Dobroliubov, Nikolai Aleksandrovich

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Dobroliubov, Nikolai Aleksandrovich


Born Jan. 24 (Feb. 5), 1836, in Nizhny Novgorod, present-day Gorky; died Nov. 17 (29), 1861, in St. Petersburg. Russian literary critic, journalist, and revolutionary democrat.

The son of an Orthodox priest, Dobroliubov studied at a seminary from 1848 to 1853. In 1857 he graduated from the Central Pedagogical Institute in St. Petersburg. While he was a student, Dobroliubov organized an underground circle, issued the manuscript newspaper Slukhi, and led the students’ struggle against the institute’s reactionary administration. His democratic inclinations had already appeared during his first years in St. Petersburg. Dobroliubov’s sharply hostile attitude toward the autocracy was expressed in the boldly revolutionary poems “On the 50th Birthday of N. I. Grech” (1854) and “Ode on the Death of Nicholas I” (1855), copies of which were distributed outside the pedagogical institute.

In 1856, Dobroliubov made the acquantance of N. G. Chernyshevskii and later, N. A. Nekrasov, and he soon became their colleague on the journal Sovremennik. Dobroliubov’s work began to be published in Sovremennik in 1856, and in 1857 he began to work continuously on the journal. He also collaborated on the Zhurnal dlia vospitaniia (1857-59). In 1858 he published a number of articles that presented the foundation for his literary-aesthetic, philosophical, and historical views: “On the Degree of Participation of Folk Character in the Development of Russian Literature,” “The Early Years of Peter the Great’s Reign,” and “Russian Civilization as Invented by Zherebtsov.” These articles, which covered a broad range of topical literary and social problems, were permeated with a spirit of militant democratism.

As social consciousness grew during the late 1850’s, Dobroliubov’s revolutionary-democratic position became more and more clearly defined and was expressed in his articles of literary criticism as well as in his publicistic arguments against gentry-bourgeois liberalism (“Literary Trifles of the Past Year” [1859] and topical satires and verse parodies in “Svistok,” the satirical section of Sovremennik). Between 1859 and 1860 a number of Dobroliubov’s articles were published, including “What Is Oblomovism?” (on I. A. Goncharov’s novel Oblomov), “The Reign of Darkness” and “A Ray of Light in the Reign of Darkness” (on A. N. Ostrovskii’s plays), and “When Will the Real Day Arrive?” (on I. S. Turgenev’s novel On the Eve). Basing his arguments on the realistic pictures of life and the typical characters created by Goncharov, Ostrovskii, and Turgenev, Dobroliubov stigmatized despotism and serfdom, comparing them to a prison in which all living things die. He condemned inactivity, weak will, and passivity (“Oblomovism”), and he pointed to the inevitable appearance of a new hero—a doer and fighter—in Russian life and literature (a “Russian Insarov”). He called for the abolition of serfdom and everything to which it had given rise (for example, the article “Traits of the Russian Common People,” 1860). Lenin had a high opinion of Dobroliubov’s works of literary criticism.

Dobroliubov developed the aesthetic principles of V. G. Belinskii and N. G. Chernyshevskii. He called his method of artistic analysis “real criticism.” Guided by it, he attempted to “interpret the phenomena of life itself on the basis of a literary work, without obtruding, however, upon the author any preconceived ideas and problems” (Sobr. soch., vol. 6, 1963, p. 98). For Dobroliubov the most important criterion was truth. The uniqueness of his critical art lay in his ability to combine an aesthetic analysis of the characters created by an artist with an investigation of the vital truth engendered by them. With all the strength of his talent Dobroliubov defended the principles of realism and narodnost’ (populism) in literature, as well as the idea of literature’s lofty civic quality. In his opinion, service to society was the highest criterion of an artist’s activity. He condemned and ridiculed art that lacked progressive social content as worthy only of “holiday idlers.” A passionate polemicist, Dobroliubov used various critical genres and satirical devices (ironic praise, the critical satire, and sarcastic parody in poetry and prose) in the struggle against superficially accusatory literature, the poetry of epigones, and reactionary journalism.

At the insistence of his friends, Dobroliubov went abroad in May 1860 for treatment of incipient tuberculosis. He lived in Germany, Switzerland, France, and for more than six months in Italy, where the national liberation movement, led by G. Garibaldi, was under way. Events associated with Italian national liberation provided material for a series of articles by Dobroliubov in which, drawing on the experience of the Italian revolution, he exposed the antipopular character of bourgeois liberalism and praised the republicans (“Incomprehensible Strangeness,” “Father Alessandro Gavazzi and His Sermons,” and “The Life and Death of Count Camillo Benso di Cavour”). In July 1861, Dobroliubov returned to his native land, his health unimproved. He died of an acute case of tuberculosis, aggravated by overwork and the crushing of his revolutionary hopes as the forces of political reaction became stronger.

Like Chernyshevskii, Dobroliubov was a mouthpiece for the idea of a peasant revolution in Russia and a passionate defender of the interests of the people. The nature of his activity was determined by his consistent negation of the monarchy and serfdom, in which he saw the principal cause for Russia’s backwardness, and by a struggle for a democratic revolution, economic and cultural development of the country, and the broadening of popular education.

Dobroliubov did not advocate capitalist development of Russia. He indicated the progressiveness of a capitalist system as compared to a serfowning one in a number of works, including “Robert Owen and His Efforts at Social Reforms” and a review of I. Babst’s From Moscow to Leipzig. However, he tried to find for Russia a form of economic development that would ensure the growth of large-scale production and exclude the possibility of capitalist exploitation of the workers. In his opinion, an appropriate form for Russian economic development would be industrial-agricultural associations, which would be organized on the basis of peasant communes after the transfer of power to the toiling people in the wake of a popular revolution. Dobroliubov’s materialist convictions, which took shape under the influence of native Russian traditions (A. N. Radishchev and V. G. Belinskii) as well as Western European philosophical doctrines, including those of L. Feuerbach and R. Owen, were founded on a faith in the maturing forces of the people and faith in the success of the peasant revolution, which must be led by the raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class).

Thus, Dobroliubov was a Utopian socialist and educator, but his utopianism was combined with a striving for practical activity. (It is evident from his letters that he was being drawn into the underground revolutionary work that was beginning in Russia.) His educational ideas were also oriented toward action.

Unlike official scholarship, Dobroliubov’s historical works did not reduce history to the deeds of princes, tsars, and generals. Dobroliubov saw history’s chief motive force in the popular masses. He recognized the principle of historical development, but he treated historical progress idealistically, reducing it basically to the spiritual enrichment of mankind. Dobroliubov understood the class struggle as an eternal antagonism between the “aristocracy” and the “democracy,” and he regarded the “elimination of parasites and the elevation of labor” as the constant tendency of history. He remarked that over the millennia “only the form of exploitation has changed, becoming more clever and subtle; but its essence will remain the same, as long as the possibility for exploitation survives” (ibid., vol. 5, 1962, p. 460). There are materialist tendencies in Dobroliubov’s historical views. For example, he singled out “need and hunger” as the causes of the struggle of peoples against their oppressors.

Dobroliubov’s literary activity left a vivid mark in the history of Russian criticism, aesthetics, and journalism, and it had a profound effect on many generations of revolutionaries. In 1901, in connection with the 40th anniversary of the critic’s death, Lenin pointed out that Dobroliubov was dear to “all educated and thinking people in Russia” as “a writer who had passionately hated tyranny and passionately looked forward to a people’s uprising against the ’Turks at home,’ that is, against the autocratic government” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 5, p. 370). Engels wrote that in Russia “there was also critical thought and self-sacrificing searches in the sphere of pure theory, worthy of the nation that gave us Dobroliubov and Chernyshevskii” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 36, p. 147). Marx said that he placed Dobroliubov as a writer “on the same level with Lessing and Diderot” (ibid., vol. 33, p. 266).

Soviet scholarship has extensively studied the life and activity of Dobroliubov and other revolutionary democrats. His literary heritage (including his letters) has been collected and provided with scholarly commentary. A number of works have been devoted to describing Dobroliubov’s aesthetic concepts and his understanding of realism and narodnost’ (folk character) in art. The study of his philosophical, economic, historical, and pedagogical opinions has made it possible to define fully his historic role as one of the forerunners of social democracy in Russia.

Dobroliubov’s grave is located in the Volkov Cemetery in Leningrad (beside Belinskii’s grave along the Writers’ Path).


Sochineniia, vols. 1-4. (Edited by N. G. Chernyshevskii.) St. Petersburg, 1862.
Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1-6. Edited by P. I. Lebedev-Polianskii. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934-41.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1-9. Moscow-Leningrad, 1961-64.
Poln. sobr. stikhotvorenii. Compiled with an introductory article by B. la. Bukhshtab. Leningrad, 1969.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.