For many in the west, Fyodor Dostoevsky is the most “Russian” of Russian authors. His work teems with holy fools, holy prostitutes, nihilists and revolutionaries. Crime and Punishment, his best-known novel, radiates a dark chaos and apocalyptic sensibility. Its murderous antihero, Raskolnikov (from the Russian raskolnik, “dissenter”), embodies a violent ideology of redemption through suffering that Vladimir Nabokov, for one, found distasteful. (“Dostoevsky is a third-rate writer and his fame is incomprehensible,” he judged.) For all that, Dostoevsky remains a quasi-divine figure in Russia. His Slavophile bias and Orthodox-heavy chauvinism endeared him to Stalin’s propagandists, who tailored his image to fit Soviet ideology.

He is a difficult quarry for biographers, though. With his appetite for affliction and self-torturing asceticism, he was a casebook of neuroses. Joseph Frank’s celebrated five-volume biography, published between 1976 and 2002, devoted more than 2,500 pages to the life of a man who was dead at the age of 59 from untreated epilepsy and a gambling addiction (also untreated). Rowan Williams’s scholarly Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction concentrated instead on the novelist’s tormented Christian messianism.

The radical politics and anti-tsarist personalities that fed into Crime and Punishment are the subject of Kevin Birmingham’s excellent biographical study, The Sinner and the Saint. As Birmingham shows, Dostoevsky was exposed at an early age to tragedy when, in 1839, his landowning father was murdered by his own serfs. Unsurprisingly, Dostoevsky was left with a bewildered awareness of human cruelty. Later, inspired by a reading of the gospels, he espoused a proto-Soviet socialism that sought to abolish serfdom and return Russia to a state of original Slav holiness. In St Petersburg in the 1840s, he fell in with a circle of intellectuals who preached French utopian politics and the redemptive possibilities (as they saw it) inherent in the Russian peasant soul. Tsar Nicholas I’s secret police were watching: opposing serfdom was a “clear threat to the throne”, Birmingham writes.

In 1849 Dostoevsky and his co-conspirators were arrested and interrogated by General Nabokov, the great-great-uncle of the novelist. Subjected to a gruesome mock execution, the 28-year-old graduate engineer was afterwards deported to Siberia. His four years of hard labour in the “Asian side” of the Ural mountains convinced Dostoevsky more than ever that Christ was alive in Russian lands. Even the most degraded of convicts showed a readiness for penance and redemption, Birmingham suggests. The book that emerged from Dostoevsky’s Siberian ordeal, The House of the Dead, pretty well created the gulag genre in Russia and remains a work of unsparing lucidity and documentary realism. (“I don’t know a better book in all modern literature,” Tolstoy enthused.)

Released from Siberia, Dostoevsky seemed to court disaster and illness. Epilepsy was associated in the popular mind with demonic possession and visitations from the beyond. It left Dostoevsky in permanent dread of the next convulsive onset. His growing discontent with the west stemmed in part from its betrayal (as he saw it) of Russia’s Christian cause in the 1854-6 Crimean war. France and Britain had sided with the Ottomans against Russia to defend their imperial interests and thus ensured the “crucifixion of the Russian Christ”.

Dostoevsky’s anxiety about national character – what does it mean to be Russian? Are Russians even European? – contained a streak of xenophobia and antisemitism that surfaced during the trips he took abroad in the 1860s to avoid gambling debts back home. Mid-Victorian London represented the “soullessness” and “hard-nosed mercantilism” of capitalist western life; Crystal Palace appalled Dostoevsky with its thousands of tonnes of glass and iron – “like something out of Babylon”.

‘A quasi-divine figure in Russia’: Dostoevsky circa 1865, the year before the publication of Crime and Punishment. Photograph: Corbis/Getty Images

Crime and Punishment, published in instalments in St Petersburg in 1866, was partly inspired by the sensationalist story of Pierre François Lacenaire, a Parisian murderer-poet whose trial Dostoevsky followed avidly. Lacenaire’s influence on the creation of Raskolnikov had been explored by Frank, but Birmingham goes further and braids Lacenaire’s story with that of Dostoevsky. A dandified fop, Lacenaire set French society ablaze with his catalogue of gratuitous, unmotivated crimes. He appeared to kill simply in order to act (or perhaps to alleviate boredom). His motiveless murders would be mirrored in Raskolnikov’s axing to death of an old moneylender and her sister. Nothing – no inkling of anger, or rage, or hatred – apparently has the power to shake Dostoevsky’s existentially disaffected creation.

The notion that Raskolnikov is moved to repent and find God is, Birmingham writes, one of the aspects that “nearly everyone gets wrong about Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov does eventually confess to his crimes, but without obvious remorse. Killing for the nihilist sake of killing is the theme that runs like the black line in a lobster through Crime and Punishment and behind it all lay the bizarre figure of Lacenaire. In pungent, well-researched pages, Birmingham reveals the “secret” background behind Dostoevsky’s great murder novel – the gambling debts, the epileptic seizures, the Tsarist police surveillance.

Crime and Punishment might have been accused of promoting nihilism and even tsaricide (an attempt was made on Tsar Alexander II’s life just as a chapter went to press). Fortunately for us, it was not successful. A model of luminous exposition and literary detection, The Sinner and the Saint can be recommended to anyone interested in the dark twisted genius of “Dusty”, as Nabokov (with a touch of mockery) nicknamed the ill-fated Russian maestro.

  • The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky, a Crime and Its Punishment by Kevin Birmingham is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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