Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Except for the sorrows, it was all joy - Cherynshevsky's guide for the collectivist small businesswoman

Vera Pavlovna has spent the first third of What Is To Be Done? escaping, with the help of the self-sacrificing Lopukhov, from the unbearable mother who planned to sell her into a loveless marriage.  Now, married to this selfless egoist, she needs to “get down to work” (173).

Thus, the dressmaking collective, a part of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel that fascinates me. 

“Your business must stand on its own merits and everything should be based on commercial calculation.”

“Of course it must” [This is Vera, replying to her dull husband]

“So what else is there?  Why do you need my advice?”

“About the details, my dear.”

“Tell me about them…  Details are determined by the particular conditions of each situation.”  (3, ii, 173)

What a bore this guy is.

Vera hires or enlists three seamstresses of stellar personal character.  She fortunately has a friend from the earlier part of the novel who is a high-class French courtesan, who helps them get business.  She is named Julie, after Rousseau’s heroine, and apparently represents the decadence yet continuing vitality of French revolutionary ideas.

Vera Pavlovna’s dressmaking shop was quickly established.  The basic principles were simple, in fact so simple in the beginning that there really isn’t much to be said about them.  (3, iv, 188)

This is because Chernyshevsky knows nothing, really nothing at all, about running a business of any sort, much less sewing or dressmaking. 

Therefore, it was only natural that the work proceeded well.  The workshop didn’t lose a single customer who had ever entrusted an order to it…  In a year and a half almost twenty girls were employed, later even more.  (192)

No obstacles or complications of any sort ever arise.  The women first pool and divide the profits, but soon begin to pool their living expenses, forming a buying cooperative.  Soon enough, they are all living together in a dormitory, eating communal meals, and organizing adult education classes.  They have voluntarily formed a Fourierist phalanstery.  Chernyshevsky does concede that all of this is “very slow” and required a “whole series of efforts” (195).  Occasionally a seamstress becomes ill or is dumped by her boyfriend.  Otherwise: “Except for the sorrows, it was all joy” (198).

The workshop, once established, recedes from view for plot reasons, but it returns with a vengeance near the end of the novel in a chapter much too tedious to quote from much, in which Chernyshevsky, perhaps worried he did not provide enough supporting evidence, proves mathematically that the collective doubles the workers income and halves her expenses, effectively quadrupling her income.  Twenty-five seamstresses, living together, no longer need to own twenty-five cheap two-ruble umbrellas but can get by with five nice five-ruble umbrellas.  “You see, each one gets to use a fine umbrella, instead of a worthless one for only half the price” (5, xviii, 383).

No, I will not quote any more of that chapter.  I pity the poor saps who believed this stuff.  Were there any, really?  Joseph Frank says there were many:

Innumerable cooperatives were also established. in imitation of Vera Pavlovna’s dressmaking establishment, among student groups in universities and colonies of Russian exiles.  Alas, not always with the same happy results. (198)*

I hoped for more detail, or a source, but Frank swerves to a related topic, only pointing me to an article about the sewing cooperative “modelled directly on Vera Pavlovna’s enterprise” (Frank, 199, note 6) established by Emma Goldman in her New York apartment!

I have made the novel sound so dull at this point.  That accounting chapter is dull.  All right, tomorrow, the superhero.  That’s exciting.

*  Joseph Frank, “Chernyshevsky: A Russian Utopia” (orig. pub. 1967), in Through the Russian Prism: Essays on Literature and Culture (1990), pp. 187-200.


  1. So, tell me, in a sentence or two, what is your fascination with such obscure writers? And how do you "discover" these "hidden treasures"? I tend to read the "big names" in the so-called canon, and it never occurs to me to read the neglected authors. I'm curious about your choices.

  2. Yes, Vera's business is the easiest business ever run. No one ever causes a problem, they make a ton of money despite sewing being a notoriously low-paying gig (I don't think that Chernyshevsky knows that what kind of hours seamstresses usually put in, or just how slow hand sewing is), no one even gets eye strain. You would think that if running a business was so easy, everyone would have already figured out how to do it!

    I've got to read about the real-life sewing collectives.

    1. Woohoo, the Frank book is at the local university! ILL submitted.

  3. The tables showing profit/loss and expenses really sell it, I think. You can argue with Chernyshevsky's descriptions of the dress shop (such as they are), but you cannot argue against arithmetic!

    The failure of those collectives created in the wake of Vera's can be pinned on the shortage in Russia of well-connected Frenchwomen of questionable morality.

  4. Knowing a French prostitute with a heart of gold can solve all sorts of problems. If I have learned anything from literature, it is that.

    Jean, maybe you will track down a reference to what Frank is talking about, I hope he is not just passing on legends.

    Having said that, the Frank book is super. I doubt I'll read the whole thing, but, well, I could.

    RT, good question. The answer is: I study literary history, including non-English literatures. Chernyshevsky is obscure in English, but he is not at all obscure in Russian literature. What Is To Be Done? is a famous book in Russia. I read almost nothing but famous books - just not necessarily famous here and now.

    In this specific case, though, Turgenev and Dostoevsky pointed me right to Chern. The Norton Critical Edition of Notes from the Underground includes a 20 page chunk of What Is To Be Done?.

    The big difference between us here is that you are more of an intensive reader, and I am more of an extensive reader, so much so that I often yearn for a little more instensiveness or intensivity or whatever the word would be. Maybe I should learn to specialize some.

    1. I'll see what I can do. Maybe that Russian SIL of mine can help me out. I don't think I'll have enough time to finish the book before the semester ends and I have to give it back, but I can always get it again from a friend's husband with checkout privileges there. (I tend to only ask if I have to--when I tried to get the edition of Candide I wanted, he brought back a commentary. They both said Candide, after all.)

    2. I absolutely believe that a lot of people tried to start sewing collectives--that sounds entirely likely. I hope some of them had sewing machines!

  5. I hope some of them hired a professional accountant.