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Vissarion Grigor'evich Belinskii (1811 - 1848) - Born on May 30 (June 11, New Style), 1811 - died on May 26 (June 7, New Style), 1848


Literary critic, social thinker, essayist, known as "furious Vissarion" (neistovyi Vissarion), often called the father of the Russian radical intelligentsia. Vissarion Belinskii believed passionately that Russian literature had to progress beyond the native form of Russian folk poetry. Literature should honestly reflect the reality of the country and transform society.

"According to you the Russian people is the most religious in the world. That is a lie! The basis of religiousness is pietism, reverence fear of God. Whereas the Russian man utters the name of the Lord while scratching himself somewhere. He says of the icon: if it isn't good for praying its good for covering the pots." (from a letter to N.V. Gogol, July 3, 1847, in Selected Philosophical Works by V. G. Belinsky, Foreign Language Publishing House, 1948, p. 506)

Vissarion Belinskii was born in Sveaborg, Finland (then part of Russia), where his father, Gregory Nikiforovich, served as a medical officer in the Russian army. The family soon moved to the city of Chembar in the province of Penza. After retiring Belinskii's father ran a small practice and drank. He earned hereditary membership in the Russian nobity. Maria Ivanovna, Belinskii's mother, was the daughter of a sea captain.

Belinskii's childhood was unhappy, his father beat him and he was chronically ill. After studies at a gymnasium in Penza, Belinskii entered in 1829 the University of Moscow with a government stipend. "I expect that in the legendary Chembar," he wrote to his parents, "people will be surprised that I have been admitted to the Imperial Moscow University as a student."  (The House in the Garden: The Bakunin Family and the Romance of Russian Idealism by John Randolph, p. 255) At the time French Utopian Socialism began to make its way to Russian social thought. Under the influence of Nikolai Stankevich (1813-1840) and Schiller's plays, Belinskii turned to German idealism. His friends in the Stankevich circle included Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), who became one of the leading revolutionaries of the age, and Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), the so-called father of Russian socialism. "Stankevich's views on art, on poetry and its relation to life, grew in Belinsky's articles into that powerful modern critical method, that new outlook upon the world and upon life which impressed all thinking Russia and made all the pedants and doctrinaires recoil from Belinsky with horror." (My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen, 1973, p. 253)

In 1832 Belinskii was expelled from the university for writing a play, entitled Dmitrii Kalinin, which had alarmed authorities because it challenged serfdom, a fundamental element of Russia's social and political order. He never received a degree or had a post in the civil service, but earned his living as a journalist, pouring out a steady stream of articles and reviews. His first substantial critical pieces he wrote for the most important journals of the day: Moskovskii Nabliutadel', Otechestvennye Zapiski, Sovremennik, and Nikolai Nadézhdin's Teleskop. This journal was closed down for publishing Peter Chaadaev's first 'Philosophical Letter,' a lament of the backwardness of  Russian civilization: "Among us there is no internal development, no natural progress; new ideas sweep out the old, because they are not derived from the old but tumble down upon us from who knows where." (Shamanism, Discourse, Modernity by Thomas Karl Alberts, 2015, p. 51)

After spending some time in the Caucasus to recover from an illness, Belinskii began to edit the short-lived Moskovskii Nabliudatel' (Moscow Observer). He then went to St. Petersburg, where he wrote for Otechestvennye Zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland). In his essay The Idea of Art (1841) Belinskii saw art and literature as primarily utilitarian - they had to transform society, not focus on contemplation of aesthetic principles.

Like Hegel, Belinskii emphasized the historical context of literature. Later he approached Utopian socialism ideologically and rejected Hegelian conservative idealism. In his letter to V. P. Botkin (8 September, 1841) he said: "Sociality, sociality—or death. That is my motto. What care I for the existence of the universal when individuality is suffering. What care I if genius on earth lives in heaven when the crowd is wallowing in the dirt? What care I if I conceive the idea, if the world of ideas is open to me in art, religion and history when I cannot share it with all those who should be my brothers in mankind, my neighbours in Christ, but who are strangers and enemies to me in their ignorance?" (Selected Philosophical Works, p. 163)

In appearance Belinskii was of "middle height, thin, bony, and slightly stooped; his face was pale, slighly mottled, and flushed easily when he was exited."(Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin, 2008, p. 174) Socially fearless but shy,  he was uncomfortable in group gatherings and did not talk well. But as his friend Alexander Herzen recalled, when Belinskii's dearest convictions were touched, ". . . he would fling himself at his victim like a leopard, he would tear him to pieces, make him ridiculous, make him pitiful, and in the course of it would develop his own thought with astonishing power and poetry." (ibid., p. 175) In St. Petersburg Belinskii was a member of a group of progressive writers that included Ivan Goncharov and Ivan Turgenev. He defended sociological realism in literature and reviewed the works of such contemporary authors as Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyesvky, and Gogol. He also recognized the talent of the sixteen-year old Nekrasov. Throughout his literary career, Belinskii felt the pressure of censors, his name could not be mentioned publicly, but he remained unmolested by the police.

Between the years 1843 and 1846, Belinskii wrote 11 essays on Pushkin, describing his poem Evgenii Onegin as an "encyclopedia of Russian life," but holding Pushkin's prose in relatively low esteem. Russian literature began, Belinskii claimed, in 1739, the year when Lomonosov published his first poem, Ode on the Taking of Khotin from the Turks.

In 1835 Belinskii proclaimed Gogol as the head of Russian literature. Upon the publication of Taras Bulba, he stated that the novel "is a fragment, an episode in a grand epic of the life of a whole people. If the Homeric epic is possible in our time, then here you have its highest example, its ideal, its prototype." (Gogol's Afterlife: The Evolution of a Classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia by Stephen Moeller-Sally, 2002, p. 87) Curiously, in spite of his promises, Belinskii never completed a comprehensive critical study of Dead Souls.

At first Belinskii saw in Gogol's work a critical attitude toward reality, but Gogol did not share Belinskii's stand: the author considered himself a conservative. However, Belinskii's classification of Gogol as a "critical realist" was widely accepted and the term was also used by all Soviet critics. When Gogol's story 'The Overcoat' appeared as part of his Collected Works (1842), Belinskii read it as an expression of sympathy toward the poor and oppressed. Their opposite views came to the surface in 1847, after Gogol tried to clear away some of the misunderstandings of his critics and defended Tsarism in his book Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends.

Expressing his feelings of being hurt, Belinskii wrote in Salzbrunn his famous reply to this work. It was banned from publication by the government, but nothing could prevent its circulation in thousands of copies, and during its wide, illegal distribution, the letter became one of the central manifestos of Russian liberals.  "There is not a country schoolmaster," said the Slavophile journalist Ivan Aksanov in 1856, "who does not know - and know by heart - Belinsky's letter to Gogol."  (Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter by Gary Saul Morson, 2023, p. 111)

Belinskii accused Gogol of defending the church and state authorities and being a traitor to the common good: ". . . you failed to realize that Russia sees her salvation nor in mysticism, nor asceticism, nor pietism, but in the successes of civilization, enlightenment and humanity. What she needs is not sermons (she has heard enough of them!) or prayers (she has repeated them too often!), but the awakening in the people of a sense of their human dignity lost for so many centuries amid the dirt and refuse . . ." (Selected Philosophical Works, p. 504) This celebrated piece of literary history was first published in 1855 in the journal Poliarnaia zvezda (The Polar Star), edited by A.I. Herzen and N.P. Ogareva. It was during his reading of the banned letter at a meeting of the Petrashevskii Circle that Dostoyevsky was arrested.

Belinskii deeply influenced Dostoevsky's thought. He considered the critic his soul mate, although he started to preach immediately about atheism to his deeply religious disciple. Dostoevsky returned to Belinskii in The Diary of a Writer (1876), in which hestated that he was the most impatient man in Russia, a passionate, and happy person, who valued most of all reason, science, and realism. When Dostoevsky was in Siberia in a prison camp, the memory of Belinskii gave him comfort, although they had became estranged.

Belinskii married in 1843 Mariia Vasil'evvna Orlova, they had one son, who died in 1847, and one daughter. Suffering from tuberculosis Belinskii went abroad from May to November in 1847. He wrote briefly for Sovremennik, and died of consumption in St. Petersburg on June 7, 1848. 

Faithful to his mission, Belinskii did not stop prophesying the coming of the great era of Russian literature, but he did not witness its fulfilment in the works of Ivan Goncharov (Oblomov), Turgenev (Fathers and Sons), Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov), and Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina). Of these writers, Goncharov spoke of his as the best man he had ever known; he had a considerable influence on Turgenev, but very little on Tolstoy. Regarded as the "conscience" of the 1840s intelligentsia, he was a role model for Bazarov, also the son of an army doctor, in Fathers and Sons.

As a critic Belinskii was not as systematic as his French or English colleagues, believing that true criticism starts with enthusiasm. He was a crusader for the arts and his dislike of Slavic folklore affected the Russian taste for an entire century, but also made him the target of Slavophiles, whom he associated with obscurantism and servitude.

For Belinskii language was meant to communicate, the content was the most important thing in literature. He paid almost no attention to the style or use of language of the writers he was criticizing, but his instinct for works of importance was unfailing. Belinskii's own style was polemic, he aimed at effect and used many quotations. The educated people represented for Belinkii the best features of a nation, not the peasants. "The people feel the need of potatoes, but none whatever of a constitution - that is desired only by educated townspeople who are quite powerless," Belinskii said to his friends just before his death. (The Intellectual Temptation: Dangerous Ideas in Politics by Frits Bolkestein, edited by Jonathan Price, 2013, p. 70)  He believed that the "nearer a man (or a nation) is to his original source, the nearer he is to nature, and the more he is he slave; he is then not a man but a child; not a nation but a tribe." (Selected Philosophical Works, p. 372) Thus – in agreement with conservative forces – he viewed with suspicion Ukrainian national awakening and rejected the greatest romantic poet of the country, Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), who wrote literary works in the Ukrainian language, labelled by Belinskii as a regional peasant dialect. Belinskii's attitude, marked by a sense of Russian superiority, had a long-lasting impact on Russian public opinion. The oppressive tsarist policy culminated in 1876 in the ban of printing in Ukrainian.

Belinskii's theories were further developed by N.G. Chernyshevsky in his famous dissertation The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality (1855), in which art was taken as essentially a reproduction of reality. Isaiah Berlin has argued, that Belinskii is "the father of the social criticism of literature, not only in Russia but perhaps even in Europe, the most gifted and formidable enemy of the aesthetic and religious and mystical attitudes to life." (Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin, 2008, p. 173)

After the Revolution Belinskii gained huge importance in the Marxist-Leninist school of literary theory, which adhered to his belief that writers should serve the people, and regarded arts as a weapon in the ideological struggle . During his life Belinskii revised some of his most fundamental views, though commitment to the truth and reality remained his core convictions - and the truth must be served above everything else, whereas in Socialist realism, the truth became in practice subordinated to political ideology. Before his death Belinskii started to think that Russia was more in need of a bourgeoisie than socialism.

For further reading: Belinskij and Russian Literary Criticism by Victor Terras (1954); Vissarion Belinski, 1811-1848: A Study in the Origins of Social Criticism in Russia by Herbert E. Bowman (1954); Literary Reminiscences by Ivan Turgenev (1958, appeared in Russian in 1874); Studies in Rebellion by Evgeny Lampert (1957); Dostoevskij and the Belinskij School of Literary Criticism by Thelwall Proctor (1969); The Extraordinary Decade by P.V. Annenkov (1968); Russian Literary Criticism by R.H. Stacy (1974); 'Vissarion Belinsk,' in Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin (1978); Writers and Society During the Rise of Russian Realism by Joe Andrew (1980); Vissarion Belinskii by Francis B. Randall (1987); On Psychological Prose by Lydia Ginzburg (1991); 'Belinskii, Vissarion' by Andrius Valevičius, in Encyclopedia of the Essay, edited by Tracy Chevalier (1997); Furious Vissarion: Belinskii's Struggle for Literature, Love and Ideas by Richard Freeborn (2003); V.G. Belinskiĭ i russkie pisateli XIX v., otvetstvennyĭ redaktor, A.S. Kurilov (2019); Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter by Gary Saul Morson (2023) - Suom: Belinskilta on myös suomennettu artikkelikokoelma Kirjallisuudesta ja essevalikoima Valittua (1975).

Selected works:

  • Literaturnyye Metshtaniya, 1834 [Literary Reviews]
  • Osnovaniya Russkoi Grammatiki, 1839
  • Stati O Pushkine, 1843-46
  • Pismo K Gogolju, 1847
  • Iz sochinenii V.G. Bielinskago, 1898
  • Estetika V. G. Bielinskago, 1898
  • Izbrannyia sochineniia 1898 (2 vols.)
  • O vospitanii umstvennom i nravstvennom, 1898
  • Sbornik istoriko-literaturnykh statei, 1898
  • Sem' statei 1898
  • Sochineniia, 1898 (2 vols.)
  • V. G. Bielinskii dlia uchashchikhsiia, 1898
  • Vissarion Grigor'evich Bielinskii ob A. S. Pushkinie, 1898
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1900-48 (8 vols.)
  • Sochineniia, 1901 (5 vols.)
  • Pis'ma, 1914
  • Izbrannye sochineniia, 1934 (2 vols.)
  • Izbrennye filosofskie sochineniia, 1941
  • Belinskiio drame i teatre, 1948
  • Literaturnoe Nasledstvo, 55-57, 1948-51
  • Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii, 1953-59 (13 vols.)
  • "Gamlet," drama Sheksprira, 1956
  • Selected Philosophical Works, 1956
  • Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, and Dobrolyubov: Selected Criticism, 1962 (ed. Ralph E. Matlaw)
  • Izbrannye stat’i: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol’, 1970
  • O drame i teatre v dvukh tomakh, 1983 (2 vols.)
  • "Vsia zhiznʹ moia v pisʹmakh": iz perepiski V.G. Belinskogo, 2011 (edited by Irina Rudolʹfovna Monakhova)
  • Istinnyi rytsarʹ dukha: statʹi o zhizni i tvorchestve V.G. Belinskogo, 2013 (edited by I. P. Monakhova and IU.V. Mann)

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