The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

What is to be Done? (1862-1863)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

What is to be Done? (original: Chto Delat?) was written by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) was a Russian socialist, reformer, and writer for the radical journal Contemporary. What is to be done? was his most influential work.

What is to be Done? is a bildungsroman about Viéra Pavlovna, a bourgeois woman whose revolutionary consciousness is slowly awakened. She and her husband, Dmitri Sergéitch, join the movement of the workers, peasants, and the “new people,” the revolution-friendly bourgeois youth, in working toward the eventual toppling of the oppressive Tsarist state and the triumph of the people.

What is to be Done? was written while Chernyshevsky was in prison, and the novel only escaped destruction because of an error in the censor’s office. Although What is to be Done? was not published as a book until 1905, numerous samizdat copies circulated soon after Chernyshevsky finished the manuscript, and it rapidly became required reading for revolutionary youths. The novel’s impact was enormous; it was a primary influence on Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) and Crime and Punishment (1866), and Lenin warmly recalled the influence it had on him as a youth, as did Georgi Dimitrov (1882-1949), the Prime Minister of Bulgaria from 1946-1949. What is to be Done? became a cult favorite with revolutionary youth, who were inspired by Chernyshevsky’s image of a cooperative socialism in which the liberation of labor would lead to state-supported, libertarian communities. Chernyshevsky’s repeated message that there was no difference between a character’s personal life and their public one–that the personal was political, in the words of the 1960s feminist movement–was widely adopted and repeated, and revolutionary feminist theory was influenced by Chernyshevsky’s refusal to divorce the political and the erotic.

Rakhmetov is not the main character of What is to be Done?, but he is its symbol. Chernyshevsky admits in a long epilogue to the Rakhmetov chapters that Rakhmetov is not necessary to the plot–but he is vital to the meaning of What is to be Done? Rakhmetov represents the revolution’s hopes for the future of both Russia and the Russians. He is the descendant of a famous Russian family, renowned since the thirteenth century for their heroics, whether as boyars, crown officers, or generals in chief. Rakhmetov himself is the seventh child of eight and only has a small portion of the family's estates on the Medvyeditsa River. But Rakhmetov refused to lead the life of a young lordling, despite being wealthy and owning over four hundred serfs. When he was a child he was weak, but at age seventeen he decided to improve himself and spent many hours practicing gymnastics. He also decided to spend time as a “common laborer,” which vastly improved his physical strength. He fed himself a special diet and exercised religiously and became exceptionally and almost superhumanly strong. (At one point in What is to be done? Rakhmetov catches the axle of a runaway wagon and holds it for long enough to stop the horses). He went to college at St. Petersburg and read widely, in philosophy, science, and literature, always trying to improve his mind and become as knowledgeable as possible. At age nineteen, when he had learned more than his professors, he left school and

wandered all over Russia in different guises, both by land and by water, and by one or the other, in a common and an uncommon way; for instance, by foot, and on rafts, and in slow boats; he had a good many adventures, which he brought on himself. Among other things that he did, he sent two men to the University of Kazan, and five to the University of Moscow; these were his stipendiaries.

At various times was on the philological faculty and the natural science faculty at Petersburg. He worked as “a plowman, a carpenter, a ferryman, and a workingman—a laborer in every kind of healthy occupation whatever,” to develop himself into perfect physical specimen. He traveled across Europe and North America, studying other languages, cultures, and peoples. After college he became a Volga boatman, continuing his work among the common people. The other boatmen called him “Nikitushka Lomof,” after the legendarily huge and strong boatman hero of the Volga. Since then he has continued to prepare himself, mentally and physically, to help the revolution.

He is well-read, although he selective in what he reads. He holds the theory that

there are very few first-rate works; all that you can find fuller and clearer in these few, in all the rest is repeated, spoiled, ruined...(other Russian writers are) Gogol spoiled; why should I read them, then? The same thing in science; in science this limit is still more striking. If I have read Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, and Mill, I know the alpha and the omega of their theories, and I have no need of reading hundreds of other political economists.

He is physically enormous, and neither sociable nor polite to others. He is not deliberately rude; he just has no time social niceties and is distant and preoccupied. He is judgmental of others, but it is not personal, and he only offers his opinions to other people rather than imposing his opinions on them. Others are afraid of him and call him “the rigorist,” which he accepts “with his usual easy smile of gloomy satisfaction.” He describes himself as a “gloomy monster.” His father was a despot and a philanderer, but Rakhmetov swears “I am not going to drink a drop of wine; I shall not touch a woman.” He is passionate but insists on leading a “very severe and ascetic style of life” in order to gain appreciation for the sacrifices of the poor peasants. However, he will only eat the best meat, as it is necessary for keeping himself in top physical shape, and he has a weakness for fine cigars. He regularly disappears to wander and to “study.” When he is injured catching the axle of the wagon, the beautiful young widow whose life he saves nurses him and falls in love with him. He falls in love with her, but he is too devoted to the cause to allow himself to love.

Rakhmetov is Chernyshevsky’s prototype for the New Men, the pragmatic idealists who yearn for social change and the overthrow of the Tsarist government and sacrifice their lives to prepare for the Revolution. He is not one of the “rising generation,” but rather the model to which they must aspire. Rakhmetov anticipates not just the pulp übermenschen, such as Lester Dent’s Doc Savage, but also the revolutionary characters of Russia’s brief pulp phase. Russia had its own adventure fiction in the nineteenth century, usually in magazines and newspapers (see: Bandit Churkin, The Sonya Adventures), and from 1907-1913 Russia experienced the Pinkertonovshchina, or Pinkerton craze. The Pinkertonovshchina was a heated enthusiasm for Western serial heroes, especially Nat Pinkerton (a dime novel version of Allan Pinkerton; see: The Great Detective), Sherlock Holmes (see: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries), and Nick Carter (see: The Nick Carter Mysteries). Tens of millions of copies of “installment novels” (novels published in installments similar to romans feuilleton) were sold, and when there were no more originals to translate Russian authors wrote unauthorized sequels to the originals.

The Pinkertonovshchina ended in 1913, but in 1921 there was a revival. During the New Economic Policy period (1921-1928), the Soviet reading public demonstrated a great enthusiasm for adventure novels of all genres, including detective fiction. Many Western writers were popular, from Jack London to Joseph Conrad, in large part because most Russian novels, to that point, had been slow-moving, psychology- and character-heavy works, while Western adventure novels stressed action, adventure, motion and thrills. Classic Western adventure novels were popular with the Soviet reading public, but the cheap, disposable, and (above all) regularly published dime novels, including those featuring Nick Carter, Nat Pinkerton and the endless Sherlock Holmes knock-offs, were far more popular.

By 1923 the Soviet government began taking steps to exploit the popularity of the adventure novel and of Nat Pinkerton in particular for ideological and propagandistic purposes. With the approval of the Soviet government writers began the krasnyi Pinkertonitscha, the "Red Pinkertonism" movement, which made use of the classic tropes of adventure and dime novel detective fiction but slaved them to the theme of international class struggle and the triumph of Revolution. The archetypal version of the krasnyi Pinkertonitscha is Mike Thingmaster, who appeared in a trilogy of novels written by Marietta Shaginian from 1923-1925. Thingmaster is an American woodworker, amateur detective, physical marvel, and revolutionary who has formed “Mess-Mend," a secret international alliance of workers who are dedicated to cleaning up the mess left by capitalism and fascism. Shaginian’s novels about Thingmaster were popular and inspired numerous imitations, all of whom featured Thingmaster-like protagonists. Shaginian was influenced by What is to be Done? and created Thingmaster in imitation of Rakhmetov.

Recommended Edition

Print: Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What is to be Done?, transl. Michael R. Katz. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.


For Further Research

Boris Dralyuk, Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze, 1907-1934. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2012.