In the 1860s, Russia was beginning to absorb the ideas and culture of Western Europe at an accelerated pace, nurturing an unstable local climate. There was especially a growth in revolutionary activity accompanying a general restructuring of tsardom where liberal reforms, enacted by an unwieldy autocracy, only induced a greater sense of tension in both politics and civil society. Many of Russia's intellectuals were engaged in a debate with the Westernizers on one hand, and the Slavophiles on the other, concerned with favoring importation of Western reforms or promoting pan-Slavic traditions to address Russia's particular social reality. Even though in 1861, Tsar Alexander emancipated the serfs, Russia was still very much a post-medieval, traditional peasant society.
However, when Notes From Underground was written, there was an intellectual ferment on discussions regarding religious philosophy and various 'enlightened' utopian ideas. Dostoevsky, however, along with his notable contemporary, Soren Kierkegaard, rejected such ideas for proto-existentialist themes.
Most importantly, the legacy that the work leaves is a challenge to and a method of understanding the larger implications of a utopian society. Utopianism largely pertains to a society's collective dream, but what troubles the Underground Man is this very idea of collectivism. The point the Underground Man makes is that the people will ultimately always rebel against a collectively perceived idea of paradise; individuals dreaming of a utopian image such as The Crystal Palace will always conflict because of the underlying irrationality of humanity. The challenge of an enlightened society laid the groundwork for later writing. The work thus earned the title of "probably the most important single source of the modern dystopia".
The seminal influence of the work has seen a wide impact on subsequent various works in the fields of philosophy, literature, and film, with Friedrich Nietzsche's writings, Franz Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis, and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver deriving inspiration from Dostoevsky's novella.