What Is to Be Done with ChernyshevskyТs Utopia?

The outstanding literary critic and public figure Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) has to his credit one of the most famous books in Russian literature, the novel What Is to Be Done? (published in the journal Sovremennik, Contemporary, in 1863). The book had little luck in the history of our literature from the start, for neither the authorities nor the readers were able or wished to see in it that for the sake of which Chernyshevsky had written the chief work of his life.

At first the novel was banned because its author was a political prisoner incarcerated in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Later What Is to Be Done? became a gospel for several generations of Russian revolutionaries and members of the progressive intelligentsia, and in this country Holy Writ must not be criticized; all you can do with it is read it deferentially and live according to its precepts. In Soviet times revolutionary democrat Chernyshevsky was made, and rightly so, into a founding father of the new system, while his book was unconditionally, and this time totally unreasonably, pronounced a work of genius, a literary masterpiece, and as such included in every school and university curriculum to be learned literally by heart. Teachers, moreover, had to argue, quite insincerely, that the novel was head and shoulders above the classical works of Turgenev, Goncharov and Tolstoy, which authors were frequently mistaken and prone to ideological wavering, while Chernyshevsky was never wrong.

Meanwhile, a simple comparison between those books, vastly different in their artistic standards, was definitely not in ChernyshevskyТs favor, so his novel became a sort of officially approved value, a teaching load that actually taught students and their mentors insincerity and gave them a permanent distaste for a most interesting book well worth reading and comprehending. After all, the ideas of that utopia were translated into reality in Russia in 1917, and we have been part of that reality ever since.

After the collapse of Soviet literary theory, one more U-turn occurred with the inevitable change of reference points, this time from positive to negative. Chernyshevsky was just as categorically pronounced a poor writer and an odious person (not least thanks to the novel of brilliant mocker Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift, with its separate pamphlet chapter on the revolutionary democrat), while his book was dismissed as a shoddy piece of revolutionary propaganda that did not merit reading or studying.

Meanwhile, Chernyshevsky certainly did not think himself a novelist of genius, never dreamt of equating himself and his book with the novels by his great contemporaries, and knew the proper place and purpose of What Is to Be Done? in the public life of the time and in the literary and political struggle. For did he not say in his own foreword to the novel: УI have not a jot of artistic talent. I donТt even have a good command of the language. But that is all right; read on, good public! You will benefit by it.Ф And we too in this day and age should know the novel What Is to Be Done?, know its place in the past and in the present, and the real truth about ChernyshevskyТs book.

Guide to Action

What Is to Be Done? was written in 1862-1863, and has a tell-tale subtitle Ц Some Stories about the New People. Moreover, the book deliberately opens with a precise date, July 11, 1856. Did the Уnew peopleФ exist at the time? Could more than one story be written about them Ц about Lopukhov, Kirsanov, Rakhmetov, Vera Pavlovna, their extensive progressively-minded milieu of university students, army officers, cultured seamstresses, etc.? TurgenevТs novel On the Eve (1859) testified to the opposite Ц they were still conspicuously absent from Russian reality, which fact was grudgingly admitted (УSuch Russians do not existФ) by ChernyshevskyТs radical friend Dobrolyubov in his famous article УWhen Will the Real Day Come?Ф

Where could all those numerous Уnew peopleФ have come from all of a sudden, complete with a ready-made life philosophy, in a serf-owning, military-feudal Russia, if their future leaders and ideologues Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov had only just met in 1856? True, the lower-class intelligentsia was rapidly taking shape; there was a good deal of progressive and even revolutionary mood about, and radical secret societies, like the Petrashevsky circle, undoubtedly existed, but ChernyshevskyТs Уnew peopleФ with their Уnew moralityФ and a uniform revolutionary-democratic ideology were yet to emerge. They still had to be organized, created, and educated. The strictly ideological social utopia What Is to Be Done? was written precisely to this end, and that was why it was dubbed the Уgospel of nihilismФ by Tom?? G. Masaryk.

We have been told repeatedly that the only utopia-like thing in ChernyshevskyТs book is the famous insert chapter about Vera PavlovnaТs fourth dream. But if an outwardly realistic novel has characters that did not exist at the time, and expresses political, economic and philosophical ideas that did not emerge till many years later, and also describes unheard-of phenomena like super-profitable (!?) collective sewing workshops with Fourierite phalansteries Ц then this entire book must be a utopia in terms of genre and purport, a piece of science fiction (for all those pseudo-scientific ideas are borrowed from scientific works of various foreign philosophers, theorists of utopian socialism), and this makes it a precursor of Yevgeny ZamyatinТs famous anti-Utopian novel We in our literature.

The novel of political dreamer Chernyshevsky is directed at the future, which future appears bright and happy to the author locked up in a prison cell. It is no accident that democratic commoner Kirsanov tells his friend and soul mate Lopukhov in a perfectly ordinary conversation: УThe Golden Age, it will comeЕ this we know, but it is still in the future. The Iron Age is passing, is almost gone, but the Golden one is yet to begin.Ф Together with Vera Pavlovna, Rakhmetov and other advanced intellectuals, he works to bring closer the advent of the Golden Age on earth.

The book gives a very lucid summary of the authorТs social ideal, his consistent criticism of imperial Russia the way it was, with its social system and centuries-old ethical principles, and shows an ideal society of the future and its intelligent educated masters, or rather rulers Ц the Уnew people.Ф Quite early on in the novel Vera Pavlovna is singing a French revolutionary song where the author has inserted these prophetic words: УThere will be paradise on earth.Ф In her famous dream this paradise is described in minute detail. It covers the whole planet.

ChernyshevskyТs brave new world is divided into regular squares, and this chessboard has no room for Уold-style people.Ф Years later Andrei Platonov, another of our passionate УleftistФ Utopians, showed in his cheerless Foundation Pit just where these surplus people would disappear. Vera PavlovnaТs dream, like a similar chapter УKhotilovФ in RadishchevТs Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, with matching ideas and genre similarities (incidentally, it was there that the convenient theory of enlightened self-interest, so appealing to Chernyshevsky, was put forward long before the Englishman Bentham), merely crowns this social edifice generalizing in its fantastic images the main idea of the utopian novel. After all, the action of the novel written in prison and published in 1863 concludes in 1865(!!!), and appearing in its final passages is not only a lady in black Ц the writerТs wife Olga Sokratovna Chernyshevskaya Ц but also a quiet gentleman of thirty or so Ц the author of What Is to Be Done? in person, released from jail by revolution! What is it if not a political utopia, the boldest kind of science fiction? ChernyshevskyТs dream would be rather more daring than the perpetuum mobile idea.

ChernyshevskyТs contemporaries were keenly aware of that and understood his ideas quite correctly. Liberal professor Konstantin Kavelin wrote of the author of What Is to Be Done? and his fanatical followers: УThey are convinced that reality must conform to the ideal. They formulate it in every particular deciding in advance in what form it should be translated into life. For the sake of this ideal they are willing to violate reality altering it according to the prefabricated pattern.Ф Historians and ecologists can tell you what the idea of violating nature, society and people in the name of an ideal did to RussiaТs hard life. The idea of esthetic violence was extended to belles-lettres as well.

Chernyshevsky is an outstanding theorist of realistic esthetics, a popularizer of the famous social-being-determines-consciousness idea. Then why does he keep breaking the basic laws of realistic narration in his principal novel, and why does the reading public fail even to notice the fact, although the same readers would not forgive Leo Tolstoy the slightest anachronism in War and Peace, any transgression against historical detail authenticity and the real course of events inevitable in a great prose epic? Simply because the writer did so consciously, and the readers and critics saw and understood this from the very first but kept quiet about it, for saying in so many words what the authorТs purpose was meant informing on the famous political prisoner and martyr of the revolutionary idea.

So what does the author of What Is to Be Done? want? This is obvious to any attentive reader: the author cannot wait to see such high-principled progressive fighters as Lopukhov, Kirsanov, Vera Pavlovna, Rakhmetov, and their equally advanced friends, appear in the rapidly changing Russia. Therefore the great enlightener Chernyshevsky is writing a detailed manual of life for all times for the nascent leftist commoner intelligentsia, a practical guide for action, for everyday conduct in various situations, an encyclopedia of new morality, consciously and flagrantly rejecting and undermining the old Christian moral code.

All of that could have been expounded in illegal leaflets and pamphlets printed in Geneva and circulated in Russia. As we know, Chernyshevsky does not rule out this mode of action either, even though at heart he has little hope that emigrant-produced leaflets could induce the illiterate Russian peasant to take up his ax. But he also does something else: a halo of martyrdom over his head, he writes in the Peter and Paul Fortress a political novel that the entire literate Russia has willy-nilly read and been obliged to discuss. One should also remember ChernyshevskyТs tremendous authority among the democratic public that felt unreserved veneration for their leader and mentor. And the writer himself, influenced by that veneration and several years of spiritual power over the minds of the leftist intelligentsia, was transformed: УAn infallible oracle who can only be listened to respectfully,Ф the historian Sergei Solovyev described him as.

No amount of pamphlets and leaflets could have dealt so calculated and shattering a blow to all the traditional institutions (the monarchy, the class-based state, ownership, the family, etc.), to the moral values and principles as that inept, in a way ridiculous, poorly written and actually scandalous book (instantly branded semi-pornographic). At last a gospel of revolutionary democracy was there! Its strength was in the author saying the magic words to his followers: in the name of a great goal everything is permissible. And that was the new morality underlying the revolutionary democratic movement that could not fail to produce leftist terrorism, expropriations and RaskolnikovТs УideologicalФ crime in Crime and Punishment. The novel gives detailed descriptions of permitted actions and the methods of their instant implementation.

In contrast to TurgenevТs Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, Chernyshevsky not only invited destruction and negation, but also offered the semi-educated radical commoners an intelligible positive program, showing them what was to be done. Unlike GoncharovТs ineffectual squire Oblomov, the buoyant and self-confident book of the revolutionary democrat is brimming with vitality, calls for action, teaches how to live and fight for oneТs rights, and extols the merits of active labor that liberates man. Chernyshevsky heroes are constantly committing such dashing acts that beside them whodunits and adventure novels pale into insignificance. They are not just energetic, those ideologues of the common cause, from morning till night discussing ways and means of their future exploits. The old society is efficiently eroded bit by bit, ridiculed and forced from within. The laws of the Russian Empire are broken in passing, matter-of-factly, as are medical ethics, church canons and norms, and the very moral law of society, all of which the author frankly approves of. Such are the lessons of the УnewФ morality.

The novel created, i.e. nurtured and rallied the commoner intelligentsia, becoming a manual of life for several generations of Russians, showing them the way to social struggle and revolutionary activity, facilitating a slow erosion, disintegration and subsequent bloody end of the empire which had sentenced the author of What Is to Be Done? to penal servitude. The ideas of Chernyshevsky the novelist became a material force that inspired the Уthinking proletariatФ and activated leftist journalism and literature, the revolutionary underground, revolts and demos, the handguns, daggers and bombs of PeopleТs Will terrorists, and the printing presses. The writer set himself this great goal and triumphantly accomplished it in his novel of social utopia. What Is to Be Done? should be judged according to the goals and rules the author set for himself.

The Ideological World of the Novel

Russian social-utopian novels have a dramaturgy all their own. ChernyshevskyТs novel is based on the development and interaction of three characters Ц Vera Pavlovna Rozalskaya and her husbands Dmitri Lopukhov and Alexander Kirsanov. It also has an extraneous type, utterly unessential to the novel (it appears for no other purpose than to lecture Vera, rather clumsily and boringly, on the Уnew moralityФ teaching her how to live), but important and necessary for the authorТs desire to formulate his ideas. This character is a new, mighty and strong-willed revolutionary, Rakhmetov. These Уnew peopleФ attract an assortment of youngsters to form a revolutionary-democratic milieu where between working for the Уcommon cause,Ф УideologicalФ love affairs and jokes, ChernyshevskyТs chief ideas of the 1860s are expressed. But these ideas are presented as a widespread influential ideology of the social milieu that, in 1856, was yet to emerge.

Pinpointed at once are the cultural and ideological values that impede the Уcommon cause.Ф Already at the start of the novel the historian Karamzin is mockingly dismissed as a Tatar historian, while PushkinТs poetry is condescendingly allowed to have been Уgood for its time, but has now lost much of its value.Ф Moreover, the author puts these lines in the mouths of Russian Guards officers, upper-class aristocrats brought up on the works of Karamzin and Pushkin. He knows that, if uttered by commoners, such words would have been thought outrageous. So this view of radical literary critic Belinsky and Chernyshevsky is expounded in the critical essays of a young nobleman with a university degree, Dmitri Pisarev, and not by Chernyshevsky himself. The reason for doing so was not just PushkinТs poetry, but also the great poetТs clearly expressed and profoundly true idea: УNowadays our political liberty is inseparable from the emancipation of peasants.Ф Pushkin, by his very existence in the public consciousness and Russian literature, was an obstacle to revolutionary democrats, and the latter expended a lot of effort and polemic talent to fight Pushkin culture. It thus becomes clear that the educated commoners hate the whole of aristocratic culture and its creators, trying to satirize and destroy it in order to replace it with something of their own.

The same could be said of the generally accepted ethics, of morality based on the principles of Christianity and the Russian national tradition. This is the morality of PushkinТs Tatyana and TurgenevТs Liza Kalitina. It is this morality that ChernyshevskyТs novel is waging well-planned war on, with all its ideas and characters. Lopukhov has to stage his suicide precisely because public opinion, the state and the church would have condemned both Vera PavlovnaТs illicit cohabitation with Kirsanov with the tacit consent of her advanced husband, and the УprogressiveФ m?nage ? trois suggested by him and Rakhmetov. All of them would have found themselves social outcasts; the men would have lost their well-paid jobs at the university and the medical academy, as well as medical practice, while the progressive Vera Pavlovna would not be received in any respectable household and her sewing workshop would be left without orders.

Still, Chernyshevsky considers his progressive heroes paragons and teachers of new morality, educators of the backward Russian public. Consider the authorТs words in Chapter 2, amazing in their simple-hearted hubris: УFormerlyЕ there were too few decent peopleЕ NowЕ decent people have taken to getting together. EventuallyЕ all people will be decent.Ф The important thing is not that Chernyshevsky refers to himself and his followers as the decent people and calls on others to join the club, but that, in the logic of revolutionary commoners, before them there have been no decent people at all. For their morality is УnewФ and the only correct one.

ThatТs exactly what Chernyshevsky writes in his novel: УI wished to portray ordinary decent people of the new generation, the people I have met by the hundredЕ These people Е as yet make up a minority of the public. Its majority is still way below this type.Ф That is to say, Fyodor Tyutchev, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Goncharov, Afanasy Foeth, Alexander Ostrovsky are all among the УbackwardФ majority, way below the УprogressiveФ Vera Pavlovna, Lopukhov and Kirsanov, let alone the ascetic revolutionary titan Rakhmetov: УIt is not they who stand too high, but you who stand too lowЕ Rise up from your slums, my friends.Ф How would TurgenevТs heroes like Lavretsky and Liza Kalitina have felt hearing this?

The УNew WomanТsФ Quest

Whether by accident or design, Chernyshevsky made the character of Vera Pavlovna the most minutely developed, and it gradually became, in terms of composition, central to the entire plot. As noted above, quite a lot in this fascinating portrait is copied from nature, so the conscientious description, like a photograph, unintentionally reveals a good deal in the character (moreover, a feminine character) that is so important both to the author and to his novel,.

Let us begin at the beginning, with the song that Vera Pavlovna is singing in French. How come she is so fluent in this language of the aristocracy, and gives French lessons besides? She grew up in a poorly educated and grossly immoral family, did she not, where the father was a crook and a bribe-taker, the mother a coarse and wily drunk, utterly unscrupulous and without a trace of any linguistic prowess. A few years of haphazard studies at a mediocre boarding school would not have provided young Vera with a good knowledge of languages. It would have taken a French governess at home and a French teacher at an exclusive school for damsels of noble birth, plus books and magazines to read in this language, the parents and their guests talking French, as was the custom in society. None of that was present in the girlТs life.

Already this minor fact, so typical of the author, shows that Chernyshevsky calmly and deliberately violates his own theoretical principle: Social being determines consciousness, because his heroine, despite her uncouth family, stifling environment, four years of boarding school and humble origin, is a well-educated and highly moral young person with exceedingly progressive views of life and a glib tongue, well versed in political economy and law, capable of organizing a sewing workshop and keeping it well provided with orders, plus running a phalanstery of merry young seamstresses. Where it all came from is a mystery.

In a novel by Turgenev or Goncharov something like that would be a glaring, unpardonable fault violating the laws of realist writing, but with Chernyshevsky these incongruities were simply overlooked given the generally fantastic nature of his main book. What everyone saw were influential progressive ideas, not the inartistic ways of expressing them in an ideological novel. The author consciously allows such crude distortions in his fairly flexible and accommodating realism (subsequently called, quite rightly, socialist) in order to show an oppressed woman breaking with her unwholesome environment for the sake of education and advanced ideas, and valiantly fighting for her rights and her freedom. For it would have been impossible otherwise to correctly raise and further elaborate in the novel the idea of the notorious УwomenТs issue,Ф i.e. the problem of equal rights for men and women in Russian society. It is this УissueФ that fills the thoughts, actions, dreams and yearnings of Vera Pavlovna.

The УwomenТs issueФ is a central one in revolutionary-democratic ideology and propaganda. Because educated commoners wished to win women over to their cause, promising them victorious struggle for their rights, lofty social ideals, a new role in society, legal and economic equality, higher and secondary education (women were not admitted to universities then, and good schools for them just did not exist), equality in love and marriage, and in bringing up children. Again the rift went through the main thing in Russian society and life Ц the family. In a semi-oriental, half-civilized country (ChernyshevskyТs friend Dobrolyubov contemptuously referred to it as Уthe realm of darknessФ), where young girls and married women used to be locked up at home only a short time previously, these ideas never failed to captivate advanced women thirsting for public activity; they became a formidable force. These women became public workers and eventually plunged into revolution (Turgenev wrote the novel Virgin Soil and the poem in prose The Threshold about this).

From the start Vera begins to fight her lowly environment and tells her mentor in ethical and other matters, progressive-minded Frenchwoman Julie: УI want independence, I want to live my own way; what I need personally I am ready for; what I donТt need I donТt want. I only know that I donТt want to yield to anyone, want to be free, donТt want to be indebted to anyone for anything.Ф The fact that the good lady Julie is a woman of easy virtue does not in the least disconcert young Vera or the author. Further Chernyshevsky points out the ways in which so progressive a damsel can arrange her life properly and become a ray of light in the realm of darkness.

She needs to escape from the basement, as Vera alludes to her Уloathsome familyФ and life with her father and mother, to find new brave people of the progressive persuasion who would help her, educate her, discover and show her the way out. Vera turns her attention to the engaging tutor of her brother, an intellectually mature undergraduate of the Military Medical Academy, Dmitri Lopukhov. He talks to her of new ideals, of the struggle for the happiness of all, gives her Feuerbach and other wise books by Уgood peopleФ to read, tells her about some new kind of love full of mutual respect built on the theory enlightened self-interest, that is, each personТs natural and legitimate desire for their own advantage: УYour individuality in the given situation is a fact; your actions are the necessary conclusions from this fact, drawn by the nature of things. You are not responsible for them, and it is stupid to censure them.Ф Which is precisely the infamous theory of УEverything is permitted.Ф Following it, one can jump into a loverТs carriage, or else take up the ax, out of Уideological considerations.Ф

Then the good student-educator undertakes practical steps to rescue Vera from her suffering among her barbarous family, but the one way out he hits upon and offers her is fleeing from home and contracting a fake marriage without parental consent. The progressive young lady is all for it and tells the student: УWeТll be friends.Ф But then she goes on to describe minutely their future domestic arrangements based on complete economic independence from each other (there young Vera with her four years of boarding school boldly relies on the lessons she would give) and separate living in different rooms, interrupted, however, by occasional mutual visits. So the smart young lady is clearly not content with friendship alone. They are wed by a kind democratically minded priest who has been reading the selfsame Feuerbach and therefore feels no compunction at transgressing against ecclesiastical rules and secular laws. There you are Ц a basis for the new family. Too many people thought it convenient and attractive.

Thus, with VeraТs help, the reader learns the new morality, new views on love and womenТs rights, means of rescue through secret marriage (frequently fictitious), and a new mode of family life. A woman is not a thing. No one may own her. She must not be dependent on a man in money terms. Marriage is free. Love is free. She bears no responsibility for her actions committed for her own good according to the methodology of enlightened self-interest. She can fall in or out of love and walk out on her husband and children for the sake of a braver and worthier fighter for humanityТs happiness. State, church and society, including the stern author of Anna Karenina, kept telling the woman who had broken the laws of morality and social life that she was sinful and guilty, and punished her according to her sins. Lopukhov, now, says something else: УYou are not to blame.Ф So there is no point in throwing oneself under the train wheelsЕ Thus a popular encyclopedia of new morality started taking shape, soon to become a guidebook for thousands upon thousands of the Russian progressive intelligentsia. Vera Pavlovna found lots of grateful followers.

Vera Pavlovna proceeded to spell out and substantiate the practical ways of the Russian womanТs economic emancipation. It is some common (i.e. useful for everyone and progressive) cause. Vera Pavlovna sets up her famous sewing workshop, with money she obtained God knows where, and in that shop very good well-educated girls (coming God knows whence) work diligently according to the new rules, honestly and equally dividing up among them the money they earn. They all share the same large apartment and board, and pool their resources to buy clothes, shoes, etc. Where they get enough money for that, if a seamstressТs monthly earnings do not exceed a few rubles, while lodgings alone take some two thousand a year, does not concern the author in the least and remains unexplained. To be sure, there was also public reading of Уfine books,Ф determined self-instruction, collective visits to the theater and outings in the country during which political discussions are held. All of that thinly disguises frank propaganda of ChernyshevskyТs revolutionary-democratic ideas.

In short, the fantastic dream of the French Utopian socialist Charles Fourier has come true, and in the midst of St. Petersburg we now have a proper phalanx Ц a cell of the new just society, and also a phalanstery, a socialist hostel. It transpires that workshops like that are tremendously profitable and progressive (although simple arithmetic will show the opposite: the low cost of Russian seamstressesТ manual labor is way below the price of imported fabrics, trimmings, American sewing machines, rent and tax payments, never mind the inevitable bribes and theft, and considerable expense of maintaining the phalanstery). So Vera Pavlovna and her friends open several new branches, plus a fashion boutique on the cityТs most fashionable street. This way of emancipating womenТs labor outlined in ChernyshevskyТs novel became instantly popular, and numerous workshops and phalanster communes started mushrooming all over Russia, for all women wanted to be free, earn good money, get into a new cultural milieu, meet УnewФ men there and by this progressive expedient finally settle the notorious УwomenТs issue.Ф The main book the progressive public read to tatters was the novel What Is to Be Done? published abroad or copied by hand, and ChernyshevskyТs portrait became their icon.

Naturally, the new marriage and sewing workshops are merely particular forms of the common democratic ideology. Ideology, meanwhile, according to the novelТs author, must be implemented in the Уcommon cause.Ф Vera Pavlovna hints that for so mighty and staunch a fighter as Rakhmetov a common cause is the revolution he is utterly absorbed in, and the meticulous persistent preparation of the same. As for her, she thinks that her sewing workshops and womenТs education are not enough, and yearns to do some work for everyoneТs good that would be up to her strength.

Her husband is a doctor (or rather, they both are), and Vera Pavlovna takes up medicine under the supervision of experienced medic Kirsanov, which cements even more securely their new family and new love. In those days women were not allowed to practice medicine, and a whole movement emerged for their right to treat patients and receive higher medical education. Kirsanov and Vera together show Russian women the way and the means to be used in this vital struggle that is part of the Уcommon cause.Ф The author writes that they live Уin harmony and happiness.Ф And Dr. Kirsanov offers a most interesting characterization of their wholesome and highly proper love: УThis is a constant, powerful, healthy stimulation of the nerves; it is necessary, it develops the nervous system.Ф Try and read this charming maxim as a critical review of TyutchevТs poem УI met youЕФ

Vera PavlovnaТs Fourth Dream

Finally, it was no accident that the heroine was entrusted with articulating ChernyshevskyТs chief idea, the sociopolitical ideal of revolutionary democracy. This is the famous chapter entitled УThe Fourth Dream of Vera Pavlovna.Ф The УinsertФ utopia, I repeat, is actually not something artificially tacked on. It does not make a bulge in the narrative; rather, it constitutes the novelТs peak, for after it the plot draws to a close, Lopukhov returns from America in the guise of American engineer and industrialist Beaumont, and the utopian finale is crowned by the appearance of the bookТs author released from jail. Because in Vera PavlovnaТs dream Chernyshevsky shows the reason for waging this varied, difficult and dangerous struggle. He explains why he has been rallying round himself democratic forces, publishing a journal, writing leaflets, calling on the benighted masses to take up the ax and make revolution, ending up in a Peter and Paul Fortress cell where the book was written.

This dream concludes the history of the Уnew womanФ as represented by Vera Pavlovna. In full accordance with the utopia genre, the great utopian democrat Chernyshevsky paints a picture of democratic paradise, a Golden Age that will emerge on Earth once the revolution he has been preparing wins, the revolution he has written his novel to propagandize. He shows that social paradise through the story of womanТs emancipation and love, which cannot fail to bring about the emancipation of entire humanity. After all, this is a feminine dream, an erotic one. Paradise starts with reading poetry by Schiller and Goethe, and a poetТs performance in the palace of liberated people. He sings of the famous women of antiquity and of the Middle Ages; he admires their beauty and fine intellect, but says that they lacked the main thing Ц freedom. Chernyshevsky sees the future as a realm of free and equal love between man and woman.

This Golden Age, theoretically discussed in the novel by Lopukhov and Kirsanov, is materialized as an enormous crystal palace-cum-garden sitting amid rich luxuriant cornfields and orchards, a kingdom of perennial spring, summer and joy. Similar mammoth edifices are staggered over the entire Earth transformed by liberated labor, the planet of Уnew people.Ф Living there all together are the happy people of the ideal future. And Chernyshevsky, through the goddess of free love, speaks of the bright future, revealing it to Vera Pavlovna, and with her also to his numerous prospective readers: УIt is radiant, it is beautiful. So tell everyone: this is what the future contains, the future is radiant and beautiful. Love it, seek it, work for it, advance it, take from it for the present as much as you can.Ф

These words are repeated twice, like a mantra. This is what Vera Pavlovna aims for as she starts up sewing workshops, educates young girls, and studies medicine. Her family life, too, is devoted to serving liberated love, as are her relations, on an equal footing, with Lopukhov and Kirsanov. At the end of the novel their new families are described as Уhappy marriagesФ where the utopian ideals of new love and family sketched out in Vera PavlovnaТs fourth dream have become reality.

The УNew PeopleФ in the Novel

Having gone over the life story of Vera Pavlovna and acquainted ourselves with her fourth dream, we see more clearly the place and purpose of Lopukhov and Kirsanov in the novel. These are ordinary people, not heroic, but capable and honest commoners from a humble background who became medical students, made some money by tutoring, and endured privation for the sake of serious science. They are noble in spirit, they help others, treating poor patients for free; they plucked Vera Pavlovna out of her nasty family and gave her a chance of developing, working, and setting up a sewing workshop, and they showed the way to the common cause to Katya Polozova. Chernyshevsky says that they are even outwardly alike (which makes one wonder at the reason for VeraТs tragic wavering between them), and that he wished to portray in them a composite Уnew personФ type.

In short, those are dynamic intellectuals of a practical disposition, but apart from active work for the common good, they also have a hidden agenda, a secret idea and faith Ц the common cause, of which Lopukhov speaks to Vera at the outset of their relationship: УSooner or later we will manage to arrange life so that there will be no poor people.Ф Ah, but we are still waiting for that utopian promise to be fulfilledЕ The Уnew peopleФ would wish to alter the exploitative, unjust society through social struggle. This makes them ideological allies of professional revolutionaries Rakhmetov and Chernyshevsky himself Ц because leaders and ideologues need compliant performers, a social environment, the famous masses.

Vera PavlovnaТs fantastic dream shows us in graphic detail this ideal social system and the new happy people, the Golden Age eulogized by educated commoners. Lopukhov, Kirsanov, Vera Pavlovna and Katya Polozova will work, educate, develop, fight for the common good, and advance toward the Golden Age. The theory of enlightened self-interest helps them to concentrate their efforts, to appreciate and respect one anotherТs independence and desires. It is no accident that the novelТs author himself appears at the end of his book precisely in their progressive democratic circle where all his educational and revolutionary-liberation ideas have been correctly understood and accepted for practical implementation. This is an environment organized and steered by the ideologues, a gathering of like-minded people ready to fight for their ideas and principles by every available means. This kind of environment was created by Chernyshevsky and his comrades-in-arms with the help of the journal Sovremennik and other propaganda tools, and it endorsed unconditionally their social and revolutionary struggle, taking an active part in it and becoming a powerful force.

But any social struggle, and even more so a revolution, has not just the environment, the masses, the rank-and-file activists, but also its own heroes and ideological leaders. In ChernyshevskyТs book there are two: the author himself, who utters and explains in the novel all those ideas (these voluble author digressions are typical of the writer-propagandist), and Rakhmetov, a gifted, smart student of Kirsanov, who has far outstripped his teacher in terms of development and actions. He is an ex-nobleman and rich landowner who has broken with his class and made himself into a new man of enormous ideological conviction, physical strength and iron will (his hours-long self-trials by lying on sharp nails is typical). From the age of 17 he has been preparing to struggle for a just life and happiness for all, to which end he studied various subjects at a number of university departments and developed his mind and body through self-instruction and gymnastics. He lived the life of a common laborer to get to know the lower classes at first hand, and even worked as a barge hauler; he limited his needs to the barest minimum, and helped others with money and action.

The author says that such epic heroes and mighty staunch fighters are few and far between, but they will change RussiaТs hard fate. УThe Rakhmetovs are a different breed; they become one with the common cause so that it becomes essential to them, filling their entire life; to them it even replaces their personal life,Ф Vera Pavlovna confirms. The common cause requires complete, body-and-soul devotion; in due course Russia saw professional revolutionaries, members of underground organizations and emigrants. ChernyshevskyТs Уspecial personФ is their prototype and forerunner.

RakhmetovТs way is revolutionary struggle and self-sacrifice, and precisely for that reason this character, seemingly superfluous and unnecessary in the novel, is vital to Chernyshevsky; he shows everyone that resolute revolutionary struggle against autocracy is inevitable, and it is necessary to get ready for it. The author hints that his globetrotting hero will return to Russia quite soon, Уin three or four years,Ф when the time for the revolution is ripe. The progressive intelligentsia instantly believed in RakhmetovТs reality and seriousness of intent, and in the nearness of revolutionary liberation; he was eagerly imitated, as was the protagonist of Ethel VoynichТs famous novel The Gadfly.

One has to appreciate the rush and strain of writing this novel in a prison cell (written within just five months, in snatches!), as the author daily awaited trial and a trip to Siberia for penal servitude. Hence the numerous blunders, ungrammaticalities, mistakes in character logic, style in doubtful taste, improbable and annoying details. Often the novel looks like a rough draft that the author did not have the time to look through. Chernyshevsky could hardly have gone over his manuscript with a fine-toothed comb. It is evident that the author is no professional novelist, is not au fait with narrative techniques and character building, that his literary language is faulty, at times reminiscent of a clumsy translation from a foreign tongue. Frequently he speaks about his characters instead of showing them from within, through their speech and development of character traits.

This vulnerable book, in parts very mediocre in its journalistic artistry, is easy to criticize as a poor specimen of belles-lettres or a trashy whodunit. To give just one example, consider the matter-of-fact arrival in St. Petersburg of fake УsuicideФ Lopukhov (a fake suicide was a criminal act punishable by law, both for himself and for his wife, and also for the priest who wedded her while her first husband was living). He comes to a city where he, a prominent medic and professor of the Military Medical Academy, is well known to hundreds of students, patients and acquaintances, disguised as an American, Charles Beaumont, and he lives there openly, eventually contracting a sensible marriage to a progressively minded young bride so aptly selected for him by the Kirsanov couple. Indeed, this is no War and Peace nor yet A Nest of Gentlefolk. What we have here is a totally different kind of literature, different not only in its brand of artistic quality, but also in objective.

Later, in his 1876 Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky gave a generalized portrait of a democratic litterateur, of the Chernyshevsky Уnew peopleФ school: УHe enters the world of letters determined to ignore everything done before him; he is from himself and by himself. He preaches the new; he openly erects the ideal of the new person and the new word. He knows neither European nor Russian literature; he has read nothing, nor ever will. Not only has he not read Pushkin or Turgenev Ц he is unlikely even to have read any of his own kind, like Belinsky and Dobrolyubov. He produces new heroes and new womenЕФ This was a journalistic lampoon and satire, of course, but then the entire democratic literature since Belinsky had been working to this formula: by poorly educated fanatical ideologues, conceited young ignoramuses of the Pisarev school, consumed by a sort of class hatred for genuine culture and artistic merit, in total separation from the classical tradition and moral quests of the Russian writers espousing real classical realism. At the time there were two cultures in existence and in conflict: one genuine, classical, the other democratic. Surely, the breakup in Sovremennik was no accident, nor was the split between nihilists and the cultured and talented Alexander Herzen.

But all readers and critics of What Is to Be Done? ought to remember that the Уnew peopleТsФ leader Chernyshevsky was in a hurry to supply the emerging revolutionary-democratic intelligentsia with a lucid and effective manual for the Уcommon causeФ that had a tremendous impact on public consciousness and changed the ideas and life of several generations of Russians. This ideological social utopia by the great dreamer remains the chief document for judging what the revolutionary-democratic intelligentsia was like, including its daily life, appearance, character and ideals. In one way or another, many Russian writers responded to ChernyshevskyТs book; they replied to its author not with journalistic articles, but likewise with novels (see DostoevskyТs Crime and Punishment). Do not let us forget either that ChernyshevskyТs is the only Russian utopia made reality in this country. So far all our spasmodic, inevitably bloody attempts at breaking out of the nightmarish Уfourth dreamФ have been futile. The self-assured breed with a УnewФ morality (or rather lacking any morality whatever) turned out to have a grip of iron.

Rereading the novel What Is to Be Done? today, we realize, albeit not all of us at once, that the issues so graphically outlined by the revolutionary dreamer Chernyshevsky, and followed up by numerous other Russian prose-writers, are still not history, they have certainly not become a thing of the past. To see all of their timeliness and acute topicality, one should know the fate of the writerТs ideas in their historical dynamics, in the world outlook of generations, in the progress of Russian fiction, its history and poetic style. For this novel has changed Russian life, Russians, and Russian literature. Then the bizarre, vulnerable book by Chernyshevsky about the УnewФ people will no longer be perceived as a boring stilted ideological item on a set-reading list for high-school and university students; it will finally be read as a novel, comprehensible and instructive for all of us, still entangled in the same web of УfatalФ issues.

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