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Literature Politics

Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done? – Bureaucratic bungling

The extraordinary circumstances surrounding the publication (and circumvention of censorship) of a landmark in 19th century subversive Russian literature.

In late 1862 Chernyshevsky asked the prison commandant for permission to begin work on a novel. His request granted, he set to work and produced the entire novel within four months, between December 14, 1862, and April 4, 1863. The first part of the manuscript was then submitted to the prison censor, who, whether carelessly or for devious purposes, passed it and forwarded the manuscript to the censor of the journal Sovremennik. Passed again, the novel was sent to the journal’s editor, Nekrasov, who promptly lost it in a cab. He managed to recover the manuscript only after advertising in the official gazette of the St. Petersburg police. With what is perhaps the greatest irony of Russian letters, the novel that the police helped to retrieve turned out to be the most subversive and revolutionary work of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Its publication has aptly been called “the most spectacular example of bureaucratic bungling in the cultural realm during the reign of Alexander II.”

Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done? and the Russian Intelligentsia,
Michael R. Katz and William G. Wagner

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