As the intelligentsia became more aware of their alienation from Russia and advocated reform, Russia moved into an era of reforms and new philosophy. It was here in the middle of the 19th century when Russian intellectuals began to study and advocate socialism, serf emancipation and various other German philosophies. One of these German philosophies that infiltrated Russian society was that of nihilism. Nihilism was the idea of divorcing oneself from the traditional values of society. Nikolai Chernyshevsky in his book What is to Be Done? writes a long tale describing Russian society during this time and advocating a better one, a Russian utopian society wherein the traditional values of Russia are heeded no more. There is one primary way in which Chernyshevsky demonstrates this is through the behavior of one particular character, Vera Pavlovna Rozalskys. Her character is particularly easy to follow and is quite colorful.
One of the first, and perhaps the most vivid, display of nihilism in the book with regard to Vera is in the beginning of the book where her mother tries to get her to marry a young man. Vera’s early life was not very glamorous and this was due to her mother. In fact her life might be the Russian equivalent of Cinderella from the cruelty she received at the hand of her mother. And under the strict tutelage of her mother, her nihilism begins to show. When she was ten, she was slapped by her mother when she didn’t cross herself after passing a church (52). Russian society was still very religious in the 19th century. Yet her stubbornness for traditional values comes during the prime years of her life when her mother begins to search for a husband for her. Vera consistently hates the men her mother brings by to court and therefore gets upbraided as a “shameless hussy” (56). Vera has no respect for traditions especially if her mother forces them upon her. She does this when he refuses to kiss her mother’s hand after she blesses her (57). Vera’s basis for refusing suitors is that she would rather die than marry such vile, base men (74). There are more traditions that are looked down upon in this book particularly the tradition of protocol amongst husbands and wives. The tradition was that a husband couldn’t enter his wife’s bedroom if she’s not dressed and she couldn’t enter his room unless he was dressed (171). Moreover, their behavior while in each other’s company is merely one of ceremony and they just sit around and hardly even recognize one another (171). This tradition is treated with disgust by two of her pupils and is condemned as some sort of “sect” (171). This is how Chernyshevsky demonstrates nihilism in his book.