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.