V. G. Belinskii
to N. V. Gogol"
born in Ukraine, became Russia’s most famous writer of prose in the
Russia’s most influential literary critic, praised Gogol’s work
extravagantly, reading such satirical works as The
Inspector General and Dead
Souls as exposés of Russia’s social and political ills and thus
as blows struck for liberation. Gogol’s
personal views were extremely conservative, however.
He made them plain in a weird book called Selected
Excerpts from Correspondence with Friends, in which he praised
autocracy and orthodoxy and instructed serfholders how to run their
published review of Selected
Excerpts was unfavorable, but subdued by the pressure of
censorship. Gogol was
nonetheless moved to complain. Belinskii
wrote this letter in reply. It
circulated in hundreds of manuscript copies and is one of the
fundamental texts of Russian radicalism.
It could be published in Russia only in 1906.
are only partly right in regarding my article as that of an angered
man: that epithet is too mild and inadequate to express the state to
which I was reduced on reading your book.
But you are entirely wrong in ascribing that state to your indeed
none too flattering references to the admirers of your talent.
No, there was a more important reason for this.
One could endure an outraged sense of self-esteem, and I should
have had sense enough to let the matter pass in silence were that the
whole gist of the matter; but one cannot endure an outraged sense of
truth and human dignity; one cannot keep silent when lies and immorality
are preached as truth and virtue under the guise of religion and the
protection of the knout.
Yes, I loved you with all the passion with which a man, bound by ties of blood to his native country, can love its hope, its honor, its glory, one of its great leaders on the path toward consciousness, development, and progress. And you had sound reason for losing your equanimity at least momentarily when you forfeited that love. I say that not because I believe my love to be an adequate reward for a great talent, but because I do not represent a single person in this respect but a multitude of men, most of whom neither you nor I have ever set eyes on, and who, in their turn, have never set eyes on you. I find myself at a loss to give you an adequate idea of the indignation your book has aroused in all noble hearts, and of the wild shouts of joy that were set up on its appearance by all your enemies, both the nonliterary -- the Chichikovs, the Nozdrevs, and the mayors—and by the literary, whose names are well known to you. You see yourself that even those people who are of one mind with your book have disowned it. Even if it had been written as a result of deep and sincere conviction, it could not have created any impression on the public other than the one it did. And it is nobody’s fault but your own if everyone (except the few who must be seen and known in order not to derive pleasure from their approval) received it as an ingenious but all too unceremonious artifice for achieving a sheerly earthly aim by celestial means....
You failed to realize that Russia sees her salvation not in mysticism or
asceticism or pietism, but in the successes of civilization,
enlightenment, and humanity. What
she needs is not sermons (she has heard enough of them!) or prayers (she
has repeated them too often!), but the awakening in the people of a
sense of their human dignity lost for so many centuries amid dirt and
refuse; she needs rights and laws conforming not to the preaching of the
church but to common sense and justice, and their strictest possible
observance. Instead of
which she presents the dire spectacle of a country where men traffic in
men, without even having the excuse so insidiously exploited by the
American plantation owners who claim that the Negro is not a man; a
country where people call themselves not by names but by nicknames such
as Vanka, Vaska, Steshka, Palashka; a country where there are not only
no guarantees for individuality, honor and property, but even no police
order, and where there is nothing but vast corporations of official
thieves and robbers of various descriptions.
The most vital national problems in Russia today are the
abolition of serfdom and corporal punishment and the strictest possible
observance of at least those laws that already exist.
This is even realized by the government itself (which is well
aware of how the landowners treat their peasants and how many of the
former are annually done away with by the latter), as is proved by its
timid and abortive half-measures for the relief of the white Negroes and
the comical substitution of the single-lash knout by a cat-o-three
Such are the problems that prey on the mind of Russia in her apathetic slumber! And at such a time a great writer, whose astonishingly artistic and deeply truthful works have so powerfully contributed toward Russia’s awareness of herself, enabling her as they did to take a look at herself as though in a mirror- publishes a book in which he teaches the barbarian landowner to make still greater profits out of the peasants and to abuse them still more in the name of Christ and Church... And would you expect me not to become indignant?... Why, if you had made an attempt on my life I could not have hated you more than I do for these disgraceful lines....
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!... That you base
such teaching on the Orthodox Church I can understand: it has always
served as the prop of the knout and the servant of despotism; but why
have you mixed Christ up in it? What
have you found in common between Him and any church, least of all the
Orthodox Church? He was the
first to bring to people the teaching of freedom, equality, and
brotherhood and to set the seal of truth to that teaching by martyrdom.
And this teaching was
men’s salvation only until
it became organized in the Church and took the principle of Orthodoxy
for its foundation. The
Church, on the other hand, was a hierarchy, consequently a champion of
inequality, a flatterer of authority, an enemy and persecutor of
brotherhood among men—and so it has remained to this day.
But the meaning of Christ’s message has been revealed by the
philosophical movement of the preceding century.
And that is why a man like Voltaire who stamped out the fires of
fanaticism and ignorance in Europe by ridicule, is, of course, more the
son of Christ, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, than all your
priests, bishops, metropolitans, and patriarchs —Eastern or Western.
Do you really mean to say you do not know that!
Now it is not even a novelty to a schoolboy.
can it be that you, the author of The
Inspector General and Dead
Souls, have in all sincerity, from the bottom of your heart, sung a
hymn to the nefarious Russian clergy whom you rank immeasurably higher
than the Catholic clergy? Let
us assume that you do not know that the latter had once been something,
while the former had never been anything but a servant and slave of the
secular powers; but do you really mean to say you do not know that our
clergy is held in universal contempt by Russian society and the Russian
people? About whom do the
Russian people tell dirty stories?
Of the priest, the priest’s wife, the priest’s daughter, and
the priest’s farm hand. Does
not the priest in Russia represent the embodiment of gluttony, avarice,
servility, and shamelessness for all Russians?
Do you mean to say that you do not know all this?
to you the Russian people is the most religious in the world.
That is a lie! The
basis of religiousness is pietism, reverence, fear of God.
Whereas the Russian man utters the name of the Lord while
scratching himself somewhere. He
says of the icon: If it works,
pray to it; if it doesn’t, it’s good for covering pots.
Take a closer look and you will see that it is by nature a profoundly atheistic people. It still retains a good deal of superstition, but not a trace of religiousness. Superstition passes with the advances of civilization, but religiousness often keeps company with them too; we have a living example of this in France, where even today there are many sincere Catholics among enlightened and educated men, and where many people who have rejected Christianity still cling stubbornly to some sort of god. 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. Religiousness has not even taken root among the clergy in it, since a few isolated and exceptional personalities distinguished for such cold ascetic contemplation prove nothing. But the majority of our clergy has always been distinguished for their fat bellies, scholastic pedantry, and savage ignorance. It is a shame to accuse it of religious intolerance and fanaticism; instead it could be praised for exemplary indifference in matters of faith. Religiosity among us appeared only in the schismatic sects who formed such a contrast in spirit to the mass of the people and who were numerically so insignificant in comparison with it....
far as I can see, you do not properly understand the Russian public.
Its character is determined by the condition of Russian society
in which fresh forces are seething and struggling for expression; but
weighed down by heavy oppression, and finding no outlet, they induce
merely dejection, weariness, and apathy.
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 title of poet and writer has long since eclipsed the tinsel
of epaulets and gaudy uniforms. And
that especially explains why every so-called liberal tendency, however
poor in talent, is rewarded by universal notice, and why the popularity
of great talents that sincerely or insincerely give themselves to the
service of orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality declines so quickly....And
here the public is right, for it looks upon Russian writers as its only
leaders, defenders, and saviors against Russian autocracy, orthodoxy,
and nationality, and therefore, while always prepared to forgive a
writer a bad book, will never forgive him a pernicious book.
This shows how much fresh and healthy intuition, albeit still in
embryo, is latent in our society, and this likewise proves that it has a
future. If you love Russia,
rejoice with me at the failure of your book!
I would tell you, not without a certain feeling of self-satisfaction, that I believe I know the Russian public a little. Your book alarmed me by the possibility of its exercising a bad influence on the government and the censorship, but not on the public. When it was rumored in St. Petersburg that the government intended to publish your book in many thousands of copies and to sell it at an extremely low price, my friends grew despondent; but I told them then and there that the book, despite everything, would have no success and that it would soon be forgotten. In fact it is now better remembered for the articles that have been written about it than for the book itself. Yes, the Russian has a deep, though still undeveloped, instinct for truth....
I cannot express
myself by halves, I cannot prevaricate; it is not in my nature.
Let you or time itself prove to me that I am mistaken in my
conclusions. I shall be the
first to rejoice in it, but I shall not repent what I have told you.
This is not a question of your or my personality; it concerns a
matter that is of greater importance than myself or even you; it is a
matter that concerns the truth, Russian society, Russia.
And this is my last concluding word: If you have had the
misfortune of disowning with proud humility your truly great works, you
should now disown with sincere humility your last book, and atone for
the dire sin of its publication by new creations that would be
reminiscent of your old ones.
July 15, 1847