Prefiguring the Russian Revolution

Chto delat' [What is to be done]. In: Sovremennik [The Contemporary], nos. 3-5 (1863).

[St. Petersburg, 1863]. Octavos (22.5 × 14.7 cm). Contemporary quarter calf with gilt title to spine; [2], 5–142, 373–526, 55–197 pp. Boards and corners rubbed; front hinge starting; former owner’s initials at base of spine: A. N. A.; private owner stamps of a contemporary lending library and later private collector; occasional staining and foxing; still good or better.

Rare first printing in all three parts of Chernyshevsky’s hugely influential novel, which appeared in issues no. 3, 4, and 5 of the journal Sovremennik, bound together in a contemporary half leather binding. The novel is Chernyshevsky’s most important work and is commonly thought to foreshadow if not hasten the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 by expressing the social tensions and fissures of Russian society. Born in a family of a priest, Chernyshevsky (1828–1889) went on to study philosophy at St. Petersburg University. Influenced by Hegel, Feuerbach, and Alexander Herzen, Chernyshevsky would eventually formulate materialist and utopian-socialist views in his articles for Sovremennik, which he edited starting in 1853 (along with Nikolai Nekrasov). In 1962 Chernyshevsky was arrested and accused of writing a populist tract addressing the newly liberated Russian serf population, inciting the peasants to rebellion and revolution (the authorship of the tract is contested to this day).

This novel was written while the author was in solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul Fortress, awaiting trial. The manuscript was submitted to the investigative committee and miraculously approved for publication, with the novel causing immediate scandal. The censor responsible for the release of the novel was fired. The issues of the journal in which the novel appeared were taken out of circulation, making them especially scarce, with the novel distributed and read in Russia largely in manuscript. First published as a book in Geneva in 1867, the novel went through five Russian language editions abroad and was immediately translated into many European languages. It was first published in Russia only in 1906 after the 1905 Revolution removed censorship restrictions for such works. Karl Marx referred to Chernyshevsky’s ideas with admiration. Dostoevsky thought the novel was dangerous and engaged in polemics with its main ideas in his Notes from Underground (1864) and Demons (1871). Lenin famously wrote that the novel “reworked” him. In his essay, also titled “What is to be done?” (written in 1901–1902), Lenin would formulate his key ideas on class and revolution.

Provenance: Lending library of A. Nambrin, St. Petersburg, 1869; Kaiser-Alexander-Heim, Berlin-Tegel; private collection of Dr. Jürgen Plähn, Berlin.

Book ID: 51950

Price: $6,000.00