What is to be done? Literature and the Russian Revolution
In 1863, a Russian philosopher, journalist and literary critic, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, published the utopian novel, What is to be Done? It was an overnight success that became a bible for a new revolutionary generation. Chernyshevsky’s pièce de résistance would inspire a young Vladimir Lenin, before he had even read Marx, and give him the name for one of his own most famous political works. Yet Chernyshevsky was widely condemned by his peers; both Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy publicly criticised the book and its author.
The debate over What is to be Done? sheds much light on what became ‘the golden era’ of Russian literature, which gave birth to fabled writers such as Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekhov. While this explosion of creativity and free thought would inspire Lenin and the Bolsheviks to revolution in 1917, it emerged against the fickle censorship of the last Tsarist regimes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which forced Pushkin to burn verses of Eugene Onegin but paid for Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls to be read to the illiterate.
This golden era was a battleground over the state of contemporary society and the possibilities for the future. Confronted with an autocratic state and unequal society, literature dared to ask how things could be different. In an era where ideas mattered and the future was there to be fought for, could we even say that the golden era of Russian literature caused the revolution?
How was creativity able to thrive under censorship, both from the Tsarist censors and later the Stalinist state-sponsored doctrine of socialist realism? Do novelists and other artists have a responsibility to foster political and social change? Or does literature exist beyond the confines of its context? If, as Mikhail Bulgakov put it, ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’, what does literature born in the age of censorship and revolution mean today?