20th Century Russia: Fall 2014
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  • Lenin and “What is to be Done?”

    Posted on September 4th, 2014 rkw15 No comments

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    In 1901, Vladimir I. Lenin began writing his famous work, “What is to be Done?”. Less than a year later, “What is to be Done” was published in the spring of 1902. Lenin’s work was written as a prequsor to the Bolshevick Revolution in 1917. In “What is to be Done?”, Lenin lays out his plan for revolution in Russia.

    The first time I read excerpts for Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” in Dr. Nelson’s 20th Century Russian history class at Virginia Tech, I was very confused. However, after taking a Russian Literature class at VT and reading Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done! a lot of Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” became clearer. Nikolai Chernyshevsky was a Russian novelist and a major political actor during his lifetime. Chernyshevsky spent some time in prision for his radical political ideas. In fact, Chernyshevsky was imprisoned at the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg when he wrote What is to be Done!. 

    Chernyshevsky wrote his What is to be Done! in 1862, 39 years before Lenin laid out his revolutionary ideas in his “What is to be Done?”. Now, you may be thinking, besides the title what do the two works of literature have in common? They actually have a lot in common since many of the ideas in Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” came from Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done!. 

    Vladimir Lenin did not start out as a revolutionary. He was raised in a well-educated family and also attended University (which he was eventually kicked out of for his revolutionary thinking). Lenin even attempted to read What is to be done? at the age of 14, but did not understand it. However, his older brother Aleksander Ilyich Ulyanov was the family revolutionary during Lenin’s childhood. After his brother’s death in prison in 1887, Lenin became very interested in the ideas that his brother died for. So, Lenin decided to reread Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done! because the novel had had such a large impact on his brother. This time, he understood the ideas that Chernyshevsky had laid out and decided they were good ones. Lenin said, “I am indebted to Chernyshevsky for my first acquaintance with philosophical materialism. And he was the first to point out to me Hegel’s role in the development of philosophical thought; from him came my conception of the dialectical method, after which it was much easier to master Marx’s dialectic… I read Chernyshevsky with pencil in hand, taking extensive notes and writing summaries of what I had read. The notebooks in which all this was written I kept with me for a long time thereafter… Before my acquaintance with the works of Marx, Engels, and Plekhanov, only Chernyshevsky had a major influence on me, an overwhelming influence”. By reading Chernyshevsky, Lenin gained a new perspective on revolution. Before, he did not understand the revolutionary movement in Russia or why his brother gave his life for it. However, after reading Chernyshevsky, Lenin began to understand the revolutionary movement and began to form the ideology that led Russia through a revolution.


    Lenin drew many of his main ideas in “What is to be Done?” from Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done!. Below are a few quotes from Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done! with a brief explanation of how they influenced Lenin’s “What is to be Done?”.

    Click on the Picture to make it bigger/ to read it

    Click on the Picture to make it bigger/ to read it

    Lenin’s “What is to be Done”

    Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done?

    Summary of Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done?

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