Betrayal. It’s an ugly idea, that someone you trust would, behind your back, act against you. What Dostoevsky does with the idea and act and subsequent guilt of murder in Crime and Punishment, Conrad explores here around the idea of betrayal.
Our main character, Razumov, is an orphan sponsored silently by Prince K___, of the Russian nobility, as a student. Dark, quiet, studious, and a listener, he finds himself entrusted with the safety and escape plans of a fellow student, Victor Haldin, who has just assassinated a Russian official. He shares none of Haldin’s revolutionary presentiments, and sees his hope of a successful career vanishing to be replaced with a prison sentence in Siberia. Failing to arouse the peasant worker Ziemianitch to transport Haldin out of Russia, he decides to go to the authorities and betray the location where Ziemianitch was to pick up Haldin. Haldin is arrested, and executed, and it would seem that Razumov could resume his life.
Conrad reveals how betrayal comes at a cost. For one thing, there is the “phantom” of Haldin that dogs Razumov’s steps throughout the story and the repeated effort to “step on” the phantom, to obliterate him. Then, because Razumov was never identified as the betrayer (and the remorseful death by hanging of Zemianitch suggests that it was he), Razumov is recruited to infiltrate the revolutionary circles abroad because he is assumed by them to be a friend and revolutionary associate of Haldin’s, indeed the last to see him living. He succeeds in insinuating himself into their circles, but as he does so, he comes in contact with Haldin’s sister Nathalia under whose “gray, trustful eyes” he falls, and those of her mother, shattered by the loss of her son. He also comes under the eyes of the English (hence Western) narrator who is Nathalia’s English teacher.
The plot tension surrounds whether Razumov will be able to keep up the ruse, and betray yet more of these revolutionaries to the Russian authorities (betrayal leading to yet more betrayal) or whether the knowledge of what he is done and the duplicity he is practicing will become too great for him.
The device of the western observer who tells this story seems awkward and somewhat extraneous to the plot movement. Otherwise, this is a fascinating study of the psychology of betrayal. It also chronicles czarist Russia’s corrosive abuses of power that led to the Marxist revolution. In the variety of characters in the revolutionary circle Conrad also gives us a portrait of the mix of the noble and venal and violent qualities of the regime that took its place.