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What Is to Be Done?

3.45  ·  Rating details ·  2,146 ratings  ·  128 reviews
"No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle Tom's Cabin, can compete with What Is to Be Done? in its effect on human lives and its power to make history. For Chernyshevsky's novel, far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution."--Joseph Frank, The Southern Review

Almost from the momen
Paperback, 445 pages
Published January 20th 1989 by Cornell University Press (first published 1863)
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Average rating 3.45  · 
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 ·  2,146 ratings  ·  128 reviews

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The Narrator
Jul 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone remotely involved in contemporary political issues
Recommended to The Narrator by: A mysterious friend, who calls himself "Rakhmetov"
Dear Reader, the criticism of this novel is that it is poorly written. I can assure you this is not the case. Chernyshevsky - indeed once a dear friend of mine (we spent some time together in the Fortress of Peter and Paul) - with a few initial "striking scenes" comes right out and admits he's not trying to win you over with plot. Plot is grossly overrated anyhow; most modern "authors" would be well served to learn that lesson (and why must a plot have this silly, redundant arc to it? You've see ...more
Oct 15, 2017 added it
(I don't recall at this point which translation I read.)

Written in in the few months the author spent in prison on false charges of instigating civil unrest, this political tract in novel form presents Chernyshevsky's views on materialism, communalism, and feminism.

Chernyshevsky shows that only the respectful marriage of equal individuals can be successful. Both parties should be free to pursue happiness, even if it involves ending the marriage because they are no longer in love. Women ought to
Vlad Kovsky
Jan 11, 2021 rated it it was ok
Almost the only memory I retain of this book is the author's obsession with aluminium.
It was an important book from the historical perspective but amounts to very little these days. The author was an early proponent of gender and social equality. The book has influenced socialist thought in Russia in XIX century probably more than anything else written at the time. Having said that, the literary value of this oeuvre is close to zero.
Michael Steger
Jun 24, 2010 rated it really liked it
This is a rather peculiar book, which I enjoyed quite a lot. It was
written in 1863, while its author, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, was in prison for opposing serfdom. Chernyshevsky, who spent a number of years in prison and died in forced exile in Siberia, was considered one of the
most radical men of his time, one of the 'new men' of the 1860s, who opposed themselves to the 'men of the '40s' such as Dostoevsky and
Turgenyev. 'What Is to Be Done?' was for a long time considered the
exemplary radical
What do Chernyshevsky, Nietzsche and Star Trek all have in common? They all believe in socialist Utopias, in that if we all just could see the higher purpose of man and allow our characters to be developed beyond the animalistic tendencies of greed and selfishness and jealousy, we would all be able to lead this idealistic life with money, freedom, happiness and, in Nietzsche’s case, right-thinking for all. Everyone would get exactly what they wanted in all things, and gratification and joy would ...more
Biblio Curious
Old Review from the abridged version (about 100 pages missing) & when I knew almost nothing about Russian History or this book's historical context:

This one's going to be on my mind for awhile!! It'll take a long time to unpack all of the ideas & topics of discussion. I must re-read an unabridged version!

Chernyshevsky is not a fiction writer, this is his only fictional work. His political background seeps into the story whenever necessary and only to enhance the story he's telling.

I went into t
May 07, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Lovers of Russian lit
Shelves: recentlyread
This is the middle book in an important Russian literary and philisophical argument. The first was Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and the third was Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground. All that stuff Dostoevsky is talking about in Notes - advantage motivating action, the crystal palace, etc. - comes from What is to be Done. Chernyshevsky thought Turgenev treated nihilism unfairly in Fathers and Sons, so he portrayed nihilism in another manner. Dostoevsky then destroyed Chernyshevsky's vision of an ...more
Jan 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018
'What is to be done?' by Russian philosopher, journalist and literary critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Man, what a novel. Took me some time to get my hands on this one. Wikipedia borrowed trivia: THE book (written in 1863, in a St Petersburg prison, of course) of the early socialist underground in the late 19th century Russian empire. Lenin read the book five times (at least) and named his pamphlet (What is to be done) after the book, Kollontai and Luxemburg were big fans too, it may have played a ...more
Jun 07, 2007 rated it it was amazing
If you want to understand the underpinnings of modern Russia and its recent history, you have to understand Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Lenin for one credits "What is to be done" as the most influential book in the development of his social conscious, and without him no doubt the world would be a very different place than it is today. A must read. ...more
Jun 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
That was wonderful. Indeed, I want to read this book again even after I have just read it. Is there there a better way to rate a book?
Gijs Van Engelen
Feb 23, 2017 rated it did not like it
I've noticed quite a few positive reviews on What Is to be Done, which might give people who are interested in Russian literature the idea that this could be an interesting book to read. It is anything but. Now, for a historian this is an important source, because Chernyshevsky's ideas and especially the character of Rakhmetov have influenced Russian ideas on revolution, social change and what we now call Russian Nihilism more than any other piece of writing. However, Chernyshevsky's style is te ...more
Mohamad Koaik
Oct 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommended: 4.5/5

An arrogant, feminist, and socialist revolutionist writer writes an unoriginal love novel in a highly provocative style. Throughout his novel, he - mockingly and repeatedly - addresses the majority of the Russian readers whom he perceives as “Ignorant people”, undoubtedly excluding the developed, educated, intelligent, and freed Russian - increasing - minority. He tries to enlighten them to the truth that they will reach sooner or later, willingly or submissively.

What is this t
⠀n. ♡
Nov 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
long. long. long. but good. probably my favorite novel of this time.
Fábio Shecaira
Sep 21, 2020 rated it liked it
This novel offers a vision of future society, a vision of life under socialism. To me, this sounded promising. Alas, the vision that emerges is naive and tedious. The book has some intriguing scenes (e.g. Vera’s dreams), but they are not frequent enough.
Mar 20, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction-poetry
"What a pity that at the present hour there are still more than ten antediluvians for every new man! It is very natural, however. An antediluvian world can have only an antediluvian population."

A new society requires a new anthropological type, new personalities with new virtues, thoughts and values: this should be a truism for those seeking social change but in fact it's rarely given any thought. This love story about the Nihilist counterculture in 1860s Russia attacks the problem, as young wom
Marsha Altman
This is an interesting historical artifact because it was a huge influence on early Russian revolutionaries, particularly Lenin, but most people agree it's a pretty bad book. At least it's not overly long like most of Russian literature. ...more
Feb 12, 2013 rated it did not like it
Biblio Curious
Last year, I read the abridged version of this while knowing so little of Russian history. I was taken in by Chernyshevsky's idealist thoughts. The unabridged has about 100 more pages & scenes that change the vibes of the story. At some point, it would be interesting to re-read the abridged one to see exactly which scenes were taken out. If you know of a blog or source that already did this, please link it below, I'd certainly be interested to check it out.

For an actual review or my thoughts on
Though What Is To Be Done? is not very sophisticated as an art-form, I nonetheless give Chernyshevsky's novel 4 stars because of its very wholesome message and philosophy. By centering the struggles of Vera Pavlovna, a benighted maiden oppressed by patriarchal despotism who soon becomes a Populist "Friend of the People" and a founder of women's sewing cooperatives, Chernyshevsky challenges the sexism and exploitation suffusing Imperial Russian society, from the household to the workplace and Sta ...more
Aug 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
I’ve always thought that stories carry much more power in the minds of men than cardboard tomes full of equations. “What Is To Be Done,” juxtaposed against “The Communist Manifesto”; “Atlas Shrugged” against “Wealth of Nations”. It is said that “What Is To Be Done” is the book that radicalized Vladimir Lenin. Let that sink in for a moment; a simple (if long) novel about a young girl who wants find peace and a measure of prosperity and independence in Tsarist Russia is responsible for the extermi ...more
May 13, 2014 rated it liked it
I was expecting a lot from What is to be Done? naturally because of the buzz this book caused around its time. I can put it down finally with only mixed feelings about it. I suppose the book struck a chord loudly with those of its time, and as much as we present day "readers with penetrating eyes" wish to be struck with the same impact I believe we can only pretend to be so. If a book is not written for you and only you, there's only so much you can take away from it. I don't resolve to pretend ...more
Yara Mohamed Aly
Sep 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I started reading this novel to figure out why Dostoyevsky distastes it. (It is said that Dostoyevsky was enraged by Chernyshevsky's "utilitarianism" and his depiction of his Russian Utopia.)

First of all, I had to look up words like "materialism" and "utilitarianism" dozens of times to just get the gist of. Big words like these confuse me so much. As assisting as the notes of the annotator were, they were as confusing. There are so many explanations that - as an un-perspicacious and unlearned r
Jul 05, 2019 rated it liked it
For all this book’s issues as a novel (of which there are many), it gives insight into the 19th century political conditions, and its effect on the history of the 20th century can’t be underestimated. For me personally, reading it seemed to make my forays into Russian literature come full circle.

The society Nikolai Chernyshevsky grew up in was based on a very small percentage of serf-owning noblemen and an autocratic tsar overseeing the masses of a poor and illiterate populace, and facing inevi
Rebecca Stuhr
May 30, 2017 rated it liked it
Interesting and tedious at the same time! Also, sad and funny. Chernechevsky's self-conscious narrator is enjoyable. He teases the reader by revealing the plot at different points. His being in conversation as we read is enjoyable. He is a feminist and his ideal relationships between men and women are still something to dream about--mutual respect, mutually important aspirations, a combination of selfishness and selflessness. His cooperative workplace, owned and managed by the workers is somethi ...more
Sep 23, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
disengaging and irrelevant piece of xix century socialist propaganda that miraculously survived in the syllabi. Take them from schools, act now.
Aug 27, 2020 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Juozas Grigas
Feb 20, 2021 rated it liked it
As a piece of fiction, ‘What is to be Done?’ falls short in many respects, as it, by the way, expressed by the author himself on numerous occasions throughout the text. It is clear that Chernyshevsky was not a talented novelist (and was aware of it himself). Judging from his bibliography and the book itself, it is quite clear that he is a lot more comfortable with philosophical essay form. Therefore, more than the plot depicted in the novel, implications of this book as an engine for social chan ...more
Sinan Öner
Russian Philosopher, Novelist, Writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky's "What is to Be Done?" was one of the best novels in Russian in 19. Century. In his novel, Chernyshevsky wrote the story of Russian social development with his "characters" who live in Moscow and in Saint Petersburg. Doctor Lopuhov, Anna Pavlovna, Kirsanov, others, live in Chernyshevsky's novel like in the real atmosphere of Moscow! Chernyshevsky's "realism" shows "Europeanization" and "Westernization" of "central Russia", for Chernysh ...more
May 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Reading this, one gets the sense you’re reading both the best and worst novel. Its highly sophisticated debates on materialism and social change are juxtaposed to the cardboard cutout characters and redundant dialogues thrown into the plot. The complex description of 19th century scientific theories of soil science and proteins also contrast the narrow “rational” analysis of characters. Perhaps most interesting, though, is Chernyshevsky’s dialectical construction of the novel, where he constantl ...more
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Nikolaj Gavrilovič Černyševskij (Russian: Николай Гаврилович Чернышевский, Николай Чернышевский) was a Russian revolutionary democrat, materialist philosopher, lexicographer, journalist and socialist (seen by some as a utopian socialist). He was the leader of the revolutionary democratic movement of the 1860s, and an influence on Vladimir Lenin, Emma Goldman, and Serbian political writer and socia ...more

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