Raskolnikov's internal Siberia

I heard on the CBC radio 2 program Shift recently that Rachmaninoff was always thinking about death and that is why the Dies Irae, the chant used in the requiem mass, is so often a part of his work. In the Dies Irae text, the saved will be delivered and the unsaved damned. Just as watching the adaptation of a Trollope novel enhanced my view of  the antisemitism in Crime and Punishment, the music of Rachmaninoff, in, for example, Isle of the Dead, though written nearly 30 years after Dostoevsky's death, seems the perfect score to that narrative. That and the second piano concerto, so different, but both pieces sad, both passionate. It's what I love about Russian novels and Russian music.

Other notes on C and P, from a writer's point of view. The long passages of dialogue. Seldom a clipped exchange, but veritable speeches as one character unveils himself to another.

The brilliant creation of narrative tension by witholding information. Although Raskolnikov murders the old woman pawnbroker on page 77 of my copy, he is not officially arrested for the crime until page 531. He ends up in Siberia, but the punishment begins almost immediately after the murder as he suffers with doubt, tortures himself with reflection, both attracts and alienates people around him.

I read that Dostoevsky was one of the first writers to employ multiple points of view in a novel and for that I thank him. How narrow a world can appear when seen through only one pair of eyes.

I see, sadly, that the impoverished conditions in which writers live were the same then as now.

Emory replies

Read your blog with deep interest. Was happy to read the Wiki-excerpt. It prompted me to re-investigate the debate to see where, and if, I went off the rails in my beliefs. After perusing the texts below, I have to conclude, as in all things, the matter is a complicated one. Mr. Dostoevsky was certainly a product of his times and his place, and his insights and affirmations on the forces most threatening to the peoples and the society he loved seemed to have been influenced and, in no small measure, by his nations' most entrenched and popular prejudices against the Jews. That there were bigger bigots and jerks making great art in that same period, does not excuse an artist, endowed with such literary power and such intellectual gifts, from using his art to give those shits a sharp smack in the nose for all the world to see -- as Nietzsche did to his once beloved-mentor, the rabid anti-Semite Wagner.
Loved the blog, though. Here are some of the texts I found on the discussion you raised.


4] Here's a link to an obit for a renowned Dostoevsky scholar who struggled with the writer's views on race -- skip to the penultimate paragraph...

All the best,


"You vile Prussian chicken leg in a crinoline!"

I re-read Crime and Punishment partially because my artchatpodcast buddy Emory Holmes II had mentioned that, despite his brilliance, Dostoevsky was a bigot, particularly an anti-Semite. I did not remember that. I did remember being very affected as a young woman by the speech of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, a call to personal responsibility I thought then. I also remembered reading The Idiot one summer on the beach, Spanish Banks in Vancouver.

So in my re-read, I was on the lookout for bigotry. I did not find too much explicit antisemitism, but there were three instances. In the first, Razumihkin, a poor intellectual who is devoted to Raskolnikov and in love with his sister, Dunya, describes Luzhin, the man who wants to marry Dunya as "not a man of our kind. Not because he came with his hair curled by a hairdresser, not because he was in a hurry to show off his intelligence, but because he's a stool pigeon and a speculator; because he's a Jew and a mountebank, and it shows."

In the second instance, the so-described character, Luzhin, who tried to seduce his intended with money, asks himself, "Devil take it, why did I turn into such a Jew?"

In the third obvious instance, near the end, a soldier named Achilles watches the approach of the spurned Svidrigailov (another hopeful re Raskolnikov's sister Dunya). "His face bore that expression of eternal, grumbling sorrow that is so sourly imprinted upon all faces of the Jewish tribe without exception."

During the same period in which I was reading Crime and Punishment, I watched a BBC series, "The Way We Live Now," based on an Anthony Trollope novel. Antisemitism was addressed through the character of a girl desperate to marry, and not uninterested in the advances of a pleasant Jewish banker, until she learned that while he might be able to solve her family's money problems, he expected her to mother what she called "his Jew children". To me Trollope's own attitude was clear in that he made the Jewish character more likeable than the characters who wanted to associate with him only for his money.

In Dostoevsky it is less clear. Raskolnikov is such an idealist. It's one reason for his crime in the first place. He abhors the way pawn brokers exploit the poor. Yet, both the sympathetic (Razumihkin) and the non-sympathetic characters utter statements that expose their antisemitism.

The Wikipedia article on Dostoevsky states:
"He supported equal rights for the Russian Jewish population, which was an unpopular position in Russia. He stated that he did not hate Jewish people and was not antisemitic. He claimed that Jews might exert a negative influence, but he advised the Tsar to allow them to occupy influential positions such as university professorships. The antisemitism label does not reflect his expressed desire to reconcile Jews and Christians peacefully in a universal brotherhood of mankind."

Interestingly, Dostoevsky and Trollope were contemporaries. Dostoyevsky died in 1881, the start of the pogroms in Russia, and Trollope died in 1882, before Jewish refugees fleeing Russia settled in England and competition for space and work fostered the kind of bigotry that typically arises in such situations.

As for Crime and Punishment, however, the worst insult in the book may be the one Katarina Ivanovna directs to her landlady, Amalia, who, confusingly, has the same surname. Ah the names in Russian novels!

"You vile Prussian chicken leg in a crinoline!" shouts Katarina to Amalia, a German immigrant. Shortly after, the raving Katarina dies of consumption.