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What Is to Be Done?

Chernyshevsky writing his novel in prison. By Ye. Gorovykh

Chernyshevsky wrote this novel in prison in 1863  while undergoing interrogation on charges of high treason and  sedition. As it was a work of fiction the censor passed it without a second thought. It was promptly published in a magazine of which Chernyshevsky had been editor before his arrest. The book created an instantaneous sensation. Its literary merits were inconsiderable, but the fictional form had been chosen as the only way available to Chernyshevsky to present his description of the Socialists, the revolutionaries - the ‘New Men’, as he called them, dedicated to changing the existing order. 

The book created an instantaneous sensation. For the first time the young generation of intelligentsia was given  an inspiring model of dedicated, self-sacrificing heroes determined to create a revolution for the benefit of the masses. Endowed with exceptional intellectual and physical qualities, Chernyshevsky’s ‘New Men’ were to constitute an educated and politically engaged elite, the heroes who were to lead the Russian people towards a kingdom of justice on earth. They were still


...few in number, but through them the life of all mankind expands; without them it would have been stifled. They are few in number, but they put others in a position to breathe, others who without these few would have been suffocated. Great is the number of good and honest people, but such men are rare. They are like the bouquet in fine wine, its strength and its aroma. They are the best among the best, they are the movers of the movers, they are the salt of the salt of the earth.


Chernyshevsky’s message was not lost on the young generation of the intellectuals. They took it as a call for a new revolutionary elite - dedicated and disciplined - that would alone be able to lead the Russian people towards the promised land of justice and equality. Chernyshevsky’s heroes - and especially his favorite, the superman Rakhmetov who steeled his character for liberation struggle by sleeping on planks studded with nails - became the ideal prototypes upon whom generations of young radicals consciously modeled themselves.

The book became an inspiration for hundreds of thousands of men and women and converted many to the cause of the revolutionary struggle. In the words of Tibor Szamuely: ‘Within a few short years the New Men had stepped out of the pages of the novel into real life: acquiring flesh and blood, they established secret societies, distributed leaflets, threw bombs, went to the people, trudged to Siberia, ascended the scaffold.  They became the men and women of the Russian revolutionary movement’. 

One of the novel’s future readers would be a seventeen-year old schoolboy in the little town of Simbirsk, Vladimir Ulianov, better known by his pseudonym of Lenin. Years later, in conversation with a fellow-revolutionary, Lenin described the profound impression made upon him by What Is to Be Done?:


Hundreds of people became revolutionaries under its influence. ... My brother, for example, was captivated by him [Chernyshevsky], and so was I. He completely transformed my outlook. ... I spent not days but several weeks reading it. Only then did I understand its depth. This novel provides inspiration for a lifetime...


When in 1902 Lenin produced his most important book, in which for the first time he laid down the organizational principles of the Bolshevik Party, he published it under the same title as Chernyshevsky’s novel. Indeed, much of what he said there about the new type of dedicated professional revolutionary reads almost like a more level-headed and systematic representation of Chernyshevsky’s New Men.

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