What Is to Be Done? (novel)

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What Is to Be Done?
What is to be Done.jpg
1905 title page
AuthorNikolai Chernyshevsky
Original titleChto délat'?
CountryRussian Empire
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)

What Is to Be Done? (Russian: Что делать?, tr. Chto délat'?, literally: "What to Do?") is an 1863 novel written by the Russian philosopher, journalist and literary critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky. It was written in response to Fathers and Sons (1862) by Ivan Turgenev. The chief character is a woman, Vera Pavlovna, who escapes the control of her family and an arranged marriage to seek economic independence. The novel advocates the creation of small socialist cooperatives based on the Russian peasant commune, but one which is oriented toward industrial production. The author promoted the idea that the intellectual's duty was to educate and lead the laboring masses in Russia along a path to socialism that bypassed capitalism. One of the characters in the novel, Rakhmetov, became an emblem of the philosophical materialism and nobility of Russian radicalism despite his minor role. The novel also expresses in one character's dream a society gaining "eternal joy" of an earthly kind. The novel has been called "a handbook of radicalism"[1] and led to the founding of the Land and Liberty society.[2] Furthermore, What Is to Be Done? inspired several generations of revolutionaries in Russia, including populists, nihilists and Marxists.

When he wrote the novel, the author was himself imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress of St. Petersburg and was to spend years in Siberia. Chernyshevsky asked for and received permission to write the novel in prison and the authorities passed the manuscript along to the newspaper Sovremennik, his former employer which also approved it for publication in installments in its pages. Vladimir Lenin, Georgi Plekhanov, Peter Kropotkin, Alexandra Kollontay, Rosa Luxemburg and also the Swedish writer August Strindberg[3] were all highly impressed with the book and it came to be officially regarded as a Russian classic in the Soviet period.[4][5]

Plot introduction[edit]

Within the framework of a story of a privileged couple who decide to work for the revolution and ruthlessly subordinate everything in their lives to the cause, the work furnished a blueprint for the asceticism and dedication unto death which became an ideal of the early socialist underground of the Russian Empire.


The book is perhaps better known in the English-speaking world for the responses it created than as a novel in its own right. Fyodor Dostoevsky mocked the utilitarianism and utopianism of the novel in his 1864 novella Notes from Underground as well as in his 1872 novel Demons. Leo Tolstoy wrote a different What Is to Be Done?, published in 1886, based on his own ideas of moral responsibility.[6] It was Vladimir Lenin who found it inspiring (he is said to have read the book five times in one summer) and named a 1902 pamphlet What Is to Be Done?. According to Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Stanford Joseph Frank, "Chernyshevsky's novel, far more than [Karl] Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution".[7]

Interesting facts[edit]

The novel mentions in the 4th dream of Vera Pavlovna aluminium as the "metal of the future". However, aluminium became widely used only starting with World War I in 1914.

The "Dame in mourning" appearing at the end of the novel is Olga S. Chernyshevskaya, the author's wife.

References in other work[edit]

Characters with the last name Kirsanov also appear in Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky argues with Nikolai Chernyshevsky's ideas in Notes from Underground. In particular, he responds negatively to Chernyshevsky's idealization of The Crystal Palace, a theme which is referenced throughout Russian literature.

American playwright Tony Kushner referenced the book multiple times in his play Slavs!.

The main character of André Gide's Les caves du Vatican (Lafcadio's Adventures), Lafcadio, resembles Rakhmetov.

In the book Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, author Chris Matthew Sciabarra claims that What Is to Be Done? is one of the sources of inspiration for Ayn Rand's thought.[8] For example, the book's main character Lopuhov says: "I am not a man to make sacrifices. And indeed there are no such things. One acts in the way that one finds most pleasant."

Vladimir Nabokov's final novel in Russian The Gift ridicules What Is to Be Done? in its fourth chapter.


  1. ^ Middlebury College
  2. ^ "The Philosophy of Chernishevsky". Archived 8 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Myrdal, Jan (1986). Ord och avsikt.
  4. ^ Chernets, L. V. (1990). "Н. Г.: Биобиблиографическая справка". Русские писатели. Биобиблиографический словарь. Том 2. М--Я. Под редакцией П. А. Николаева. М., "Просвещение". Retrieved 1 March 2012.
  5. ^ Plekhanov, Georgi (1910). "Н.Г.Чернышевский". Библиотека научного социализма. Т.4. Retrieved 1 March 2012.
  6. ^ "What Is to Be Done?".
  7. ^ Amis, Martin (2002). Koba the Dread. Miramax. p. 27. ISBN 0-7868-6876-7.
  8. ^ Sciabarra, Chris Matthew (1 November 2010). Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. Penn State Press. p. 28. ISBN 0-271-04236-2.

Further reading[edit]

  • Mack, Maynard (1956). The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, pp. 1,085–1,086.

External links[edit]