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Crime and Punishment is 150 – and its politics are more relevant than ever

Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Crime and Punishment is 150 – and its politics are more relevant than ever

Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

It is now 150 years since the publication of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. An incredibly influential novel, Crime and Punishment also has a particularly contemporary political significance.

The plot hinges on how, one summer’s day in St Petersurg, a penniless student, Rodion Raskolnikov, murders an old woman pawnbroker. He does it partly to prove an idea that he has written about: that exceptional people, like Napoleon, can be above the law. Besides, to him the pawnbroker is a “louse” whose murder will be a net benefit to society. But during the murder, the victim’s kind and vulnerable sister walks in. Raskolnikov kills her, too, without a second thought. The reader sees how Raskonikov has become desensitised and how his ideas (influenced by his reading of Hegel and Bentham) have unintended consequences.

Raskolnikov’s name means “split in two” or “schismatic”. His split personality inspired Stevenson’s story of Jekyll and Hyde. One of the first psychological novels, Crime and Punishment is also deeply political. It reflected a wave of reaction against economic liberalism, not unlike that which has occurred during 2016. Raskolnikov is shown to be a confused hybrid, both reflecting liberal thought and rebelling against it.

Balzac and Dostoevsky

Widespread disillusion with liberalism emerged in France during the July Monarchy (1830-48) of Louis Philippe, for whom liberalism meant the rule of the self-made rich. Liberalism became a convenient scapegoat for social problems, especially if it could be presented as an alien (Anglo-Saxon) import.

Balzac’s novels, especially Le Pere Goriot (1835), portrayed Paris under the July monarchy as mired in corruption, social climbing and materialism. The anti-liberal Balzac became an admirer of Russia. In his Lettre sur Kiew of 1847, he praised Russia’s absolute power and “so-called despotism” as preferable to France’s “mob rule”. Balzac’s influence can be seen in the concepts and characters of Crime and Punishment. And the anti-liberal message is even stronger.

Liberalism in Crime and Punishment is represented by its most negative character, the wealthy businessman, Luzhin (meaning “puddle”). When we meet him, he is arguing the case for what would now be called “trickledown economics”. Luzhin seeks to marry Raskolnikov’s sister, taking advantage of the family’s genteel poverty.

The indignity of this proposal is, in Raskolnikov’s mind, the last straw that propels him towards murder (although the pawnbroker is in no way responsible). Later, Luzhin’s attempt to frame Sonya, Raskolnikov’s saint-like friend, as a thief, provides the dramatic climax of the novel – as if to make quite sure that the reader sees Luzhin, and what he represents, in the worst possible light.

Another powerfully negative character, Svidrigailov – the upper-class predatory libertine who represents the evil amorality of de Sade – is given some redeeming features by Dostoevsky, but Luzhin is given none.

Identity politics

Dostoevsky’s hostility to liberalism may have been irrational but he succeeds in depicting the social and psychological dislocation brought about by rapid economic change. Dostoevsky’s poor are drawn from the downwardly-mobile middle class whose deprivation is compounded by loss of status.

This recalls the fate of many in the years following the the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union but also those “left behind” English Brexiters or Mid-Western Trump voters who lost their livelihoods or social roles through economic globalisation from the 1980s onwards.

Dostoevsky also anticipates how the dislocation brought about by economic change leads to identity politics (whether of the right or left). Raskolnikov is finally redeemed, not by priests, but by Sonya’s preaching. Forced into prostitution by her stepmother, Sonya’s spiritual strength transcends her suffering and she symbolises “rootedness” in the people – pochvennost in Russian.

For Dostoevsky, religion is primarily about identity. Crime and Punishment shows how those, like Raskolnikov, who are alienated or confused by liberal modernisation may take refuge in mystical nationalism or collectivism. It happened in Russia following the reforms of the 1990s and it may explain the upheavals in Western democracies during 2016.

Russian psychology

Crime and Punishment may also provide an insight into the psychology of Russia as a geopolitical player. As with Raskolnikov, there is currently much speculation about Russia’s real motives in its international relations.

The most likely explanation, for both, is wounded pride. Raskolnikov’s state of mind is influenced by his family’s loss of status and reduced circumstances. He sees them as vulnerable to predators like Luzhin and Svidrigailov. This recalls the parlous state of Russia and (for many) the sense of national humiliation during and after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Raskolnikov’s reaction to his humiliation is to step over the line to prove that he is exceptional, like Napoleon. The word for crime in Russian, prestupleniye, means “stepping over”. Whether or not the annexation of Crimea was a “crime”, it was without doubt the moment when Russia “stepped over”, as if reasserting its own version of American exceptionalism.

Dostoevsky would no doubt have approved. His messianic nationalism was, as Freud put it, “the weakness of this great personality … a position which lesser minds have reached with smaller effort”. But his depiction of the tensions between individual, community and modernity in Crime and Punishment cuts across political lines and has lost none of its insight or relevance.