Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky, a Crime and its Punishment’ by Kevin Birmingham

2 June 2022

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoyevsky, a Crime and its Punishment by Kevin Birmingham. Hardback 432pp ISBN-9780241235942 (Allen Lane, London, 2021)

2021 was book-ended by two works about Dostoevsky.  First came Alex Christofi’s biography, Dostoevsky in Love, and 10 months later, Kevin Birmingham’s book.  The Sinner and the Saint is about the influence on Dostoevsky of the celebrated case of Pierre-François Lacenaire in France and how it imprinted itself on the characterisation and motives of Crime and Punishment’s protagonist, Raskolnikov.  Christofi describes Birmingham’s book as a “dazzling literary ‘howdunnit’” in his puff on the jacket sleeve.  After all, the ‘whodunnit’ is never in question.  

I began reading The Sinner and the Saint sometime in late January when everyone everywhere was confidently saying that Putin was never going to invade Ukraine, contrary to the analysis provided by US and British intelligence.  I stopped reading on 23rd February.  That evening, I could barely bring myself to do anything, other than listen to vaguely nostalgic renditions by Russian rock musicians of classic Soviet second world war songs.  I felt anxious, inexplicably bereft and on tenterhooks.  The pathos of those songs, I realised, lay in the fact that Soviet soldiers were fighting a defensive war against a terrible enemy and suffering enormous losses.  How could it even be possible that things would be turned on their head to such a degree that Russia could invade a sovereign state and believe it was defending itself from fascists and Nazis?

The next day, we all woke up to find out that it had begun.  And that was when I stopped reading books.  I know I was not alone.

When I finally got around to picking up Birmingham’s book again, I started from the beginning.  And everything had changed.  Every observation, every detail, every reference to and description of the philosophical and ideological turmoil of Russia and Europe in the 19th century, of the social historical context and setting seemed to burn with new relevance.  To be reminded of Hegel’s theory of the ‘world historical individual’ who is powerful because “they respect none of the limitations which law and morality would impose upon them. … everything else is sacrificed to this aim.… So mighty a figure must trample down many an innocent flower, crush to pieces many things in its path.”  These were the ideas embraced by 19th century Russian radicals.  But they also resonate with Putin in his 6,000 word essay on Russia’s historical mission published on kremlin.ru last July.  

Famously, Dostoevksy was a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, which was penetrated by the Third Section, a new secret service police organisation established under Nicholas I to root out opposition to the regime and report on revolutionary tendencies among his subjects.  Nicholas I was determined that  the revolutionary wave that rocked Europe in 1848 would not reach Russian shores.  Third Section police informers and agents were paid 30 roubles, like Judas.  One can trace a straight line from the Third Section to the Soviet Union’s KGB and Putin’s FSB.  

Going through the terrifying ordeal of a mock execution, Dostoevsky was given a personal pardon by the tsar, his sentence commuted to 10 years in a Siberian fortress prison and exile.  Birmingham describes how Nicholas I micromanaged every last detail of the execution, down to the pace of the horses pulling the prisoners through the imperial city and the last minute pardon – all to own the gratitude of his prisoners.   

Birmingham later writes: 

Dostoevsky had been gone for ten years, and all of Russia had changed.  Tsar Nicholas was dead after refusing treatment for pneumonia.  Some considered it a form of suicide after the disastrous Crimean War, which cost the empire half a million lives, control of the Black Sea, several principalities, and immeasurable pride.

Ring any bells?  There are four statues in that now infamous Kremlin reception room with the longest-ever oval table.  They are of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander I and Nicholas I.  

I couldn’t help but wonder whether some of the four million or so Russians who left Russia since February 24th might also return in ten years and find all of Russia changed?  

In another passage, Birmingham quotes Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the influential Russian political thinker:

Was Russia meant only to be a military power and anaemic in all other aspects of life?  In that case, it would be better not to be born at all than to be born a Russian.

Birmingham goes on: “Maintaining its gargantuan army required a constant cycle of foreign debt, fiscal austerity, inflation, and the overtaxation of its peasants.  It came at the expense of infrastructure, education, public health, and industrial development.  Decades of losses ensued.”

So much for contemporary analogies; to return to the “howdunnit”.  Kevin Birmingham has uncovered a seemingly new angle from which to investigate what you might call the ‘origin’ story of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.   His proposition is that Dostoevsky was fascinated by the trial of the French “poet-murderer” Pierre- François Lacenaire and his flamboyant performance and testimony during court proceedings.  In 1861, almost 30 years after Lacenaire’s trial, Dostoevsky was looking for material to publish in his journal, Vremya, when he came across a great tome in French about famous trials.  When he read about the trial of Lacenaire, he decided to translate it and publish it in the second issue of his new journal.  What intrigued him was that Lacenaire “dared to set himself up as a victim of his century” and he went on to write that criminal trials like this are “more exciting than all possible novels because they light up the dark sides of the human soul that art does not like to approach.” 

In fact, Dostoevsky had begun thinking about the novel he would write and gathering material for it long before he knew of Lacenaire.  Birmingham himself gives plenty of evidence for this, not least, riveting chapters about Dostoevsky’s imprisonment and later exile in Omsk and Siberia, with astonishing facts and stories that give a visceral sense of what the prison system under tsarist rule was like.  And once again, it makes you think of present-day Russia: Birmingham includes Dostoevsky’s own description of the prison bathhouse where they were marched in fetters to step into a room filled with steam and soot with one hundred naked men packed into a space twelve paces wide.  The removal of clothes through iron fetters was of another order altogether.   He also wrote of the severest punishment of all – the gauntlet – and the arbitrary violence and favour of the officer in charge.  Navalny’s face superimposed itself on my mind’s eye throughout these references.  Birmingham calls it the “brutalization of a people”.  After his experiences in Siberia, Dostoevsky wrote that he would never write trifles again.

True to his main premise, that the Lacenaire trial and testimony was the inspiration for Raskolnikov and Crime and Punishment, Birmingham alternates chapters about Dostoevsky’s life and experiences with chapters about the life and evolution Pierre-François Lacenaire.  These chapters have the feeling of a half-way interesting distraction, which could as easily be skipped, to resume Dostoevsky’s own story and that of his contemporaries in Nicholas I’s Russia.  Lacenaire is a sideshow, at best.

Birmingham has produced an interesting account of both Dostoevsky’s own psychology and turning-points on the path to becoming a great writer, with many highs and lows en route.  He reveals the philosophical ideas and tracts, the social and political milieu, the Russia that nurtured Dostoevsky’s original creativity.  Birmingham is not a Russian speaker, nor a French speaker, and was reliant on secondary sources or translations of primary sources.  But his book is a compelling synthesis and distillation of a Dostoevsky for our time.  

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