The Russian Orthodox New Woman: Dostoevsky’s Answer to “The Woman Question” in Crime and Punishment
Two decades ago, Nina Pelikan Straus synthesized Bakhtinian and feminist theory, discovering “that Dostoevsky does not subjugate or impose unity, that he does not inflict his own monologic thoughts upon his characters”—including the women (Woman Question 4). Since then, Bakhtinian-feminist readings of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy have brought freshness to literary theory, nuancing our interpretations of different works and deepening our understanding of Bakhtin’s own project. Ironically, feminist criticism of Russian literature has become only Bakhtinian, and thus monologic. To help re-open the conversation to non-Bakhtinian voices, this paper discusses “the woman question” in F. M. Dostoevsky’s cultural, literary, and philosophical context. Dostoevsky echoes his contemporaries’ concerns with women’s economic oppression, showing in Crime and Punishment how financial subjugation prompts misogynist violence. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky rejects feminist, Marxist, and nihilist social theory as unable to liberate women: his oppressed heroines in Crime and Punishment find emancipation, not in economic empowerment, but in religious and moral conviction.
Due to French and German influences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russian views of womanhood vacillated between extremes—first discarding the medieval “doctrine” of feminine “impurity” (Stites 13), then hailing the witty Catherine II as the female ideal, and finally embracing “the deification of woman and the worship of her soul” (Stites 17). In the 1850s and 1860s, Russian poet and publicist M. L. Mikhailov introduced the French idea of the “New Woman” to Russia: “‘There should be nothing feminine in women except their sex,’” Mikhailov wrote. “‘All other traits should be neither masculine nor feminine, but purely human’” (quoted in Stites 46). Mikahilov encouraged women to take on “masculine” qualities, such as courage, independent thinking, self-reliance, and perseverance. Meanwhile, four events convinced the Russian intelligentsia that Mikahilov’s New Woman could actually exist. After the Crimean War ended in 1856, the tsar awarded a group of female nurses for their valiant service on the front lines. In 1858, the government founded secondary schools to teach women the liberal arts. In 1860, Alexander II allowed women to audit university classes; within the year, half the Moscow University students were women. In 1861, Alexander II’s government emancipated the serfs, heightening the women’s hope for deliverance (Stites 50).
But the women’s actual social situation continued to grow worse. In 1863, the government—terrified of a student revolution—rescinded the women’s permission to attend the universities. Meanwhile, the abolition of serfdom forced women of all classes to flock to the cities to find work. Between 1858 and 1863, an average of 3,833 women immigrated to St. Petersburg per year (Stites 57). But in pre-industrial Russia, there was no work. For many women, prostitution was the only option. From 1853 to1867, St. Petersburg’s number of “official” prostitutes rose by twenty percent, while the city’s population only rose by six percent (Stites 60). Surrounded by visibly suffering women, no one in St. Petersburg could ignore the woman question by 1865—the year Dostoevsky began Crime and Punishment.
In Crime, Dostoevsky dramatizes women’s need for what he called “a wider thoroughfare” in Diary of a Writer (quoted in Stites 79). Throughout Crime, economic oppression of both men and women always instigates violence against women. Raskolnikov, frustrated by his economic impotence, murders his wealthy “creditor” Alyona and her sister with an axe (Crime 5).  The violence directly stems from Raskolnikov’s discomfort with his poverty. The impecunious Raskolnikov lives in a “cupboard” and has eaten “almost nothing” for two days (Crime 3-4). His feverish, hunger-prompted dream of the peasant Mikolka beating an old mare to death exposes his fiscal frustration. Thrice in Raskolnikov’s dream, Mikolka shouts, “It’s my goods!” (Crime 56). Because Mikolka owns the mare, he can kill her—economic oppression again leads to violence against women. Raskolnikov, though Alyona’s financial inferior, aligns himself with Mikolka: “Can it be,” he cries upon waking, “that I will really take an axe and hit her on the head and smash her skull? (Crime 59). For Raskolnikov, it can and will be—he cannot suppress his anger any longer. To conquer his feeling of economic “powerlessness” (Crime 5), Raskolnikov asserts his physical power over the wealthy Alyona and kills her.
Writing from Raskolnikov’s point of view, Dostoevsky does not detail Alyona’s situation—merely Raskolnikov’s irritation with her power. Thus, the reader assumes that Alyona is egregiously rich; yet the “flannel rags” and “jacket” she wears are “completely worn out and yellow with age” (Crime 6-7). The discrepancy between the reader’s expectation and Alyona’s reality emphasizes Alyona’s precarious social position. Unlike most women in 1860s St. Petersburg, Alyona achieved financial freedom through independent thinking, hard work, and shrewd saving—the very traits for which Raskolnikov and other male students condemn her. “‘She’s rich as a Jew,” one student says, “‘Only she’s a terrible harpy” (Crime 63). Unfortunately, Alyona and Lizaveta’s hard work does not protect them from misogynist violence, but rather prompts Raskolnikov to murder them.
Similarly, Svidrigailov’s fiscal power struggle with Marfa Petrovna and Dunya causes him to abuse the two women. Svidrigailov, imprisoned for debt, marries the wealthy Marfa Petrovna. Yet she maintains the monetary upper hand in their marriage: “She kept a document against me,” Svidrigailov complains, “in somebody else’s name, for the thirty thousand, so that if I ever decided to rebel at anything—there’d be a trap right there!” (Crime 285). Svidrigailov revolts against being a woman’s economic inferior—he whips his wife three times and habitually beats her. After six years of abuse, Marfa Petrovna surrenders: she gives her husband the document, “a significant sum on top of it,” and control over the estate (Crime 286). Now that Svidrigailov has no need of his wife, he murders her: either by beating her so badly that she has a stroke and dies (Crime 228) or by poisoning her (Crime 495).
Svidrigailov turns his economic power against the impoverished Dunya, his children’s governess. Offering riches, he begs Dunya to become his mistress. Although Dunya refuses his “vile and explicit proposition” (Crime 32), Svidrigailov does not give up. After killing his wife, he follows Dunya to St. Petersburg to give her the “ten thousand roubles” she needs to end her engagement to Luzhin (Crime 291). When Dunya refuses, Svidrigailov explains that he has the power to protect her brother Raskolnikov from the police: “We will save him, rescue him…I have money… You really won’t want to betray your brother, will you?” (Crime 492-494). Svidrigailov’s ultimatum—he will save Raskolnikov only if Dunya will have sex with him—has force because of Svidrigailov’s economic power over Dunya. As with Alyona, Lizaveta, and Marfa Petrovna, Dunya’s financial vulnerability exposes her to masculine violence.
Sonya, forced to become a prostitute to support her family, is so poor that nearly any man—even the impoverished Raskolnikov—can abuse her. Dosteovsky colors Raskolnikov and Sonya’s relationship with economic hues: at their first meeting, Raskolnikov gives Sonya’s step-mother Katerina Ivanovna money to pay for a funeral. Though as poor as Sonya, Raskolnikov thus raises himself above Sonya. While thanking Raskolnikov for his gift, Sonya is shocked by his few tattered belongings and exclaims, “‘You gave us all you had yesterday!’” (Crime 239). Although Raskolnikov has no more money to give, Sonya’s gratefulness reinforces Raskolnikov’s financial power over her—which enables him to verbally abuse her, a la the “Underground Man” from Dostoevsky’s novella Notes from Underground (1864).
Dostoevsky carefully aligns the two men to emphasize Raskolnikov’s power Sonya. In Notes, the Underground Man hires a prostitute named Liza and proceeds to torment her, his “goal” to “exercise” his “power” over her (Notes 85). “In a year you will be worth less,” he jeers. “In seven years you will come to a basement in the Haymarket…You will never buy your freedom. They will see to that. It’s like selling your soul to the devil” (Notes 83-85). Similarly, Raskolnikov verbally attacks Sonya. Having thrown Sonya into a “terrible anguish” by criticizing her faith in God’s justice (Crime 321), Raskolnikov unleashes his final blow: “It’s bound to be the same with Polechka” (Crime 321). Sonya, horrified by the thought of her little sister forced into prostitution, feels “as if she had suddenly been stabbed with a knife” (Crime 321). By verbally abusing Sonya, Raskolnikov behaves like the Underground Man. The image Dostoevsky uses for Raskolnikov’s verbal attacks— the phallic “knife”—depicts Raskolnikov as yet another man who assaults economically vulnerable women (Crime 321).
But what could Sonya, Dunya, and other women do to protect themselves? Dostoevsky and his feminist, Marxist, and nihilist contemporaries agreed that women were economically oppressed; but each group promoted different solutions to “the woman question.” Both feminists and Marxists believed that increased job opportunities and inheritance rights would solve “the woman question.” Feminist Mariya Vernadaskaya, co-editor of The Economic Index, first connected the woman question to economics in the 1820s. She argued that a free-trade economy would welcome an educated and skilled female work force, thus liberating women from their financial, familial, and educational constraints. In contrast, Marxist Peter Tkachëv believed that laissez-faire economics would only enslave women further. In 1866—the year Dostoevsky finished Crime and Punishment—Tkachëv argued that women could only be truly emancipated in a classless society (Stites 58).
Unlike the feminists and Marxists’ materialist strategies, the nihilists’ plan to emancipate women was moral—or rather, amoral. In the first nihilist novel What Is To Be Done? (1863), Nikolay Chernyshevsky posits that a woman could obtain economic freedom through a “fictitious marriage”: a loveless union that would enable a woman to study and work, with the understanding that she is free to have sex with other men (Stites 105). The “fictitious marriage”— founded upon the nihilists’ desire to obliterate “all existing political, social, and religious order” and eliminate “absolute moral or ethical values” (Pratt 1)—prompted Russian conservatives to lambast the novel as “an open endorsement of sexual license” (Stites 97). Stites rejects the Russian conservative interpretation of What Is To Be Done? as invalid; but Dostoevsky himself appears to have agreed with the political conservatives. Dostoevsky satirizes What Is To Be Done? in Notes and critiques nihilist philosophy in Crime (Frank 414) as part of his “repudiation of revolutionary socialism and Chernyshevskian feminism” (Nihilist 279).
Dostoevsky, “a committed moral-religious progressive who stoutly maintained his convictions” (Frank 130), agrees with the feminists, Marxists, and nihilists’ belief that economic oppression enslaves women; yet in Crime, he reveals that only religious and moral conviction can truly liberate women. Russian Orthodoxy’s purity and piety and the New Woman’s “will power, social consciousness, [and] action,” are not contradictory for Dostoevsky, but rather complementary—holiness and “will power” united create true conviction (Stites 93). Piety by itself cannot liberate women; if it could, then the “just” Lizaveta would evade Raskolnikov’s axe (Crime 325). Yet Lizaveta dies. Thus, the reader can conclude that the “constantly pregnant” Lizaveta’s excessive submission, according to Dostoevsky, does not stem from true religious conviction (Crime 64). True Christian conviction—a faith that actively defends itself and others, valiantly sacrifices its comforts to help others, upholds absolute moral standards, and thinks and reasons for itself—combines Russian Orthodox belief with traditional “masculine” traits. For Dostoevsky, only a woman who is both a Christian and a New Woman can escape misogynist violence—as does Dunya.
Dunya, an impoverished Christian New Woman, achieves victory over her rich and abusive oppressor, Svidrigailov, through religious conviction. Her triumph enables both her and Sonya to attain the financial independence necessary to avoid masculine violence. Dostoevsky establishes Dunya as the ideal religious New Woman in Pulcheria Alexandrovna’s letter to her son Raskolnikov: “‘Dunya, besides being an intelligent girl, is at the same time a noble being, like an angel’” (Crime 32-33). Dunya relies on both her reason and God’s guidance when making important decisions. For example, when Luzhin proposes to her, she spends the night in thought and prayer: she “got out of bed and paced up and down the room all night; finally she knelt and prayed ardently before the icon for a long time” (Crime 36). Moreover, Dunya proves herself to be well-educated: she works as a governess, can judge that Luzhin is “a man of small education” (Crime 35), and is intelligent enough (as an infatuated, but quite rational, Razumikhin opines) to be a radical “political conspirator” (Crime 446).
As both a New Woman and a Russian Orthodox Christian, Dunya twice triumphs over Svidrigailov. First, after Dunya resists Svidrigailov’s sexual advances, Marfa Petrovna makes “a bequest of three thousand roubles” to Dunya (Crime 300). Dunya’s moral fortitude prompts a benevolent, wealthy woman to provide her with the financial resources she needs to avoid abusive situations. Second, Dunya’s intelligence and virtues deliver her from Svidrigailov’s threats. Svidrigailov issues an ultimatum: if Dunya has sex with him, he will buy her brother’s freedom; if she refuses, he will rape her and denounce her brother. Dunya, locked in Svidrigailov’s room with God as her only ally, immediately takes action: “Suddenly she took a revolver from her pocket, cocked it, and lowered the hand holding the revolver to the little table. Svidrigailov jumped from his seat” (Crime 484). Revolted by Svidrigailov’s previous lewd demands, Dunya has long since prepared herself to resist him. Asserting her moral consciousness, Dunya calls Svidrigailov a “murderer” and “slanderer” and prepares to shoot him (Crime 495). When Dunya realizes that she intends to kill Svidrigailov (She shouts, “I’ll kill you!”), she drops the gun, refusing to become a “murderer” like Svidrigailov (Crime 495). Dunya’s strong will and moral purity combine in her decision to defend herself and spare her tormentor. Her self-assertive morality defeats Svidrigailov: he releases Dunya, gives Sonya the money she needs to abandon prostitution, and shoots himself on a bridge.
Thus, Dunya’s moral fortitude not only saves herself from masculine violence, but also secures Sonya’s economic empowerment. But before the “timid” Sonya can use money to escape masculine violence, she must learn true Christian conviction (Crime 236). As the novels’ most religious character, Sonya reads the Bible to Lizaveta and Raskolnikov, maintains her belief in God’s justice, and relies on God to uphold her mind. Nevertheless, she is too docile—like Lizaveta—to escape prostitution. Sonya does not comprehend the dangers of indiscriminate submissiveness until Luzhin frames her for theft. Sonya defends herself only by sobbing, “I don’t know anything” (Crime 392). Katerina Ivanovna—whom Sonya respects as “pure” and “just” (Crime 318)—vehemently argues for Sonya’s innocence. Watching Katerina argue with Luzhin, Sonya realizes that having excessive “prudence, meekness, submissiveness to one and all” makes it “easier to ruin her than anyone else” (Crime 404), and that Katerina’s aggressive cries for justice do not contradict her faith. Instead of imitating Lizaveta’s timidity, Sonya decides to emulate her step-mother’s conviction.
Immediately, Sonya’s behavior changes. In the following scene, when Raskolnikov begins to interrogate Sonya, she interrupts him: “Only don’t talk to me like you did yesterday” (Crime 406). While she previously submitted to Raskolnikov’s bullying, she now follows Katerina Ivanovna’s example—she refuses to countenance his abuses, confronts him about his cruelty towards her, and argues with his theology: “Can it be that you came only to torment me?” “But I cannot know divine Providence…And who put me here to judge who is to live and who is not to live?” (Crime 408). Raskolnikov realizes that his position as Sonya’s benefactor has been nullified: he feels “powerless” and asks Sonya for “forgiveness” (Crime 408). Now that Sonya combines the New Woman’s “will power” and “action” with the Russian Orthodox’s moral purity (Stites 93), she can invite Raskolnikov to confess.
As Raskolnikov confesses and explains his motives, Sonya’s conviction grows even stronger. While Sonya was once economically dependent on Raskolnikov, now she leads him: “Go now, this minute,” she commands, “stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kill the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’” (Crime 420). Raskolnikov obeys, proving that Sonya’s strong will and convictions have overcome his masculine violence. Sonya continues to transform: she travels with the convicted Raskolnikov to Siberia as the Decembrist wives followed their husbands.
By having Sonya imitate the Decembrist wives—women who joined their revolutionary husbands in their Siberian exile—Dostoevsky clarifies how New Woman and Russian Orthodox virtues can unite in a person. In his Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky describes the Decembrist wives who ministered to him during his Siberian exile: “‘They gave up everything, position, wealth, family, ties, sacrificed everything for the highest moral duty, a duty which nothing could impose on them but themselves. Completely innocent, during twenty-five years they bore everything to which their husbands had been condemned’” (quoted in Frank 187). This experience likely contributed to Dostoevsky’s respect for “a woman as a Christ figure who redeems a ‘fallen’ man while simultaneously confronting him with her feminist advocacy of sexual equality” (Woman Question 7). The Decembrist wives—who were both self-sacrificial and holy like Christ, and self-reliant and persevering as a New Women—became Dostoevsky’s ideal of womanhood. Sonya, then, transforms from a Lizaveta into an ideal woman, and her metamorphosis enables her to escape masculine violence.
Sonya and Dunya—when analyzed in their 1860s St. Petersburg context—embody Dostoevsky’s solution to the woman question: religious and moral conviction. Revisiting Dostoevsky’s historical context enables us to understand how feminist, Marxist, and nihilist social theories would fail to liberate Russian women from economic oppression and the accompanying misogynist violence. Further research into Dostoevsky’s ideological context, literary works, and personal life would deepen our understanding of Dostoevsky’s vision of the Russian Orthodox New Woman.
Dostoevsky, F. M. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1993.
———————–. Notes from Underground. Trans. Boris Jakim. Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009. Print.
Straus, Nina Pelikan. Dostoevsky and the Woman Question: Rereadings at the End of a Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Print.
————————-. “Every Woman Loves a Nihilist: Stavrogin and Women in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 27.3 (Spring 1994) : 271-286. JSTOR. Web. 20.11.2010.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Ed. Mary Petrusewicz. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2010.
Stites, Richard. The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism (1860-1930). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.
Pratt, Alan. “Nihilism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I. E. P., 3 May 2005. Web. 4 December 2010.
 Throughout Crime, Dostoevsky refers to male characters by their last names and to female characters by their first names. To some extent, it was hypocritical for Dostoevksy—a writer so concerned with the “woman question—to treat his characters so unequally. While I would like to call Raskolnikov “Rodya” and Razumikhin “Dmitri,” I shall use the male characters’ last names for two reasons: First, using the male characters’ last names will emphasize the gender inequalities in Crime’s historical context. Second, Dostoevksy’s characters each have three or more names; referring to the characters as Dostoevksy did will alleviate the confusion.