Today is the 200th Birthday of Fyodor Dostoevsky

His "Crime and Punishment" taught me a lesson

Many years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I shared a flat with someone who had a copy of “Crime and Punishment” by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. When I started reading it, I found it easy to identify with the feelings of isolation and alienation of the (anti-)hero, the impoverished student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov.

Raskolnikov thinks himself intelligent enough to be above the law, and do justice his own way. However, he then goes and murders someone. The victim is innocent, but the reader is not invited to find her likable. This was a brilliant move by Dostoevsky, because it forces the reader to examine himself. Do we not all sometimes harbour feelings of superiority? The rest of the book is all about Raskolnikov’s attempts to deal with the fact that he has killed someone.

The lesson the book taught me was to “consider the possibility that I might be wrong”. It taught me some humility. For that, I am deeply grateful to Dostoevsky.

Apart from that book, I have read his parable “The Grand Inquisitor” (embedded in his novel “The Brothers Karamazov”), which has as its theme the epic struggle between power and love.

The famous clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson has often commented on Dostoevsky, saying that the Russian had accurately foretold the rise of the demonic powers that now plague and trouble the modern world.

The Polish aphorist and poet StanisÅ‚aw Jerzy Lec (1909 – 1966) once said that, looking at the 19th century, only very few could see that it would be followed by the 20th. Dostoevsky definitely was one of those few.

I have wanted to read Dostoevsky’s other books for a long time. I hope I will get around to them in this life.

Wikipedia has a long entry on him. Here’s a short quote:

Dostoevsky was influenced by a wide variety of philosophers and authors including Pushkin, Gogol, Augustine, Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens, Balzac, Lermontov, Hugo, Poe, Plato, Cervantes, Herzen, Kant, Belinsky, Byron, Hegel, Schiller, Solovyov, Bakunin, Sand, Hoffmann, and Mickiewicz.

His writings were widely read both within and beyond his native Russia and influenced an equally great number of later writers including Russians such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Anton Chekhov, philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the emergence of Existentialism and Freudianism. His books have been translated into more than 170 languages, and served as the basis for many films.

According to an officer at the military academy, Dostoevsky was profoundly religious, followed Orthodox practice, and regularly read the Gospels and Heinrich Zschokke’s Die Stunden der Andacht (“Hours of Devotion”), which “preached a sentimental version of Christianity entirely free from dogmatic content and with a strong emphasis on giving Christian love a social application.”

That last bit sounds a lot like what Gary North preaches when he says that Christ’s redemptive power does not stop at the individual, family and church level, but extends to other societal institutions as well, including the government.

The Wikipedia-entry includes this very touching scene, with which I will end this post:

While seeing his children before dying, Dostoevsky requested that the parable of the Prodigal Son be read to his children. The profound meaning of this request is pointed out by [his biographer Joseph] Frank: “It was this parable of transgression, repentance, and forgiveness that he wished to leave as a last heritage to his children, and it may well be seen as his own ultimate understanding of the meaning of his life and the message of his work.”