Literary Journeys into the Past: Censoring Chernyshevsky

When Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to be Done? appeared in the 1863 issues of the popular journal The Contemporary, it caused a sensation.  Written while the author was imprisoned for radicalism, a prison censor approved it for publication and passed it on the journal’s editor.  The novel inspired a passionate response.  Fedor Dostoevsky was so incensed he wrote his own response, Notes from Underground.  Radicals saw the book as a bible of sorts, a how-to manual for how to be a revolutionary.  Vladimir Lenin, who read the novel two decades after its publication, would later borrow the title for his own political treatise.

Here two students from HST 374–Zach Logsdon and Nicole Puglisi–“discover” the “true” censor’s report.


  1. To the Chairman of the St. Petersburg Censorship Board Concerning the Chernyshevsky Novel

Your Most High Born Excellency,

In pursuit of my duty to His Imperial Majesty, may God preserve him and the Empire from evil, I have reviewed the novel What is to be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky to determine if the novel is fit for publication. The novel is about two “new people”, one a man and the other a woman. After illegally marrying, the two of them live a chaste and aesthetic life, with each dedicated to their own personal causes. In the end, the man fakes his own death with the help of a revolutionary agitator in order to enable his “wife” to marry a friend of his, and the woman goes on to have subversive dreams about a future paradise on Earth. The work itself is no great literary triumph, and in comparison to an author such Pushkin, I do wonder if anyone would actually read it. However this is not the reason that I have reviewed it, and I pass judgment on it for reasons far more egregious than that of bad writing. I must recommend that this novel not be published in any form. The novel contains a great deal of revolutionary sentiment, including a likely role model for anarchists that the author attempts to conceal behind a veil of vagueness. His novel also contains an immoral, and arguably blasphemous, depiction of an illegal marriage. Furthermore, Chernyshevsky’s background as an agitator and subversive element, and the simple fact that the State has put him in jail also compel me to not just refuse permission for publication, but to question why we are taking the risk of even letting him continue to write as well. For all of these reasons, I unreservedly reject permission for this novel to be published in this form, or in any other form that the author may try to put it in.

The strongest factor in my decision to recommend refusal for publication is that this book is filled with subversive ideas and content. While Chernyshevsky attempts to hide his support and avocation of revolution and anarchy by being vague and not elaborating on certain beliefs, it is evident enough that this work is, as Inspector Ruud of the Third Directory has referred to it as a “nihilistic attack on traditional values,”[1] Indeed, the novel is so permeated with subversive content that it would not be practical for me to list them all. As such I will focus on the most egregious instance of subversive content in the novel. This is the inclusion of the character Rakhmetov. Rakhmentov’s beliefs are never clearly stated outright, however it is clear he is a revolutionary. Evidence of this can be found in his discussion about the cooperative workshop set up by Vera Pavlovna, as when she considers appointing someone as the new manager, he castigates her, saying, “Now see here. It’s been decided…by whom? By you and her? Without any inquiry as to whether those fifty people would agree to the change, whether they might prefer something else or find something better? Why, that’s despotism, Vera Pavlovna!”[2] This is evidence of his political leanings, as he implies that people have some sort of right to be consulted and even help choose who the new leader would be. This is democracy of the foulest form, as a man who would believe that workers have a say in selecting their boss would almost certainly think that subjects of the Empire have a right to mettle in the affairs of state. While I should avoid too much speculation, I think it easily within the realm of possibility that such a person would even challenge the right of His Imperial Majesty to command our loyalty and rule over us. Rakhmentov’s revolutionary tendencies are also clear, as he has travelled across the world, from Eastern to Western Europe, and even to the United States, only returning to the Empire as he felt that “it [was] ‘necessary’ for him to be in Russia.”[3] Obviously, he would not return from his travels abroad if he did not plan on attempting some sort of insidious plot, such as a revolt, or even God forbid, an attack on the Imperial Family. While there are numerous other individual instances of subversive ideas in the novel, Rakhmetov is the most prominent of them, and he represents the revolutionary ideas that we should be most concerned with suppressing.

I highlight Rakhmetov in part because he is the single-most prominent example of this novel’s bungled attempt at hidden revolutionary content, but also because he is one of the most “inspiring” subversive characters in the novel. While Lopukhov and Vera Pavlovna are certainly not models we want people emulating, the adulation given to Rakhmetov is the most clear and present danger within the novel. The character is lionized for his attitudes, as he being is shown as a noble who surrendered the privileges of his birth to wander and endure the life of the peasantry, even going as far as to deny himself the pleasures that they cannot obtain.[4] His friends even ascribe him as “an extraordinary man”[5] He is intended to be a character that the reader will idolize and aspire to be like him. This is dangerous and not to be encouraged, as too much evil could come about due to someone trying to emulate this character. Perhaps they might simply try to better the lives of the poor, but more likely is that they would try to do the State harm: a reader might even read this and try to assassinate our beloved Tsar. My duty as a censor is to help determine what is safe for publication: that is safe for the State but also safe for Imperial subjects. Indeed, His Imperial Majesty has called “for laws equally just to all, equally protective to all,”[6] If in rejecting this novel for publication, I prevent even one young hothead being inspired to do something foolish against the State and getting his neck stretched as a result, than I will have protected both the State and the hothead. Overall, due to the subversive and revolutionary content within this novel, I feel compelled to refuse leave for publication.

While Rakhmetov is the most striking example of subversive content in the work, he is not the only example of it. The fourth dream of Vera Pavlovna is also incredibly subversive. In it, she imagines a utopia in a new Russia where everyone has work, shelter, and wholesome food, yet all of this is without the Tsar, and an explicit reference is made to the fact there is no Tsar, as the sisters in the dream state that the old Palace is abandoned “The Halls are empty; there’s no one left in the fields or the gardens” and that “for now it’s cold and damp. Why should anyone live [in the Palace]”[7] This is clearly subversive, as it not only implies that a utopia would be possible without the guidance of the Tsar, but it hints that His Imperial Majesty is somehow preventing the subjects of the Empire from achieving a utopia. It also implies that the only way for Russia to have a rebirth and progress would be attack and harm the Tsar himself. That the question of “what is to be done?” is to be answered with bombs and bullets directed at our anointed sovereign and the destruction of our entire political and social system. In combination with the revolutionary ideas represented by Rakhmetov, this has led me to deem this novel unfit for publication.

In addition to the radicalism in the novel, it should also be rejected for publication on grounds of morality, as the novel mocks the institution of marriage, In terms of its attitude towards marriage, the novel insults the institution as it shows Lopukhov and Vera Pavlovna engaging in a marriage that fulfills none of the purposes that God and the Orthodox Church teach. Rather they get married in a simple ploy to enable Vera Pavlovna to leave the house of her parents as she says to Lopukhov when he proposes marriage “You are liberating me, my dear. I’m prepared to be patient, now that I know I’ll be leaving this cellar.”[8] This mocks marriage as it rejects the intent of the sacrament: they do not intend to actually be truly “husband and wife”, a real family, or produce children. It is simply a means to an end to enable Vera Pavlovna to abandon her family, and as such the work borders on blasphemy. Furthermore, their marriage is an affront to God and the Church as it is also an illegal marriage. In marrying without the consent of their parents, both Lopukhov and Vera Pavlovna have broken the law, as our legal advisor Wagner notes that by law “marriage without parental consent [constitutes] a crime for which both the groom and the bride [can] be punished, and so [can] all who [assist] them,”[9] Indeed, Lopukhov and Vera Pavlovna engage in a discussion of this, as Lopukhov ponders “It’ll all be all right if we make it up with her parents, but what if they press a lawsuit?”[10] With malice of forethought, the couple entered into an illegal marriage for the express purpose of preventing Vera Pavlovna’s parents from exercising their lawful rights. I am not a clergyman, but I do feel that such a depiction of the degradation of the sacrament constitutes blasphemy. Such an action shows contempt for the law of God as well as the law of man. Furthermore, such marriages are not valid and can be annulled by the Church.[11] As such, Lopukhov and Vera Pavlovna are effectively living in a state of sin. Due to this blasphemous display of an illegal marriage, I must deem this work to be immoral as well as subversive, and recommend that it be rejected for publication.

Yet I think there is also a more practical reason that I believe that the depiction of the illegal marriage should not be included. Much as I fear that exposing readers to the revolutionary ideas might radicalize them, I don’t think it is a good idea to let a book get published that shows young people how they might enter into marriage without the consent of their parents. As we well know, parents may be able to get an illegal marriage annulled by the Church and everyone involved punished by the State, but we also know that successful lawsuits and annulment suits are very rare indeed, as Wagner states that while the Church can annul illegal marriages “it rarely [does] so” and that “judicial action in such cases [is] lengthy, costly, and generally ineffectual”[12] Chernyshevsky also notes this through the character Marya Aleksevna, as in her thoughts she notes that while a lawsuit might seem ideal, it would ‘require money and more money; such cases, though tempting in their ideal beauty, demanded larger and larger sums and dragged on for a very long time. After consuming a great deal of money, they often came to absolutely nothing in the end.”[13] In effect, all that prevents our young people from marrying without consent is social custom and the hollow threat of lawsuits from aggrieved parents. I do not think that this lack of enforcement is something that should be highlighted to our youth. Such a revelation could have serious consequences in terms of adherence to the requirement of parental consent for marriage. As a result of this, the issue of morality, and the other factors and issues discussed, I feel that permitting this book to be published in any form would be a mistake of the highest order, and must recommend complete refusal.

Finally, I must also recommend that this work be rejected in its entirety due to the author himself. Chernyshevsky has been a thorn in the side of the State for a while now. In 1858, he had the temerity to criticize the Tsar’s plans for emancipation of the Serfs, with the censor who failed to refuse publication being reprimanded.[14] Furthermore, the Third Directorate arrested him on the grounds of “illegal connections with an émigré group,”[15] Chernyshevsky wrote this book while being held in isolation in the Peter and Paul Fortress of St. Petersburg. It is not my place to question why prison authorities have permitted him to have writing materials or to submit his works for publication. However I do feel that I am within my rights to say that this background alone is enough for any of Chernyshevsky’s works to be rejected for publication. He has seen fit to flout even the most basic precepts of our journalism and publication laws, he has been accused of illegal connection with foreign elements, and based on the revolutionaries ideals and immorality in his novel, it is clear that he has not learned anything from his punishment. As a result of all of this, I feel that publication of this book in any form would be a grave error.

Overall, Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? is so dangerous that it should not have even been considered for publication. It is filled with rank revolutionary and subversive ideas, most notably in the form of the anarchist Rakhmetov, which are far too dangerous to risk exposing the people to. In further support of my position, the work’s display of an illegal marriage is immoral, borders on blasphemy, and could potentially help young people figure out methods of getting around the laws concerning parental consent. Finally, a consideration of author himself as being both a subversive known the Third Directorate and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress has made me conclude that it is simply not possible for this novel to ever be considered safe for publication in any form. Having considered all of this, I must unreservedly reject publication of it.

I Remain Your Most High Born Excellency’s Humble and Obedient Servant,

Titular Councillor Zachary Kevinovich


2. What is to be done (about this book)?

Although I wish to make this review of the latest novel I read brief, I am afraid I cannot due to the work’s perplexity. When first analyzing What is to be Done? it is apparent that the author, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, attempts to address what he deems to be societal errors in the context of a love story. The author both directly and indirectly discusses the role of women in society, the “new” generation, ways to live a good life, rational egotism, and a new revolution. I will begin my review by discussing the many edits and removals I believe the work will need in order to be published. These proposed revisions are necessary in order not to alter the political, economic, and societal climate in which we currently reside. First, I shall discuss how to divulge the revolutionary connections from the novel, and then I shall discuss the few reasons why I have decided to publish the work after these revisions are made. While the themes throughout the novel are undoubtedly subversive; I believe that by themselves, they will not inspire radicalism. It would be easier to deny the publication of the book, but I do believe that, even though our job is to censor literary content, it is not in our best interest to infringe upon the creativity of Russian society (Jacobson, p. xvii). Therefore, Your Excellency, I shall begin my report stating why this book should be published with edits, and I only ask that you forgive me for such a lengthy entry.

In regards to purging this book of its revolutionary attitudes, I believe that removing the character Rakhmetov, Vera’s dreams, the last chapter entirely, as well as proposing some minor reforms to the dialogue will suffice in quenching the book’s revolutionary sentiments. First, the character Rakhmetov should be removed from the narrative because his purpose in the novel is to demonstrate what it means to be an outstanding insurgent. Chernyshevsky himself interjects within the novel that the purpose of Rakhmetov’s character is to display what true, radical heroism is: “…it’s not they who stand too high, but you who stand too low…all people should and can stand at the same level as they…if only you wish to work a bit on your own development” (Chernyshevsky, p. 313). In other words, the narrator is stating that because of low societal standards, many individuals praise the three main characters in this novel, Vera, Lopukhov, and Kirsanov, despite the fact that they are not extraordinary like Rakhmetov. To Chernyshevsky, Rakhmetov is the ultimate goal of the “new generation”. He believes that by abandoning worldly desires, individuals can focus and commit themselves to the true cause, which, in his mind, is revolution: “We must show that we are speaking to principals, and not passions, according to our convictions and not personal desires” (Chernyshevsky, p. 281).  To end my discussion about Rakhmetov, I must divulge that Chernyshevsky seems to believe that everyone can achieve liberation if they contribute to their own, personal development. In fact, Rakhmetov’s character is meant to inspire individuals to devote themselves to revolution and seek their own retribution: “Come up out of your godforsaken underworld, my friend, come up. It’s not so difficult. Come out into the light of day, where life is good; the path is easy and inviting. Try it: development, development” (Chernyshevsky, p. 313). All in all, the book utilizes Rakhmetov’s uniqueness to plant the seeds of rebellion within our society. By arguing that the reader has low standards, which can be overcome by development and dedication to change, Chernyshevsky directly states that individuals have the power to spark reform. This idea itself is not only pervasive to the Tsar’s autocracy, and thus should be censored, but I fear that if this novel was published containing these elements, it could urge on any and all social, economic, and political resistance to our current state. Essentially, Chernyshevsky’s character is meant to demonstrate that through growth and devotion to one’s ideas of what society should reflect, a revolutionary change might be realized. Therefore, I opt to remove this character from the work in order to preserve our nation against such insurgency.

Next, Vera’s dreams are utilized as tools in order to demonstrate Chernyshevsky’s disappointment with society. Three out of Vera’s the four dreams pertain to subversive ideations that fully outline a context for rebellion. The first dream demonstrates Vera’s lack of freedom within society. In her dream, she is locked in a cell only to be paralyzed when she is released. This analogy of paralysis and bondage refers to the idea that in today’s Russia, women are held as less equal than men. This analogy becomes truly subversive, however, when Vera is cured of her immobility by another woman and asked to ‘“Remember that there are still many that have not yet been released and not yet cured. Release them. Cure them” (Chernyshevsky, p. 130). This dream instructs Vera to reform Russian society in order to liberate other women, who are less fortunate than her. This dream sparks Vera’s initiative to create a sewing co-operation where the profits are divided equally without the benefit of profits to the owner. Therefore, because this dream showcases to Vera the ability of women to be free, it may also have the same effect on readers who wish to establish their independence in Russian society. Thus, I believe that this dream should be struck from the work because it calls people, especially women, to liberate themselves and others through new Western economic policies. As one might expect, her second dream is even more radical than her first, because it divulges that the socioeconomic conditions in which a person develops directly influences their personality. In other words, people who develop in a low socioeconomic status will be more likely to possess negative traits as a direct result of the society they are forced into: “…it’s only natural that no matter how they might be rearranged, and whatever substances unlike dirt might emerge from these very same elements, they’d still be unhealthy and rotten” (Chernyshevsky, p. 181). Thus, in order to overturn the personality traits that are bequeathed upon the lower classes, there must be a revolutionary transformation in order to reverse these mannerisms by providing equally fertile soil to all. To pursue this further, Vera’s second dream states that revolution is the only option in order to guarantee the rehabilitation and social justice of the lowest socioeconomic classes of Russian society: “…without movement there is no life, that is, no reality…” (Chernyshevsky, p. 182). Finally, Vera’s fourth dream, the most radical of the dreams, is arguably the most militant element to the novel itself. This dream articulates the future of Russia as an agrarian utopia. One in which men and women are considered equals and individuals live in communion with each other so that everyone may reap similar benefits. It is here where Vera is advised to utilize her knowledge of this realm to create a better society:

Tell everyone that the future will be radiant and beautiful. Love it, strive toward it, work         for it, bring it nearer, transfer into the present as much as you can from it. To the extent     that you succeed in doing so, your life will be bright and good, rich in joy and pleasure.             Strive toward it, work for it, bring it nearer, transfer into the present as much as you can

from it. (Chernyshevsky, p. 379)

In other words, this quote directly states that, in order to be part of this utopian community, individuals must strive towards it each and every day, which implies a change to our current political situation and undermines the Tsar’s authority as the absolute ruler of Russia. This dream should be struck from the work as excessively inflammatory material. Subject matters like this tear ideas of nationhood apart in the hopes of better, more radical institutions. As you can see, Vera’s dreams are a problematic element to this novel, for they threaten the very foundation upon which Russian society stands.

Moreover, the last chapter of Chernyshevsky’s work predicts the formation of a revolution occurring in 1865. The last chapter is overwhelmingly vague, which was most likely done on purpose to avoid any censorship of this chapter. However, it is certain that Chernyshevsky is assuming that the readers of this novel, as well as society at large, will be ready for uprising in 1865. Assuming that Chernyshevsky’s revolution has to pertain to the end of the Gilded Age, as he would so misguidedly call it, would certainly mean a revolution of ideas. Based upon the exposed societal dissatisfaction in the author’s work, it can only be presumed that the rebellion of his mind will be one generated by the masses of the new generation in order to enact equality economically, politically, and for women. In other words, the benefits reaped from this action would be those determined by each individual’s rational egotism rather than the will of our Tsar. Thus, this chapter should be removed for it contains blasphemous material meant to escape the judgment of our current censorship code.

My final edit to this lengthy novel pertains to reforms in character dialogue. There are a few instances in the novel where I would urge the author to either remove monologues or to revise their phrasing. One instance of this would be Marya Aleksevna’s speech to her daughter Vera. In the novel, Marya comes into her daughter’s room completely intoxicated in order to explain to Vera the reasons why she treats her the way she does. At the end of her lengthy soliloquy, she states, “…it says that in order not to live like this, everything has to be organized differently; now no one can live any other way. So why don’t they hurry up and set up a new order?” (Chernyshevsky, p. 59). This quote demonstrates the author’s opinion that revolution is necessary in order to alter the morality and personality adopted by those who seek a richer lifestyle. This argument for rebellion in order to spur socioeconomic reform is also an apparent factor in Vera’s second dream, and thus the logic for removing this piece stems from the need for consistency. Any work that is critical of Russian society is not one that needs to be removed automatically, but rather it is pieces like this that suggest insurgency against the autocracy that is dangerous to the very context in which we live.  Next, I would like to propose some minor rephrasing to words such as “the new generation”, “the common cause”, and “the extraordinary man”. Any decent Russian censor can recognize that these are euphemisms meant to bypass our primary censorship system. Therefore, I would like to ask that the author would either remove these words entirely or switch them out for more Tsar appropriate phrases such as “the folly of the young generation”, “a dangerous cause”, or “the anti-Russian man”. You must forgive me, editor, I am only stating these as phrases because I know that no serious author would accept such edits, but as a neutral point, I shall suggest that the phrases and sentences they are in shall be removed completely.

Now with all this in mind, it is easy to understand why it might be easier to deny the publication of this piece of literature entirely. Though is may be the simpler route, it does not mean that it is the best one for this country. It is as you told me when I committed myself to become a censor,

“‘…you [must] not only base your judgments on the censorship code, but also on the   particular set of circumstances with which you are faced and the course of events. Also, you must work in such a way that the public has no cause to conclude that the government is hounding culture”’ (Jacobson, p. xvii).

It is for this reason that I have decided to publish What is to be Done? with my suggested edits. There is no doubt in my mind that it would lead to the revolution for which Chernyshevsky misguidedly yearns. But, by publishing the book with all its subversive elements- such as, his views on women, the new generation, egotism, and ways in which to live a good life- demonstrates to the Russian public a sense of openness. All in all, my job is to “satisfy the government’s demands, the demands of the writer, and the demands of my own inner feelings” (Jacobson, p. 45). Therefore, by publishing this literary piece during this flourishing age of literature, I am not only appeasing the governments wishes to halt social unrest, but I am simultaneous pleasing the writers, their audience, and myself. I must admit that why I am not an insurgent, I do seek to develop Russia. I want to help unify the country, and by establishing a veneer of openness between the Tsar and his people is the first step I can take towards developing a stable Empire. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, our last Tsar, Nicholas I, was seen as a despot towards the people because he believed in the holy trinity: the autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Russianness. In these new times, it is critical for the current Tsar to avoid this pitfall. I am not claiming that he must reshape the Empire, but he must at least set himself apart from those the masses see as a despot. Allowing semi-pervasive literature to be present in society may be a way to quench the thirst of the masses. If we give them the idea that reform is coming and that they have rights, I feel as if they will be satisfied and this will end the need for revolution in this country. Therefore Dr. Norris, I humbly propose that you pass this overly long and repetitive book with edits to the masses so that they might revel in this “freedom of literacy” under our kinder and gentler Tsar.


Nicole Puglisi



Zach Logsdon is a senior majoring in History.

Nicole Puglisi is a junior majoring in History.




[1] Rudd, Charles A. Fighting Words: Imperial Censorship and the Russian Press, 1804-1906. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. Pg. 138

[2] Chernyshevsky pg. 301

[3] Chernyshevsky pg. 291

[4] Chernyshevsky pg. 281

[5] Chernyshevsky pg. 280

[6] Rudd pg. 100

[7] Chernyshevsky pg. 373

[8] Ibid pg. 143

[9] Wagner, as found in Chernyshevsky pg. 156

[10] Chernyshevsky pg. 156

[11] Wagner, as found in Chernyshevsky pg. 156

[12] Wagner, as found in Chernyshevsky pg. 156

[13] Chernyshevsky pg. 164

[14] Rudd pg. 108

[15] Rudd pg. 108

About Stephen Norris