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.

Conclusion

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.

Yesterday I was still a fool, but today I am a bit wiser: Reading Dostoevsky in Contemporary America

by Justin Trifiro

The following piece derives from a talk delivered at the Jubilee celebration of the Russian major at the University of Montana. It is with hope that we approach the new year together and closer in spirit…

If Dostoevsky were alive and working today, he would be a fearless Facebook stalker and a better tweeter than Trump. A voracious reader of both foreign literatures and the Russian press, Dostoevsky was a seasoned practitioner in a vital human activity that persists in losing momentum and prestige in our postmodern condition: namely, the art of reading. (I hear the voice of Dostoevsky the Paradoxalist chiding me for the earlier comparsion to Trump the President, purportedly a man who has yet to read a book from cover to cover.) Ever an impassioned polemicist and fierce critical thinker, discussion and debate would increasingly become marked concomitant features of the mature Dostoevsky’s engagement with the written word. We come to know ourselves through storytelling.

To know a place is to take in its imagery, cautiously and attentively. To know a man is to reflect on his contours, both bodily and spiritual, to experience his rhythms and gestures as something radically Other and never wholly comprehensible. Knowing as a communicative process, as a motive force—this is the locus of Dostoevsky’s personal and artistic genius. In a letter to his beloved brother Mikhail (dating from August, 1839, shortly after the death of his father), the seventeen-year-old Dostoevsky writes, “Man is a mystery [chelovek est’ taina]. The mystery needs to be unraveled, and if you spend your whole life unraveling it, don’t say that you’ve wasted your time; I am engaged with this mystery because I want to be a human being [Ia zanimaius’ etoi tainoi, ibo khochu byt’ chelovekom].” Years later in April 1864, reflecting on the death of his first wife, Maria, Dostoevsky writes in his notebook, “Man strives on earth toward an ideal that is contrary to his nature [Chelovek stremitsia na zemle k idealu, protivupolozhnomu ego nature].” Robert Louis Jackson considers this to be the writer’s most important philosophical statement. We as autonomous creatures, shrouded in mystery and riddled with contradiction, are ultimately responsible for the cultivation and harvest of an ideal state of being, however curious and confounding the seasons may be.

The season of the world today is one decidedly conditioned by a pervasive sense of fear. This is nothing new. What perhaps most palpably distinguishes our current condition from former times is the astonishing advent of advanced modes of technology. Developments in the realm of social media are of particular gravity and consequence for the viability of interpersonal and cross-cultural relations. We are somehow simultaneously so close to and so far from one another. Some would say we are experiencing a season of shame as Pope Francis recently stated from the Vatican: “Such shame…derives from ‘all those images of devastation, destruction, shipwrecks, that have become routine in our lives.’” The world has probably always been at sixes and sevens, but today, in an image-saturated culture, we are bombarded with visual exigencies from all four corners. We are wounded birds, weary and battle-scarred. What happens to human beings and our collective potential to respond to each other sensitively and temperately when images of deformity and decay become routinized and instrumentalized in the service of deeply-rooted regimes of power and exclusion? Now more than ever we appear to be in need of the insulted and injured, the disenfranchised and misunderstood, the holy fools gracing this rock.

To look, or not to look—such is the concern. But there is more to this all too cozy formulation—how do we responsibly view scenes of unconscionable ugliness? Writing to his friend and frequent correspondent, Nikolai Strakhov, in June 1870, Dostoevsky emphatically states, “…man on the surface of the earth does not have the right to turn away and ignore what is taking place on earth…[…chelovek, na poverkhnosti zemnoi, ne imeet prava otvertyvat’sia I ignorirovat’ to, chto proiskhodit na zemle…].” He is writing in response to a piece recently published by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev (with whom Dostoevsky had, well, complicated relations) on a public execution Turgenev witnessed in France. Dostoevsky himself faced public execution when he was led to the scaffold in 1849 for his participation in an underground socialist circle. At the last minute, Tsar Nicholas I had the sentence commuted to four years in a Siberian prison camp with a subsequent six-year term of military service in Central Asia. Dostoevsky survived his own death. In his later novels (most vividly captured in Prince Myshkin’s reflections on near-death experience in The Idiot), Dostoevsky returns again and again to the theme of facing one’s mortality, directly, without filters. He stages scenes of extraordinary violence and brutality demanding a moral choice on the part of the reader—do I keep reading or shut the book and donate it to Goodwill?

Man is a mystery, and he must be unraveled. This is a categorical assertion that bolsters the necessity for artistic depictions of violence in Dostoevsky’s work. Homo sum et nihil humanum (“I am a man, nothing human is foreign to me”). Terence’s quotation was elevated to a space of great praise during Renaissance humanism, but Dostoevsky questions its infallible merits. If I am a man, then I am capable of engendering tremendous pain and committing all sorts of egregious acts. If none of this is alien to me, then in a sense all is permitted. (It is no accident that Svidrigailov, traditionally viewed as one of the great villains in Dostoevsky’s fiction, utters this phrase shortly before committing suicide toward the end of Crime and Punishment.) It is evident that Dostoevsky considered savagery and barbarity to be immutable realities native to the human condition. As we are all capable of performing considerable injustices to ourselves and to one another, so too we are all responsible for taking a moral inventory of our thoughts, inclinations, and actions.

I have been discussing violence at length because it seems that its presence is endemic to the United States today. The systematic physical and psychological hurt done to minority groups (particularly black men and transgender folk); the vociferous evangelism against immigrants of various skin shades and creeds; the deplorable denigration of drug addicts and the mentally ill—this land increasingly distances itself from the pronoun “our” in favor of binary distinctions proceeding from the rupture of “us” vs. “them.” Terrifyingly, much of this misguided and misdirected vitriol operates from a top-down government apparatus that appears to be fundamentally unaware of the precarity of human life.

A few months short of Donald Trump’s election, Ani Kokobobo contributed a fine piece entitled, “How Dostoevsky predicted Trump’s America.” She writes, “As a professor of Russian literature, I’ve come to realize that it’s never a good sign when real life resembles a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with its riotous rhetoric and steady stream of scandals, calls to mind Dostoevsky’s most political novel, ‘Demons,’ written in 1872. In it, the writer wanted to warn readers of about the destructive force of demagoguery and unchecked rhetoric, and his cautionary messages—largely influenced by 19th-century Russian political chaos—resonate in our present climate.” She goes on to note how Trump’s lack of “impulse control” proved to be extremely effective in working up a mass of frustrated people and inspiring similarly aggressive behaviors from much of his constituency. Kokobobo notes, “When audiences at Trump rallies verbalize violence by screaming ‘Lock her up and ‘Kill her,’ or when Donald Trump—either wittingly or unwittingly—advocates Second Amendment violence, I wonder whether they aren’t coming dangerously close to the primal violence of ‘Demons.’”

Demons is Dostoevsky’s most overtly political novel, a work marked by narrative disarray, intercharacterological agitation, and extreme violence. This artistic statement may be as close as Dostoevsky comes to delineating what he perceives to be the alarmingly short step from socialist aspiration to totalitarian asphyxiation. Whenever Dostoevsky’s name is invoked as a prophet* to modernity or prophesier of the nightmare events of the twentieth-century, the novel Demons typically becomes an integral element of the conversation. The work pivots around a few major points, all of them pertinent to any discussion on some of the major issues plaguing contemporary American culture: the prevalence of a “herd mentality” before a concentrated, “educated” elite; the social ramifications of rumormongering; and perhaps most importantly what Sarah Pratt has termed “bystander (ir)responsibility”—that is, the neglect human beings so often exhibit before the plight of others. (*And here I must thank Robin Miller for reminding me that Dostoevsky is an eminently “fallen” prophet—one need only flip to any page in the Diary [and especially the Diary of the last years] to find much ugliness that is frighteningly resonant with the current administration’s agenda. Heroes are not angels, and men are hardly heroes.)

Toward the end of Dostoevsky’s life, the concept of obosoblenie would come to haunt the writer and inform much of his ethical thought and artistic creation. Obosoblenie, as a socio-cultural crisis in late Imperial Russia, is distinguished by a tendency toward isolation, the compartmentalizing of self. It is a marker of what Charles Taylor has termed the “buffered” individual stance of modern Western man. Centuries of Cartesian dualist and Kantian categorical conditioning have placed a premium on minds and the faculty of reason. Following Tayor (and borrowing a term from Max Weber), we live in a “disenchanted” world, one increasingly devoid of a sense of the ineffable. That which resides outside of phenomenological experience (I am thinking here of spirits and such) no longer holds ontic value as it did for our premodern ancestors. The world has become less mysterious, and so we no longer turn out and physically seek, but mentally fortify and turn inward.

Obosoblenie is a major thread comprising the fabric of what Leonard G. Friesen, in a recent study, has called Dostoevsky’s “orphan’s lament” ethic. This lament is overwhelmingly a clarion call signaling alienation and human disconnect. From Dostoevsky’s first work, Poor People (1846), to his final masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), the theme of withdrawal, and its constitutive elements of loneliness, suspicion, and intemperance, defines the dissonance of a technologically-dependent universe moving at a breakneck tempo away from a primitive fraternity that is predicated on spontaneous, freely suggested interpersonal exchange. It is the crisis of our own age.

If there is anything approaching an answer to the fractured conditions Dostoevsky so presciently diagnosed, it may be found in the attitude of one of his most beloved characters, Father Zosima. The starets advocates a program of “active love” (deiatel’naia liubov’) as a balm for our collective grief. He stresses that loving one’s neighbor actively is hard work—this is because to love another being with tenderness and care is to expose oneself to the very real possibility of being let down, of potentially experiencing all kinds of hurt. To love another actively necessitates loving with a significant degree of uncertainty and vulnerability—it is an act of faith. This is why Ivan Karamazov claims it so much easier to love one’s neighbor when that neighbor doesn’t live next door. Diametrically opposed to the Christian conception of agape (marvelously announced in Kierkegaard’s command: “The first being I see upon opening my door, that one shall I love”), Ivan’s abstract love doesn’t dance—it insulates and atrophies. There is no mystery here, no faith.

We know a good deal in America in 2017, but we are not faithful. Dostoevsky paints a cosmos bereft of faith as one systemically ill, flawed at the root. Where knowledge is stationary, faith is in movement. In the twelfth-century, the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux writes, “How then does faith differ from knowledge? In that even though it is no more in doubt than knowledge, we hold what we believe as a mystery, as we do not do with knowledge. When you know something you seek no further. Or if you do, you have not yet known.” Dostoevsky’s gift to the world is fundamentally Dionysian in spirit—it is an ecstatic quest that strives toward moral improvement. In the words of Zosima, “Yesterday I was still a fool, but today I am a bit wiser.”


Justin Trifiro is a PhD student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California.