Dostoevsky, Inequality, and Tsarnaev’s Humanity

By Elizabeth StokerJune 29, 2013

Dostoevsky, Inequality, and Tsarnaev’s Humanity

IT BEGINS with a once-promising student and a number of contributing factors that could perhaps have been tolerated in isolation, but in their confluence bring about horrific crimes.

The student is “a strikingly handsome young man, with fine dark eyes, brown hair, and a slender well-knit figure, taller than the average.” He lives alone in a city of thousands, and unbeknownst to his distantly located but eminently involved mother, he has abandoned his schoolwork. His ideological commitments have become increasingly extreme and convoluted, and despite evidently having maintained at one time a rational, moderate worldview, he has “recently become superstitious.”

He is poor, disenfranchised, and angry, and he is planning cold-blooded murder. The target is a matter of concentrated rage and coincidental opportunity. Though he has meditated upon murder for some time, his plans are expedited when it becomes clear to him that the perfect set of circumstances have arisen for him to carry out his attack without detection.

His reasons are in equal measures strange and sober. They represent grotesquely extreme incarnations of “the most usual and ordinary youth talk and ideas”: a distaste for greed, a disgust with the tyranny of the powerful over the oppressed, and a general sense of personal obligation to defend the world from its infectious elements.

In a tiny apartment lodged in a building of low-income housing units, he prepares himself and his instruments to carry out murder. It is a painstaking process that he approaches meticulously, but is nonetheless sped along by chance. With all of his materials and nerve mustered, he merely awaits his chosen hour.

And he will commit bloody murder. Those who know him best –– his closest friends, his mother, his sister –– will be shocked, devastated, concerned and horrified. They will struggle to explain why a young man with such promise, who had been at some earlier point in his life well adjusted, outgoing and sociable, would so recklessly destroy human life.

This is the story of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It is not the story of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But the tales of the two young men echo one another profoundly. A former struggling student with a few revolutionary leanings, Dostoesvky was a stranger neither to the incendiary potential of youthful malcontent, nor to the host of minor indignities that can turn once well-liked and talented young men lethal. Dostoyevsky’s underlying empathy and antipathy renders Raskolnikov at different points in the novel reprehensible and sympathetic, monstrous and all-too-human, inscrutable and familiar, like, for the people who knew him, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

There is never any doubt of Raskolnikov’s guilt. Dostoevsky’s interest was not in penning a frame-job or a defense. The questions one must pose to Crime and Punishment are never “Did he do it?” or “Will he be caught?”; but “What brought him to do this?” and “How?” Dostoevsky’s answer is that some disaffected young men, even erstwhile bright, sensitive, and happily integrated ones, are only able to house so many humiliations, slights, and estrangements within their persons before unleashing them, sometimes lethally, often times with little aim.

Like pressure cookers.


The day of the lockdown was sunny with gusty winds. I woke up early in my apartment in Waltham, having been sent numerous emergency notifications by my university. When I looked outside my window, the shadows of clouds were drifting smoothly over the newly green springtime grass. My neighbors were waking, one by one, and closing their windows, pulling their shades. We were ordered to stay inside, and not to answer our doors. On the news, thousands of police officers converged in the shopping center where I go to replace broken ear buds and dorm room furniture.

It all seemed surreal. A terrorist, armed and dangerous, on the loose, here? Among the universities, the throngs of bright young people, and the suburbans taking their sweet respites? Any green space in the Greater Boston Area is, on any given warm day, dotted with bronzing twentysomethings and their conversations, more often serious than they are given credit for. There are always demonstrations and things to be passionate about, the cultural attractions are thriving, and if you rent shrewdly, the housing cost is not intolerable. Here?

Of course.

A pleasant day on the Commons may be a great equalizer, but only temporarily. Some students return to gleaming high-rise Boston University dorms, and others go back to tiny cupboards jammed into multiunit houses with shopping carts bike-locked to their stoops. Those same houses are often home to families as well as students, and it is in this Boston that the Tsarnaevs lived.

When the police shut down Norfolk Street at its intersection with Cambridge Street to excavate the contents of the apartment Tamerlan Tsarnaev had lived in, they shut off intercourse between two worlds. The American Community Survey shows that the area immediately north of Cambridge Street was home to people with median incomes in the $30,000s, while the area immediately south housed a more comfortable set with median incomes in the $80,000 range. In about five minutes on the T’s red line, Dzhokhar could have gone from households with median incomes in the national bottom quartile to Beacon Hill, where well-heeled students his age interview for prestigious United Kingdom scholarships at annual cocktail parties.

Dzhokhar had some success with scholarships himself, but not enough to cover his full tuition at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. After winning $2,500 from the city of Cambridge, he was still some $20,000 in debt to his university. His family had periodically received the assistance of means-tested welfare programs like food stamps, but it is notoriously difficult for students to qualify for assistance programs. It appears that Dzhokhar relied upon a variety of employment enterprises to make ends meet: reports have surfaced that he was a liaison for car repairs, and that he sold what marijuana he did not smoke himself. But his dealing was small-time, nothing near the sort rhapsodized about in the hip-hop he listened to. He drove a Honda Civic only six years his junior, and was not, judging by the condition of his grades, aspiring to greater things after graduation.

Raskolnikov, on his way to see a similarly destitute friend who seems to “know a thousand and one ways of earning money,” briefly wonders whether or not employment is his solution. But his hope doesn’t last; he’s more pragmatic than that. Suppose the friend gets him some work, “suppose he shares his last copeck with me […] what then?” Raskolnikov despairs, “what can I do with a few coppers? They will hardly meet my needs now.” Dostoevsky understood the dilemma of the working poor, long before Roger Weisberg’s 2005 documentary Waging a Living illustrated the profound hopelessness: when one is poor and without significant support, a thousand and one ways of earning money never add up to much.


When Raskolnikov is informed in a letter from his mother that his sister intends to marry a man she despises in order to obtain financial security for her family, he does not sink into depression. Instead, he flies into a rage. “What is the reason?” he wonders, appalled at his virtuous sister’s willingness to become a “legal concubine.” He becomes incensed by his mother’s agreement to the arrangement, and then realizes that the two of them have likely conspired for his own sake “It is clear,” he ruminates, “that nobody but Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is in question here […] his happiness may be secured, he may be kept at the University, made a partner in the office, his future provided for; perhaps later on he may be rich, respected, he may even die famous!”

Raskolnikov is enraged partly because he knows that his sister’s sacrifice will be in vain. But the greater part of his anger arises from the damaging blow the situation deals to his pride. He has failed as a student, calling into question his prized intellect and future prospects, and more importantly, he has been emasculated, rendered incapable of supporting his mother and sister. Now, reliant upon the selfless and deeply sacrificial charity of women, his status is grievously diminished.

He reads the letter in the morning. That night, he commits two murders.

In The Spirit Level, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson report on the perpetrators of violent crime and analyze the differing homicide rates in Chicago, England, and Wales. They point out that men in their late teens and early 20s are, regardless of their location of origin, much more likely than any other cohort to perpetrate homicides. Yet Chicago’s homicide rate was 30 times higher than that of England and Wales. The culprit? Unlike England and Wales (where homicide rates were roughly similar), Chicago was home to much higher income inequality during the survey period.

The variation in homicide rates, Pickett and Wilkinson suggest, is a matter of possible worlds. Some people are very unlikely, as a matter of personal constitution, to carry out violent crimes, others more likely to do so, regardless of their status, sex, income or age. But circumstances, Pickett and Wilkinson suggest, have the power to “influence the probability” that a person will commit violent crimes. Circumstances do not determine destiny, and they absolve criminals of nothing; nonetheless, they shape the possible worlds in which violent tendencies are, in some, ignited.

Dostoevsky provides a snapshot of one such dark world in the figure of Svidrigailov, the sexually exploitative wealthy Russian with whom Raskolnikov engages in a tense, enigmatic relationship. Svidrigailov meditates perpetually upon hell and seems to emerge from a nightmare into reality, where he lays waste to those around him in an erratic, amoral pursuit of pleasure that concludes in his suicide. In Svidrigailov, Dostoevsky renders a spectral image of what Raskolnikov could be, were he really without moral feeling. But the wealth that Svidrigailov continually leverages, and uses to manipulate the poor women and girls he exploits, forms a material division between the two men: while Svidrigailov lives comfortably above it, Raskolnikov is crushed under its weight. We can call it the poverty line.

Pickett and Wilkinson go on to compare violent crime statistics of nations with relatively low economic inequality –– such as Japan and Denmark –– with nations with greater economic inequality, such as Portugal, Italy, and the United States. In all of these cases, Pickett and Wilkinson find that countries –– and even areas of particular cities –– that are home to greater income inequality also boast higher homicide rates. Areas with lower income inequality, be they nations, cities, or particular American states, tend to have lower homicide rates.

In societies with higher economic inequality, Pickett and Wilkinson argue, status is harder to come by because a sizable proportion of young men are incapable of obtaining it in the usual ways, such as conspicuous consumption, success at esteemed educational institutions, respectable and lucrative jobs, or supporting a family. Yet the very scarcity of status makes it especially valued, and in the absence of flashy cars and glamorous gigs, young men are left to shore up their status by defending whatever they can claim as their own: often little more than personal pride.

It is in this context that the tiniest of slights can seem like an intolerable assault. Raskolnikov angrily reproaches himself for his “weakness and lack of resolution” each time he considers not committing the murders, because though he recognizes that murder is deplorable, his pride cannot bear the blow of another failure to follow through. When the pawnbroker he plans to murder calls his father’s watch “trash” in the process of pawning it, Raskolnikov becomes so enraged he almost calls off his reconnaissance project; it is only through fantasizing about her murder that he is able to maintain his composure. By the time the news of his sister’s impending marriage of convenience arrives, he is already on the defensive, and things just add up.

Little things add up. On his twitter account, @J_tsar, Dzhokhar tagged a post reading “people that say ‘I hate posts about religion like stop trying to convert me’ and then go on to post some shit about jersey shore” with #ihateyou. He later lamented, “I don't argue with fools who say islam is terrorism it's not worth a thing, let an idiot remain an idiot.” It is unclear whether Dzhokhar encountered Islamophobia, whose specter has consistently haunted the United States since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or if he was merely subject to the generalized religious skepticism increasingly common among undergraduates. Whatever the case, he took the affronts seriously. His tweets concerning Islam stand out in grave relief against a feed otherwise populated by beer pong, cars, and cheeseburgers.

Slights came from within as well as from without. On Christmas Eve of 2012, Dzhokhar tweeted that “Brothers at the mosque either think I'm a convert or that I'm from Algeria or Syria, just the other day a guy asked me how I came to Islam.” Being misidentified and presumed an outsider is one matter among the great unwashed, but quite another within one’s own in-group. Less than a week later, Dzhokhar tweeted: “I meet the most amazing people, spent the day with this Jamaican Muslim convert who shared his whole story with me, my religion is the truth.” Whether or not Dzhokhar felt some kinship with this convert because he was an outsider himself is unknowable, but the coincidence is provocative.

The political, always personal, in extreme cases becomes overtly so. In 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam whose sermons Dzhokhar has now admitted to following online, was killed in a United States drone strike. Al-Awlaki, an American citizen himself, had advocated anti-Western jihad on the grounds that the United States was guilty of domestic oppression of Muslims as well as the murder of innocent Muslims worldwide. In a 2010 sermon, al-Awlaki laid out his project thus:

I, for one, was born in the U.S. I lived in the U.S. for 21 years. America was my home. I was a preacher of Islam involved in nonviolent Islamic activism. However, with the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.

Most significant in al-Alwaki’s sermon is the personal interpretation of broad policy measures against persons he perceived himself to be affiliated with. Days after the Marathon bombing, while talking with a friend, Dzhokhar reportedly compared the Boston explosions to those that take place daily in predominately Muslim countries targeted by the United States, echoing the parity between American aggression against Muslims and acts of terrorism on American soil suggested by al-Alwaki.

Raskolnikov reacts in more or less the same fashion when confronted with his murders. “Crime?” he cries, “what crime? Killing a foul, noxious louse, that old moneylender, no good to anybody, who sucked the life-blood of the poor…Well, I definitely don’t understand why smashing people with bombs in a regular siege is formally more respectable!”

Evidently, neither did Dzhokhar.


Jerome Miller is an expert in youth crime, and his advocacy for reform in the 1970s led to the closing of the United States’ oldest juvenile reformatory in favor of community-based alternatives. Some 30 years later, Miller still advocates for restorative and rehabilitative approaches to criminal justice rather than retributive ones. And after decades of interaction with scores of offenders and the academics who debate about how to handle them, he still maintains that there are essentially two types of criminologists: those who view criminals as different from themselves, and those who do not.

Dostoevsky was firmly embedded in the latter camp. Raskolnikov, for all his bizarre ideation and despicable violence, is firmly a son of Russia, a man of his times, and a part of his society. At his trial, Raskolnikov’s closest friend submits evidence that the accused once spent his last finances supporting a fellow student with tuberculosis, and upon the student’s death, took up supporting his ailing father, who he later buried upon his passing. It also comes to light that Raskolnikov once endured injury rescuing two children from a burning room. His goodness and humanity are weighed with his evil and cruelty, and the sum is eight years of hard labor in Siberia.

Why not death? The magistrates and judges ruling on Raskolnikov’s case are moved by genuine reports of his humanity, and at the end of the legal proceedings, cannot put him to death. It is not that his guilt is mitigated — he confesses, clearly and wholly, which militates in his favor — instead, the powers and principalities of Dostoevsky’s world cannot countenance the killing of someone they have come to view as human.

Whether Dzhokhar will receive the same clemency is yet unclear. A May 1 poll featured in the Washington Post shows that 70 percent of surveyed Americans believe that Dzhokhar should receive the death penalty if convicted. If the court of public opinion had an executive branch, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would be dead.

But he isn’t, not yet. Like Raskolnikov, he is spending his first stretch of imprisonment in a hospital bed. And as his trial draws near, humanizing details continue to emerge, though some are resisting them in favor, they say, of focusing on the victims who deserve their sympathy.

Taking action to aid victims is the honorable and necessary choice; now that Dzhokhar has been apprised of his Miranda rights and assigned legal counsel, the remainder of his deserts will be revealed through due process. But the fact remains that Dzhokhar is, by all accounts, one of us. Evidence emerges daily to drive it home: when posed with others in pictures, Dzhokhar seems always to have an arm slung warmly around a friend; his tweets are in equal parts silly, benign, and aspirational; and when, in a self-filmed video clip, he leans in to kiss his niece on the cheek, she snuggles close.

None of these realities mitigate or ameliorate the fact that he participated in the cold-blooded murder of four and the brutal maiming of hundreds. He did participate, and willingly. He had reasons, the ones he has confessed to, and the ones that now seem likely but unconscious. Whether or not any of this will affect the citizens who preside over his trial remains to be seen.

I return often to the night of the lockdown. As the sun set, clouds rolled in. I lifted my window shade only when the triumphant news began to air: we got him. On my television screen, people my age flooded into the Boston Commons, dancing and chanting. Images of Dzhokhar, naked from the waist up as ATF and FBI agents checked his body for incendiary devices, were spliced in with the coverage of the celebration. I thought of Raskolnikov, moments from confession, collapsing in Haymarket Square, “so crushed by the weight of all the inescapable misery and anxiety of all this time, and especially of these last hours, that he […] fell to the ground where he stood.”

As I watched the outpouring of celebration in the Commons, it began to rain, a little at first, and then torrentially. Somewhere in Watertown, Dzhokhar’s blood was washed into the gutters, where it flowed to the place that rain flows, and joined the blood of his victims.

 “As a general rule,” Dostoevsky wrote, “people, even the wicked, are much more naïve and simple-hearted than we assume them to be. And we ourselves are, too.” 


Elizabeth Stoker is a Marshall Scholar studying Christian theology at Jesus College, Cambridge. 

LARB Contributor

Elizabeth Stoker is a Marshall Scholar studying Christian theology at Jesus College, Cambridge. 


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