Young people kept on rereading Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is To Be Done?, but the most accessible and easily performed of the previous [responses] to the question posed by the novel’s title—starting up a cooperative—was no longer satisfying. In the previous period, cooperatives, primarily sewing cooperatives, had sprung up like mushrooms, but most of them had soon disintegrated, and some ended in arbitration courts and bitter quarrels. They were for the most part started by women well off enough to buy a sewing machine, rent an apartment, pay for the first month’s rent until the principles of the cooperative were clarified, and hire two or three experienced dressmakers. They recruited workers partly from among the female nihilists, who did not know how to sew, but ardently wanted to “do” something, and partly from among seamstresses whose only wish was to earn money. During the first month, in the heat of the moment, everyone would sew quite ardently, but very few had the patience, especially if they were not accustomed to manual labor, to sew eight to ten hours a day only for the sake of promoting the principle of cooperation. They sewed less and less. The professional craftswomen were indignant and treated the work carelessly themselves, reducing the number of orders. The best workers would soon leave the workshop, since their share of the income was less than the wages they would receive from a proprietor, despite the fact the founders for the most part refused their shares. Sometimes, the business ended with the skilled workers confiscating the sewing machines and kicking the founders out of the workshops. Arbitration hearings were held.
“Themselves constantly repeated the sewing machine belonged to the labor,” said a perky seamstress at one such hearing I had occasion to attend. “As for their labor, they didn’t do a thing. They would just talk and talk.”
The court, however, did not recognize the seamstress as the personification of labor and ordered the sewing machine returned.
Business was just as bad at the bookbinding workshops, although the work, which was less complicated and did not require long, preliminary preparation, was more amenable to cooperation.
In 1869, the standstill that ensued after the Karakozov Affair continued in full force. Some people of the 1860s quit the scene, while others went into hiding, and so the raw youth who would arrive from the provinces after the crackdown had no access to them. They were completely left to their own devices; they had to find their own way. The Karakozov Affair did not leave a core around which they could have grouped. I am speaking, of course, of the average young people who were affected by the prologue to the Nechayev Affair, which took place in Petersburg in the winter of 1868–1869. The isolation, the lack of propaganda in their milieu, the lack of contact with people of firm convictions who could have helped them in resolving the question, “What is to be done?” left the young people, who were looking for a cause, in a dreary, anxious state.
Source: Vera Zasulich, Memoirs (Moscow: Political Prisoners Publishing House, 1931)
Vera Zasulich was a Russian revolutionary and writer most famed for her attempt on the life of St. Petersburg governor Colonel Trepov in 1878. She was acquitted of the crime by a jury. Photo, above, courtesy of Wikipedia. Translated by the Russian Reader