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
What are Belinsky’s beliefs?
- Russia’s Voltaire:
“Mankind will never
be free until the last priest is strangled with the entrails of the
- 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
- 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 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
- Role of the
- 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! Gogol is anti-bureaucracy, anti-tsar, and for property rights.
- Poor pathetic
Akaky, the Russian everyman, has been worn down by the system:
uneducated, exploited, alienated.
- 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.
- The cold wind of
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,
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.