Belinsky’s “Letter to Gogol” (1847)


Belinsky was outraged when Gogol published his Selected Passages from a Correspondence with Friends in which the author praised the official ideology of autocracy, orthodoxy and nationalism.


What are Belinsky’s beliefs?


  1. Russia’s Voltaire:

“Mankind will never be free until the last priest is strangled with the entrails of the last king.”

  • 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 enables Belinsky to deride 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 influence of the church. Voltaire was the champion of ending capital punishment and torture, of overthrowing the aristocracy, of freedom of speech
  1. 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.
  1. Russia’s true beliefs are  not religious but atheist (318)
  • Hard common sense: ‘a lucid and positive mind’
  • the  thirst for truth
  • political indifference conditioned by social injustice
  1.  Role of the Russian Writer:
    • 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?

  1.  Reform is necessary: Akaky is oppressed! Gogol is anti-bureaucracy, anti-tsar, and for property rights.
  2. Poor pathetic Akaky, the Russian everyman, has been worn down by the system: uneducated, exploited, alienated. 
  3. Given the opportunity, Akaky  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.
  4. The cold wind of oppression!

What did Belinsky miss?

  1. Akaky is not worn down by the system; he was born that way.
  2. 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)
  3. 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.
  4. 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 naturalism. After this Letter, members of the intelligentsia had to write naturalism. After he made this declaration, the Russians produced an extraordinary flowering of fiction.