Red Flags: Dostoevsky’s Message for Us

October 17, 2019 Updated: October 22, 2019

Given a choice, most of us are more inclined to read contemporary fiction than the classics. If we are lucky, our high school and college teachers force us to tackle such works as “Hamlet,” “Jane Eyre,” and “Great Expectations,” but once we leave behind our desks and quizzes, we prefer John Grisham to Leo Tolstoy and Danielle Steel to Jane Austen.

This is unfortunate.

It’s true that the classics, the “old books” as C.S. Lewis called them, demand more of readers than most of today’s novels. The heft of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume “In Search of Lost Time” or the subtleties of the English class system in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” may intimidate us or put us off.

And yet the rewards bestowed by these books and their authors—their artistry, their multidimensional characters, their insights into human nature—make the effort worthwhile. They allow us to mine the depths of a soul, as in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” to gain wisdom regarding love and friendship in novels like Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” and to join our ancestors in the mirth delivered by Sancho Panza or Huckleberry Finn.

Perhaps more rarely, a classic can hold up a mirror to modern culture—a looking glass revealing the foibles and dangers of our time—which brings us to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (Jessie Coulson translation).

portrait of Dostoyevski by Vasily_Perov
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1872, by Vasili Perov. Tretyakov Gallery. (Public Domain)

Through a Glass Darkly

Though “Crime and Punishment” contains a multitude of characters, Dostoevsky focuses much of our attention on Rodion Raskolnikov, an intellectual living in squalor in czarist Russia, who kills a pawnbroker and her sister with an ax. These murders occur early in the story, and Raskolnikov spends the rest of the book in frenetic self-examination, questioning his motives and trying to justify his actions. Others become entangled in his wild-eyed paranoia and growing sense of guilt: relatives, friends, police investigators, his landlady, various inhabitants of St. Petersburg, and Sonya Marmeladov, a young woman of deep faith forced into prostitution to support her impoverished family.

So where in “Crime and Punishment” do we find reflections of our current age?

Let’s begin with Andrey Semenovich, “a clerk in some Ministry,” a man respected by his landlady because “he was not a heavy drinker and he paid his rent punctually.” Dostoevsky then adds this description:

“He was one of that countless and multifarious legion of nondescripts, putrescent abortions, and uninformed obstinate fools who instantly and infallibly attach themselves to the most fashionable current idea, with the immediate effect of vulgarizing it and of turning into a ridiculous caricature any cause they serve, however sincerely.”

Semenovich could easily fit into that crowd of outraged young people protesting climate change, demanding the removal of a professor, or shouting down a speaker at a university, certain of the justice of their cause but wildly ignorant of its foundations.

In these pages, certain characters mock traditional morality just as people do today. Andrey Semenovich, for example, at one point raises utilitarianism above all other virtues: “What does honourable mean? I don’t understand such expressions as used to define human activities. ‘More honourable,’ ‘nobler’—that’s all rubbish, those are absurdities, antiquated prejudices I reject. Everything that is useful to humanity is honourable. I understand only one word, useful!”

“Crime and Punishment” also provides glimpses of the “Me Generation” long before the advent of selfies. Peter Petrovich Luzhin, a vile man who is engaged for a time to Raskolnikov’s sister, tells his listeners early in the story to “…love yourself first of all, for everything in the world is based on personal interest. If you love yourself alone, you will conduct your affairs properly…”

Wars in the Public Square Then and Now

Then, too, there are the elites and the “deplorables.” Like some of our politicians, thinkers, and Silicon Valley billionaires, Raskolnikov, an admirer of Napoleon and others who impose their will on the world, divides humankind into those who “are, generally speaking, by nature staid and conservative, they live in obedience to their destiny, and there is nothing degrading to them,” and a second group who “require, in widely different contexts, the destruction of what exists in the name of better things.”

If we ponder those last words—“the destruction of what exists in the name of better things”—we have a motto appropriate to many of today’s thinkers, celebrities, politicians, and reporters. Like Raskolnikov, who at one point speaks of raising a “New Jerusalem,” our own “better angels” envision a staircase built from radical changes that will lead to an earthly paradise. They miss the truth behind the words of Pascal: “Man is neither angel nor beast, and it is unfortunately the case that anyone trying to act the angel acts the beast.”

Like some of the murderers in today’s mass shootings or the terrorists who explode bombs in a marketplace, Raskolnikov also regards himself as a rebel, an outsider exempt from moral boundaries. Like them, he feels superior to his victims and looks on his victims with contempt. He kills the pawnbroker not so much for her money but for a principle—she is useless, a parasite, a “louse,” and he can use her money for better causes.

Finally, in “Crime and Punishment” we find the struggle between the forces of religion and secularism, a war that continues to ravage our culture. On one side stands Sonya, the saint of the story, the woman at the well whom Jesus commanded to sin no more, the devout soul who finally frees Raskolnikov from his dark ideology and sets in motion the healing that will render him more fully human. On the other side are Raskolnikov and some of his acquaintances, unbelievers and scoffers always debating schemes to transform society into paradise and men and women into spirits freed from the constraints of natural law.

Sounds familiar, eh?

Will We Listen?

Dostoevsky was more than just a writer of fiction. He was a prophet. He feared that “Holy Russia” might succumb to the philosophical viruses introduced from the West, particularly from England, France, and Germany.

In 1917, that bacillus arrived in the person of Vladimir Lenin, shipped secretly into Russia by the Germans. For the next 70 years, Marxism savaged the Russian people, killing and imprisoning millions, suppressing religion, and attacking traditional morality, all the while exporting its evil doctrines around the globe.

crime and punishment cover
An edition of “Crime and Punishment” translated by Jessie Coulson.

In our own time, a similar ideological infection threatens to destroy the United States of America. Like much of his work—“The Devils,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Notes From the Underground”—Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” fired off a warning to Russia, a signal flare that went unheeded.

He offers us the same warning.

The question is: Are we as a people “woke” enough to pay attention?

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.