In September 1865, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was living in Wiesbaden, Germany, and couldn’t pay his rent. A string of gambling losses had left him near financial ruin, a familiar circumstance for Dostoyevsky (as dramatized in his novel The Gambler). Owing a considerable amount of money to his landlord, he hoped an advance for a new novel might shore his fortunes up. Writing to Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the Russian Herald, Dostoyevsky asked for 300 rubles, promising in return the manuscript that would become Crime and Punishment. To make his case, he explained its plot to Katkov:
It is a psychological account of a crime. The action is topical, set in the current year. A young student of lower-middle-class origin, who has been expelled from the university, and who lives in dire poverty, succumbs—through thoughtlessness and lack of strong convictions—to certain strange, “incomplete” ideas that are floating in the air, and decides to get out of his misery once and for all.
“Floating in the air” were a set of ideas, imported from Western Europe, that would come to define the tenets of Russian radical thought in the 1860s. Russian students like Crime and Punishment’s antihero, the 23-year-old Raskolnikov, were bombarded with somewhat distorted and jumbled versions of English utilitarianism, French utopian socialism, and Darwinism. Taken together, they created an intellectual climate that, in Dostoyevsky’s estimation, put too much stock in the ability of science and scientific reasoning to explain human behavior.
These various theories of social improvement became distilled for a Russian audience in the work of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, whose novel of ideas What Is to Be Done? (1863) modeled a philosophy that would later be described as “rational egoism.” Rational egoism relied on the idea that human beings, guided by enlightened self-interest, would ultimately choose to live in a fair and equal society. The idea inspired a generation of young Russians coming of age in the wake of Czar Alexander II’s “great reforms” (which included the abolition of serfdom and the establishment of local forms of self-government), who wanted to push Russian society along further and more quickly through a revolution that they believed began with remaking themselves and interrogating their own desires. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, could not abide this scientific dissection of desire, believing that people were ultimately unaware of why they wanted the things they wanted. He knew human beings to be irrational and profoundly self-destructive. He saw these tendencies in his own propensity for gambling, procrastination, and daily forms of self-ruin.
Dostoyevsky was especially appalled by Chernyshevsky’s claim that actions taken in pursuit of a better society were themselves necessarily good. He saw in this seemingly innocent theory a potential justification for violence. Wasn’t Raskolnikov, in killing an avaricious pawnbroker who lent money at predatory rates and abused her sister, acting in the interest of the greater good? It was the same danger that Dostoyevsky recognized in the nihilists and anarchists, who by the 1870s and ’80s had indeed turned to terrorism to achieve their ends. The 1881 assassination of Alexander II caused many later readers to see in Dostoyevsky’s novel something like a prophecy.