What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky

I wrote in one of my notebooks:  “If Nikolai Chernyshevsky had not written What Is to Be Done?, Tolstoy could not have written Anna Karenina .”

What was the source of that statement? Probably a critical essay on Anna Karenina.  It nagged at me for years. But I must admit, the clunky look of my Cornell University Press edition of Chernyshevsky did not attract me.

But this spring I finally read What Is to Be Done?, and  not only did I see similarities between Chernyshevsky’s radical Utopian novel and Tolstoy’s psychological masterpiece, but between What Is to Be Done? and most of the late 19th-century Russian novels I have read.  In the introduction to Michael R. Katz’s translation of What Is to Be Done? (Cornell University Press), Michael R. Katz and William Wagner write:

If one were to ask for the title of the nineteenth-century Russian novel that has had the greatest influence on Russian society, it is likely that a non-Russian would choose among the books of the mighty triumvirate—Turgenev, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky. Fathers and Sons? War and Peace? Crime and Punishment? These would certainly be among the suggested answers; but . . . the novel that can claim this honor with most justice is N. G. Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?,” a book few Western readers have ever heard of and fewer still have read.

Chernyshevsky wrote What Is to Be Done? in prison. He asked permission to write fiction in prison, and the novel was published in 1863.    It treats the subjects of the sociopolitical essays he was imprisoned for:   collective ownership, free love, scientific education, cures for poverty,  and other philosophical and political questions.

And, as you can imagine, a novel based on politics has its strengths and weaknesses. Most of the characters are well-drawn, but occasionally we have stick figures who recite ideas.   And at one point, Chernyshevksy describes the economic principles of a sewing collective in such detail that he even includes accounts–needless to say, I skip over anything with numbers.  But the plot, about a feminist heroine who loves two men and founds the sewing collective workshop for impoverished women, is rapid-paced and fascinating. Can you imagine a Utopia that works? It’s a nice change from dystopian Y.A. novels.

What’s more, Chernyshevsky’s narrative techniques seem almost modernist.  A narrator frequently interrupts to question our assumptions and to berate the so-called “perspicacious reader,” whom he finds to be just the opposite.  And even the elaborate structure of the novel seems modernist, or do I mean post-modern? There are actually two bizarre chapters before the preface, regarding a suicide.  And the novel contains four surreal dream sequences, in which the heroine progresses in her personal and political understanding with the help of a beautiful goddess:  she even sees a future world where everything is made of light-weight shiny aluminum!

I love Edward Gorey’s cover design!

But without the playful women characters at their parties and winter picnics, the novel would be dry.   The heroine, Vera Pavlovna, may be a type who represents radical beliefs, but she also is smart, passionate, and believable.  When we first meet her, she is a well-educated but stifled young woman living at home. Her  father, a none-too-scrupulous clerk and apartment house manager ,  doesn’t mind pocketing extra money, and her domineering mother runs an informal pawn shop out of their home.  Her mother is trying to marry off Vera to the well-to-d0 ne’er-do-well owner of the house, but he wants to seduce, not marry Vera; and Vera refuses to marry a cad.

Fortunately, she falls into conversation with Dmitri Sergich Lopukhov, a medical student and her brother’s tutor.  Not only do they discuss politics and their reading of radical books and tracts, but they fall in love.  He attempts to find her a governess job, so she can leave her oppressive parents, but the attempt ends in failure:  the most liberal of the employers decides not to hire Vera because, by the law,  Vera is her parents’ property and they could sue.  And that is when Lopukhov decides to marry her.  He realizes that she cannot survive with her parents.  She is contemplating suicide.

Vera blooms with Lopukhov.  In their poor few rented rooms, Vera insists on an unusual arrangement:  they have separate bedrooms, and cannot enter them without one other’s permission.  Vera believes that people who stay in love are those who don’t see each other all the time, and never see each other at their worst.  And it is true that their romance blossoms–for a while.

But what happens when Vera falls in love with Lopukhov’s best friend, Kirsanov?  Will the n0vel turn into Anna Karenina?  Well, no.  The characters are radicals, and they have progressive ideas about love and marriage.  And “extraordinary man,” Rakhmetov, who represents the ideal revolutionary, encourages Vera to continue her unconventional love and work. But the plot takes a bizarre turn that I did not anticipate.

Tolstoy is not the writer most influenced by Chernyshevsky, who, by the way, was responding to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and to Herzen’s novel, Who Is to Blame?  But I am such a fan of Anna Karenina that I will make a few observations anyway.   Vera and Anna are both married heroines who fall illicitly in love:  Vera makes a second very happy marriage, but Anna becomes an outcast for living with her lover, Vronsky. As in What Is to Be Done?,  we see several characters  In Anna Karenina involved with social reforms. The  landowner  hero, Levin, is enthusiastic about agricultural reform and wants to create a kind of co-op for the peasants, who are not interested.  He cannot even get them to plant the wheat when he orders it done, let alone understand any kind of profit-sharing.  And so we have Tolstoy’s realism, contrasted with  Chernyshevsky’s idealism.

Really worth reading and lots of fun!  It made me look at the Russian novel differently.

8 thoughts on “What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky

  1. Glad someone else is a fan! The book is routinely trashed but rarely read in Russian lit courses. Could it be because of the feminist plot? Surely not! Well…Dostoevsky is pretty much impossible to understand without it, especially Notes from Underground,


    • I enjoyed it hugely! And what an influential novel! It does make me think differently about the Russian novel, both its predecessor Fathers and Sons and D’s Notes from Underground. I’ve never been a fan of Dostoevsky, but perhaps I’ll appreciate him more now


  2. This gets *such* bad press, doesn’t it? I have a copy but I couldn’t tell you if I read it – it would have been back in the 1980s anyway so I wouldn’t remember anything about it anyway. Time to try to find my copy methinks….


    • It was considered a classic in the ’80s, was available everywhere, and was taught, but from what Elena says times have changed. Parts of it are great, parts too political, but I guarantee it will change the way you look at Russian lit!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m ashamed to admit that I neither own a copy, nor have I ever read it. But you’ve convinced me that I definitely should. Thanks!


    • It used to be available in every bookstore in the U.S. I wonder if that is because there used to be more political unrest (somehow different from the political unrest of now, more theory-based than social issues alone.) All those American co-ops (we still have the food co-ops) and collectives, which I was vaguely aware of. But, not being very political, I was surprised by how readable this is. I had not expected to enjoy it! And I can now see how influential it was.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, that’s exactly it. I thought it was very political and not very readable. But you’ve convinced me to read it, I’ll see if I can get my hands on a copy.


  4. Pingback: Dostoevsky in the Springtime – mirabile dictu

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