Women's emancipation, Lenin's reshaping, and "the emotional dynamic" of the Russian revolution


Chto delat? Iz rasskazov o novykh liudiakh

[What Is to Be Done? Tales of New People]

Publication: Elpidin, Zheneva for Benda, Vevey, 1867.

CHERNYSHEVSKII, Nikolai, Chto delat? Iz rasskazov o novykh liudiakh

First book edition of this groundbreaking novel, a cornerstone of Russian literature and, by its influence, political thought. A pleasant example in contemporary binding. Very rare.

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Our Notes & References

First book edition of ‘the first and most influential of a long succession of tendentious radical novels’ in Russian literature (Mirsky). An appealing example.

“Chernyshevsky’s novel, far more than Marx’s Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution” (Joseph Frank, quoted by Amis).

Banned in Russia during almost 40 years; very rare: OCLC locates only four physical copies (Penn State, University of Wisconsin – Madison, Bibliothèque cantonale Lausanne, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich), and we couldn’t trace any example at auction.

Nikolai Chernyshevskii (1828-89) wrote his magnum opus while imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress in 1862-63. Prison authorities and censors viewed it only as a mediocre love story and gave permission to print it in the issues 3-5 of Sovremennik magazine in 1863. Very soon these issues were banned and confiscated, yet the novel widely circulated in manuscript copies and inspired a great deal of the “new people”, i.e. revolutionaries: Vladimir Lenin read it “five times in one summer […] ‘It completely reshaped me’, he said in 1904” (quoted by Amis); the revolutionary Peter Kropotkin also remarked that “for the Russian youth of the time the book was a revelation, became a program and a kind of flag to follow” (Kropotkin, our translation here and below).

The novel also had an important impact on the discussion of male-female relations and influenced many female revolutionaries worldwide, including Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman and Alexandra Kollontay: “readers picked up the ideas of women’s emancipation and a revolution in marriage life, demanding a reorganisation of the whole society” (Safronova). As a reference to Chernyshevskii’s work, Leo Tolstoy used a similar title, ‘Tak chto zhe nam delat?‘, for his text detailing his view of moral responsibility and social conditions of modern-day Russia (1886); and Fedor Dostoevsky was prompted to write his ‘Notes from the Underground‘ (1864) to counter Chernychevskii’s ideas. In 1866, a few years after this publication, Alexander II decreed that Sovremennik, founded by Pushkin in 1836, was to be shut down. Until 1906 no legal editions of the novel were possible in Russia.

This edition was printed and published by the prominent revolutionary Geneva-based publisher M. Elpidin, who soon after ‘What is to be Done?‘ also published Chernyshevskii’s complete works (1867-70) – as well many other works banned in Russia, including Tolstoy’s. Together with four more editions of the novel, published abroad up until 1898, it was clandestinely distributed in Russia.


Amis, Martin. Koba the dread : laughter and the twenty million. New York: Talk Miramax Books, 2002.

Kropotkin, Idealy i deistvitelnost v russkoi literature, SPb., 1907, pp. 306-307.

Safronova, Iuliia. “Faktchek: 12 samykh populiarnykh legend o Chernyshevskom” // Arzamas academy, 2022.

Sviatopolk-Mirsky, Dmitrii. A History of Russian Literature. Northwestern University Press, 1999, p. 225.

Item number



Physical Description

Octavo (cm). Title, VI, 477 pp., and errata leaf.


Contemporary dark burgundy roan spine over cloth boards, raised bands and gilt lettering in Cyrillic on spine, blind stamped fillets on boards.


Spine ends minimally rubbed, boards minimally stained; occasional very light staining or foxing, “Chernov” (?) ownership inscription on title, a couple of small pencil inscriptions.

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