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A Real-Life French Serial Killer Inspired Dostoyevsky to Write “Crime and Punishment”

February 24, 2022
00:00 37:22
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As a young man, Fyodor Dostoevsky was a celebrated writer, but his involvement with the radical politics of his day that swept Europe during the Revolutions of the 1840s condemned him to a long Siberian exile. There, he spent years studying the criminals that were his companions. Upon his return to St. Petersburg in the 1860s, he fought his way through gambling addiction and debt, the death of those closest to him, epilepsy, and literary banishment.

The inspiration for Crime and Punishment came from the sensational true crime story of a notorious murderer who charmed and outraged Paris in the 1830s--Pierre François Lacenaire—a glamorous egoist who embodied the instincts that lie beneath nihilism. Dostoevsky wanted to create a Russian incarnation of the Lacenaire: a character who could demonstrate the errors of radical politics and ideas. His name would be Raskolnikov.

Today’s guest is Kevin Birmingham, author of THE SINNER AND THE SAINT: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece. We discuss how Raskolnikov then began to merge with his creator. Dostoevsky was determined to tell a murder story from the murderer's perspective, but his character couldn't be a monster. No. The murderer would be chilling because he wants so desperately to be good.
The writing consumed Dostoevsky. As his debts and the predatory terms of his contract caught up with him, he hired a stenographer, Anna Grigorievna. She became Dostoevsky's first reader and chief critic and changed the way he wrote forever. By the time Dostoevsky finished his great novel, he had fallen in love.
Dostoevsky’s great subject was self-consciousness. Crime and Punishment advanced a revolution in artistic thinking and began the greatest phase of Dostoevsky’s career.

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Meet Your Host
Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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