“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!” ~ Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky to the great Russian (Ukrainian) writer Nikolai Gogol, in a famous public letter dated July 15, 1847.
Gogol tore Belinsky’s letter to shreds after reading it, but he was so shocked that he fell into depression. He died of psychological problems and malnutrition on 21 February 1852.
Belinsky was the most powerful Russian literary critic of his time. He had promoted Gogol’s earlier works—The Inspector General, The Overcoat, and The Dead Souls. But when Gogol published his book, Correspondence With Friends, Belinsky became convinced that Gogol had betrayed the cause of the Russian serfs and he turned against him.
Belinsky believed that the true purpose of literature was to express the social truth—this meant the writer should not only describe the social conditions but also communicate the enlightenment values of liberty, atheism, and individualism. He bitterly denounced serfdom. He wanted to free Russia of the tsarist political system, and establish a secular and socialist society. He became a powerful protagonist of the Russian radicals (including the socialists).
In his Correspondence With Friends, Gogol surprised his readers by supporting serfdom. He exhorted the landlords to burn 10 ruble notes (which was a considerable sum in those days) in front of the serfs to make them realize that the masters did not care for money, only for the moral welfare of the serfs. A large number of Gogol’s readers (including Belinsky) thought that he had gone insane or something worse had happened: that he had sold his writing to the tsarist and feudal oppressors.
Belinsky had a keen eye for literary talent. In 1844, he read Dostoevsky’s first novel Poor Folk. He was so impressed by the novel’s description of the miserable life of Russian serfs that he rushed to the apartment where Dostoevsky was living. He embraced Dostoevsky, kissed him thrice on his cheeks, and declared that he was the future of Russian literature.
Reminiscing about his first meeting with Belinsky, Dostoevsky later wrote, “That was one of the rare moments in my life when I was truly happy.” Belinsky died due to health complications in 1848, on the eve of his arrest for his political views.
In his early years, Dostoevsky accepted Belinsky’s view of the social purpose of literature (though later he rejected Belinsky’s socialism). He used to read Belinsky’s letter to Gogol aloud in public meetings. He also became involved in clandestine printing and distribution of the Belinsky letter. For these crimes, he was arrested, convicted, and condemned to death in 1849. His death sentence was later commuted to 4 years of incarceration in a Siberian prison camp.