Celebrating Crime and Punishment at 150

By Kate Holland, University of Toronto and Katherine Bowers, University of British Columbia

This article was originally published in the March 2017 edition of NewsNet.

The publication of Crime and Punishment in 1866 in the pages of the Russian Messenger was a revelation, giving readers insight into the human psyche that spoke to the individual’s role and moral responsibility within society. Dostoevsky’s novel begins when a former student, Raskolnikov, becomes wrapped up in an idea and kills an old pawnbroker; the rest of the work deals with his struggle to reconcile his rationalist action with his human conscience. At the time of its publication, Crime and Punishment struck a chord with the reading public, outraging liberals and radicals alike with its “grotesque” and demonizing portrayal of one of their number. This, in turn, caused political writers to defend its fictional hero. It has been read as a political pamphlet, a social document, and a psychological study. In the 21st century, media and technology advances have transformed the reading experience and the ways readers relate to texts. Most students in literature classrooms are now digital natives, many reading on e-devices, some even on smartphones. At 150, Crime and Punishment has lost none of its relevance, and can only gain from being read anew in the digital era. Rethinking the ways in which we contextualize, teach, and interpret Dostoevsky’s novel can help make it more accessible to a new generation of readers.

The year 2016 marked 150 years since the first publication of Crime and Punishment. To celebrate the novel’s anniversary we co-organized a global outreach program, “Crime and Punishment at 150”, funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the University of British Columbia, Green College (UBC), and the North American Dostoevsky Society. Our goal was to celebrate Dostoevsky’s novel at 150, bringing it to a wider audience, while at the same time rethinking how we read and teach the novel in the digital age. Events of the outreach program took place online and on-site in various locations across Canada and the United Kingdom. Collaboration took place between scholars across Canada, the United States, and the UK.

The highlight of the program was an academic conference that took place on the beautiful campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, from October 20-22, 2016. It brought together scholars, students, and interested readers from Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia to reconsider how we read and teach the novel in the 21st century. The conference began with a screening of an Australian adaptation of Crime and Punishment (Apocalypse Films, 2015), followed by a Q&A with the film’s director, Andrew O’Keefe. The film relocates the murder from St. Petersburg to Melbourne, reimagining Raskolnikov as an impoverished doctoral student and bringing to the fore questions of university funding and campus politics. The next morning began with a video-link to an event organized by Connor Doak at the University of Bristol as part of the BASEES (British Association of Slavonic and East European Studies) 19th-Century Russian Literature study group. The segment included talks by Sarah Hudspith on memory in the novel and by Oliver Ready, translator of the 2014 Penguin Classics edition of Crime and Punishment, on the experience of translating the novel. The conference plenary session featured talks by Louise McReynolds on the role of Crime and Punishment in criminal trials in the years following the novel’s publication, by William Mills Todd III on the novel’s serialization, and by Elena Baraban on Boris Akunin’s rewriting of Dostoevsky’s novel in his 2006 novel F.M. President of the North American Dostoevsky Society Carol Apollonio gave a brilliant keynote on reading Crime and Punishment in the age of Twitter.

Some panels investigated the ways in which different disciplines such as Law, History, and Philosophy incorporate Dostoevsky’s works into their curricula, while others focused on teaching the novels to different kinds of audiences, whether at liberal arts colleges and community colleges, or to senior citizens or in a composition classroom. Several panels explored digital approaches to Dostoevsky’s novel in research and teaching, including collaborative mapping projects and the Twitter project @Rodiontweets. One panel considered film and opera adaptations of Crime and Punishment, with a special chance to hear the score Gerald Janecek composed for his Crime and Punishment opera. We were also able to include panels of undergraduate and graduate students, since part of the remit of the outreach project was to develop undergraduate and graduate student research on Dostoevsky in general and Crime and Punishment in particular.

Other events of our outreach project included two different library exhibitions, one at the University of Toronto, curated by Kate Holland and a doctoral student, Barnabas Kirk, which ran throughout October and November, and another at the University Library at the University of Cambridge in October and online. The first, “Crime and Punishment at 150: Global Contexts,” focused on translations, adaptations and transpositions of the novel from across the globe. The second, “Crime and Punishment at 150,” was created as a collaboration between the Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic specialist, Mel Bach, UBC professor Katherine Bowers, and the students of her Dostoevsky seminar. The students wrote the captions for the objects in the exhibition. The outreach project also included a Twitter event in July, @Rodiontweets, which saw Crime and Punishment tweeted from Raskolnikov’s viewpoint in real time by six Dostoevsky scholars from both sides of the Atlantic (Sarah Hudspith, Sarah J. Young, Kate Holland, Brian Armstrong, Jennifer Wilson, and Katherine Bowers). The Twitter event was accompanied by a series of blog posts on “The Bloggers Karamazov”, the blog of the North American Dostoevsky Society, in which the scholars reflected on the experience of tweeting Crime and Punishment and on how it affected their reading of the work. Other scholars, including Deborah Martinsen, Amy Ronner, and Robin Feuer Miller also got in the “CP150 spirit”, writing blog posts reflecting on the novel. The blog also served as a forum for a number of other types of media: in August we published Bob Belknap’s teaching notes, a special interview with Andrew O’Keefe, and a review of Crime and Punishment by Ivan Karamazov (with some help from Brian Armstrong!). During the summer, there was also an online book-club-read of the novel in a Facebook group under the auspices of the North American Dostoevsky Society. The project has also coincided with a much more active internet presence for the society, including a new website and greater activity on both its blog and Facebook. The outreach project has been using the hashtag #CP150 in an effort to unite different pieces of the Crime and Punishment anniversary celebrations. We celebrated the novel one more time at the ASEEES annual convention in Washington, DC, with a panel on the epilogue to Crime and Punishment. Elements of the outreach project still to come include the creation of an online open access archive of teaching materials on the novel, a volume on Dostoevsky for the Cultural Syllabus series run by Academic Studies Press, and the culmination of @RodionTweets in 2018.

Kate Holland is an Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. Katherine Bowers is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at UBC.