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.
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
...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
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
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
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.