Written in 1911, Joseph Conrad wrote of "Under Western Eyes" that by 1920 that it had already "become already a sort of historical novel dealing with the past", given the changes that had occurred in Russia in particular in one short decade.
Even so, Conrad felt justified in congratulating himself on his prescience, voiced through his three principal characters: Haldin, Razumov, and Councillor Mikulin. He claims to have written the work with a detachment, and believes that is the reason for its lukewarm reception in England, though during the Russian Revolution it became widely read among the revolutionaries, though perhaps not the universal recognition for which Conrad congratulated himself, given the low levels of literacy in Russia at that time. Also, his claim to detachment is questionable given his resentment of the Russian state that had imprisoned his father.
Conrad explores conditions that existed in pre-revolutionary Russia that seem at least plausible in an autocracy, including tyrannical lawlessness, leading to a generalised despair. The detachment Conrad claimed to employ was intended to provide a perspective of a mysterious and feared land as seen through Western Eyes, specifically those of the narrator, an old teacher of languages. Despite his grasp of language, his eyes are unable to grasp the descent into mayhem unfolding before him, though he has a sense of what is to come.
The narrator is caught up in the drama that unfolds vicariously as he examines a journal left by a young, Razumov, who has no family, and who hopes to study in order to lift himself up through a career. Being ambitious, he keeps himself aloof from his more politically active peers. He is therefore taken aback when he finds a fellow student, Victor Haldin hiding in his apartment, confessing to him he has just committed a political assassination, and wants Razumov's help to escape the police. The entanglement is unwelcome to Razumov who sees his pathway out of obscurity and poverty being lost to him. Razumov is reputed to be Conrad's response to Dostoievki's protagonist, Raskolnikov, of a protagonist drawn into a web of intrigue and crime because of the demands of conscience. He contrasts with Raskolnikov who hopes to prove that he cannot commit murder of a social parasite without suffering the anguish of guilt.
In the ensuing battle of conscience, Conrad pits the ruthless "ferocity and imbecility of an autocratic rule rejecting all legality" that "provokes the no less imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely Utopian revolutionism" that led to the dystopian USSR.