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.