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How Dostoyevsky Predicted the ‘True Crime’ Craze


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By Jennifer Wilson -- Ms. Wilson is a scholar of Russian literature.


Eugene Ivanov/iStock, via Getty Images Plus

The “true crime” genre, spurred by podcasts like “Serial” and shows like Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” doesn’t seem to be slowing down. That’s welcome news for those who seek criminal justice reform. The genre is increasingly framed as reformist, with critiques of police abuses, overzealous prosecutions and mass incarceration playing central roles.

Earlier this month, the Peabody Award-winning podcast “In the Dark” announced that its second season would focus on the story of Curtis Flowers, a black man in Mississippi sentenced to death for murder by a prosecutor who reportedly had ties to a white supremacist organization. At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Netflix screened new episodes of its series “The Staircase,” which followed the trial of Michael Peterson, who in 2003 was convicted of killing his wife. After the screening, the director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade told the audience his purpose in making the series “was just to look at the way the justice system would treat the case.”

In this way, today’s true crime resurgence has an antecedent in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian author of numerous novels about murder including, most famously, “Crime and Punishment.” Dostoyevsky was obsessed with the judiciary. He spent considerable time watching trials, debating with lawyers about the nature of innocence and guilt, visiting the accused in prison and trying to sway public opinion about certain cases. So enmeshed were Dostoyevsky and his writing in the legal consciousness of czarist Russia that defense attorneys were known to invoke Rodion Raskolnikov, the charismatic murderer-protagonist of “Crime and Punishment,” when seeking sympathy from the jury.

Like many of today’s true crime authors, filmmakers and podcast hosts, Dostoyevsky wrote about crime (in both his fiction and journalism) as a way to uncover the lapses and deficiencies, as he perceived them, in the legal code. Unlike contemporary consumers of true crime, who find themselves in the middle of a larger national conversation about police brutality and racial bias in sentencing, Dostoyevsky was writing at a time of tremendous enthusiasm and hope regarding the future of Russian jurisprudence. In 1864, Czar Alexander II instituted sweeping changes to the legal code, the most radical of which was the introduction of the jury trial. Dostoyevsky shared the country’s excitement over the changes, writing to a friend: “We will have just courts everywhere. What a great regeneration that will be! (... I keep thinking and dreaming of all these things, and my heart beats faster over it.)”

Dostoyevsky himself had been victim to an overzealous judicial system. In 1849, he was sentenced to death for participating in the Petrashevsky Circle, an intellectual society influenced by the French utopian socialists. In an event that became pivotal to his ideas on mercy, punishment and death, he watched as the first group of his co-conspirators was rounded up for the firing squad, only to learn, minutes before it was his turn to die, that the sentenced had been commuted.

Despite his initial excitement about the legal reforms, over the course of covering the new trials (which, as part of the reforms, were now open to the public), he began to have serious doubts about the courts. For one, Russian juries produced an unusually high number of acquittals (about 40 percent in all cases). Dostoyevsky was likewise inclined toward clemency, writing approvingly of the acquittal of a pregnant woman named Kornilova who threw her 6-year-old stepdaughter from a four-story window. But what concerned him was that with acquittals came a tendency to view sympathetic justice solely through the prism of legal exoneration. Where was the space, he wondered, to properly attend to the moral regeneration of those who had committed acts of violence?

Dostoyevsky ultimately wanted people to feel more at ease with the concept of guilt, to embrace it as a feature of common humanity and to recognize our own complicity in the everyday acts of violence (cruelty, lack of love, stinginess) that drive people to moral transgressions.

He devoted his final novel, “The Brothers Karamazov,” to developing the idea of “collective guilt.” At the book’s center is the murder of Fyodor Karamazov, a derelict father who was violent, abusive and selfish, leading all his sons to, consciously or subconsciously, desire his demise. Though ultimately killed by his illegitimate son, the other children all come to accept their own culpability in the steps that led to their father’s murder. The eldest, Dmitri, is eventually falsely accused (another sign of Dostoyevsky’s disenchantment with the post-reform courts), but he is ready to accept moral culpability, he says, because “everyone is guilty for everyone else.”

As true crime shows continue to proliferate today, Dostoyevsky’s evolution as a crime writer could prove instructive in expanding the genre’s reformist potential. While true crime podcasts and television series admirably shine a light on the cases of people trapped in the contradictions of the American justice system, equal attention should be paid to stories of restorative justice, like that exemplified by podcasts like “Ear Hustle,” which is produced by inmates in San Quentin State Prison in California. As Dostoyevsky implored through his novels and reporting, it is not only our task to support the innocent or wrongly convicted but also to recognize the humanity of the guilty and the shared sense of responsibility that we have for one another.

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