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Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment


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Russia represents a bit of a break from the (supposedly) unified tradition we've been tracing through both semesters of Lit. Hum. Though it is nominally a European country, Russia's cultural experience and evolution have followed quite a differnt trajectory from that of "the West." First, Russia was not privy to the Classical (pagan) tradition Greece or Rome, but was introduced to this tradition by way of Byzantium (which became the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 B.C.E.), when Russia converted to the Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) form of Christianity in 988 C.E.). In other words, by the time Russia was exposed to Classical tradition, it was already through the lens of Christianity. Then, from the 12th to the 15th centuries, Russia was ruled by Mongol conquerors, and was thus completely isolated from Western Europe. The cultural consequences of this isolation were great: Russia experienced no Renaissance, no Reformation, no Counter-Reformation, and no Enlightenment (in the form recognized in the West).

Russia joined Europe in the 18th century, under Peter the Great, who was enamoured of the "modern" ways Europeans (particularly the Dutch and Germans) had of doing things, and resolved to modernize Russia on a European model. His efforts resulted in the grafting of Western European culture and technology (and even languages--the upper classes spoke German to each other in the 18th century, French in the 19th) onto an agrarian, deeply traditional (what fashionable globalists of today would call "backward"), Russian Orthodox state. Russian society became divided into the Westernized upper classes and the Orthodox peasants. (The schism--Raskol, in Russian--between Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Roman-Catholic-derived denominations of the West cannot be overestimated; to believers on both sides, it is deep and irreconcilable.)

One of Peter's most audacious projects was the building of the city that is named for him, and that provides the setting for Crime and Punishment: St. Petersburg. (Note the German-sounding name; is the early 20th century, the last Tsar, Nicholas II, would rename the city "Petrograd," which means the same thing ["Peter's city"], but using the Slavic root for "city".) St. Petersburg was built on swampland conquered from Finland, using German and Dutch planners and technologies, but Russian manpower (and many of the people involved in its construction died). A symbol of Imperial power, of Peter's iron will, of Russia's new Westward-looking culture (it was built at the extreme western border of Russia, as well as using Western models), and of the triumph of rational order (it is a city of straight lines and right angles), Petersburg was dubbed the "Venice of the North"; partly because of its three conjoined rivers (the Neva, the Little Neva and the Nevka) and its canals (built to reduce the risk of flooding, since the underlying ground was a swamp), and partly because it was, like Venice, both beautiful and hazardous to the health (lots of water around, none of it particularly clean).

Peter the Great has always loomed over both Petersburg (where there is a huge, intimidating bronze statue of him on a horse overlooking the river, immortalized by Russia's most-beloved poet, Alexander Pushkin, in "The Bronze Horseman") and over Russian literature (from Pushkin on). Watch out for the name "Peter" (Pyotr, in Russian) in C&P: Luzhin's name is Pyotr Petrovich ("Peter son of Peter"), and several other characters have patronymics (the middle name, derived from the first name of the bearer's father) that indicate their descent from someone named Peter: Petrovich ("son of Peter") or Petrovna ("daughter of Peter"). If you're not familiar with the system of Russian naming, you'll find an explanation in the "Translator's Note," p. xix of our edition.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (FYO-dr Mikh-EYE-lovich Dust-eye-EF-ski) was born in 1821, into an aristocratic but not partcularly prominent family. His father, a military surgeon, was murdered by his peasants (until 1861 in Russia, the landowning classes also legally owned the serfs or peasants who lived on the land they owned). This experience profoundly affected Dostoevsky (how could it not?).

It was just one of many extreme experiences in D's life: In 1847, he began to participate in the Petrashevsky circle, a group of radical Utopians who held salon-like meetings in Petersburg. In 1849 the members of this circle were rounded up and sentenced to death by Nicholas I; they were later reprieved, but not until they had undergone the preliminary ceremonies and were actually waiting at the scaffold to be executed. Another very traumatic experience. Dostoevsky's death sentence was commuted to 4 years in a Siberian labour camp, an experience that informed many of his later works.

After his release from prison, Dostoevsky adopted a more conservative stance, aligning himself with the Slavophiles in the great cultural debate of the mid-19th century in Russia: Slavophiles vs. Westernizers. As you might guess from the names, these opposing lobbies saw the way forward for Russia in terms of a return to native traditions and Russian Orthodox culture on the one hand; and in terms of an ever-closer alignment with the West and adoption of Western ideals, technologies and lifestyle choices on the other.

While he avoided further political trouble, Dostoevsky was not out of the woods in his personal life: Financial troubles, combined with a turbulent love affair and a passion for roulette, led to a nightmarish period in Germany, partly described in the short novel The Gambler (1866). In 1864 his unhappy marriage ended with the death of his wife. The same year his financial problems increased when his brother died and Dostoyevsky assumed responsibility for the remaining family. In 1867 he married his young secretary, who "gave him profound affection and understanding and greatly enriched his later years," in the rather saccharine words of The works commonly considered as D's mature masterpieces were written in the ensuing 15 years: C&P (1886), The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (or Devils; "Besy"in Russian) (1871), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Dostoyevsky died in 1881 of a lung hemorrhage complicated by an attack of epilepsy.

Crime and Punishment
Like all Dostoevsky's mature works, this one is visibly a novel of ideas (while simultaneously being, of course, a novel of character, plot, suspense, psychology, narrative detail, etc. etc.) Your only study question for the first reading assignment is to try to keep track of the various philosophical and political ideas swirling around in the novel.

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