Through its hero, Pavel Korchagin who begins the story as a boy slaving in the kitchens of a railway station restaurant in wartorn Tsarist Ukraine, the book follows not just Korchagin's developing life but also the development of socialism from the ashes of the First World War, through the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution to the launch of the Soviet Union's planned economy at the end of the 1920s. In work and war Korchagin's view of life is described by Ostrovsky's brilliant and famous words:
"Our dearest possession is life. It is given to us but once. And we must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live, that dying we might say: all my life all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world - the fight for the Liberation of Humankind."
Despite the fact that Ostrovsky's novel is one of the worlds most popular, having been printed in many millions of copies in many languages and many countries, it has naturally never been accepted as a great literary work by bourgeois critics. Its subject and its immortal message that the working class and oppressed can and must seize and consciously shape their own destiny shines through the pages and years as powerfully as ever, meaning it cannot be a great work of art for these people. How the Steel Was Tempered does not have literary conceits or difficult to understand passages, but this is not to say it is not well written, nor that its descriptions are not artistic.
Frequently dismissed as a mere propaganda novel, How the Steel Was Tempered certainly has a forceful message, but this is not the cynical work of some hack. Struck down by a terrible degenerative disease that claimed the use of his limbs and sight, and with enormous effort, Ostrovsky continued his fight for the liberation of humankind through his novel, much of it written agonisingly with the aid of a stencil. Like Nikolai Ostrovsky, Pavel Korchagin does not let anything crush his spirit and retains his positive outlook on life until the end.