on the writer's desk. "Often when he was deep in thought or in doubt about something, he would open the New Testament at random and read whatever was on the first page to his left," she says in her memoirs.
The New Testament was also used in this way on 28 January (9 February) 1881 when Dostoevsky felt that death was fast approaching. At random the book was opened at page 6 where Anna Grigor'evna read the account of Jesus coming to John to be baptised. "Do you hear? 'Let it now happen' – ne zaderzhivaj (don't hold me back) – of course I am about to die," said the writer. Six hours later he had passed away. In his copy of the New Testament his wife also underlined this passage (Matt., III, 13-15) and added in the margin: "These lines were opened and read aloud by me at the request of Fedor Michajlovich on the day of his death at 3 o'clock."
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.