While it is common for scholars to concede that realism is nearly impossible to define, the story of realism's emergence as a specific literary movement in the nineteenth century is rarely disputed. Literary critics and historians alike frequently identify the emergence of “programmatic realism” with the rise of the novel in the modern, industrialized nation-states of France and England, thereby requiring the existence of an industrialized urban capital, a developing bourgeoisie, and definitive national consciousness. This article intervenes in such accounts by evaluating Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?—a novel, or antinovel, that while little read in the West is arguably one of the most important Russian texts of the nineteenth century. Written in 1863, just two years after the liberation of the serfs in Russia, N. G. Chernyshevsky's novel remarkably departs from the traditional realist style of writing that characterizes more canonical French and English novels in favor of another kind of realism. This realism harnesses the truth claim that is implicit in the realist agenda as well as the communicative force of the novel to not only objectively render sociality reality but to radically transform it as well.

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