Fair Punishment for Raskolnikov

December 1, 2011
Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky incites a moral and philosophical debate in his acclaimed novel Crime and Punishment when he creates a conflicted and isolated protagonist named Raskolnikov who is a student living in Russia and is also the victim of extreme poverty. In order to sustain his financial well-being, Raskolnikov pawns a ring to a greedy and mean pawnbroker whose reputation for being a ruthless money lender is well-known throughout all of St. Petersburg. His deteriorating mental well-being and isolation from society push him to the idea that the world would be a better place without his cruel pawnbroker, so his conflicted emotions lead him to devise a plan to murder the pawnbroker with an axe. However, in the process he is forced to kill the pawnbroker’s innocent sister who unwittingly becomes a witness to terrible deed. Raskolnikov’s heinous crimes most likely would earn him the death penalty in the United States, but given the political and legal conditions of Russia during the late 19th century, the punishment for such crimes would more likely have been more brutal than imagined.

Many philosophers or literary critics can try to argue that Raskolnikov’s murder of the pawnbroker was justified in some manner, shape, or form, but there is no defense or justification for the death of the innocent sister of Raskolnikov’s intended victim. It is the sister’s death that in fact justifies the just punishment that the Russian government would deliver back in the 19th century. The Russian Empire was often known for having a brutal and unfair regime that included pogroms (massacres) of Jews, but in many cases the punishments towards its own citizens were just but ruthless. The death penalty was used extensively by the Tsarist regimes, and capital punishments included drowning, burying alive, and forcing liquid metal down the throat. The setting of the novel takes place when Tsar Alexander II had recently taken control of the government. Alexander II instituted many judicial reforms including the introduction of a jury trial and the option of a third verdict, “Guilt but not to be punished.” However, these reforms were not effective because of the lack of finance to support every judicial district in the nation, and so Alexander II was forced to revert to the old system of guilty or not guilty. Often times, the jury voted guilty nine times out of ten, so even with a fair trial, Raskolnikov’s trial would likely end in death. Even petty theft was a capital crime, and nearly offender was given the same punishment. Raskolnikov wouldn’t even have legal counsel so his actions in the novel would surely have led to his demise.





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