Belinsky, “Letter to Gogol” (1847)

Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848)

The son of a provincial doctor, Belinsky was expelled from the University of Moscow (1832) (for lack of funds) and eeked out a living thereafter as a journalist, but he never emerged fully from his impoverished background. He was one of the first prominent members of the literary intelligentsia with a middle class background, the raznochintsy. As the century progressed, this group eventually came to dominate the Russian revolutionary movement.  His first substantial critical articles were part of a series that he wrote for the journal Teleskop (“Telescope”) beginning in 1834. In them he expounded F.W.J. Schelling’s Romantic view of national character, applying it to Russian culture.

Belinsky was briefly managing editor of the Moskovsky nablyudatel (“Moscow Observer”) before obtaining a post in 1839 as chief critic for the journal Otechestvennyye zapiski (“National Annals”). The influential essays he published there on such writers as Aleksandr Pushkin and Nikolay Gogol helped shape the literary and social views of other Russian intellectuals for decades to come. By 1840 Belinsky had moved from the idealism of his early essays to a Hegelian view that art and the history of a nation are closely connected. He believed that Russian literature had to progress in order to help the still-embryonic Russian nation develop into a mature, civilized society.

Belinsky’s perceptive praise of such writers as Pushkin, Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Ivan Turgenev helped establish their early reputations. He laid the foundation for modern Russian literary criticism in his belief that Russian literature should honestly reflect Russian reality and that art should be judged for its social as well as its aesthetic qualities.

In 1846 Belinsky joined the review Sovremennik (“The Contemporary”), for which he wrote most of his last essays. In 1847 Belinsky was outraged when Gogol published his Selected Passages from a Correspondence with Friends in which he praised Nicholas I’s ideology of autocracy, orthodoxy and nationalism. Belinsky responds furiously,

“Proponent of the knout, apostle of ignorance, champion of obscurantism and Stygian darkness, panegyrist of Tartar morals – what are you about! Look beneath your feet – you are standing on the brink of an abyss!...


What is to be done instead?


  • Begin bringing Western Enlightenment to Russia, at first by ending serfdom and corporal punishment (2)
  • To practice true Christianity, the nobility must begin to regard the peasants as their brothers. (2)
  • Bring the rule of law to our dealings with the peasants instead of arbitrary brutality. (3)
  • Recognize the unholy connection between the orthodox church’s teachings and the oppression of the people by the government. (3)
  • Recognize that the proponents of Enlightened liberal social reforms are more representative of Christian impulses than the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church. (3)
  • Recognize that at heart the nature of Russian peasant is profoundly skeptical and practical. (3-4)
  • Recognize that you and other fellow writers perform an essential function in Russian culture that must not be betrayed. (4)


What are Belinsky’s beliefs?


“Mankind will never be free until the last priest is strangled with the entrails of the last king.” (Attributed to Diderot by Jean-François de La Harpe in Cours de Littérature Ancienne et Moderne (1840))


  • The church even more than the tsar, even more than the institution of serfdom, is responsible for the perpetuation of tyranny and injustice in Russia.
  • Picking on religion is a focus of the way that Belinsky is deriding Gogol’s own belief that the church is essential to protecting Russia from the forces of chaos and dissolution
  • Belinsky even goes so far as to compare Jesus to Voltaire: the philosophe who railed most aggressively against the effects of the church. Voltaire was the champion of ending capital punishment and torture, of overthrowing the aristocracy, of freedom of speech
  • Belinsky believed that the current form of the Russian government could not even adhere to the basic contract of the Hobbesian state: protecting people from the war of all against all. He even goes so far as to argue that government should protect natural rights: life, liberty, property, constitutional government, rule of law.


Russia’s true character (3-4)


The Russian people is different; mystic exaltation is not in its nature; it has too much common sense, a too lucid and positive mind, and therein, perhaps, lies the vastness of its historic destinies in the future.

  • Atheist: hard common sense: ‘a lucid and positive mind’
  • thirst for truth
  • political indifference conditioned by social injustice


Role of the Russian Writer (4)


Only literature, despite the Tartar censorship, shows signs of life and progressive movement. That is why the title of writer is held in such esteem among us; that is why literary success is easy among us even for a writer of little talent.


  • The people’s only voice, their defenders, leaders, saviors against Russian orthodoxy, autocracy and nationalism.


What is it about “The Overcoat” which made Belinsky hail Gogol as a key proponent of his liberal, Westernizing approach to reform?


  • Reform is necessary: Akaky is oppressed!
  • Anti-bureaucracy, anti-tsar, no property rights
  • Poor pathetic Akaky, the Russian everyman, has been worn down by the system: uneducated, exploited, alienated. His property rights are not protected by the Very Important Personage.
  • Given the opportunity, Akaky he makes himself into a citizen who saves his money and demonstrates the character traits of industriousness, thriftiness, and self-sacrifice necessary to collect the capital necessary to move up the social ladder.
  • The cold wind of oppression!


What did Belinsky miss?

  • Akaky is not worn down by the system; he was born that way.
  • Trying to work outside his limited box does not teach Akaky to be an independent citizen capable of remaking himself along Western lines and becoming socially mobile. Akaky destroys himself by selling his soul to the devil. (ghosts)
  • People at the bottom end of the social order feel secure and protected. Ignorance is bliss: he would have been much happier if he had been left alone.
  • How might he have dealt with the problem of the worn out overcoat if he had gone to a priest instead of a tailor? (Petrovich as Peter, the Westernizer ) He too must deal with the cold wind of reality and suffering within the institutions of the church: baptism, marriage, burial.

Up until the 1840’s the writing of Pushkin and the early Gogol can be considered forms of Russian Romanticism. When Belinsky interpreted Gogol, he invented the school of Russian realism. After the Letter, members of the intelligentsia had to write realistically. After he made this declaration, the Russians produced an extraordinary flowering of fiction.