Belinskii, Vissarion Grigor'evich (1811–1848)

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Vissarion Grigor'evich BelinskiI (Belinsky), the Russian literary critic, was an early leader of the Russian intelligentsia and a major representative of German Absolute Idealism, as well as of the subsequent reaction against it, in nineteenth-century Russian philosophy.

Belinskii was born in Sveaborg, Russia (now Finland), the son of a provincial physician. He entered the University of Moscow in 1829 but was expelled after three years, perhaps for the radical criticism of serfdom in a romantic drama he wrote; his subsequent education was self-acquired. He began a journalistic career in 1833 and soon became the chief critic for a succession of literary journals in Moscow and (after 1839) in St. Petersburg, principally Otechestvennyye Zapiski (Annals of the Fatherland). His brilliant, philosophically oriented critical essays, including perceptive early appreciations of Nikolay Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov, and Feödor Dostoevsky, won him great renown but little material reward; he died in St. Petersburg after a short life filled with poverty and illness.

Belinskii's intellectual development typifies that of the early Russian "Westernizers," or admirers of Western progressive ideas and institutions, whose leader he became: He passed from the romantic extremes of German Absolute Idealism through G. W. F. Hegel to a mature position representing the influence of the French socialists and Ludwig Feuerbach. In Belinskii's case, the doctrinal changes were magnified and accelerated by a mercurial personality, while their expression was often clouded by the pressures of journalistic writing under tsarist censorship. Belinskii published no systematic theoretical works, and his voluminous critical essays and private correspondence leave room for divergent interpretations of his views.

Belinskii's earliest writings (18311836) show the clear influence of Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich von Schelling. Basing his views on Schelling's nature philosophy and philosophy of art, Belinskii glorified art and the creative process, and emphasized man's inner aesthetic and moral experience in rising above empirical reality to the "eternal Idea."

In 1837, after a brief enthusiasm for Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Belinskii was introduced by his friend and mentor, Mikhail Bakunin, to the thought of Hegel. Belinskii found in the Hegelian formula "all that is real is rational" a summons to a "reconciliation with reality" that turned his attention from man's subjective world to the objective reality around him and led him to praise Russian autocracy, to view the state as sacred, and to regard society as metaphysically and ethically superior to the individual. He expressed a Hegelian conception of art as "thinking in images" and as reproducing rational reality.

Belinskii's Hegelianism, however, did not extinguish the regard for human individuality that in some degree had always marked his thinking and had been manifested most explicitly during his brief Fichtean period. By 1841 he repudiated Hegel's subordination of the individual and thenceforth turned from Absolute Idealism to an ethical personalism that emphasized the supreme value of the individual personality. At the same time, he abandoned the attempt to show the rationality of the tsarist order: He became acquainted with the writings of Comte de Saint-Simon and other French socialists, and called increasingly for radical social reforms in the direction of democracy and socialism. His mature view of art stressed art's moral and political functions in expressing socially progressive ideas, for which reason he is generally regarded as the founder of the dominant tradition of social or "civic" criticism in Russia.

Belinskii's socialism remained individualistic in inspiration, and there is evidence that toward the end of his life he moved to a more moderate liberal position, advocating the development of a middle class in Russia. His reformist enthusiasm and generally enlightened outlook were well expressed in a famous "Letter to Gogol" (1847), which set a moral tone for the Russian intelligentsia for generations. The "Letter" illustrates the antiecclesiasticism and positivist leanings of Belinskii's final period, if not the outright atheism and materialism attributed to him by Soviet interpreters.

See also Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Russian Philosophy.


works by belinskii

Polnoye Sobraniye Sochineni (Complete Works). 13 vols. Moscow, 19531959.

Selected Philosophical Works. Westport, CT: Hyperion, 1981.

Russian Philosophy. Vol. 1, edited by James Edie, et al. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1987, pp. 281320.

works on belinskii

Bowman, Herbert E. Vissarion Belinski, 18111848: A Study in the Origins of Social Criticism in Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

Ranall, F. B. Vissarion Belinskii. Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners, 1987.

Terras, V. Belinksij and Russian Literary Criticism: The Heritage of Organic Aesthetics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974.

Zenkovskii, V. V. A History of Russian Philosophy. 2 vols. Translated by G. Kline. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

James P. Scanlan (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)