"What can be done?"

 This is an echo of the common refrain in mid- to late-nineteenth century Russia: Chto Delat? (What Is To Be Done?) This question was asked in response to the social conditions in Russia at this time. Intellectuals recognised that Russia was a stagnant, repressive country, but disagreed over how this could be overcome: by engagement with the imperial powers, or by violent revolution? By refocusing on Russia's innate culture, or by casting this aside in favour of imitating western Europe? These questions were being argued out in literature, in the thick journals, and in the cafés and salons where the intelligentsia gathered.

In 1862, seven years before War and Peace was published, the radical journalist Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote his novel What Is To Be Done? whilst in prison in St Petersburg. Through a series of extraordinary bureaucratic errors the book was passed by the censors and published, despite its highly critical, revolutionary message. What Is To Be Done? had a huge impact on the Russian intelligentsia, bringing questions of social change to the forefront of Russian discourse and influencing a generation of Russian radicals, including Lenin, who cited the novel as central to his political formation. Lenin published a pamphlet called What Is To Be Done? in reference to Chernyshevsky's earlier work; Tolstoy also produced a What Is To Be Done essay in 1887, which can be read online here.

Chernyshevsky's book has been condemned by modern critics as a piece of blunt political propaganda with black-and-white characterisation and an overstated message. However, I think this is a crude evaluation. The lighthearted tone of the book and its complex, almost post-modern way of engaging with the reader make for an interesting read.