The term Russian soul (Russian: Русская душа, Rússkaya dushá; also great Russian soul, mystifying Russian soul) has been used in literature to describe Russian identity. The writings of many Russian writers such as Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky offer descriptions of the Russian soul.
The concept of a Russian soul arose in the 1840s chiefly as a literary phenomenon. Famous author Nikolai Gogol and literary critic Vissarion Belinskii jointly coined the term upon the publication of Gogol’s masterpiece Dead Souls in 1842. At the time landowners often referred to their serfs as “souls” for accounting purposes, and the novel’s title refers to the protagonist’s scheme of purchasing claims to deceased serfs. Apart from this literal meaning, however, Gogol also intended the title as an observation of landowners’ loss of soul in exploiting serfs.
Vissarion Belinskii, a notedly radical critic, took Gogol’s intentions a few steps farther and inferred from the novel a new recognition of a national soul, existing apart from the government and founded in the lives of the lower class. Indeed, Belinskii used the term “Russian soul” several times in his analyses of Gogol’s work, and from there the phrase grew in prominence, and eventually became more clearly defined through the writings of authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This famous brand of nationalism, however, was the product of a continuous effort by Russia’s various classes to define a national identity.
Gogol and his contemporaries established literature as Russia’s new weapon of choice, the tool by which it could inform itself of its greatness and urge the nation to its destined position as a world leader. Gogol may not have had such grand notions, but with the help of Vissarion Belinsky he paved the way for a new concept of Russian identity - the great Russian soul. As opposed to the preceding “Russian spirit” (Русский дух), which focused on Russia’s past, “Russian soul” was an expression of optimism. It stressed Russia’s historical youth and its ability, by following the wisdom of the peasant, to become the savior of the world. Indeed, although the concept of the Russian soul grew upon Western ideas, its advocates believed that Russia had made those ideas its own and would use them to save Europe from itself.
Culmination of the concept
The Russian soul evolved and entered into Western consciousness in the following decades, most famously through the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In his novels and stories, Dostoyevsky exhibited an often anti-European nationalism and frequently suggested a "people's spirit" held together by "unexpressed, unconscious ideas which are merely strongly felt". By Dostoyevsky's death in 1881, the "Russian soul" had completed its evolution in Russia.
From about 1880 to 1930, largely thanks to Dostoyevsky, the "Russian soul" concept spread to other countries and began to affect foreign perception of the Russian people. For many Europeans the idea offered a positive alternative to the typical view of Russians as backward, instead depicting the Russian people as an example of the innocence the West had lost. The popularity of the "Russian soul" continued into the 20th century but faded as Soviet power increased. By the 1930s the concept was slipping into obscurity, but it would survive in the work of the numerous writers who devised it.
- "Decoding the mysterious Russian soul", an interview with professor Michael Hughes from the University of Lancaster, June 9, 2013
- Robert C. Williams, "The Russian Soul: A Study in European Thought and Non-European Nationalism," Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970): 573-588, accessed November 27, 2010, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2708261