Historical and political context
After the devastation of Kievan Rus’ by Turkic tribes and its fall to the ‘Mongol yoke,’ the Russian region developed in isolation from Europe between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. In consequence, Russia did not partake in the Renaissance, nor of course in the Reformation or Counter-Reformation. In the eighteenth century Russia gradually began to ‘join’ Europe, especially under the reign of Peter the Great, seen as Russia’s great (or terrible) Westernizer. As a result, Russian culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries essentially grafted Western European culture onto an agrarian, Christian Orthodox state. The upper classes were dramatically divided from the peasantry: quite literally, the different social castes did not speak the same language. In the nineteenth century, with the rise of the so-called intelligentsia, educated classes began to view the great divide from the people (raskol or split: the word is also used in reference to religious sectarians, who came to be called Old Believers) as a great historical tragedy.
Under Alexander II, Russia emancipated the serfs bloodlessly in 1861 and passed other progressive Great Reforms that sought to ‘catch Russia up to’ Western Europe. (There are parallels and telling contrasts with American history of the same period: cf. the 13th Amendment in 1865 and the Civil War.) The burning question of Dostoevsky’s day—arguably facing Russia even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—remained: is Russia European or not? Should it be? The faction of the so-called Westernizers continued the older aristocratic trends of speaking French at home, dressing in the latest London fashions, or completing educations abroad. The rival Slavophiles meanwhile protested that Russia should instead ‘look to the people,’ and find roots in local folk tradition. (There is some irony in the fact that this very idea is borrowed from German Romantic thought.)
Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment and in his other great tragedies responds also to the European philosophical context of his time. The ideas of the German idealist philosophers were very much in the air: Russian intellectuals were profoundly shaken by the works of Kant, Hegel, Marx and others, and Raskolnikov’s ‘exceptional man’ is something of a brutalized reading of Hegel’s world historical figure. Other competing and interpenetrating ideas came from the utilitarian thought of John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and William Godwin (the husband of early feminist Mary Wallstonecraft), echoing in such phrases as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” To round out the picture, we see notions borrowed from French utopian socialism à la Charles Fourier, nihilism (most simply, morality does not inherently exist), and the cult of Napoleon. In his novels, Dostoevsky often represents Western European ideas as dangerous diseases infecting, or as spirits possessing his morally shaken characters.
The capital of the Russian Empire, founded by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, St. Petersburg was built by Italian and Western European architects on the Neva river and the Gulf of Finland, and intended to be Russia’s ‘window onto Europe.’ To the Russian eye, there was something terrifyingly artificial about this beautiful, watery, and haunted city. Besides the cramped poverty, disease, and crime resulting from rapid urbanization (which are arguably the same everywhere, and Dostoevsky borrows liberally in this vein from the London of Charles Dickens), Petersburg was literally built on swampland and by means of forced labor. Recurrent and devastating floods could easily seem like nature’s own revenge on the lofty architecture and aesthetic layout of the city’s canals and streets.
Sources: Adapted from the Handbook of Russian Literature, edited by Victor Terras (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); see also A History of Russian Literature, by Victor Terras (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991); and The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevsky, edited by W. J. Leatherbarrow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).