BELINSKY Vissarion Grigoryevich—philosopher, man of letters, and literary critic, b. June 11, 1811 in Sveaborg (Finland), d. June 7, 1848 in Petersburg.
He began studies in 1820 in a district school in Chembar in the governing district of Penza;. He taught from 1825 in the gymnasium in Penza where he met with the so-called raznochins (represenatives of the liberal bourgeoisie who belonging to the official, burgher, and merchant classes). In 1829 he began philosophical studies in a university in Moscow. He was expelled in 1832 after writing the drama Dimitriy Kalinin in which he criticized the system of serfdom. After his expulsion from the university he became close to the members of Stankiewicz’s circile where he encountered the idealistic philosophy of Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel. In 1833, after making the acquaintance of prof. M. Nadieżdin—the publisher and editor of the periodical “Teleskop” and the gazette “Mołwa”, he took up journalism and literarary work. He also did literary work and translated French writers.
In 1834 his first major article appeared, Marzenia literackie [Literary dreams] in which he investigated the development of Russian literature and evaluated the latest compositions. A large part of the article contained a philosophical interpretation of art. The starting point for the thoughts in the article was the “eternal idea” of idealistic philosophy: Belinsky thought that art is the expression of “the single and eternal idea of the universe” (just as the universe is an expression of the “single and eternal idea that is manifested in uncounted forms”). He thought that the end of art is to multiply by artistic means the idea of universal life. The central point of the article was the thought about the development of the world, an eternal struggle between opposing powers, and the gradual perfecting of mankind.
Belinsky initially discussed moral and political problems, but under the influence of the Hegelian philosophy of history he rejected struggle with the political reality of the time. In 1838 he took the position of teacher of the Russian language in the Konstantinovsky Surveying Institute in Moscow and become the acting editor of the periodical “Moskovskiy Nabludatiel”, in which he published more than 130 reviews, articles, and notes. During this time his chief thought become “reconciliation with reality”. In this period he focussed his attention on the problem of the process of moral perfection and thought that in this way Russia would become “the happiest land in the world”. He arrived at the negation of political methods of struggle and said that civil freedom could be the result of the moral perfection of each man. From 1839 he stayed in Petersburg and collaborated with the periodical “Otiechestvienniye Zapiski”. From 1840 he broke with the theory of agreement and became a socialist. He quit the program of “union” and became the leading representative of dialectic historicism of the Russian democrats. At that time he subordinated criticism and writing for the general public to tasks in a struggle for revolutionary-democratic ideals. He combined Hegelianism and positivistic atheism with revolutionary French thought and with this he has been regarded as a precursor of Russian existentialism. In this period he performed a transvaluation of the philosophical heritage and broke with German idealistic philosophy: he criticized Hegel and his views as being directed to the past—and thereby unable to be a theory of reality and the future—an apology for the Prussian monarchy. He began to develop theses of materialistic philosophy and learned of the views of the left wing of the Hegelians (Strauss, Bauer, Feuerbach, and in 1844 the young Marx). Under their influence he criticized Hegel and presented his own views in opposition to Hegel.
Toward the end of his life he took a revolutionary-democratic position and became one of the most radical and consistent representatives of the left wing of the occidentalist party (Letter to Gogol, 1847). In his opposition to Hegel he started from the assumption that the world is material and that all its parts are inseparably joined to each other and influence each other; the development of nature and society is infinite and cannot be held back. In a materialistic spirit he resolved the problem of the world’s capacity to be known and the objectivity, certainty, and limits of cognition. He thought that cognition should be verified by experience, and material reality should be the measure of the value of phenomena of the spiritual world. As opposed to Feuerbach (who stated that religiosity is a property of human nature), Belinsky thought that religion is a product of social relations.
In his ethical views he emphasized the significance of suffering and dedication in the formation of personality. According to Belinsky, a man must make a choice between two paths: (1) the path of self-renunciation, mastery of selfishness, conquering self-interest, and dedication to the good of neighbors and the fatherland, which—through suffering—leads to perfection; (2) the path of selfishness and concern only for one’s own benefit, which leads to the drama of internal rupture and conflict with oneself.
In his aesthetic views Belinsky was initially inspired by the thought of German idealism. He accented the contemplative character of art, at the same time considering its historical and social aspect. Subsequently he became a spokesman for realism in art and literature. He regarded realism as the highest degree of art as opposed to art lacking in ideas and containing no profound social content. He combined aesthetics with sociology and demanded that art should present life such as it is; he treated literature as a matter of the whole nation, as an instrument of social progress (in this point he polemicized with German romantic theory). He was the first Russian theoretician of literature to appeal to definite philosophical systems and create holistic theoretical and historical-literary conceptions (Obshchiy vzglad na narodnuyu poeziyu i yeyo znacheniye, 1842). He criticized the poetry of late romanticism and propagated prose genres (The Division of Poetry into Genera and Species). Belinsky’s works on Pushkin, Gogl, and writers of the so-called natural school were particularly important. He included in these works his views on truth in literature, the eloquence of ideas in literature, the social involvement of literature, and on nationality and folk culture. He propagated the idea of creating a truly national literature and assumed that every nation should express with its life some aspect of the life of humanity. Fine literature should manifest the spirit of the nation and serve the interests of the whole, not only those of privileged groups of enlightened individuals. Belinsky promoted realistic literature that reproduces life in all its breadth and complexity; Bieliński’s views on these problems had a great influence on the development of Russian literature.
Belinsky’s works were published under the title Izbranniye filosofkiye sochinienia (I–XIII, Mwa 1953–1959); they were published in Poland as Pisma Filozoficzne [Philosophical Writings], Wwa 1956) and Pisma literarackie. Wybór (Wr 1962).
A. Walicki, Wissarion B., myśliciel i krytyk [Vissarion Belinsky, thinker and critic], in: Wissarion B., Pisma filozoficzne [Philosophical writings], Wwa 1956, pp. VI–LXXVI; OsobowośŪ a historia. Studia z dziejów literatury i myśli rosyjskiej [Personality and history. Studies in the history of Russian literature and thought], Wwa 1959.