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Crime and punishment, and the spirit of St Petersburg

Crime and Punishment is a story of a murder and morality that draws deeply on Dostoevsky’s personal experiences as a prisoner. It contrasts criminality with conscience, nihilism with consequences, and examines the lengths to which people will go to retain a sense of liberty.

One of the factors that brought all these things together was the novel’s setting, around the Haymarket in St Petersburg, where the grandeur of the imperial capital gives way to poverty, squalor, and vice. The city here is not merely a backdrop but reflects the imposition of the will of one man, its founder Peter the Great, who famously decreed its existence and oversaw its building, which cost the lives of thousands of slaves. In Notes from Underground, the narrator describes St Petersburg as ‘the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole wide world’ – again alluding to that problem of abstraction and its potential to elevate ideas over lives. In this most ideological and willed of cities, the most ideological and willed of murders seems bound to happen.

Crime and Punishment embodies the spirit of St Petersburg to the extent that the character of Raskolnikov seems willed into existence by the city itself. Dostoevsky’s own dramatic life and rejection of the radical ideas of his youth led him to discover this combination. It produced a novel that still speaks to us as strongly today as it did when it was first published 150 years ago.

Trace the footsteps of the characters around the city, with quotes taken from the novel, with this interactive map.

Featured image credit: St Petersburg Russia by MariaShvedova. Creative Commons via Pixabay.

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