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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is set against the backdrop of the historic Russian city of St. Petersburg, which stands on the River Neva. Although born and raised in Moscow, Dostoevsky was very familiar with the streets, buildings and other landmarks of this great city because he spent six years of his youth at the college of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg. His close familiarity with the city is immediately evident to readers of the novel. He offers a kind of guided tour of the city, featuring many authentic locales of St. Petersburg, as the vast narrative unfolds. St. Petersburg was later called Petrograd from 1914 to 1924, then re- named Leningrad in honor of the communist leader, Lenin. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it was renamed St. Petersburg in the 1990s.
The period of the novel is the nineteenth century; the novel was written in 1866. By this time, the city had served as the capital of the Russian empire for over a century. Tsar Peter the Great, who founded the city in 1703, shifted Russia's capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1712. At the time of the novel, it had established itself as the social and intellectual center of Tsarist Russia and became the country's "Window to the West." The choice of this city, rather than Moscow, suited Dostoevsky's purpose of introducing the influence of decadent western ideas through the central character, Raskolnikov, who has formulated a theory of "the extraordinary man" using ideas borrowed from German philosophy.
Most of the action of the novel takes place in seedy surroundings: the dingy rented rooms of impoverished students like Raskolnikov and Razumihin, the cramped apartment of the pawnbroker, Alena Ivanovna, lower-class taverns, and the houses of prostitutes like Sonia. Some crucial scenes are set in the open streets of the city (as, for example, the death of Marmeladov), the police station where Raskolnikov finally confesses his crime, or in the scenic surroundings of St. Petersburg. The islands of the River Neva, where aristocratic Russians had their luxurious 'dachas' (summer houses), play an important role early in the novel.
The epilogue of the novel is set in the cold stretches of Russia's eastern most province, Siberia, where Raskolnikov is sent to serve his sentence for the murders he has committed. At a more subtle level, however, the psychological topography of Dostoevsky's novel is the tortured mind and tormented soul of the murderer in whose perceptions and consciousness most of the action in Crime and Punishment unfolds.