Literature shaped the political culture of the Russia in which Vladimir Ilyich Lenin grew up. Explicitly political texts were difficult to publish under the tsarist regime. The rasher essayists were holed up in asylums until they “recovered”: in other words, until they publicly recanted their views. Novels and poetry, meanwhile, were treated more leniently – though not in every instance.
The chief censor was, of course, the tsar. In the case of Pushkin, the “father of the people”, Nicholas I, insisted on reading many of his verses before they went to the printer. Some, as a result, were forbidden, others delayed, and the most subversive were destroyed by the frightened poet himself, fearful that his house might be raided. We will never know what the burnt verses of Eugene Onegin contained.
Nonetheless, politics by other means and in a variety of different registers permeated Russian fiction in a manner without parallel in any other European country. As far as politicised literature and literary criticism went, the Russian intelligentsia were spoilt for choice. They devoured the acrimonious conflict between the powerful critic Vissarion Belinsky and the dramatist and novelist Nikolai Gogol, whose cutting 1842 satire Dead Souls had invigorated the country and been read aloud to the illiterate.
Success, however, proved to be Gogol’s undoing. In a subsequent work, he recanted, writing of stench-ridden peasants and defending illiteracy. In the preface to the second edition of Dead Souls, he wrote: “Much in this book has been written wrongly, not as things are really happening in the land of Russia. I ask you, dear reader, to correct me. Do not spurn this matter. I ask you to do it.”
Angered, Belinsky broke publicly with him in 1847. Belinsky’s widely circulated “Letter to Gogol” gave the recipient a long, sleepless night: