The Legal Context and Contributions of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is of more than average interest to lawyers. The title perhaps says it all in terms of content. The chief protagonist, the murderer Raskolnikov, is a law student on a break from his studies. And the pursuer of the murderer is a lawyer, an examining magistrate. But the more subtle and more important legal aspects of Crime and Punishment concern the time period in Russian legal history in which the novel was written and is set. The 1860s in Russia were a time of tremendous legal change. Among other things, an 1861 decree emancipated the serfs and monumental reform of the court system took place in 1864. Dostoevsky was not a lawyer, nor did he have any formal legal training. Still, law played a major role in his life. Dostoevsky spent a great deal of time watching trials and had contact with some of the greatest lawyers of his time. Whether from some innate fascination with the human condition as revealed in criminal cases or from his own personal run-ins with the law, the real cases of his day inspired much of Dostoevsky’s work and he was painstaking in his efforts to reflect the legal context of those cases accurately. Dostoevsky, of course, had the “benefit” of experiencing the criminal justice system first-hand from the wrong side of it, personally traversing most of its stages as a criminal defendant. In 1849, after achieving considerable notoriety as a novelist, he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death for treason. After eight months is prison, he and his fellow conspirators were marched out to a public square to be shot. They were tied to execution posts in threes before a firing squad. Just before the order to fire, however, the soldiers received a sudden command to disperse and Dostoevsky and his fellow prisoners had their death sentences commuted to terms of imprisonment at hard labor and exile in Siberia, by order of Nicholas I. Dostoevsky served his full term, only being permitted to return to European Russia and then to St. Petersburg in 1859.