In The New York Times Book Review weekly feature, “By the Book,” an author is sometimes asked to recommend a book to The President. If I were granted an opportunity to make this recommendation, I’d offer a Presidential two-fer: a single novel for both Russian President Vladimir Putin and former President Donald Trump: Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
It concerns a 19th Century Russian man, Raskolnikov, enthralled by the philosophy of nihilism, who believes he is an “extraordinary” man, superior to the law and to “ordinary” society. To prove his superiority and, supposedly, to benefit society, he savagely murders a pawnbroker and steals her possessions.
First, this scenario strikes me as a microcosm of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rationale for his savage and unprovoked assault upon Ukraine. Just as “R” calls the pawnbroker “useless” to rationalize and justify his treachery, Putin falsely accuses Ukraine of Nazi genocide to justify his attempt to erase a sovereign neighbor.
Indeed, Putin denies Ukraine’s legitimate existence, even calling the Ukrainian language a “dialect” of Russia. Indeed, in the spirit of nihilism, he shows no sense of morality or humanity in his burnt earth bombing and shelling campaign. And just as delusional as R’s Napoleonic ideation, Putin believes he will resurrect the corpse of the former Soviet Union.
Second, in Putin’s messianic attempt to make Russia great again, we of course hear an echo of former President Trump’s campaign motto, past and present. Like Putin, Trump anointed himself America’s savior. In his 2016 Presidential Inaugural, he declared, “I alone can fix” America’s problems and “make America great again.” Both Presidents attempt to inspire nostalgia for some mythic, glorious past.
And like Raskolnikov and Putin, Trump considers himself an “extraordinary” man, calling himself, a “stable genius,” and, tellingly, characterizes Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine as an act of “genius.” In other words, Trump believes that he and Putin are above the law and morality. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
This inflated self-image also explains why Trump called his attempted extortion of Ukraine’s President to get dirt on a political rival “a perfect call.” It explains why he feels justified in his attempt to subvert the will of the American electorate and prevent the peaceful transfer of power by provoking an angry mob to attack The Capitol, to threaten the lives of legislators, and to cause the death of Capitol police.
In other words, Trump does not believe in the principles, values, and laws of the nation that he is supposed to represent. Nor does he believe in the truth. Like R and Putin, he is a nihilist.
Due to their delusions of grandeur, all three of these men grow increasingly isolated and unhinged. Unlike Trump and Putin, however, Raskolnikov, despite himself, does have a conscience. And the more his actions and thoughts isolate him from society, the more his guilt tortures his conscience and awakens him to his humanity. In the end, he confesses his crime, accepts responsibility, and willingly suffers the consequences. In short, he regains his humanity.
On the other hand, Presidents Putin and Trump have doubled down on their delusions as they continue to spread propaganda and blatant lies to deny the truth and manipulate the electorate. They have both attempted to destroy national and international institutions and norms to create chaos, not for any greater good, but only to accumulate power and to prove they are “extraordinary.”
Though I imagine both Presidents consider “R”’s revelations as “woke” and, therefore, weak; I would love for them to have a copy of Crime and Punishment in their future prison cells. Granted, President Putin claims to have read the novel, but now that he’s invaded Ukraine, slaughtered thousands of innocent people, and isolated himself from most of the civilized world to make Russia great again, I ‘d hope he might see the novel in a new light.
As for Trump, perhaps he could listen to the audio version.
Thomas Cangelosi of Avon is a retired teacher.