150 years of “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
by Olivia Kroth
In 2016, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel “Crime and Punishment” (Преступлéние и наказáние) became 150 years old, remaining as actual as ever. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) first published it in the Russian literary magazine Russkiy Vestnik (Russian Messenger), in twelve monthly installments, from January to December 1866. The author chose the city of Saint Petersburg as background for his novel, not the city of the rich and splendid tsarist court, but the city of poverty, with dirty back alleys, sordid taverns and the miserable life of the poor, who often did not know how to survive from one day to the next. The crowded squares, shabby houses, the noise and stench, all are transformed by the writer into a rich store of metaphors for poverty. “Crime and Punishment” features an immensely engaging blend of moral, political, religious and social commentary, thus creating a masterpiece of literature that exposes the core of human condition. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s exquisite literary genius still evokes a strong emotional resonance in readers today, just like it did back in 1866.
Saint Petersburg was founded by Tsar Peter the Great on the shores of the Neva river, in 1703. He built a water city with many canals criss-crossing it. Plenty of islands are located in the river delta, the largest is Vasilyevsky island. In the 19th century, when Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote his novel, rich aristrocats and merchants lived on the islands. Vasilyevsky island is mentioned in “Crime and Punishment” as a beautiful place, where the inhabitants of Saint Petersburg go for walks. The main character of the novel, the poor student Rodion Raskolnikov, also likes to stroll around here.
Vasilyevsky Island in Saint Petersburg:
“He strolled across Vasilyevsky Island. His eyes, tired of the dusty city, were refreshed by the green freshness. Neither suppressing heat nor bad odours haunted the island. Once in a while, he stopped in front of a villa amidst greenery. Looking over the fence, he noticed balconies and terraces, well-dressed ladies and children running in the garden. He felt especially attracted by the flowers and admired them at length. He also met superb coaches, ladies and gentlemen on horseback. His eyes followed them with curiosity but forgot them even before they were gone. Once, he halted to count his money. He realized that he owned thirty kopecks.”
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral:
The author also mentions the Winter Palace and Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Rodion Raskolnikov regularly walks around this area as well. “He turned towards the Neva river, taking the direction of the Winter Palace. The sky was cloudless and the water almost blue, which seldom happens with the Neva. The dome of the cathedral, the silhouette of which could be best discerned from the bridge, only a few steps away from the chapel, was shining, its ornaments clearly visible in the clean air. When he was still visiting the university, he had stopped exactly at this spot, maybe a hundred times, to admire the superb panorama and to marvel about his own confusion, which he was not able to describe correctly. He always felt an unaccountable coldness at the sight of the splendid panorama.”
These descriptive passages demonstrate that the poor young man not only admires but also envies the priviledged class living on the beautiful islands, while he must dwell in a narrow, dark hole. The splendour of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral lets his heart turn cold. He himself cannot explain this emotion, but the readers know very well how he feels. Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a master of description and characterization. The city of Saint Petersburg serves as a mirror for the character of Rodion Raskolnikov: inside and outside intermingle. Of course, a poor man will feel pangs of chill and envy at the sight of pomp.
The main character of the novel, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, is a former student of law in Saint Petersburg. Due to a lack of funds he has given up his studies and lives in extreme poverty. Because he can no longer pay the rent for his sordid room he decides to murder the pawnbroker Alyna Ivanovna and steal her possessions. Having killed her with an axe, he murders the pawnbroker’s sister as well, who comes for a surprise visit and stumbles across the dead body. Afterwards, his bad conscience haunts him so that his behaviour is becoming ever more erratic, until he falls ill. Finally he admits his crime to the police. Raskolnikov is sentenced to hard work in a labour camp in Siberia for eight years, where he will begin his mental and spiritual rehabilitation.
The end of the novel has a personal, autobiographical background. Fyodor Dostoyevsky himself spent four years in Siberian exile, from 1850 to 1854. The author belonged to a subversive circle in Saint Petersburg with close ties to the Decembrists who wanted to oust Tsar Nicholas I. In 1849, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested and sentenced to death. Later, the Tsar commuted his sentence to hard labour in the prison camp of Omsk. When released, the author wrote about this gruesome experience in his semi-autobiographical novel, “The House of the Dead” (Записки из Мёртвого дома), which was published in 1862.
Prisoners camp in Siberia:
A large part of the novel “Crime and Punishment” is filled with Rodion Raskolnikov’s inner monologues, which accompany his preparation of the crime and afterwards his justification. He finds it unjust that the great people of this world may present their crimes as heroic deeds but the small people are punished as murderers. The author thought that Napoleon Bonaparte was a criminal who wilfully spilled human blood. The figure of Rodion Raskolnikov judges Napoleon in a way that corresponds to the author’s opinion:
“All the founders and lawmakers, the Napoleons, etc., were criminals. They did not refrain from spilling blood if it helped them. It is noteworthy that these so-called benefactors of humanity produced streams of blood. All of them were destructive. For their ideas they walked over dead bodies and killed thousands of people, thinking it was a virtue.”
The young murderer Rodion Raskolnikov in Saint Petersburg:
“Crime and Punishment” contains fantastic elements and follows the structure of a detective novel. It belongs to the category of Social Realism in Russia, pointing out the necessity of social reforms. Fyodor Dostoyevsky created the figure of Ekaterina Ivanovna to show poverty and despair. She is married to an alcoholic in Saint Petersburg who drinks away his small pension, while she brings up the children:
“Ekaterina Ivanovna went to the window. In the corner there was a large washtub on a decrepit chair. She had filled it with water because she wanted to wash the clothes of her husband and children at night. Ekaterina Ivanova did the laundry twice a week, sometimes even more often, as the family did not have enough undergarments for change. Each family member owned only one single set of underwear.”
One day, Ekaterina Ivanovna’s drunk husband is hit and dragged by a horsecart. He dies under the hooves of the horse. After this accident, the family is drowning in misery. Ekaterina and her children try to earn a few kopecks with street theatre: “Ekaterina Ivanovna wore an old dress and shawl, balancing a worn-out straw hat on her head like a misshaped ball. Her face showed the suffering of a consumptive patient. She admonished her children and asked them to dance and sing for the whole world.”
Shortly before she dies from consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis), she says, “When the tsar comes by, I will kneel down in front of him. I will show him my children and beg: Save us, father!” But the tsar never appeared. He avoided the poor quarters of Saint Petersburg and was not interested in the pains of his people. He prefered to celebrate pompous feasts in the halls of his residences, where the court danced. There was plenty to eat and drink, while the Russian people went hungry.
Dostoyevsky Monument in Saint Petersburg:
The writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born in the astrological sign of Scorpio, on the 30th of October 1821. Scorpio, ruled by Pluto, is intensely preoccupied with death, as the psychotherapist Liz Greene explains, “Aspects of Pluto appear with great regularity in the horoscopes of some people whose lives have been overshadowed by fate in the form of illness, a hereditary defect or death” (Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate, 1984).
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was affected by the occurence of epilepsy, a hereditary defect. Furthermore, death intruded very early into his family. His mother Maria Nechayeva died of tuberculosis, in 1837, when the boy was 16 years old. His father Mikhail Dostoyevsky was murdered by serfs, in 1839, because he had treated them badly. Thus, the writer became an orphan at 18. Later, he lost his first child Sonya, who lived only three months. His little daughter died on the 12th of May 1868. It is no surprise to find death as a central motif in the author’s novels. Many of his characters die of tuberculosis, commit suicide or are killed.
Dostoyevsky Museum in Saint Petersburg:
Liz Greene explains Pluto in the horoscope of creative people this way: “Collective Fate enters an individual life at this point. The encounter with Fate may bring salvation. Being able to do willingly what must be done connects the human being with the eternal, never changing cosmos. I have gained the impression, if Pluto has a strong position in the horoscope, the individual will be confronted with the task of carrying or redeeming the great collective, a task which can be achieved only by this particular individual.”
The writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky was able to carry and redeem the great Russian collective. In “Crime and Punishment” Rodion Raskolnikov’s soul is reformed. He finds a woman that loves him and whom he will marry. At the end of this grim novel the readers are relieved. After all the horror, terror and misery we can finally breathe a sigh of relief because the novel has a happy end with catharsis through purgation and purification of the mind. Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of the great Russian authors in the pantheon of world literature. His works are of timeless significance and expressiveness. His literary treatment of life and death is as unusual as it is universally valid.
A contemporary portrait of the writer, created by the Russian painter Vasily Perov, in 1872, catches the eye due to its psychological intensity. Today, it can be admired in room 17 of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The painting shows Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s main traits: his high cheekbones, the mustache and beard of a typical Russian, a Slavic man. The writer’s dark eyes are not directed towards the public but inwards, into his own soul. His plain clothes indicate that the life of his mind was more important to him than outward trivialities. This picture is seen as Vasily Perov’s masterpiece in the genre of portraits. His depiction of the introverted author lingers in the memory of the Russian nation. Vasily Perov pointed out Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s contemplative character and penchant for introspection. The author’s wife Anna Dostoyevskaya found the portrait very good. She said that it presented her husband in one of his prevalent poses: ” I often saw this,expression on Fyodor Mikhailovich’s face. When I entered his room, I noticed that he was looking into himself. Then I backed out quietly, without a word.”
Both, the author and the painter, had a strong social conscience. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Vasily Perov were similar in nature. The writer expressed social criticism in his literary works, the painter in his pictures. They represent Social Realism in Russia, showing the consequences of misery and poverty, the implications of bad living conditions in the tsarist empire. Vasily Perov’s painting “Sleeping Children” might serve as an illustration for Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment”. The two children, clad in rags, are sleeping without pillows or blankets on a mouldy cot, which is full of holes. They could be the poor children of Ekaterina Ivanovna in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Vasily Perov were outstanding men. Their values and visions point beyond themselves, transcending the boundaries of place and time. Their commitment to social justice reaches further than local, regional or even national interests. It is relevant for the entire world, until this very day. Yet the essence of their artistic and literary concepts appears to be very Russian. Their legacy belongs to the best Russia can offer.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.