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As in many of Conrad's stories, the first-person narrator is somewhat removed from the action of the story; in this case, it is an old English professor of languages residing in Geneva, who has received the personal record of a young orphaned Russian student named Razumov. Razumov is a studious and career-motivated young man who keeps himself largely aloof from his peers. One day when he returns home, he finds a student acquaintance named Victor Haldin hiding in his apartment. Haldin informs Razumov that he has just committed a political assassination (which Conrad modeled after the real-life assassination of Vyacheslav von Plehve) and evaded the police. This news causes the single-minded Razumov to panic, as he has no sympathy for Haldin's actions and feels that all he has worked for is slipping away.
Haldin requests Razumov to contact someone named Ziemianitch, who may be able to help Haldin escape successfully. Razumov is panic-stricken, but after much soul-searching agrees to help Haldin—primarily with the intention of getting him out of his apartment. When Razumov finds Ziemianitch in a drunken stupor and unable to assist Haldin he temporarily snaps. Then, in a panic stricken state of confusion, Razumov proceeds to go to the one person that may be able to assist him, his sponsor at the university. They decide to betray Haldin. Accordingly, they go to the chief of police, General T (whom Conrad modeled after real-life Petersburg police chief Fyodor Trepov). Subsequently a trap is laid for Haldin, and Razumov finds himself taking the first step to becoming a secret agent, although at this time he has no such intention.
The narrative then shifts to Geneva where Natalia Haldin, the sister of the executed revolutionary, receives the tragic news via the professor of languages, who has become her tutor and friend and who reads of Victor Haldin's demise in the English newspaper. In his last correspondence to his sister, Victor Haldin mentioned a certain serious young man named Razumov who was kind to him. Nathalie soon learns that Razumov is scheduled to arrive in Switzerland, and she impatiently awaits the arrival of her late brother's final friend.
Razumov comes distressed to Geneva, though he is received warmly by the Russian revolutionist community there, who are planning an insurgency in the Baltic regions. No one knows that Razumov betrayed Haldin, and that he has been sent as a secret agent of the Tsarist regime. Though he is supposed to be penetrating the revolutionary colony in order to access its secrets, Razumov is unable to contain his fits of aggression and sneering toward the left-wing leaders, who are puzzled but continue to trust the young man. It is ultimately revealed that the cause of Razumov's outbursts is his love for Natalie Haldin, who he sees on her daily walks. Never having experienced any kind of warmth or affection from another person, he is long unable to recognize the emotion in himself; when he finally does, he reveals the truth to Natalie and to the revolutionaries, and suffers the consequences for his betrayal. (When Conrad began writing, he planned to have Razumov marry Natalie, have a child, and finally confess years later.)