Raskolnikov’s Strange Ideas: How Dostoevsky Predicted Modern Terrorism

by Iman Masmoudi

“While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”

– Attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky in the 1999 report The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism

​The quotation above is less a reflection of what Dostoevsky actually said —it remains unverified but frequently cited — as it is an indication of what the Russian author’s novels continue to offer us: an understanding of the evildoer. His novel Crime and Punishment is known for its harrowing depiction of the mind of an ideological murderer. Do his predictions about ideological radicalization hold true for the most seemingly-inexplicable crimes of our day, namely suicide terrorism? Dostoevsky attempts to give us answers to three questions that relate to terrorism: what kind of idea can drive a person to murder? What kind of person can be so driven by an idea? And in what kind of social setting can such a process take place? Dostoevsky’s answers, as will be seen, often accurately predict the motivations observed in modern-day terrorists.[1]

The Idea

We learn of Raskolnikov’s utilitarian justification for murder in a flashback scene when he recalls overhearing two men in a tavern discussing the idea that had just occurred to him when he met the old moneylender: that perhaps someone should kill her, take her vast wealth, and distribute it to the thousands of poor throughout the city of St. Petersburg, thereby saving thousands of lives. “Kill her and take the money, so as to devote yourself afterwards to the service of all humanity and the common cause” (80). [2] One of the men in the tavern calls this idea “simple arithmetic.” At hearing this, Raskolnikov is astounded at the coincidence of how “those very same thoughts had just been conceived in his own mind” (81). Months pass and this “strange idea” stews in his mind. He debates with himself, going this way and that until finally, “his casuistry was now as sharp as a razor blade” and he didn’t have a, “single conscious objection” (87-88).

​Several explanatory theories for the modern phenomenon of terrorism exist. The most widespread of these is that Islam itself is the primary cause of such violence. The data, however, shows that religious knowledge and adherence is not a key factor in predicting radicalization, and in fact may be negatively correlated. According to MI5’s Behavioral Science Unit, most British terrorists do not have an in-depth knowledge of religion and are described as “religious novices.” In addition, prior to their radicalization or even after, they often behaved in ways that are contradictory to the Islamic orthodoxy for which they claim to fight, such as drinking, smoking, taking drugs, or visiting prostitutes.

Clearly religion plays some role in uniting members of such organizations and providing a discourse of moral superiority. But it is also plain that, at the very least, religious arguments alone provide insufficient justification. Political scientist Professor Robert Pape compiled the largest database on suicide terrorism around the world from the 1980s to the mid-2000s. He neatly summarizes the terrorist’s utilitarian justification in his 2005 book [3]:

there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any of the world’s religions. […] Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.

This is the murderous logic employed by the modern terrorist: that to kill a small number of innocent civilians could motivate world powers to withdraw from conflicts that cost many more lives. Daesh propaganda exemplifies this justification. Their conception of ‘homeland’ is the lost caliphate, an idealized notion of the Islamic world that extended from Spain to Southeast Asia centuries ago. This is the mythic homeland from which they want to expel Western influence. Their consistent use of the term ‘Crusaders’ to describe the West reveals an intent to cast Western governments as active invaders who bring suffering for Muslims. Importantly, as with Raskolnikov’s unplanned murder of Lizaveta, the moneylender’s innocent and kind-hearted sister, such perspectives always lead to harm inflicted on uninvolved innocents, sometimes even the very people the criminals claim to be fighting for.

​The idea, then, that can drive a person to utilitarian murder is one that places the criminal himself in the morally superior position. But importantly, as Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank notes, Raskolnikov’s radicalization relied on more than just the superior logic of his justification. Rather, the entire process was only made possible by his “fierce and self-absorbed egoism,” his “innate extremism,” and “a desire for self-sacrifice bordering on martyrdom.”[4]

The Person

​As for the egoism that drove Raskolnikov to commit his crime, Dostoevsky gradually reveals this underlying psychology until even Raskolnikov himself realizes that his supposedly humanitarian reasons were not his true motivators, confessing, “Listen: I wanted to become a Napoleon, that’s why I killed..” He continues, “It wasn’t to [..] make myself a benefactor of humanity. Nonsense! I just killed. I killed for myself, for myself alone.” Raskolnikov was driven by acute insecurity that made him need “to find out [..] was I a quivering creature or did I have the right…?” For if he could bring himself to disregard the most basic human injunctions against murder, then he could count himself among the class of men that Napoleon occupied: men who justified their crimes and were later glorified for them as “masters of the future.” The utilitarian ideals that seemed to motivate Raskolnikov were contradicted both by his unsympathetic thoughts and actions and his underlying egoistic search for self-validation.

Frank adds to this understanding by arguing that Raskolnikov’s nature is inherently extreme and that he has innate desires for martyrdom. One such example of Raskolnikov’s desire for heroic martyrdom is his previous insistence on marrying the daughter of his landlord despite her great disabilities and lower social standing and over the wishes of his family. He saw this as an opportunity for him to act in a way that made him seem the noble hero.

The similarity here to modern terrorists in terms of a culture of heroic martyrdom and a search for self-validation is quite clear. According to Dana Rovang, research director with the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, Daesh filmmakers mimic well-known narrative techniques, such as the “Hero’s Journey” plot progression, in order to cast their fighters as heroic martyrs. Despite coming from diverse educational backgrounds, most British terrorists work in low-grade jobs suggesting thwarted aspirations that may lead to a loss of direction and a need for validation. Raskolnikov, too, was unemployed and had his student dreams thwarted by economic hardship at the time of his radicalization. The intimate psychology of indiscriminate murder found in Crime and Punishment helps us to understand what may be going on in the minds of some such criminals when innate compassion is gradually made subordinate to distorted ideologies and egos.

The Social Setting

​Dostoevsky’s cautionary tale should prompt us to re-examine the social conditions that contribute to the rise of ideological crimes, as Dostoevsky’s key talent was “this ability to integrate the personal with the major social-political and cultural issues of his day.” Philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues that the modern project will fail, unless we have “an awareness of what is missing” in our societies that leads people to a constant search for meaning and purpose in their lives. This meaning was previously provided by religion, but has been largely pushed out in in the West in favor of Enlightenment rationalism and individualism. Sociologist Max Weber called this process “disenchantment.” This disappearance of meaning in everyday life is a central challenge in modern Western societies.

​The search for personal meaning is also at the heart of Raskolnikov’s crimes and it seems likely that it animates crimes of modern terrorists as well. Despite the tendency to perceive groups like Daesh as backwards or even “medieval,” their projects are actually only made possible by the social conditions, ideas, and technologies — like the internet and modern weaponry— that have emerged during the modern period (a topic previously discussed here). Young, socially-alienated men with little meaning in their lives are particularly susceptible to the heroic narratives told by online recruitment networks. The search for meaning is part of what drives them to such extreme acts. Even Raskolnikov was influenced by a growing sense that the path he was on was what he was meant to be doing. When chance occurrences seemed to point him towards the murder, he thought it was “as if there really were something preordained in it all, some sign…”

​In this way, Dostoevsky manages to weave into his narrative an element of coincidence and unpredictability that is also typical of terrorism. For just as we can’t fully predict who will be radicalized or when attacks will occur, there were often moments when Raskolnikov was spurred on by events of random chance that implied metaphysical purpose. This occurred most prominently just before the murder when he turned away from his “damned dream” and prayed for guidance. ​

And yet what returns him to the path of murder, and perhaps what solidifies the act for many unsure would-be murderers and terrorists, is the sudden appearance of a clear path, an opportunity to carry out their ‘strange’ ideas. This occurred when Raskolnikov serendipitously learned “that the very next day, at such-and-such a time, such-and-such a woman — the object of an intended murder — would be home alone.” And it is this knowledge that eventually leads him to her apartment the next day with a hidden axe and a supposedly humanitarian sanction to murder.


Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment helps us to humanize the experience of radicalization. As readers, we see Raskolnikov struggle with the murderous idea and his own revulsion towards it. The first part of the novel, before the murder, largely follows Raskolnikov’s inner conflict between his “intention to commit a crime in the interests of humanity” and “the resistance of his moral conscience against the taking of human life.”[5] Frank argues that Dostoevsky’s heart-wrenching depiction of “the agonies of a conscience wrestling with itself” has “no equal this side of Macbeth.”[6] Raskolnikov asks himself “but will that really happen? Surely it can’t, can it?” (65). Closer to the murder, he wakes from a nightmare and exclaims, “My God! Will I really — I mean, really — actually take an axe, start bashing her on the head, smash her skull to pieces? [..] Lord, will I really?” (73). Raskolnikov even has moments when he entirely turns away from his “strange idea” asking God for help to “show me my path, while I renounce this damned … dream of mine!” (74). The gradual breakdown of Raskolnikov’s innate humanity and compassion is perhaps the most intimate portrait of the radicalization of a terrorist that we can read today. Reading Crime and Punishment can be an exercise in truly understanding the “evildoer” as our opening quotation has asked us to do.

This analysis may also provide an opportunity for much-needed societal reflection. Although we need not accept Dostoevsky’s social prescription of a return to Christian faith, it is clear that his critiques of modernization endure, as the social problems he warned of persist. This acknowledgement provides an important opportunity to return to the question and finally address “what is missing.” On the heels of the horrific murders of Jewish congregants in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, we cannot ignore the complex interplay of political, socioeconomic, and emotional factors that birth the dark psychological machinations comprising the modern terrorist.

Iman Masmoudi is a guest contributor. She is a student of law and political theory and the President of Tuniq, a cooperative for North African inspired anti-capitalist clothing. Her interests lie in Islamic pedagogy, legal pluralism, and human stewardship of the earth. You can follow her on Twitter here.

This post is an expanded version of a post that originally appeared on the blog Traversing Tradition on Oct 29, 2018.

[1] English-language discourses around terrorism focus on self-professed Muslim groups in the United States and Europe, as does the available research by academic and national security groups. This essay concentrates on these groups also, while noting that white extremist groups have caused more deaths in the US since 9/11 and are cited by American law enforcement agencies as a more alarming threat to national security. Additionally, this essay’s emphasis on attacks that occur in Western Europe and the United States should not indicate that these victims are more worthy of solidarity than others, but rather that attacks that are perpetrated by Westerners are of particular interest to this essay. This is because the social conditions relevant to Dostoevsky’s analysis are more similar than those of other regions that suffer from terrorism, particularly when such regions experience war and other broad social traumas that may contribute to violence.

[2] Fyodor Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment, translated by Oliver Ready. Penguin Books, 2015. All quotes from the novel are from this translation.

[3] Pape, Robert Anthony. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. 1st ed.  Random House, 2005.

[4] Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky : A Writer in His Time.  Princeton University Press, 2010.

[5] Ibid. 486.

[6] Ibid. 487.

One thought on “Raskolnikov’s Strange Ideas: How Dostoevsky Predicted Modern Terrorism

  1. Great article. This analysis also explains the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. “Young, socially-alienated men with little meaning in their lives are particularly susceptible to the heroic narratives told by …”


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