What's to be done? A romance

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For other versions of this work, see What is to be done? (Chernyshevsky).
What's to be done? A romance  (1909) 
by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, translated by Benjamin R. Tucker

This translation first appeared as a serial in the anarchist biweekly Liberty from May 1884 to May 1886. In general the wording is very close to the 1875 French translation by "A.T.", which itself tends to be rather freer than the Dole translation. This translation reproduces the romanization of names used in the French translation, which means the letter ш is transcribed 'ch' rather than 'sh' as usual for English. The French translation and this one include a short section in Chapter Four (the very end of VII and all of VIII), that was omitted in the Dole translation, perhaps due to suggestions of physical lovemaking, but then they omit the longest section of that chapter, (XVI. Vera Pavlovna's Fourth Dream, numbered XV in the Dole translation), which is one of the most distinctive and influential parts of the whole novel. Comparison of translations.









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Table of Contents
(not listed in book)

I. An Imbecile. 5
II. First Consequences of the Imbecile Act. 8
III. Preface. 12
  Chapter First. The Life of Véra Pavlovna with her Parents. 14
  Chapter Second. The First Love and Legal Marriage. 47
  Chapter Third. The Life of Véra Pavlovna with her Husband, and the Second Love. 121
  Chapter Fourth. The Life of Véra Pavlovna with her Second Husband. 241
  Chapter Fifth. New Characters and the Conclusion. 279
  Chapter Sixth. Change of Scene. 329


This romance, the last work and only novel from Tchernychewsky's pen, originally appeared in 1863 in a St. Petersburg magazine, the author writing it at that time in a St. Petersburg dungeon, where he was confined for twenty-two months prior to being sent into exile in Siberia by the cruel Czar who has since paid the penalty of this crime and many others. This martyr-hero of the modern Revolution still languishes in a remote corner of that cheerless country, his health ruined and—if report be true—his mind shattered by his long solitude and enforced abstention from literary and revolutionary work. The present Czar, true son of his father, persistently refuses to mitigate his sentence, despite the petition for Tchernychewsky's freedom sent not long ago to Alexander III. by the literary celebrities of the world gathered in international congress at Vienna.

The Russian Nihilists regard the present work as a faithful portraiture of themselves and their movement, and as such they contrast it with the celebrated "Fathers and Sons" of Tourguéneff, which they consider rather as a caricature. The fundamental idea of Tchernychewsky's work is that woman is a human being and not an animal created for man's benefit, and its chief purpose is to show the superiority of free unions between men and women over the indissoluble marriage sanctioned by Church and State. It may almost be considered a continuation of the great Herzen's novel, "Who Is To Blame?" written fifteen years before on the same subject. If the reader should find the work singular in form and sometimes obscure, he must remember that it was written under the eye of an autocrat, who punished with terrific severity any one who wrote against "the doctrines of the Orthodox Church, its traditions and ceremonies, or the truths and dogmas of Christian faith in general," against "the inviolability of the Supreme Autocratic Power or the respect due to the Imperial Family," anything contrary to "the fundamental regulations of the State," or anything tending to "shock good morals and propriety."

As a work of art "What's To Be Done?" speaks for itself. Nevertheless, the words of a European writer regarding it may not be amiss. "In the authors view the object of art is not to embellish and idealize nature, but to reproduce her interesting phases; and poetry—verse, the drama, the novel—should explain nature in reproducing her; the poet must pronounce sentence. He must represent human beings as they really are, and not incarnate in them an abstract principle, good or bad; that is why in this romance men indisputably good have faults, as reality shows them to us, while bad people possess at the same time some good qualities, as is almost always the case in real life."

Tyranny knows no better use for such an author than to exile him. But Liberty can still utilize his work. Tyranny, torture Truth's heralds as it may, cannot kill Truth itself,—nay, can only add to its vitality. Tchernychewsky is in isolation, but his glad tidings to the poor and the oppressed are spreading among the peoples of the earth, and now in this translation for the first time find their way across the ocean to enlighten our New World.

B. R. T.

Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1939, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.