The term «Russian soul» (also great Russian soul, mystifying Russian soul; Russian: русская душа, russkaya dusha or русский дух, russkiy dukh) has been used in literature in reference to the uniqueness of the Russian national identity. The concept of a Russian soul arose in the 1840s chiefly as a literary phenomenon.
Writer 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. 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. 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.