AKA Some Thoughts on Crime and Punishment after 4000 pages of Russian history
I am recently returned to the great northwest from a seminar on U.S.-Russian relations. This involved reading near-infinite amounts of Russian/Soviet history. But my inner Russophile is awakened, and I came home with a desire to gorge on the fabulous literary past of that great nation (or empire, or amorphous ethnic group, or linguistic community, or however else we want to define Russia). So I immediately downloaded my first, and still my favorite, Russian novel: Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment. I read it for the first time when I was a freshman in high school, and I wanted to see how differently it felt after sixteen years and a much better grasp of its creative context.
Most of you know the basic concept of the book. Raskolnikov, a law school dropout living in desperate poverty in St. Petersburg, decides to rob and murder an elderly pawnbroker in order to keep his sister from marrying for money. After he does so, he feels tremendously guilty and wanders the streets a lot until he decides to confess. Along the way he helps the family of a drunkard and attracts the love of his prostitute daughter.
The novel holds up. It still reveals the inner workings of a tormented young intellectual; it still conveys the corrupting power of violence on the soul; it still reminds us that prostitutes are just trying to feed their families and have hearts of purest spun gold. But on rereading I saw the novel as in dialogue with the nascent anarchist/nihlist political movements of the time, especially on this question of principled murders.
Raskinolkov comes to us from 1866, a moment of great social unrest. Five years prior to this, Tsar Alexander II decreed the serfs emancipated, and this disrupted the countryside and the cities alike. Fifteen years after this, anarchist resistance will culminate in the assassination of Alexander on much the same logic as that of our protagonist. Why should some have so much when others have so little? Why should women marry loathesome men for economic security (and why should less fortunate women take to the streets and provide sex for economic survival), when there is plenty of money around? Why should a bright young law student have no hope or future when an elderly woman, already near the end of her life, has the means to provide that future for himself and his family? While, of course, murder is wrong, one can see Raskinolkov's reasoning.
At one point, our anti-hero raves to himself, "I didn't kill a human being, I killed a principle!" But he did kill a human being, and the principles of exploitation still reigned--humans extracting every morsel of "value" from other humans, scavenging off those who are less fortunate than themselves. I am reminded of David Gilbert's excellent memoir Love and Struggle (which I reviewed here), where he admits that he struggled for years to recognize the humanity of the security guards whose death resulted in his life sentence; thought they were guarding capital, it was still not right to deprive them of their lives. Their deaths did nothing to forward racial justice. The death of the pawnbroker did not set Raskinolkov's life to rights
Recently I visited the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. One exhibit there forcused on the two assasination attempts directed towards him. Sara Jane Moore, one of the perpetrators, actually wrote him a letter apologizing for her attempt on his life while maintaining the righteousness of an assault on his office, an attack on the principle of a presidency which somehow overturns all the best hopes of good people who accept the role (like Obama and Guantanamo and drones). I sympathize with that desperation, that hope in one violent deed to overcome massive injustice.
But to stop us from feeling too much sympathy, Dostoyevski brings in the character of Lizaveta, sister of the pawnbroker. Raskinolkov killed her also when she interrupted him in his crime. A simple and devout woman, she prays with the prostitute Sonia, and her murder forces the audience to acknowledge the injustice of collatoral damage.
In these days when presidential candidates hope for "2nd amendment rights" to stop opponents and take over elections; when our nation threatens to kill the families of terrorists; and when we know that any potential leader (yes, even Bernie) will authorize death without trial to terror suspects and those standing around them when the bombs fall--we do well to remember that principles are not people. Killing people is easier than killing principles, but it will not have the desired effect. Christ shows us that we must take the violence rather than deliver it to change to the world. This is not the easy way out, but it is the only hope for building kindness.
N.B. Napoleon shows up all over Crime and Punishment, as in: If Napoleon can kill thousands of people without consequence, why can't I? Dostoyevski seems to suggest that we not worry about Napoleon but about the damage violence will do to our souls. I disagree. We must not glorify those who kill, regardless of whether that killing is state-sponsored or not.