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As Crime and Punishment is a novel set against the sociological conditions prevailing in 19th-century Russia, it is necessary to understand something of the repressive nature of the Tsarist regimes that ruled this great country at that time.
From the times of its founding in the early 18th century by Tsar Peter the Great, St. Petersburg was Russia's "Window to the West" (the rest of Europe). One of his successors in the latter half of the 18th century, Catherine II, made Russia a formidable European power. In 1801, Tsar Alexander I tried to introduce a few social reforms. Actually, he did fairly little to reduce the Tsar's despotic power or to end the cruel practice of serfdom under which the vast majority of Russian peasants were forced to live. Other parts of Western Europe discontinued the practice of serfdom soon after the Renaissance (by the 16th century).
After Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, the Tsar's reform program was further reduced. Hence, many young aristocrats and intellectuals turned to secret revolutionary organizations to overthrow the Tsar. In 1825, the year Dostoevsky was born, the new Tsar Nicholas I was crowned. Later the same year, he suppressed the Decembrist Revolt and introduced strict control over the press, education, foreign travel and political organizations through his secret police system. He soon came to be called, "The Policeman of Europe." A number of educated Russians and intellectuals began to admire the values of Western European life as opposed to the conventional and repressive Russian system. Orthodox Russians, however, favored the older ways that included a strong Russian Orthodox Church, a Tsarist government and the traditional lifestyle of the vast Russian countryside.
When Dostoevsky was a young man in the 1840s, many new and radical ideas were entering Russia from West European countries, especially France and Germany. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky soon came under the influence of such revolutionary ideals and he hoped that Russia could also become a liberal country by adopting freer systems of thought and life, as then prevailed in Western Europe. However, Dostoevsky's soul- shattering experience with death (when he and his revolutionary friends were arrested and almost executed by the Tsar) and his later experience of squalid prison life forced him to do some serious thinking upon his return from Siberia in 1858. He now began to feel that rash acceptance of every new idea from the West was perhaps not the best thing for Russia.
When he traveled through Europe in 1862-64, he hated what he saw of capitalist western civilization and soon became an ardent Russian nationalist. These were troubled times for both Western Europe and Russia, as many countries underwent turbulent social change. Happily, serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861 under the new Tsar, Alexander II.
The revolutionary Populists in Russia, however, continued to be anti-tsarist and they staged a number of terrorist attacks in an attempt to destabilize the regime. More often than not, these attempts failed, and the revolutionary leaders landed either in prison for long-term sentences or before the Tsar's execution squad.
Dostoevsky now began to believe that it was more important to cultivate and propagate new and independent ideas that were specifically Russian or Slavic in origin. Such a total commitment to indigenous thought soon made him a Slavophile, like the character of Porfiry in Crime and Punishment. Hence, in this novel, he contrasts the ultra-radical views of Raskolnikov on the "extraordinary man," or "superman," with Porfiry's slavophillic notions. These two characters essentially dramatize the conflict that faced every thinking Russian in those troubled times when social change was imperative if the entrenched tsarist power was to be curtailed and the lot of the common Russian improved.
Thus, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is a novel that embodies both the writer's personal dilemma and the dilemma facing his country in its attempts to liberalize or modernize itself and to liberate the common people from the tyranny of the Tsars and their autocratic supporters.