by John Batten
On the 150th anniversary of its original publication I recently read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment for the first time. It was a book that had been in my unread book pile for too-long – its anniversary prodded me to read it. It is a unique crime novel, not a ‘whodunit’, because the reader knows at the beginning that the novel’s key character, the poor agitated student Raskolnikov, murders an elderly money-lender and her daughter with an axe. The novel’s story is built around whether Roskolnikov will eventually be discovered as the murderer.
Crime and Punishment explores Roskolnikov’s psychological ups-and-downs and swings between guilt for his actions and thoughts and conversations justifying the murder. It is one of the first novels to anticipate the dream theories of Freud and discusses rationalism, God, free will, and atheism. Running as a constant undercurrent through the book is Russia’s social tensions at the time: cities brimming with itinerant workers after the country’s serfs were freed from bondage in 1861. Political reform was a goal for the country’s intelligentia, who were influenced by French and English political and social ideas of egalitarianism to replace the country’s autocratic Tsarist government and privileged landed gentry.
The book is set in St Petersburg, Russia’s then-capital and famous for its opulent imperial palaces, planned urban streets, and, unlike ‘Asian’ Moscow, a progressive city of European culture and ideas. However, we read nothing of St Peterburg’s glitz: the action takes place in seedy bars, overcrowded boarding houses and bustling streets and markets. Depicted is the city’s grinding poverty. Money, the lack of money and conversations about money, is a focus of all the book’s characters. Dostoyevsky asks, does poverty allow forgiveness for moral indiscretions? And, is the offer of money, when you are poor, always gladly accepted over any moral considerations? Is Roskolnikov’s brutal double-murder tempered by his other acts of kindness and charity? Moral dilemmas dominate Crime and Punishment and increasingly Sonya, who supports her poverty-stricken mother and siblings as a prostitute, becomes a pivotal character as she befriends Roskolnikov. There is little evidence pointing to Roskolnikov having done the crime, despite police suspicions – and he is tempted to bide his time to let the investigation run its course, despite having feelings of guilt. But, he confesses his crime to Sonya. Roskolnikov recognizes her incorruptible moral strength and belief in Christian redemption as she eventually persuades Roskolnikov to confess his crime to the police.
He is sentenced to serve eight years in a Siberian prison camp – echoing Dostoyevsky’s own prison sentence to Siberia for being a member of a banned literary group in 1849.
“Never in my judicial career have I seen a man fall from so high,” said Mr Justice Andrew Chan Hing-wai, the trial presiding High Court judge, when sentencing Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to 20 months in prison for misconduct in public office. In front of the Court, Donald Tsang’s wife, Selina Pou Siu-mei, immediately announced they would appeal the verdict and is reported to have said, “Over the last five years, we have suffered a great deal of pressure. Today is a dark day. The entire family is disappointed and upset.”
On hearing of Tsang’s sentencing I said to a friend, “I don’t think there will be much public sympathy for Tsang.” He replied. “Except from the elite.”
Similarly, former Chief Secretary in Tsang’s government, Rafael Hui Si-yan, was jailed for receiving bribes from a property developer in 2014. Despite these high profile convictions for wrongdoing in public office, the status quo will prevail. There is no suggestion from any of the Chief Executive election candidates that great reform is coming, nor that the elite will have their influence curtailed. It is a situation ripe for more wrong-doing in public office.
Tsang’s trial, conviction and sentencing was a test of Hong Kong’s rule of law and of individuals judged fairly by the law. Now, rather than bitter disappointment, Tsang has a future of possible redemption. I wonder if Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has read Crime and Punishment?
John Batten is an art critic, and convenor of the Central & Western Concern Group