“The consummate teacher and scholar”: Ronald Meyer reflects on working with Deborah Martinsen on “Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’: A Reader’s Guide”

Below, Ronald Meyer (Harriman Institute, Columbia University) reflects on working with Deborah Martinsen on her recently published Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”: A Reader’s Guide before her passing, and provides a touching tribute to Dr. Martinsen’s life, scholarly work, and legacy.

Deborah Martinsen, the author of Dostoevsky’sCrime and Punishment”: A Reader’s Guide, wrote to me on February 10, 2021, to ask for help in publishing her book manuscript:

I have completed a guide to Crime and Punishment that has been vetted by many Slavists, who all assure me it is a good and useful manuscript.  Unfortunately, it does not fit the profile of the new series on Core texts being started by Columbia (of which I am the managing editor). The editorial board wants a thematic book, but Slavists like Irina Reyfman, Cathy Popkin, and Marcia Morris agree that chronological (the manuscript) is the only way to go with the novel.

I quote this email to emphasize that the book was virtually complete a year before its publication in February 2022, and that Deborah’s aim was to write a “good and useful book,” which took full advantage of her decades of teaching the novel in Columbia’s famed Literature Humanities (the Core) as well as teaching others how to teach the novel.

As she also wrote in that first note, Deborah was facing “mortality sooner rather than later.” We quickly decided that I would oversee the administrative and editorial matters. I took care of sending out the proposal, filling out the author questionnaire, hiring an indexer, and reading proofs, while she worked on revising the chapters, incorporating comments and suggestions from friends and then later the readers’ reports. Academic Studies Press was enthusiastic about the project from the beginning. Of course, it helped that the press knew both me and Deborah as authors. Deborah was co-editor of Teaching Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Belknap (Academic Studies Press, 2014), to which she contributed the chapter on teaching Crime and Punishment, paving the way for her Reader’s Guide.

Together Deborah and I read the copyedits, decided on images for the book and the cover, which were kindly supplied by the Dostoevsky House Museum in St. Petersburg. Of course, Deborah knew everyone in the international Dostoevsky world and the House Museum was only too happy to help out. A Faculty Publications Grant from the Harriman Institute allowed us to hire an editor and indexer. Friend and colleague Marcia Morris and I read the final proofs in October 2021; that same month Deborah chose the final cover image. The book came out in February 2022—exactly a year from proposal to publication.

As the Publications Editor at the Harriman Institute, I’d previously worked on two books with Deborah: the edited volume Literary Journals in Imperial Russia (Cambridge University Press 1998) and Surprised by Shame: Dostoevsky’s Liars and Narrative Exposure (Ohio State, 2003). My assistance in these cases took the form of commissioning readers’ reports, helping her find a publisher, reading the manuscript with an eye to publication, generally advising on the process from book proposal and contract to publication, and so on. The conciseness of her inscription to me on Surprised by Shame is very typical Deborah: “For Ron, invaluable friend, Deborah.”

Our author/editor relationship was not one-sided. When I was working on my translation of a half-dozen Dostoevsky stories for Penguin, Deborah and I had several long conversations about how to frame the introduction, and even what to look out for when translating a few of the stories (I remember in particular talking about Dostoevsky’s “The Meek One”). She also recommended some secondary literature that really helped me find my way. She mentored me again when I undertook editing Robert Maguire’s translation of Dostoevsky’s Demons for Penguin. Maguire had died before making a final edit of the manuscript and there were questions literally on every single page. I was far from the only one to benefit from Deborah’s largesse. Dozens and dozens of scholars and students benefited from Deborah’s scholarly generosity. What’s more, she was very good at intuiting a person’s strengths and suggesting avenues that would highlight them.

So when we started working on Crime and Punishment, we were friends and colleagues and got down to work without any fuss. She spoke infrequently of her cancer, generally sharing good news, and being reticent with the bad. But we both knew we were working against the clock. I had been in a similar situation many years ago, and was not prepared to repeat it.


Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”: A Reader’s Guide draws on Deborah’s particular strengths in narrative theory, which not only would show how things fit together in the novel, but also show teachers how to teach the novel. The chronological approach is outlined in Deborah’s book proposal:

This study of Crime and Punishment will focus on narrative strategy while considering both psychology and ideology. The focus on narrative strategy will demonstrate how Dostoevsky first plunges readers into Raskolnikov’s fevered brain, creating reader sympathy for him and explaining why most readers root for him to get away from the scene of the crime. Dostoevsky subsequently provides outsider perspectives on Raskolnikov’s thinking, effecting a conversion in reader sympathy.

All this supports her Introduction’s opening salvo: “Crime and Punishment is a psychological detective novel whose mystery lies not in the whodunit but in the whydunit—a question that perplexes protagonist and readers alike.”

Readers and teachers alike will appreciate Deborah’s clarity of exposition and conciseness—qualities all too often missing from academic writing. In addition to the exposition of Dostoevsky’s narrative strategy, Deborah offers a historical introduction and an overview of what she sets out to do, which helpfully ends with “teaching tips” and suggestions on how to teach part I. And then there’s the a day-by-day, hour-by-hour chronology of the novel, annotated bibliography of contemporary criticism, and maps that allow the student to follow in Raskolnikov’s steps. All in 120 pages!

My introduction to Crime and Punishment came in high school. And like many of my generation of Slavists, I cite this work as the one responsible for propelling me to make this odd career choice. It was truly a pleasure and an honor to work with Deborah on this study about the book that changed my life.  It should come as no surprise that Deborah, the consummate teacher and scholar, would pen the ultimate reader’s guide, a book for teachers and readers.

Ronald Meyer

April 2022

Deborah A. Martinsen was Associate Dean of Alumni Education and Adjunct Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature, Columbia University. Past president of the International Dostoevsky Society and former executive secretary of the North American Dostoevsky Society, Martinsen is the author of Surprised by Shame: Dostoevsky’s Liars and Narrative Exposure (Ohio, 2003) and co-editor of Dostoevsky in Context (Oxford, 2015).

Ronald Meyer is Publications Editor at the Harriman Institute. He teaches the seminar in Russian literary translation at Columbia University.

Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”: A Reader’s Guide is available for purchase wherever books are sold.