Belinsky, Vissarion Grigorievich

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(18111848), Russian literary critic whose framework of aesthetic judgment influenced Russian and Soviet critical standards for almost two centuries; he established a symbiotic relationship between the writer and the critic whose creative interaction he considered a tool of societal self-exploration.

Belinsky's father was a navy physician, his mother a sailor's daughter, making the future critic a raznochinets (person of mixed class background). He was born in the fortress of Sveaborg (today Suomenlinna, Finland) and spent his childhood in the town of Chembar (Penza region), where his father worked as a district doctor. Belinsky enrolled at Moscow University in 1829 but was expelled in 1832 due to frail health and a reputation as a troublemaker. Often on the verge of poverty and dependent on the support of devoted friends, Belinsky became a critic for Nikolai Ivanovich Nadezhdin's journals, Telescope and Molva, in 1834. His extensive debut, Literaturnye mechtaniya: Elegiya v proze (Literary Daydreams: An Elegy in Prose), consisted of ten chapters. At this stage, Belinsky's understanding of literature featured a lofty idealism inspired by Friedrich Schiller, as well as the notion of popular spirit (narodnost ), which signified the necessity of the "idea of the people" in any work of art. This concept was adopted from the German Volkstuemlichkeit that was developed by Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling.

Belinsky's participation, since 1833, in Nikolai Vladimirovich Stankevich's Moscow Hegelian circle, as well as his close friendship with Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, had by 1837 caused him to make a radical move toward an unconditional acceptance of all reality as reasonable. However, Belinsky's habitual tendency toward extremes turned his interpretation of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's dialectic rationalism into a passive acceptance of everything that exists, even serfdom and the tsarist system. Such fatalism became evident in Belinsky's surveys and reviews for Andrei Alexandrovich Kraevsky's journal Otechestvennye zapiski (Notes of the fatherland), the criticism department of which he headed since 1839. Subsequently, in the early 1840s, a more balanced synthesis of utopian aspirations and realistic norms emerged in Belinsky's views, as evidenced by his contributions for Nikolai Alexeyevich Nekrasov's and Ivan Ivanovich Panaev's Sovremennik (Contemporary), a journal that had hired him in 1846.

Belinsky met all leading Russian authors of his day, from Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin and Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov to Ivan Andreyevich Krylov and Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, befriending and deeply influencing many of them. In 1846, he coined the critical term Natural School, thereby providing a group of writers with direction and a platform for self-identification. Even those who did not share his strong liberal persuasions were in awe of his personal integrity, honesty, and selflessness. Belinsky's passionate, uncompromising nature caused clashes that gave rise to major intellectual debates. For example, in his famous letter to Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, written on July 15, 1847, the critic took this once so admired writer to task for his mysticism and conservatism; the letter then circulated widely, in hundreds of illegal copies.

In his last years, Belinsky attempted to create a theory of literary genres and general philosophical definitions of the essence and function of art. After his early death from tuberculosis, his name became synonymous with dogmatism and anti-aesthetic utilitarianism. Yet this reputation is largely undeserved; for it resulted from the critic's canonization by liberal and Marxist ideologues. Still, from his earliest works Belinsky did betray a certain disposition toward simplification and systematization at any cost, often reducing complex entities to binary concepts (e.g., the classic opposition of form versus content). Indeed, Belinsky devoted little time to matters of literary language, rarely engaging in detailed textual analysis. However, his theories and their evolution, too, were simplified, both by his Soviet epigones and their Western antagonists.

Belinsky has undoubtedly shaped many views of Russian literature that remain prevalent, including a canon of authors and masterpieces. For example, it was he who defended Lermontov's 1840 novel, Geroi nashego vremeni (Hero of Our Time), as a daringly innovative work and who recognized Fyodor Dostoyevsky's supreme talent. (At the same time, he ranked Walter Scott and George Sand higher than Pushkin). Belinsky, the first major professional Russian literary critic, stood at the cradle of Russia's literary-centric culture, with its supreme social and ethical demands. His ascetic persona and quest for martyrdom became archetypal for the Russian intelligentsia's sense of mission. Lastly, Belinsky defined the ideal image of the Russian writer as secular prophet, whose duty is to respond to the people's aspirations and point them toward a better future.

See also: dostoyevsky, fyodor mikhailovich; gogol, nikolai vasilievich; intelligentsia; krylov, ivan andreyevich; lermontov, mikhail yurievich; pushkin, alexander sergeyevich; turgenev, ivan sergeyevich


Bowman, Herbert. (1969). Vissarion Belinski: A Study in the Origins of Social Criticism in Russia. New York: Russell and Russell.

Terras, Victor. (1974). Belinskij and Russian Literary Criticism: The Heritage of Organic Aesthetics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Peter Rollberg