Imperial Realism: Belinskij and the Wretched of the Earth

Vadim Shkolnikov, Columbia University

Belinskij's various imperialistic pronouncements have long proved problematic, if not embarrassing, to his scholars. Soviet critics, understandably, minimized those pro-tsarist statements that could have undermined Belinskij's celebrated status as a "revolutionary democrat." Philologists more interested in Belinskij's aesthetics, have generally concluded that his imperialist stance, because it entails not just political tendentiousness but also seeming contentment with the oppressive political status quo, blatantly contradicts his emphatic call for reality in literature. One is led to assume that Belinskij's imperialistic pronouncements doom his ideology to both political and aesthetic inconsistency.

Periodic expressions of support for the czarist regime (which inevitably clash with Belinskij's reformist tendencies) do not, however, fully account for his "imperial consciousness," which, rather, must be analyzed in terms of the fundamental point of departure for all his intellectual endeavors—the confrontation with the cultural imperialism of Western Europe (his attitudes towards the czarist empire are always formed with a view towards the West). Essentially, this allows us to reexamine the problems of Belinskij's ideological development (and the development of Russian culture in the 1830's and 40's) in terms of post-colonial theory. From the moment he declares that Russia has no literature, Belinskij's career mirrors the phenomenon analyzed by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth—the struggle of the westernized intellectual of an "underdeveloped" nation to institute an autonomous national culture in the face of European cultural dominance. Belinskij's imperial consciousness and, therefore, his conception of reality are conditioned first by the experience of cultural inferiority and then by striving to supercede the West. For Fanon emphasizes that "the native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor." Despite a succession of ideological phases, during which Belinskij recants previous positions, and despite the seeming inconsistency of his realist aesthetics when gauged by such oppositions as subjectivity/objectivity and social mission versus pure art, a singular point of continuity remains: reality for Belinskij is that which civilizes. Moreover, Fanon's analysis of the quest for national culture as a psychological experience—delineated in three phases—allows us restore intellectual cohesiveness to the major phases of Belinskij's career (Telescope / the crisis of ""reconciliation" / Petersburg), as a process of mastering the mechanisms of cultural imperialism. Fanon's argument also helps to explain why the Slavophiles stopped short of establishing a cohesive literary movement, whereas Belinskij's "Natural School" became the dominant force in Russia's literary culture precisely when his conception of reality became fixated on "the wretched of the earth."

An underlying premise of my analysis is that the nature of reality is never a politically neutral designation. Belinskij's conception of reality stands out from others that we may define because of his ultimate inability to transcend the logic of imperial social structure, as one form of empire replaced another.