Belinsky, Vissarion

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BELINSKY, VISSARION (1811–1848), Russian literary critic.

Vissarion Grigorievich Belinsky achieved renown and influence both as Russia's first literary critic and as a founding member of the Russian intelligentsia. He became known as "Furious Vissarion" (neistovyi Vissarion) for his strongly held convictions and passion in expressing them, a reputation that in the Soviet period under Joseph Stalin, whose patronymic Vissarionovich reflected Belinsky's forename, was used to justify some of the more rigid orthodoxies of socialist realism. He was labeled a revolutionary democrat and treated as a socialist cultural icon. More recently, serious attempts have been made to free his reputation of these adulterations and to give a more positive assessment of his place in Russia's cultural history.

Born on 11 June (30 May, old style) 1811 into an unprivileged background as the son of a provincial doctor in Penza, Belinsky succeeded in achieving his ambition of gaining entrance to Moscow University. Incipient tuberculosis, poverty, and uninspired teaching left him largely self-taught, although he hoped to alleviate his poverty by composing a wordy, melodramatic play, Dmitry Kalinin, which had the aim of exposing the evil of serfdom. It was immediately rejected by the authorities, and he was expelled from the university. This setback made him all the more determined to oppose serfdom and the semifeudal system that promoted it.

At the heart of all his endeavors, however, was Russian literature. In 1834, within a couple of years of his expulsion from Moscow University, Belinsky published a highly personal but influential review ("Literaturnye mechtaniya" [Literary reveries]) that made exalted claims for the role of literature in terms of German Romantic idealism, particularly Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, but could not as yet identify a specifically Russian literature. Throughout the 1830s, partly under the influence of Mikhail Bakunin, he looked to Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel for a guiding philosophical ideal that he could apply to Russian literature. In fact, this led to a period of so-called reconciliation with reality when he praised the Russian autocracy and the political status quo and seriously misinterpreted Alexander Griboyedov's satirical play Woe from Wit (1822–1824).

On moving from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1839 to work for the leading "fat journal" (a term used to denote an authoritative, encyclopedic style of journal), Otechestvennye zapiski (Notes of the fatherland), Belinsky abandoned his former ideals and adopted a philanthropic socialism, based to some extent on French Utopian Socialism. If the conditions of censorship under which he always worked prevented him from overt commitment, he used many of his critical articles and annual reviews both to emphasize the historical perspective of Russian literature, beginning with the Westernization of Russian culture under Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725), whom he always admired, and to make literature more realistic (though he never used the term realism) and more critical of the injustices in Russian society. His review, for example, of Mikhail Lermontov's famous novel A Hero of Our Time (1840) offered a sympathetic and sensitive analysis of the "superfluous," psychologically complex hero, Pechorin. More acutely, if only obliquely, he indicated the social implication of Nikolai Gogol's masterpiece Dead Souls (1842) as an exposure of serfdom. Belinsky's only extended piece of critical writing (1843–1846) was a survey of pre-Pushkinian poetry as well as the first detailed treatment of Alexander Pushkin's work, culminating in a famous assessment of Yevgeny Onegin (1833). He also "discovered" Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was friendly with Ivan Turgenev, and was an admirer of Ivan Goncharov.

His love letters to his future wife, a remarkable cache, reveal him as all too human. Meanwhile, in 1846 and 1847, as leading contributor to the newly reconstituted journal Sovremennik (The contemporary), he wrote some of his most influential articles, but his health was failing. After a lengthy visit to southern Russia in an effort to improve it, he went abroad in 1847 to find a cure. Shortly before, Gogol, then Russia's leading writer, had published an eccentrically reactionary work Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. While in Salzbrunn, Silesia, freed of censorship, Belinsky wrote his famous Letter to Gogol in which he attacked the writer's reactionary views, his religiosity, and his betrayal of the high standards demanded of a writer; advocated the abolition of serfdom; and delivered the furious denunciation: "Proponent of the knout, apostle of ignorance, upholder of obscurantism and the black arts, panegyrist of Tartar morals, what are you doing?"

This was Belinsky's final legacy, composed within a year of his death. It became Turgenev's lifelong credo, the pretext for Dostoevsky's ten-year exile after he read it aloud, and a fundamental text of the Russian intelligentsia. Though often prolix in expressing his ideas, Belinsky usually demonstrated an acute critical sense related more to generalities than specifics. His deliberate refusal to serve in any official sense enhanced his moral authority and ensured his influence for generations. He died in St. Petersburg on 7 June (26 May, old style) 1848.

See alsoDostoyevsky, Fyodor; Gogol, Nikolai; Intelligentsia; Pushkin, Alexander; Turgenev, Ivan.


Primary Sources

Belinskii, V. G. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. 13 vols. Moscow, 1953–1959. Collected works.

Matlaw, Ralph E., ed. Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, and Dobrolyubov: Selected Criticism. New York, 1962. Translations of "Thoughts and Notes on Russian Literature," "A Survey of Russian Literature in 1847: Part Two," and "Letter to Gogol."

Secondary Sources

Bowman, Herbert E. Vissarion Belinski, 1811–1848: A Study in the Origins of Social Criticism in Russia. Cambridge, Mass., 1954.

Freeborn, Richard. Furious Vissarion: Belinskii's Struggle for Literature, Love, and Ideas. London, 2003.

Nechaeva, V. S. V. G. Belinsky. 4 vols. Leningrad, 1949–1967. Standard biography.

Terras, Victor. Belinskij and Russian Literary Criticism: The Heritage of Organic Aesthetics. Madison, Wisc., 1974.

Richard Freeborn