Was Fyodor Dostoyevsky a True Crime Writer?

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Was Fyodor Dostoyevsky a true crime writer? In some sense, the answer is yes. Jennifer Wilson (The New York Times) draws attention to Dostoyevsky’s use of real-life criminal cases to critique nineteenth-century Russian society:

“[T]oday’s true crime resurgence has an antecedent in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian author of numerous novels about murder including, most famously, “Crime and Punishment.” Dostoyevsky was obsessed with the judiciary. He spent considerable time watching trials, debating with lawyers about the nature of innocence and guilt, visiting the accused in prison and trying to sway public opinion about certain cases. So enmeshed were Dostoyevsky and his writing in the legal consciousness of czarist Russia that defense attorneys were known to invoke Rodion Raskolnikov, the charismatic murderer-protagonist of “Crime and Punishment,” when seeking sympathy from the jury.

Like many of today’s true crime authors, filmmakers and podcast hosts, Dostoyevsky wrote about crime (in both his fiction and journalism) as a way to uncover the lapses and deficiencies, as he perceived them, in the legal code. Unlike contemporary consumers of true crime, who find themselves in the middle of a larger national conversation about police brutality and racial bias in sentencing, Dostoyevsky was writing at a time of tremendous enthusiasm and hope regarding the future of Russian jurisprudence. In 1864, Czar Alexander II instituted sweeping changes to the legal code, the most radical of which was the introduction of the jury trial. Dostoyevsky shared the country’s excitement over the changes, writing to a friend: “We will have just courts everywhere. What a great regeneration that will be! (… I keep thinking and dreaming of all these things, and my heart beats faster over it.)”

Dostoyevsky himself had been victim to an overzealous judicial system. In 1849, he was sentenced to death for participating in the Petrashevsky Circle, an intellectual society influenced by the French utopian socialists. In an event that became pivotal to his ideas on mercy, punishment and death, he watched as the first group of his co-conspirators was rounded up for the firing squad, only to learn, minutes before it was his turn to die, that the sentenced had been commuted.

Despite his initial excitement about the legal reforms, over the course of covering the new trials (which, as part of the reforms, were now open to the public), he began to have serious doubts about the courts. For one, Russian juries produced an unusually high number of acquittals (about 40 percent in all cases). Dostoyevsky was likewise inclined toward clemency, writing approvingly of the acquittal of a pregnant woman named Kornilova who threw her 6-year-old stepdaughter from a four-story window. But what concerned him was that with acquittals came a tendency to view sympathetic justice solely through the prism of legal exoneration. Where was the space, he wondered, to properly attend to the moral regeneration of those who had committed acts of violence?

Dostoyevsky ultimately wanted people to feel more at ease with the concept of guilt, to embrace it as a feature of common humanity and to recognize our own complicity in the everyday acts of violence (cruelty, lack of love, stinginess) that drive people to moral transgressions.”

The New York Times

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