The Fast and Furious

Vissarion Belinsky
Vissarion Belinsky
"Gentlemen, I can teach the Russian alphabet to a horse in 4 minutes," was how Richard Freeborn was introduced to the Russian language by an Armenian teacher in London during 1944. He was at the time serving with the Royal Air Force and had switched from listening to the "pretty arid noises of Japanese intercom."

Today, Professor Freeborn is an acknowledge expert on the Russian Novel. He is also an accomplished writer and translator. We are at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) in the heart of academic London to discuss his study of Belinskii, the great 19th-century literary critic.

Vissarion Belinskii was known as Furious Vissarion. As this suggests, Belinskii was "petulant, angry and furious." He felt literature had a social role. As Freeborn says, "Belinskii wanted literature to be closer to reality, and needed to be critical to injustice." This was in the time of serfdom, which held many Russian peasants in near slavery, Freeborn reminds us.

Freeborn's first job as a Russian interpreter was to be at the famous meeting of Stalin, Churchill and Truman, the victorious Allies, at Potsdam just outside Berlin. He was thwarted by "Stalin's distrust of foreign interpreters", in this role. Instead he worked for the Displaced Persons Unit, persuading reluctant Russians to return to the Soviet Union, he remembers with regret.

Belinskii was a cultural icon to a generation of writers including the novelists, Turgenev and Dostoevesky (the latter a subject of another study by Freeborn). He was always a controversial figure. The year following Belinskii death in 1849, Dostoevesky read aloud from one of his letters - a mock execution and hard labour in Siberia followed by military service was his reward. You can feel Freeborn warmth for his subject.

Freeborn is keen to point out how Belinskii has been misused by subsequent generations through "selective quotation," including the casting of him as a socio-political revolutionary (such as Victor Terras's 1954 study).

Why is Belinskii relevant today? He sees Belinskii's legacy as a discoverer of talent and an influence on subsequent generations rather than as a theoretician. Not only did he greatly influence the writers Dostoevesky, Turgenev, and Goncharov, as well as Gogol and Tolstoy, he also wrote the seminal work on the poet Alexander Pushkin that established his reputation. Freeborn is less positive about Belinskii's theoretical legacy from his misreading of Hegel to his followers misreading him as seeing art as a reproduction of reality. He sees him as a less than robust proponent of theory.

Freeborn focused on the Belinskii's love letters to the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, "more of a confession, than a romantic correspondence." Their content has been considered so scurrilous by subsequent generations, starting with Bakunin's brother, that much has been excised. Maybe, Freeborn is looking for Belinskii in the 1876 portrayal of him as an impatient, passionate and happy man?

Professor Freeborn was working at the British Embassy in Moscow in the 1950s, before beginning his career in academia, including stints at Oxford, Manchester, California and London universities. The latter holding the best Russian library in the western world, according to Freeborn.

He reflects on the study of Russian literature in Britain. He suggested that in the past there was unusual demand for Russian, the pressure coming from government, rather than students. Many institutions that offered Russian in the recent past have ceased to offer such courses. Today, students have a wider understanding of Eastern Europe, and linguists are more likely to combine study of Russian language with other major languages. He thinks Russian will remain dominant, not least because of that great resource represented by the SSEES at University Colledge London.

As he disappears into this library, it is interesting to reflect that he was in Moscow for Stalin's last party conference, and during the infamous Doctors' Trial, in that "city of rumours" as he terms it. He noteed that at the time the British Embassy kept a card index on leading Russian figures. He wondered if even now this information is in the public domain. (Or up to date?)

The censure's pen continued to work in the 1950s, even though Belinskii was adopted by the Soviet government, "as a pre-echo of the socialist revolution." What could the excised pages say? Freeborn didn't say. "Maybe homosexuality?" he speculates. We will have to read his book to find out more.


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Copyright ╘ 2003 by Melvyn Dresner
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