Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment

Actors Lara Belmont and John Simm in a 2003 Bravo production of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment." The classic Russian novel about a young man's struggle with hubris and guilt was given to American fugitive Edward Snowden to read as a window on "the reality of life" in Russia, where he is awaiting word on his request for asylum. (Stephen Morley/ Bravo / July 25, 2013)

Imagine the mood in which Edward Snowden finds himself in the second month of exile in shabby back rooms of Moscow’s cavernous international airport.

No window on the outside world. No company or conversation. Probably nothing good to read left on his digital devices, if he's allowed to have them, to break the monotony of waiting for escape from a purgatory of his own making.

Bored and frustrated, Snowden may well have already cracked open the dead-tree edition of a classic Russian novel given to him by his lawyer Wednesday, along with a fresh change of clothes and the bad news that he must remain in the airport no-man’s land a few days longer.

And in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” the marooned National Security Agency leaker may find an echo of his own moral musings, if he has any, over his decision to disclose NSA snooping on the personal communications of millions.

Rodion Raskolnikov is the deeply conflicted main character in Dostoyevsky’s brooding masterpiece. The aimless and impoverished university dropout convinces himself he is doing society a service by killing the old-crone moneylender Alyona Ivanovna, whom he sees as a leech feeding on the down and out like himself.

But after he kills the old woman and her victimized sister, who inconveniently stumbles onto the fictional mid-19th-century crime scene, Raskolnikov is racked by fever and undulating waves of guilt, contrition and fear.

His suspicious behavior and excessive curiosity about the murder draw the attention of the chief police investigator, who doggedly pursues him despite a lack of incriminating evidence.

Only the classic elements of Russian literature – complicated family life and friends’ intrusive predicaments – distract the murderer from his agonizing introspection. In the end, he is persuaded by another social victim, a young woman forced into prostitution to support her family, to confess and face the punishment for his crime.

Snowden’s attorney, Anatoly Kucherena, told the mob of journalists besieging Sheremetyevo airport on Wednesday that the novel would be helpful for Snowden to get acquainted with “the reality of our life,” as Snowden now hopes to settle in Russia for the foreseeable future.

Thought to be detained in a cell-like room and fed from an institutional kitchen in the airport's nether reaches, Snowden is probably already uncomfortably familiar with the lifestyle that awaits him.

President Vladimir Putin has warned that the fugitive must muzzle himself and refrain from leaking any more U.S. national security secrets that would upset “our American partners.”

A promised document that would allow him to leave the airport transit zone after 33 monotonous days failed to materialize this week, because of what Kucherena said were “bureaucratic difficulties.” Read that to mean Putin and his Kremlin coterie want to think longer and harder about taking in a wanted criminal suspect when they already have enough issues troubling relations with Washington.

So reading may be Snowden’s only distraction from what would be predictable second thoughts or misgivings over the decisions and actions that have landed him in his diplomatic limbo. And if his mood is low enough, the redemptive doom experienced by Raskolnikov might seem to him like cosmic guidance.

The ultimate fate of Raskolnikov – confession to the crime and acceptance of the punishment of prison – might come to be seen by the American fugitive as his own inevitable end game.

But even if he’s a speedy reader, given the novel’s nearly 700 pages he probably hasn’t come to that part yet.

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A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.