Reality and Sotsial’nost’: The Civilizing Mission of Belinsky’s Natural School

Vadim Shkolnikov, Columbia University

The analysis proposed in this paper works towards a more precise determination of Belinsky’s often misunderstood term sotsial’nost’. The paper makes an attempt to underscore the essential conceptual continuity between his Realist aesthetics, the function of literature within Russia’s sociopolitical development, and the even larger context that framed his entire intellectual career—the endeavor to elevate Russian culture to the status of the “civilized” European powers. Significantly, sotsial’nost’ is not yet Socialism (nor does it, strictly speaking, entail national consciousness), but its preeminence in Belinsky’s worldview helps to explain why the subsequent emergence of Russian Socialism and, hence, the nation’s future geopolitical role, became linked inextricably to the philosophical and aesthetic concept of Reality. On the other hand, sotsial’nost’ cannot be reduced to the vague axiom that literature should be socially engaged, that it should constitute a form of social protest: such a reduction overlooks Belinsky’s insistent rejection of any form of sociopolitical opposition that cannot rise above the impotence of “abstract heroism.” Instead, I relate sotsial’nost’ to the Hegelian notion of civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft, a community based on mutual needs, the intermediate stage of social development between family and state). Belinsky’s goal of sotsial’nost’, I argue, corresponds to the consciousness of belonging to civil society: this is what it would mean to become civilized (the precondition to possessing a national literature, a voice within world culture, etc.).

In the absence of the socioeconomic relations that produced civil society in the West, Belinsky’s mature Realism, subsuming his Petersburg phase and his leadership in the Natural School, amounted to a search—within the restricted milieu of the urban landscape—for a latent, potential, but rational basis for social unity. In turn, however, literature itself became the primary affirmation that such a unity could exist—so that the proposed analysis of Belinsky’s quest for sotsial’nost’ involves a more explicit and detailed analysis of Geoffrey Hosking’s evocative notion of Russian literature as the builder of an “imaginary community”(a term borrowed from Benedict Anderson). The analysis will initially focus on how the framework for such a community takes shape in Belinsky’s theoretical writings, culminating with his “Thoughts and Notes on Russian Literature”(1846), where he outlines a plan for mobilizing “men of talent” as the purveyors of sotsial’nost’ and Reality. The focus will then shift to an overview of the quest for sotsial’nost’ within the major works of the Natural School: The Physiology of Petersburg, Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, Herzen’s Who Is to Blame?, and Goncharov’s An Ordinary Story.