The Russian literary critic Vissarion Grigorievich Belinsky (1811-1848) was a major force in the intellectual and literary life of his country, and his writings form the foundation of Russian literary criticism.
Vissarion Belinsky was born on May 30, 1811, in Suomenlinna (Sveaborg), Finland, the son of a naval doctor. His youth was spent in Chembar, Penza Province, Russia, where his father was district physician. Vissarion attended the local grammar school and the Penza Gymnasium. In 1829 he entered Moscow University as a student of literature; his record was not brilliant because he was already weakened by tuberculosis and furthermore was concentrating all his energy (he is remembered by his contemporaries as "furious Vissarion") on literary projects outside the university. In 1831 he published some reviews and poems in Listok. The following year he was expelled from the university because his play Dmitry Kalinin attacked serfdom.
In 1834 Belinsky published a series of critical articles, "Literary Reveries, " in Molva, the literary supplement of the newspaper Teleskop. They reflected the ideas of the German philosopher F. W. J. von Schelling. Written in a pungent, if somewhat repetitive, style, this "elegy in prose" brought Belinsky instant fame. His claim that "we have no literature" was a healthy antidote to the many inflated claims then being made for Russian literature by hyperpatriotic critics and historians.
In 1836 the government suppressed Teleskop. In 1838 Belinsky worked on the Moscow Observer, but it too was closed a year later. Belinsky moved to St. Petersburg, where he became chief literary critic for the magazine Fatherland Notes. During this period his thinking was greatly influenced by the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and German idealism. In certain articles of 1839 and 1840 Belinsky, under Hegel's influence, even defended the institution of autocracy.
Belinsky experienced a moral crisis in 1841 and abandoned Hegelianism. His Works of Alexander Pushkin (1843-1846) is as much a history of Russian literature as it is a study of Pushkin. From 1841 until his death Belinsky published an annual survey of Russian literature, the last two of which (1846 and 1847) are among his most important theoretical statements. In 1843 he married his childhood friend M. V. Orlova.
In 1846 Belinsky joined the journal Contemporary and served as its chief literary critic until his death. In July 1847 Belinsky wrote what is probably his best-known work, Letter to Gogol. Not published until 1905, it was widely circulated in manuscript and became an important document among later revolutionaries. He died on May 26, 1848.
Belinsky was an important influence on later critics. He is regarded by contemporary Russian critics as the father of many tendencies which have became associated with socialist realism.
There is little material on Belinsky in English. The only full-length study is Herbert E. Bowman, Vissarion Belinski, 1811-1848 (1954), which is devoted chiefly to Belinsky's intellectual development and is not always reliable. Richard Hare, Pioneers of Russian Social Thought (1951; rev. ed. 1964), contains a chapter on Belinsky that is short but sound. There is a useful section on Belinsky in Evgenii Lampert, Studies in Rebellion (1957). For general background Edward J. Brown, Stankevich and His Moscow Circle, 1830-1840 (1966), is excellent.
Jakovenko, Boris V. (Boris Valentinovich), Vissarion Grigorievich Belinski: a monograph, Melbourne: D. Jakovenko, 1986.
Randall, Francis B. (Francis Ballard), Vissarion Belinskii, Newtonville: Oriental Research Partners, 1987. □