is unmistakably a novel about what it means to break the law, something Dostoyevsky had experienced firsthand in his late 20s—in part because he too had once been a follower of the “latest ideas.” In 1849, Dostoyevsky was tried for and convicted of crimes against the state.
Some two years earlier, he had become involved in an intellectual society devoted to the utopian ideals of the socialist Charles Fourier.
Indeed, an onslaught of everyday economic violence (the denial of loans, the shame and humiliation inflicted on those in debt, the indignity of having to beg, and so forth) forms so painful a backdrop that the murder sometimes gets lost in the larger canvas of depravity that Dostoyevsky paints in Despite his tendency to rage at the amount of cruelty and greed to be found in 19th-century St.
Petersburg, Dostoyevsky reserves a special anger in this novel for those who talked about the economy in terms abstract and thus callous—the followers, as he puts it, “of the latest ideas.” Shortly after the novel begins, Raskolnikov wanders into a tavern.
The idea inspired a generation of young Russians coming of age in the wake of Czar Alexander II’s “great reforms” (which included the abolition of serfdom and the establishment of local forms of self-government), who wanted to push Russian society along further and more quickly through a revolution that they believed began with remaking themselves and interrogating their own desires.
Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, could not abide this scientific dissection of desire, believing that people were ultimately unaware of why they wanted the things they wanted.
Wasn’t Raskolnikov, in killing an avaricious pawnbroker who lent money at predatory rates and abused her sister, acting in the interest of the greater good?
It was the same danger that Dostoyevsky recognized in the nihilists and anarchists, who by the 1870s and ’80s had indeed turned to terrorism to achieve their ends.
Just minutes before Dostoyevsky expected to die, however, as the officers were steadying their weapons against the first group of conspirators, he and the other prisoners learned that their sentences had been commuted to hard labor as a supposed “act of mercy.” Dostoyevsky spent the next four years in a It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in subsequent years Dostoyevsky was fascinated by the judiciary; throughout his career, he devoted a considerable amount of time to attending trials in person and reading about them in the news.
(A later novel, , was inspired by a court case where a group of nihilists were put on trial for murdering a member of their organization.) He conversed with lawyers about the nature of guilt and innocence and debated court decisions in one of the journals he edited, , was a frustration with defense attorneys, who were increasingly winning acquittals for their clients by pointing to “environmental” factors like a poor upbringing.