How Dostoevsky’s Classic Has Shaped Russia’s War in Ukraine, with Explaining Ukraine’s Tetyana Ogarkova and Volodymyr Yermolenko
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Tetyana Ogarkova and Volodymyr Yermolenko, hosts of the podcast Explaining Ukraine, join Fiction/Non/Fiction hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine through the lens of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. They talk about how Russian literature and Russian culture have separated crime from punishment, creating a society that distrusts laws and regulation and values power and impunity.
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From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: I’m an avid listener to your podcast—which I recommend to all of our subscribers—and we’ll put a link in our show notes to it. It’s an excellent resource for what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine. But we’ve invited you here to talk about literature, specifically Russian literature. Over the past few months, you both have talked about how you think Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment offers some crucial insight into the Russian people when it comes to this war that Russia has started in Ukraine, as well as into Putin himself. Could you outline the basic framework of that argument for our listeners?
Tetyana Ogarkova: Well, let’s start discussing this point. Well, indeed, what we see with this full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation into Ukraine was the importance of cruelty and the absence of rules, which are important for Russian society. Volodymyr is a philosopher, I studied literature for many years—so we do understand and we’ve read a lot of Russian literature before. So it gave us the kind of insight on what Russian literature is. And if we talk about Dostoevsky, primarily about his novel Crime and Punishment—I was always astonished by the fact that the novel is mostly about crime, but not, in fact, about punishment.
Because punishment itself is very much discussed and described in this novel. Remember, the main character Raskolnikov kills two ladies and then he is captured finally, but there is no description and no judgment for Raskolnikov and no real punishment. And we saw this whole thing… it might tell some story about the absence of punishment in Russian culture and what we see now, what we observe now in this war, we see injustice because Russia can use violence and missiles and whatever against Ukraine, and unfortunately, at the moment Ukraine doesn’t have real means to respond. So there’s something very deep in Russian culture about this impunity. Impunity is something very proper to Russian culture. And we think that there are some links in Russian literature, in Dostoevsky as well.
Volodymyr Yermolenko: Let me add also a few points. I think that of course, this doesn’t mean that we kind of try to deny Russian literature a priori or we make a general judgment. We try to look for symptoms which justify violence and, unfortunately, the symptoms are there. So this cutting of the link between crime and punishment is one of the very important symptoms, because it also has a rich history in Russian culture. For example, the way how the Stalinist authors were justifying the construction of gulag, the major, horrible prison camp, which is a symbol of Stalinist oppressions.
And they were justifying it by the idea that, look, we have to send all those people who are probably guilty of belonging to some different class like the bourgeoisie or peasants, without proving the crime, but we should send them to these camps in order to “reforge them,” as they said that at that time, to transform them, to put them into a different kind of people . . . And it’s really an important thing to reflect upon—why, in certain aspects of the Russian culture and Russian literature, this link between crime and punishment is broken. Why there is a neglect to the laws and a neglect to the rules, and a neglect to justice. And an idea that there can be no justice on this earth. And so, the demolition of the idea of justice is a very common symptom.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: This is so interesting to me. My family is Tamil and Sri Lankan and impunity in Sri Lanka is also deeply entrenched in the culture, and Russian literature is also, as it is in so many places, so popular. So it’s fascinating to hear you speak about this. And Tetyana, as you were just mentioning, Raskolnikov kills an old woman. Whitney’s going to read that passage, and then we can talk a little bit more about the novel’s plot and characters in detail.
WT: Yeah, this is a pawnbroker who he has been plotting to kill and then he ends up also killing her sister, Lizaveta, in a later scene. But this is the first murder in the book.
“He had not a minute more to lose. He pulled the axe quite out, swung it with both arms, scarcely conscious of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the blunt side down on her head. He seemed not to use his own strength in this. But as soon as he had once brought the axe down, his strength returned to him.
The old woman was as always bareheaded. Her thin, light hair, streaked with grey, thickly smeared with grease, was plaited in a rat’s tail and fastened by a broken horn comb which stood out on the nape of her neck. As she was so short, the blow fell on the very top of her skull. She cried out, but very faintly, and suddenly sank all of a heap on the floor, raising her hands to her head. In one hand she still held “the pledge.” Then he dealt her another and another blow with the blunt side and on the same spot. The blood gushed as from an overturned glass, the body fell back. He stepped back, let it fall, and at once bent over her face; she was dead. Her eyes seemed to be starting out of their sockets, the brow and the whole face were drawn and contorted convulsively.”
So that’s the crime. That takes place very early in the book, around page 70. And the rest of the novel takes place after the crime as you were talking about, Tetyana. There’s not a lot of punishment during that particular part of the novel. But I wondered if you could talk about how Dostoevsky begins to separate that crime from punishment? How does Raskolnikov escape punishment? Why does he escape punishment? And I know you all have talked about the philosophical roots of the novel in French—thinking about the time about rehabilitation, how to rehabilitate criminals—and I wondered if you could both talk about that. Maybe we’ll start with Volodymyr for that.
VY: Right. So, crime and punishment is an essential topic of 19th century literature, and it doesn’t come from Russia. It actually comes from, I would say, the early 19th century literature–primarily French literature, people like Honoré de Balzac or Victor Hugo. And it is an important topic for them because the French culture–after the French Revolution, after the execution of Louis XVI—there were some of those elements in this culture, primarily the monarchy, and also the conservatives—Victor Hugo initially was a conservative, and Balzac as well—that were looking at this crime of regicide as something very dramatic and very ontological, metaphysical. And they were saying that, look, there is this horrible crime.
But then there is something in this society which these people called palingénésie, palingenetic transformation, the coming through death and suffering. So there is something in the society that can actually lead you to a better life, to a life which is morally better. And many of their characters, including, for example, in Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, or some characters from The Human Comedy of Balzac, it’s all about how people who made a crime or have made a mistake in their lives, then go through a very dramatic period of transformation. And the main character of Les Misérables is like that.
And this also led these people to deep reflections. How can we organize a society in a way that we take people who made a crime, and we try to give them a second chance? And this was, of course, one of Victor Hugo’s favorite topics when he was against the death penalty, etc. So we always had these people after the major crime, right, and they were trying to make sense of the suffering of this punishment, maybe divine punishment, or human punishment. And they were trying to understand how it can actually lead to transforming a human being. Dostoevsky does an opposite thing. And that’s the most worrying thing about the novel. He was actually a translator of Balzac and Victor Hugo, and he has this phrase that’s “one of the greatest topics of our time is the rehabilitation of the fallen human being.” That’s Dostoevsky’s phrase. And I fully agree that this was a very important topic of that time. And maybe for all human culture.
WT: And Raskolnikov is fascinated by the story of Lazarus, right; that story keeps coming up in the novel as well. And that’s the same idea, I think, that you’re talking about.
VY: Exactly. What is very worrying in the way Dostoevsky puts it is that Dostoevsky invites us to think that there is no other way to this transformation except the crime. So you first have to make a crime. And then you can, through the development of your conscience, the very difficult psychological process, you will go through some religious transformation that Dostoevsky leads us into at the end of the novel.
So Dostoevsky doesn’t say okay, we see a person who made a crime, and tries to have the repentance for this crime. We see another plot, we see a person who is asking himself the famous question: whether I am a creeping creature, or do I have the right? So basically, he’s asking himself whether he is a under-human being or superhuman being. And by killing these two women, he becomes a superhuman being, and then goes through this, you know, through the process of transformation. So the worrying thing is the message that you can only go to the superhuman condition when you make a crime. And that’s the horrible thing about this.
WT: And also, I’ve heard you both—and maybe Tetyana, you can comment on this—talk about how the problem here is that, also Dostoevsky poses the idea that the only way you can be forgiven for or get over this crime is internal. It’s not about the society punishing you. It’s about how you feel about it, whether you’re redeemed, right. I wondered if you could talk about that as well, Tetyana?
TO: Yes, exactly what is also extremely boring about this novel and what we see is that Raskolnikov—he has this choice to become somebody. I would say that the crime is linked to a kind of subjectivity for Raskolnikov, because to be somebody, to become somebody, he has to commit this crime. And when he does, when he kills these two women, then there is a long process, internal moral judgment, moral process inside of him.
So he’s trying to reflect on that. But at the same time, what is extremely striking and boring about that plot, about this novel, is that there is no external punishment, no limits, no rules, as if there were a possibility to live in a society and to be judged only by yourself, not by your neighbors, not by other members of society. This is something extremely, extremely subjective. And I would say boring as well, because it’s not about punishment in itself. And it’s not about choice, not about objective punishment, and this transgression necessary for Raskolnikov. Transgression—I mean, he breaks rules, he breaks everything about human behavior, about human life, about the behavior in the society—it’s necessary to become a subject, to get this subjectivity.
But the punishment also comes from your own. And I would say this, this is dangerous. This is dangerous. And what we see now, the political situation now it’s kind of a continuation of this idea that nobody can touch Russia in a way, but it can do it only by itself, you know. So it’s as if there were nobody in the world but yourself.
• Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 5 Episode 17: “We’re There to Bear Witness.” Putsata Reang on Reporting in War Zones • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky • “Inside the Ukrainian Counterstrike That Turned the Tide of the War,” by Simon Shuster and Vera Bergengruen • Macbeth • King Lear • Euripides • Aeschylus • Sophocles • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo • The Human Comedy of Balzac • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 5 Episode 14: “They Didn’t Know Which Way to Go.” Katya Soldak Sheds Light on the Plight of the Ukrainian People •