What Is to Be Done? (novel)

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What Is To Be Done?
What is to be Done.jpg
1905 title page
Author Nikolai Chernyshevsky
Original title Shto delat (Что делать)
Country Russian Empire
Language Russian
Genre Novel
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

What Is to Be Done? (Russian: Что делать?, tr. Chto delat'?; also translated as "What Shall We 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 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]

When he wrote the novel, the author was himself imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress of St. Petersburg, and he 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 his former employer, the newspaper Sovremennik, which also approved it for publication in installments in its pages. Lenin, 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 a Russian classic in the Soviet period.[4][5]

Plot introduction

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 Devils. Leo Tolstoy wrote a different What Is to Be Done?, published in 1886, based on his own ideas of moral responsibility.[6] Vladimir Lenin, however, found it inspiring and named a 1902 pamphlet "What Is to Be Done?". Lenin is said to have read the book five times in one summer, and according to Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Stanford, Joseph Frank, 'Chernyshevsky's novel, far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.' [7]

Vladimir Nabokov's final novel in Russian, The Gift, thoroughly ridiculed What is to Be Done? in its fourth chapter.

In the book Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, author Chris Matthew Sciabarra says that What Is to Be Done? is one of the sources of inspiration for 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." Chernyshevsky's egoism was ultimately socialistic, and thus quite distinct from the capitalistic form later advocated by Rand.

The main character of Gide's Les caves du Vatican (En. Lafcadio's Adventures), Lafcadio, bears a striking resemblance to Rakhmetov.

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


  1. Middlebury College
  2. Emory. It inspired several generations of revolutionaries in Russia: populists, nihilists and Marxists.
  3. Jan Myrdal, Ord & avsikt
  4. Чернец, Л.В. (1990). "Н. Г.: Биобиблиографическая справка". Русские писатели. Биобиблиографический словарь. Том 2. М--Я. Под редакцией П. А. Николаева. М., "Просвещение". Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
  5. Плеханов, Г.В. (1910). "Н.Г.Чернышевский". Библиотека научного социализма. Т.4. Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
  6. Boston theological
  7. Amis, Martin (2002). Koba the Dread. Miramax. p. 27. ISBN 0-7868-6876-7. 
  8. Chris Matthew Sciabarra (1 November 2010). Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. Penn State Press. p. 28. ISBN 0-271-04236-2. 


  • The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, pages 1,085–1,086

External links