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Crime and Punishment | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Crime and Punishment | Context


Historical Context

Between the 13th and 16th centuries, Russia was isolated from Europe and did not take part in the Reformation, a break from the Catholic Church, which led to the establishment of the Protestant Church, or the Renaissance, a resurgence of interest in art, science, and classical thought in Western Europe. Russian society was primarily feudal, consisting of farms owned by lords and worked by serfs. The Russian Orthodox Church dominated religious life.

In the 18th century Czar Peter I (1672–1725), also known as "Peter the Great," made widespread changes to virtually every aspect of Russian society and culture. During the Northern War (1700–1721) against Sweden, he recaptured the mouth of the Neva River and established Saint Petersburg there in 1703. In 1712 it became the capital of the Russian empire, influenced by the art, architecture, philosophy, and commerce of Western Europe. To Dostoevsky the city felt new and artificial compared to the more traditional former capital of Moscow.

These cultural reforms tapered off, and by the 19th century Russia was significantly behind Europe. Czar Alexander II (1818–1881) once again undertook wide reforms, most notably freeing the serfs in 1861 from their virtual slavery to landowners, only two years before America's Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the United States. This was a defining moment for Russia—one Dostoevsky strongly favored.

Political and Philosophical Context

Russian serfs were freed in 1861, only five years before Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment. Young Russian intellectuals, like the novel's protagonist, Raskolnikov, were debating new ways of thinking about society and questioning traditional ideas of morality.

The poverty and inequality that sprang up elsewhere in Europe during the Industrial Revolution strongly influenced philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), and Karl Marx (1818–1883). These thinkers intrigued Russian intellectuals with their theories of radical social change. Marx, for example, believed that the struggle between different social classes lay at the heart of society and that one day society would no longer be based on a class system.

Many of these new ideas challenged established views of morality found in law and religion. For example, utilitarians believed that "the morally right action is the action that produces the most good," even if it transgresses conventional moral boundaries. Raskolnikov's "exceptional man" is something of an extension of Hegel's historical actor, who is judged by history rather than traditional morals. In addition, the nihilist movement rejected the authority of the state, church, and family to define moral boundaries. Some nihilists believed that destroying society altogether was the only way to create true change.

Critical Response

Early criticism of Crime and Punishment was divided along political lines. Critic D. I. Pisarev, who favored radical social change to establish greater social and financial equality, argued that the main motivation for Raskolnikov's crime is his social environment: he is forced by his poverty to rob the pawnbroker. Other liberals and radicals objected to Dostoevsky's characterization of Raskolnikov. Like them, Raskolnikov embraces utilitarianism and nihilism. But Dostoevsky portrays these schools of thought in an unflattering light, as destabilizing, dangerous influences on his protagonist. On the other hand, Critic N. N. Strakhov, a conservative and friend of Dostoevsky, treated Raskolnikov as both a sympathetic and realistic character with multiple possible motivations for his crime. Later critics looked more closely at the novel as a psychological study of the criminal mind.


From the reign of Peter the Great, French culture heavily influenced Russian society. Although travel to France from Russia was restricted after the 1789 French Revolution, French political thought continued to influence Russia.

Sometimes aiding and sometimes opposing France before the French Revolution, Russia was reluctant to support Napoleon I (1769–1821), who had helped overthrow the French monarchy and was seizing territory throughout Europe in the early 19th century.

Angry that Russia was less and less cooperative, Napoleon invaded in 1812. Eventually, lack of resources, disease, and the brutal Russian winter forced Napoleon to withdraw, having lost hundreds of thousands of men. Nonetheless, from his death in 1821 until the late 1880s, Napoleon was seen as a legendary leader with grand ambitions. Raskolnikov views Napoleon as one of his heroes, a central example of Raskolnikov's theory that great men have the right to transgress laws in order to accomplish great deeds.

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