The first part of Crime and Punishment published in the January and February issues of The Russian Messenger met with public success. In his memoirs, the conservative belletrist Nikolay Strakhov recalled that in Russia Crime and Punishment was the literary sensation of 1866. Tolstoy's novel War and Peace was being serialized in The Russian Messenger at the same time as Crime and Punishment.
The novel soon attracted the criticism of the liberal and radical critics. G.Z. Yeliseyev sprang to the defense of the Russian student corporations, and wondered, "Has there ever been a case of a student committing murder for the sake of robbery?" Pisarev, aware of the novel's artistic value, described Raskolnikov as a product of his environment, and argued that the main theme of the work was poverty and its results. He measured the novel's excellence by the accuracy with which Dostoevsky portrayed the contemporary social reality, and focused on what he regarded as inconsistencies in the novel's plot. Strakhov rejected Pisarev's contention that the theme of environmental determinism was essential to the novel, and pointed out that Dostoevsky's attitude towards his hero was sympathetic: "This is not mockery of the younger generation, neither a reproach nor an accusation—it is a lament over it." Solovyov felt that the meaning of the novel, despite the common failure to understand it, is clear and simple: a man who considers himself entitled to 'step across' discovers that what he thought was an intellectually and even morally justifiable transgression of an arbitrary law turns out to be, for his conscience, "a sin, a violation of inner moral justice... that inward sin of self-idolatry can only be redeemed by an inner act of self-renunciation."
The early Symbolist movement that dominated Russian letters in the 1880s was concerned more with aesthetics than the visceral realism and intellectuality of Crime and Punishment, but a tendency toward mysticism among the new generation of symbolists in the 1900s led to a reevaluation of the novel as an address to the dialectic of spirit and matter. In the character of Sonya (Sofya Semyonovna) they saw an embodiment of both the Orthodox feminine principle of hagia sophia (holy wisdom) –"at once sexual and innocent, redemptive both in her suffering and her veneration of suffering", and the most important feminine deity of Russian folklore mat syra zemlya (moist mother earth). Raskolnikov is a "son of Earth" whose egoistic aspirations lead him to ideas and actions that alienate him from the very source of his strength, and he must bow down to her before she can relieve him of the terrible burden of his guilt. Philosopher and Orthodox theologian Nikolay Berdyaev shared Solovyov and the symbolists' sense of the novel's spiritual significance, seeing it as an illustration of the modern age's hubristic self-deification, or what he calls "the suicide of man by self-affirmation". Raskolnikov answers his question of whether he has the right to kill solely by reference to his own arbitrary will, but, according to Berdyaev, these are questions that can only be answered by God, and "he who does not bow before that higher will destroys his neighbor and destroys himself: that is the meaning of Crime and Punishment".
Crime and Punishment was regarded as an important work in a number of 20th century European cultural movements, notably the Bloomsbury Group, psychoanalysis, and existentialism. Of the writers associated with Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf, John Middleton Murry and D.H. Lawrence are some of those who have discussed the work. Freud held Dostoevsky's work in high esteem, and many of his followers have attempted psychoanalytical interpretations of Raskolnikov. Among the existentialists, Sartre and Camus in particular have acknowledged Dostoevsky's influence.
The affinity of Crime and Punishment with both religious mysticism and psychoanalysis led to suppression of discussion in Soviet Russia: interpretations of Raskolnikov tended to align with Pisarev's idea of reaction to unjust socio-economic conditions. An exception was the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, considered by many commentators to be the most original and insightful analyst of Dostoevsky's work. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Bakhtin argues that attempts to understand Dostoevsky's characters from the vantage point of a pre-existing philosophy, or as individualized 'objects' to be psychologically analysed, will always fail to penetrate the unique "artistic architechtonics" of his works. In such cases, both the critical approach and the assumed object of investigation are 'monological': everything is perceived as occurring within the framework of a single overarching perspective, whether that of the critic or that of the author. Dostoevsky's art, Bakhtin argues, is inherently 'dialogical': events proceed on the basis of interaction between self-validating subjective voices, often within the consciousness of an individual character, as is the case with Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov's consciousness is depicted as a battleground for all the conflicting ideas that find expression in the novel: everyone and everything he encounters become reflected and refracted in a "dialogized" interior monologue. He has rejected external relationships and chosen his tormenting internal dialogue; only Sonya is capable of continuing to engage with him despite his cruelty. His openness to dialogue with Sonya is what enables him to cross back over the "threshold into real-life communication (confession and public trial)—not out of guilt, for he avoids acknowledging his guilt, but out of weariness and loneliness, for that reconciling step is the only relief possible from the cacophony of unfinalized inner dialogue."