Dostoevsky to those who want to change the world: Part 2 of 2

Sao Yang Hew


October 12th, 2018

How do a Russian fiction writer’s works relate to economic theory? And does it really matter? Sao Yang Hew explains.

Continues from Part 1

What happens when we DO get to change the world?

Dostoevsky’s opinion on the Russian political atmosphere solidified after writing “Notes from Underground”, as he continues to encapsulate the human condition in finer detail in his subsequent novel, “Crime and Punishment”. This book follows the story of Raskolnikov, an intellectually equipped yet impoverished law student whose sister is prostituting herself with a rich man to fund his studies. Feeling particularly spiteful while emotionally affected by starvation, Raskolnikov struggles to think of ways obtain money for food and education, or more importantly, to ensure that his sister need not live in a loveless marriage.

After intense deliberation, Raskolnikov decides to rob and murder Ivanova, a wealthy pawnbroker perceived by people around her as unscrupulous and abusive to her employees. Ivanova, after all, is not known to bring benefit to anyone around her, and to them society would be far better off if she simply did not exist. Raskolnikov is utterly convinced by himself, his perceptions towards Ivanova and his friends that killing her was the only rational thing to do for everyone’s sake. Raskolnikov breaks into Ivanova’s house and kills her as well as her half-sister, who happened to stumble upon the murder. What Raskolnikov did not expect was that pre-murder Raskolnikov was a completely different being from post-murder Raskolnikov; his attempt to suppress his conscience and guilt over the murder failed miserably. Raskolnikov inadvertently experiences a rapid downturn in his desire to solve his and society’s problems and can only think about the murder. Eventually, Raskolnikov turns himself to the police and admits his crimes, just to remove his tormenting guilt of killing two sentient beings.[1]

Raskolnikov’s travesty is perhaps Dostoevsky’s fiercer criticism towards idealistic utopianism in contrast to “Notes from Underground”. Dostoevsky compares Raskolnikov with those who believe that Russian society would significantly benefit with a radical replacement of the political establishment, such as the Tsars’ regime. He argues that it is, in fact, impossible to imagine the ramifications of such a change. Like Raskolnikov, society might even plummet into a state of misery and suffering despite the good intent of the idealists. Raskolnikov’s story, which illustrates the phenomenon in which we might be harmed by our hopes to change our lives is still highly relevant today. We might desire a new job, a new degree, a new relationship or a new government, and would religiously believe that such changes would solve all of our problems, but it is often easier to fantasise than to speculate the effects of these changes in terms of benefit and harm towards ourselves.


You might ask, well, what is the point of introducing Dostoevsky in an economics-related article anyway? Well, it is important to acknowledge the fact that most of our modern studies in economics assume human decision based on utilitarianism and rationality. Aside from behavioural economics, we are taught to formulate hypothetical decisions based on the assumption that individuals are rational, and only strive to maximise utility and profit. This assumption is particularly useful in conveying economic concepts, but it is impractical in reality.

If humans were from the start, rational beings who only think at the margin, debates on the superiority of different economic schools of thought, Keynesian, Socialist or Classical would not occur and we would march into perpetual human progress and enlightenment. The truth is, our brains are by far the most complex item known to mankind. We still cannot completely fathom the way our brains react to inconveniences and reward, let alone manipulate them for the enlightenment of society.

Dostoevsky passed away in 1881, 36 years before the Russian revolution established the Soviet Union and implicated the brewing idealist and progressive thoughts within Russia into practice.[2] While this originally started off as a revolution to return power to the Russian people for them to build their own utopia, it began to turn sour as the Soviet Union was simply unaware of the damage Stalin would eventually bring. His rise to power in 1924 had brought tyranny and famine into Soviet politics, ultimately causing 2 to 60 million deaths.[3] The rise and fall of the Soviet Union serves as a strong testament to Dostoevsky’s lessons that philosophies of progress and utopian ideals, albeit their attractiveness in theory, are extremely difficult to be put into practice without error.

“Notes from Underground” and “Crime and Punishment” provide a very important warning for us to be more sceptical towards philosophies that aim to impose or educate humans to be rational in order to construct a utopia. This warning is particularly relevant to young people whom more commonly desire radical change within the political and social establishment. Through Dostoevsky’s work one ought to recognise the sheer complexity of society and the human condition, and the fact that clear-cut solutions deduced with knowledge from the undergraduate social sciences or humanities may even be counterproductive, or even devastating in the face of systemic problems of the world today.


[1] Dostoyevsky, F., & Garnett, C. (2018). Crime and punishment. Canterbury Classics.

[2] Russian Revolution of 1917 | definition, causes, summary, & facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[3] Joseph Stalin. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Image: Nikolay Karazin

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